Finding Out For Myself
When you discover that 100 million women are missing from the planet, your heart breaks, and the knowledge it imparts becomes something you can’t ignore. At least that’s what happened to me. Turns out, though, when something is enormous it can seem invisible.
In the fall of 2009, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn released their book “Half the Sky,” convincingly declaring global female oppression the moral crisis of the 21st century. Writing in the New York Times that year, Kristof came to this staggering conclusion:
“It appears that more girls and women are now missing from the planet, precisely because they are female, than men were killed on the battlefield in all the wars of the 20th century. The number of victims of this routine “gendercide” far exceeds the number of people who were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century.”
I remember reading those words and thinking, “That cannot be true. That is just too terrible.” At the time, my daughter was only four months old. I was already the mother of a wonderful young son, but the prospect of parenting a baby girl under those conditions felt too awful to accept. Still, it was impossible to deny Kristof’s claims, especially when he cited data from scholars such as Nobel Prize-winning economist Dr. Amartya Sen, who estimates that 107 million women are missing from the planet due to sex-specific abortion, infanticide and poor maternal care. I learned later that Sen’s work on the planet’s missing women was published as early as 1990. I felt dumb for not knowing this sooner and angry that Sen’s research was still relevant in the new century. Surely, we could do better. I wanted “Half the Sky” to be an immediate catalyst for change.
Of course, change doesn’t always happen in an instant, especially at the policy level. I was disappointed when our political leaders didn’t immediately use the book to initiate a popular dialogue about the direction and degree of violence aimed at women everywhere. After all, the White House had time to host a beer summit that year. Why not a ladies tea? The urgency of Kristof’s claims were especially relevant that summer, as the U.S. economy led a global financial meltdown. Consider this: the World Economic Forum reports that closing the employment gender gap could increase U.S. GDP by up to 9 percent. That’s nothing to scoff at in the wake of the Great Recession.
In response to the perceived silence of Official Washington, I felt compelled to do something that involved more than just signing an electronic petition or writing a check to an aid agency. I decided to email the President directly. Mainly, I wanted to make some show of solidarity – no matter how small – in support of the millions of women who were unable to speak for themselves. It seemed the least I could do. Besides, modern technology makes pestering the President not only possible but impossibly easy. Why resist?
I thought I’d send one email to the White House and that would be the end of it. But I couldn’t stop seeing evidence of feminine suffering wherever I went. Eventually, one email to the White House became a year-long campaign. I kept going because I needed to find out for myself if things were as bad as Kristof and WuDunn were reporting. At the very least, it felt like a useful-enough way to channel my frustration without causing harm.
What I discovered through the process of sending 365 emails to the President is that Kristof and WuDunn were right: global female oppression is real and it is a profound moral crisis. I barely had to skim the day’s news to find evidence of a shockingly predictable pattern of violence aimed at women. There is simply no rational basis for denying that women and girls bear deadly and disproportionate burdens simply because they are female. Indeed, the ubiquity of misogyny often renders it invisible. The first step is to see that it’s happening at all. Then we have to acknowledge misogyny is not a natural phenomenon, but a series of lies we’ve agreed to enforce – at great expense. This can be difficult, especially when we see our confusion reflected so widely in everything from the television shows we enjoy to the opinions we may hear in our schools, offices and, yes, sometimes even within our own sanghas.
But women and girls are not the only casualties of misogynistic violence. Everyone’s affected. For instance, groups viewed as uniquely feminine are often targeted for retaliation.
Just last month, 21-year-old Islan Nettles was beaten to death in front of a NYC police precinct. Her crime? Being a transgender woman. Police statistics show that these types of bias crimes against LGBT New Yorkers doubled in the past year. Straight men are not immune either. Whether they directly commit crimes against women or experience the loss of a female friend or relative, these men are suffering, too. It’s an inevitable outcome when humans are denied their own natural tenderness. (What we often call, “feminine tendencies.”) The damage of this fractured humanity is reflected in the World Health Organization’s global suicide rates, which show that in almost every country in the world men die of suicide more frequently than women. By some estimates, men are three times more likely than women to die by suicide. Sadder still, men who harm women and themselves often see violence as the only appropriately masculine way to express their sorrow. Clearly, we need a new understanding of what it means to be a whole human being.
No one deserves this more than children like Yasmin Acree, a Chicago teenager, who vanished from her basement bedroom in 2008. Police suspect she was murdered by a local man. On October 19th, 2009, I emailed the White House and asked, “Why are we looking for Osama bin Laden when we can’t find Yasmin Acree?” Since then, the President has demonstrated his toughness in tracking down the world’s top terrorist, but Yasmin’s disappearance remains unsolved. Indeed, if it weren’t for the doggedness of journalists like David Jackson and Gary Marx at the Chicago Tribune, her disappearance would barely be news. At the most basic level, if we fail to seek justice for Yasmin at home, there’s no sense in chasing misogynistic terrorists a world away. In effect, the war we’re trying to win ‘over there’ is quite literally killing us ‘over here.’
By the time I finished emailing the President in August, 2010, I was happy to relinquish the task. Too much misery is bad for the psyche. It was time to move on. Throughout that year, I carried a secret hope that the President would respond, but he never did. Then, on Aug. 23, 2013, – three years to the day that I first started emailing the White House – the President replied. That afternoon, I received an email with the subject line “Response to Your Message.” It was a letter from the President. He thanked me for writing and affirmed his personal support for women’s equality. He also outlined his administration’s policies that help to guarantee women fair pay and equal access to health care. I was most touched when he wrote that “from his perspective, equality wasn’t just a ‘women’s issue’…it impacts all of us.”
Ultimately, what the President chooses to pay attention to is a reflection of his priorities. His email felt like a light in the Dark Age.
Of course, one letter from the President can’t fix everything. But without leaders who champion important issues and join people in common cause, change is halting and fragile. Relying on grassroots organizations alone is too great a burden to place upon those who often struggle daily just to survive. We must work together or everyone suffers. As a Buddhist, I am mindful of Thich Nhat Hanh’s advice that “when bombs begin to fall on people, you cannot stay in the meditation hall all of the time.” For me, an average citizen, that meant using technology to reach out and communicate with the President about an issue I felt passionate about. Reading the Shambhala Principle recently, I wondered what would happen if we each found our own path out of the meditation hall? As the author, Sakyong Mipham, asks, “Can experiencing and trusting our goodness – and that of society – alter the nature of our reality? If we all tried it, what kind of revolution would we see?”
I believe we could see a future where girls like Yasmin Acree grow up to be healthy, happy adults. She would have celebrated her 20th birthday in October.
Cheri Tiernan is a writer in Atlanta, Ga. You can email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @sausagefists (yes, she knows that sounds weird).