Consider these two scenarios. You have an individual, who from a young age was prostituted in one of the many brothels found scattered across rural Indian villages where beatings, threats, and rape are common tools used to exert power. On the other hand, you have an individual who forces young women into prostitution by beating them and taking away their children, only to have them undergo this same vicious cycle of abuse. Now you’re probably thinking that the individuals in these two scenarios are different people- a woman being the victim and a man being the perpetrator, but what if I told you that is not the case? The individual in both scenarios is in fact the same person. In the opening chapter of Nicholas Kristof’s and Sheryl WuDunn’s Half the Sky, readers are met with the harrowing tale of Meena, a young girl forced into prostitution who birthed two children that were taken from her. In the background laid a sinister force, Ainul Bibi, the matriarch of the brothel who subjected girls to unspeakable violence. In the discussion of sex trafficking and gender-based violence, stories like Ainul’s - where the victim becomes the perpetrator- are not unique and are indicative of a misogynistic attitude held by both women and men alike.
Data surrounding gender-based violence are often presented dichotomously and fail to capture the manner in which misogynistic cultural beliefs are perpetrated by the very ones it oppresses- women. In a survey done among Indian women, researchers found that nearly 62% of them supported the practice of wife beatings (Kristof & WuDunn, 2009, p. 68). This sentiment is reflected in a conversation the authors had with a young Afghan woman, Zoya Najibi, in which she expresses support for a man beating his wife if she is disobedient. A separate study suggests that female participation in gang rapes during periods of war or civil unrest is not an uncommon occurrence and is viewed as ‘bonding’ amongst militant groups (Kristof & WuDunn, 2009, p. 68). We can look at other forms of gender-based violence such as female genital mutilation (FGM), female infanticide, and sex trafficking in brothels and in each there lies a pattern of women spearheading the abuse. Why is it that mothers who were prostituted go on to prostitute their own daughters, or who have undergone FGM force their daughters to experience the same horror? Why do the victims become the victimizers? The answer lies in culture.
The effects of a misogynistic culture do not discriminate. When there are traditions and beliefs present in a culture that devalue women or condone violence against them, it is naive to assume that these values are only accepted by men. No, they are internalized and accepted by women as well. As there is internalized racism, there exists internalized sexism. Take the example of female genital mutilation. A mother raised in a culture in which female sexuality is abhorred and genital mutilation is viewed as a means to retain a girl’s ‘honor’, it becomes clear as to why mothers force their daughters to this cruelty when we look at it through this convoluted lens. Or look at the issue of wife beatings. In a culture where women are taught that their husbands have superiority over them and have the right to reprimand them in any way they see fit, is it really all that shocking when women voice and support this sentiment despite the fact that it condones violence against them? I think not. There exist numerous scenarios in which this pattern of internalized sexism plays itself out, but the real question at hand is, how do we address something so embedded such as culture?
When attempting to address gender inequalities rooted in cultural traditions on a global scale it can seem daunting- that is because it is- but there are examples we can look towards. In nearly all the examples that exist, there lies a theme of women’s empowerment through a combination of education, skill building, and enforcement-not just the mere existence- of laws that protect the rights of women. Let’s return to our example of Ainul Bibi. If at a young age Ainul was given the opportunity to attend school, learn new skills, and have the protection of laws that actively fought sex trafficking, maybe her story would not be one of a prostitute becoming a matriarch of a brothel. The key to stopping the pattern of victims becoming victimizers, is to prevent these women from becoming victims in the first place.