Author: Mary Anne Franks


That Obscure Object of Concern: Selective Feminism and the Rise of Anti-Sharia Laws

“Evil resides (also) in the innocent gaze which perceives Evil all around.”

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) is worried about women. Specifically, he is worried about their equal rights under U.S. law, and is baffled that women are not up in arms about the sinister force that poses the greatest threat to them in our time. Is it the distressingly high rates of sexual violence in this country? Domestic abuse? Unequal working conditions? Recurring waves of legislation aimed at undermining women’s bodily integrity? None of these, according to Rep. Gohmert: the true threat is “creeping sharia law.”

Rep. Gohmert recently added his voice to the call for Congressional hearings on sharia’s supposed infiltration of U.S. society. During an interview on Frank Gaffney’s radio show, Gohmert said, “The biggest shock out of all of this is that the women’s liberation groups have not just gone berserk over this creep into our society that diminishes women as it does. … it does diminish the Constitution when you bring any law in that doesn’t allow women to be full equal citizens of the United States.” Gohmert’s rhetorical move here is perversely clever: he highlights a legitimate harm (here, the unequal treatment of women), attributes it exclusively to a foreign source (sharia law), and insinuates that those who fail to do the same are complacent and/or hypocritical (why aren’t “women’s liberation groups” more upset about this horrible threat?). This is a not a new tactic (anti-feminists like Christina Hoff Sommers have been doing it for years), but it is falling on particularly receptive ears.

At least thirteen states have recently introduced bills aimed at keeping sharia law out of U.S. courts. Oklahoma’s dramatically-named “Save Our State Amendment,” which explicitly listed sharia law as a forbidden source of authority, was recently held by a federal judge to violate the Establishment clause. The sponsors of many of the newer bills have learned to be less specific in their language, but most are quite comfortable admitting that sharia is their real target. Georgia Rep. Mike Jacobs (R-Atlanta), who introduced “The American Laws for Georgia Courts Act” (House Bill 45, which states that “it will be the public policy of this state to protect its citizens from the application of foreign laws when the application … will result in the violation of a right guaranteed by the Constitution of this state or of the United States”), told the Fulton County Daily Report that the bill would “ban the use of Sharia law in Georgia courts.” Admitting that he did not know of a single instance of any Georgia court ever being asked to apply sharia law, Rep. Jacobs expressed the belief that it had happened elsewhere: “We’re seeing more of a feeling that Sharia law should be applied in domestic cases.”

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Victims to the left of me, accusers to the right: Does Bobby Franklin know something we don’t about rape?

Georgia state representative Bobby Franklin (R-Marietta) has recently proposed a bill that would require the word “victim” to be replaced with “accuser” in the state’s criminal codes. If this were the whole story, the bill might pose a moderately interesting metaphysical question: aren’t all crime victims merely accusers unless and until a court delivers a conviction? While the answer to that question is perhaps rather obviously no, that is not the question the bill actually raises: Rep. Franklin doesn’t think that people who claim to have been robbed, assaulted, or defrauded are merely “accusers.” No, those people are still “victims” even before a conviction is handed down, and indeed even if no conviction ever materializes. The bill only applies to certain crimes – namely, rape, stalking, and family violence. That is, the only crimes affected by this bill are those crimes disproportionately committed against women and committed disproportionately by men.

What accounts for this exceptional treatment? Neither the bill nor Rep. Franklin himself offers insight into the bill’s logic, and so we are left to speculate. Perhaps Rep. Franklin has fallen victim (or do I mean accuser?) to the unfounded yet persistent belief that false accusations of rape are significantly more common than those of other crimes. The bill provides yet another opportunity for misogynists to rehash hysterical statistics on false rape reports (one site,”Fathers for Life,” goes so far as to claim that there are 520,000 false rape allegations per year, a number that the site claims to work out to a whopping 98.1% of all reported cases – interesting numbers, because according to the National Crime Victimization Survey, there are closer to 250,000 sexual assaults per year, which would mean that 520,000 false reports would actually work out to an impressive false allegation rate of about 200%…) as well as a host of other anti-feminist canards, such as the claim that feminists don’t believe women ever lie about rape. How wearying it is to have to cover the same ground, over and over: of course people sometimes lie about rape. They also sometimes lie about robbery, and fraud, and assault. No reliable study – that is, any study that does not simply categorize as false all reports not resulting in convictions (an unconscionable conflation even without considering the documented, widespread manipulation and miscategorization of rape claims by police departments) – has ever shown that false reports of rape are significantly more common than false reports of other crimes. Yet false rape reports receive far more media attention than false reports of other crimes; rape claims are subject to more skepticism and invasive investigation than other claims; and rape is, for these and many other reasons, a vastly underreported crime.

And yet Rep. Franklin has proposed a bill that actually manages to make the status quo worse – one that actually increases the skepticism and prejudice that victims (yes, victims) of sexual assault, stalking, and domestic violence already endure. Even if there might be some merit in a general prohibition on the term “victim” prior to a court determination that a crime has been committed (although whatever merit this prohibition would have is meager indeed, as it defies logic to claim that a person has only been victimized if some perpetrator is proven guilty of the crime in a court of law. This would mean that all unsolved murders have no victim; all unreported crimes have no victim; all crimes not resulting in convictions due to bad lawyering or jury error have no victim), to apply this prohibition only to crimes committed primarily against women is simply unjustifiable.


There are no children in Afghanistan

“she laughed his joy she cried his grief”

A Wikileaks cable involving the U.S. contracting firm DynCorp (a company that is no stranger to scandal) has received relatively little attention so far.  DynCorp employees apparently hired bacha bazi, also called “dancing boys,” to perform at a party for Afghan police officers. While the details of the party are not yet clear, the practice of bacha bazi, which literally means “boy for play,” is a 300-year old Central Asian tradition that the State Department has called a “widespread, culturally sanctioned form of male rape.” The practice was banned under the Taliban but has re-emerged in recent years.  The dancers, who are often abused children disowned by their families, wear makeup, women’s clothing, and bells on their feet when they perform for audiences of older men. According to the New York Times, “boys as young as 9 are dressed as girls and trained to dance for male audiences, then prostituted in an auction to the highest bidder.” When bachas turn 19, they are released and allowed to “reclaim their status as ‘male,’ though the stigma of having lived as a bacha is hard to overcome.” Some social scientists posit that the popularity of bacha bazi stems from the strict gender segregation that characterizes Afghan society even after the fall of the Taliban. There are few opportunities for men to interact with women, or boys with girls. While women are no longer required to wear the burqa since the Taliban were taken out of power, many still do out of local custom or fear for their safety. As one Afghani man put it, “How can you fall in love if you can’t see her face? We can see the boys, and we can tell which are beautiful.”

A short time ago, the New York Times ran a story about girls in Afghanistan who dress as boys until they reach puberty.  The practice of bacha posh, which means “dressed as a boy,” allows families to avoid the perceived stigma of having no sons. It has the added benefit of granting girls freedom of movement and education that they would not otherwise have. A bacha posh can go to school, work outside the home, or be seen in public without a male chaperone much more easily than if she were visibly female.  The freedom is temporary, however. When the girls approach marrying age or reach puberty, they are usually forced by their families to change back. Many of these girls resist this reversion.  Sexual harassment and sexual assault of girls and women remains common in Afghanistan, and the restrictions on their movement and education make for difficult adjustments. “People use bad words for girls,” said one fifteen-year-old. “They scream at them on the streets.  When I see that, I don’t want to be a girl.  When I am a boy, they don’t speak to me like that.”  Changing back into a girl also presents other challenges; women speak of the difficulties of having to learn how to interact with other women, how to speak like a woman, and how to walk in a floor-length covering after years of wearing loose trousers.

The twinned drag practices of bacha bazi and bacha posh reveal how much the consequences of feminization differ from those of masculinization. In bacha bazi, boys are feminized and consequently experience sexual exploitation and a lowering of social status. In bacha posh, girls are masculinized and experience the benefit of increased physical security and social freedom. To be feminized is to be punished; to be masculinized is to be liberated.  It is tempting to locate the harm of these practices in the transposition: boys should not be forced to be girls, and girls should not be forced to be boys (this is how the harms of male prisoner sexual abuse is often characterized, i.e., men should not be treated as women). But to do so implies that there is some natural essence of “boyness” or “girlness” that childhood drag perverts. It would imply that the harm could be cured by simply ensuring that boys were allowed to be boys, and girls to be girls. That is, when these boys and girls reach adulthood and “switch back” (if they can do so successfully), the world is righted on its axis.  But the fact that childhood drag is possible – that boys can meaningfully be thought of as girls, and vice versa –  supports Judith Butler’s insight that drag has the potential to “enact and reveal the performativity of gender itself in a way that destabilizes the naturalized categories of identity and desire.” If so, it would be exactly wrong to draw from bacha bazi/bacha posh the lesson that we should not force boys and girls to be something they are not; rather, the lesson is that “girlhood” and “boyhood” can be put on or taken off.  As constructs, they can be evaluated for their relative harms or benefits, and doing so exposes a significant asymmetry. To be considered male in Afghanistan means physical security and social freedom, whereas being considered female means abuse and oppression. Perhaps what the practices of bacha bazi/bacha posh illuminate most starkly, then, is how the construct of femininity can rob both boys and girls of childhood.