In this 100th anniversary of women’s franchise it seems pertinent to examine how the understanding of women’s rights evolve and are treated.
Women’s rights have always been viewed as contentious and unreasonable and women’s bodies have always been used against them. That attitude remains constant while legal frameworks change. It was only in 1949 that rape in war was addressed, albeit in unsatisfactory terms when the Geneva Convention was updated, “Women shall be especially protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against rape”, only in 1993, after the Yugoslav conflict was it viewed as a war crime. Only in 1991 was a man was not entitled to rape his wife. Women had to wait until 2008 for rape to include oral, digital or object penetration.
However, as we know, while the law evolves, attitudes are much slower.
The law should only consider whether an act definitely occurred and whether that act was carried out with criminal intent. Society, however, will often presume women were asking for it, are liars, or have characters that lend themselves to both. Society will also privilege males in society, perhaps the middle classes, personalities, or the successful. While the law is blind to all of that, society most certainly is not. Women’s rights are denied when one infects the other.
From the minute we are born we are instructed that women and their bodies are valued differently and inconsistently. A woman can be told she should wear thongs if she is to be attractive. The same value system will use those thongs in a court room to criminalise her as open to sexual activity. Society will instruct young women to be flirty, chatty and touchy feely if she is to be popular. The very same behaviours can be thrown in her face in a court room and portray her as being open to sexual activity at any price.
The law says that is not the case. However, in court rooms across the land that is how trials take their course. Women who are victims of sexual crime are not treated as victims, they are often treated as predatory liars whose clothing, behaviours, past and present must be exposed through the archaic misogynistic prism that women have always been viewed through.
Court viewing galleries and social media sites can become like the rows of the Colosseum, baying crowds calling for more gory detail, without censure, while those trying toexpress legitimate doubt about such processes, or indeed just plain believe one account over another, are threatened.
There is a need to make the law in its wording match the law in its practice. Proposals to treat victims of sexual violence as victims, instead of witnesses who can be treated worse than any war criminal in the Hague, must see the applied light of day.
The entire legal fraternity should see the struggle for human rights, as applying to women’s rights too. Especially those calling themselves human rights lawyers and specialists. The calls for fair processes of justice are universal.
And the law must continue to develop. This week Iceland showed us how. The onus for consent has changed from “did she say no?” to “did she say yes?” That changes the world. That should become the norm.
The law is humankind’s greatest invention. Half of our citizens cannot be alienated from its practice.