Ladies First

Bigotry has not been eliminated, but a great deal of Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream has been achieved in America. In large part because of the energy and activism of groups such as the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). But also, importantly, because the battle was being fought in a culture where individual rights had come to be understood and actively defended. A culture that values life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Dr. King, if he were alive today, would be delighted to see that little black children and little white children often go to school together, sit down together for meals, and play together. He would see it as his dream come true that black and white Americans are friends, colleagues and spouses.

But if Dr. King were alive today he would also notice that segregation still exists. Oh, he would feel the thrill of success to learn that there are no legal barriers in the US that put black people in a position of disadvantage. But he would notice that demolishing legal barriers between citizens is only half the battle. Nothing illustrates this invisible segregation better than what happened in New Orleans last year and how the nation in turn responded--or did not respond.

Dr. King’s dream for equality went beyond blacks and whites. The Jewish community, for one, can relate to it through their own struggles. Sixty years ago it was the Nazis in Europe who were bent on exterminating them in the name of racial purity. Today it is a global network of radical Muslims who call for a holocaust in the name of their faith.

On a global level Dr. King Jr. would be pleased to note that Nelson Mandela is free and that apartheid was brought to an end with the minimum of violence. But he would be deeply distressed by the combination of slave trade and genocide that continues, day after day, in Darfur, Sudan.

***

What has all this got to do with me? I have only just arrived in America and I have never been a victim of racial prejudice. By the time I was born, the part of Africa I grew up in--Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya--was independent. The white man had gone home.

The generation belonging to my parents and grandparents talked of oppression by the white man. But when the white man left, he clearly didn’t take the oppression with him. Almost all the bigotry and persecution in Africa nowadays is committed by blacks against other blacks. Proof yet again that just as virtues of kindness, generosity and inclusion transcend skin colour, so do vices of cruelty, greed and exclusion.

I am being acknowledged here today because CORE wants to take Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream beyond racial inequality. CORE wants to be a platform from where the greatest inequality of our time, perhaps of all time, can be battled.

This is gender inequality: an inequality most obscene, expressed through acts such as mutilation, beatings, rape and murder--and almost all this aggression is justified in the name of culture and creed. Atrocities committed against girls and women in the most intimate setting of all: in the home; by dad or mom; by a brother or a sister; by a husband or his mother. The sort of persecution I talk about is one in which the religious leaders, the politicians, aunts and uncles, fathers and mothers, all share the staunch belief that girls--that women--are born of a lesser god.

I was born into this culture. And I stress my emphasis on the word "culture".

When I first came to a Western country, I was astonished to find men who said, "Ladies first"--yes, ladies first. I was amazed because I was born and raised in a culture that put me last because I was born a girl; where I was confined, because of my gender; where all the burden of what is considered good sexual conduct was for me to bear because I am female.

Whereas here in this culture, where men say "ladies first":

  • I saw how couples often struggle together to carry the burden of parenthood.
  • I saw how parents prepare their sons and daughters equally to learn the skills of securing a livelihood.
  • I saw how schools and even governments coach boys and girls in understanding and restraining their sexuality.

If I allow myself to be inspired by Martin Luther King Jr., then my dream is that those lucky enough to be born into a culture of "ladies first" will let go of the myth that all cultures are equal.

Human beings are equal; cultures are not.

A culture that celebrates femininity is not equal to a culture that trims the genitals of her girls.

A culture that holds the door open to her women is not equal to one that confines them behind walls and veils.

A culture that spends millions on saving a baby girl’s life is not equal to a one that uses its first encounter with natal technology to undertake mass abortion simply because baby girls are not welcome.

A culture with courts that punish a husband for forcing his wife to have sex with him is not equal to a culture with a tribunal that decrees a young woman be gang-raped for talking to a boy of an allegedly higher caste.

A culture that encourages dating between young men and young women is not equal to a culture that flogs or stones a girl for falling in love.

A culture where monogamy is an aspiration is not equal to a culture where a man can lawfully have four wives all at once.

A culture that protects women’s rights by law is not equal to a culture that denies women their alimony and half their inheritance.

A culture that insists on holding open a position for women in its Supreme Court is not equal to a culture that declares that the testimony of a woman is worth half of that of a man.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of racial equality has become a reality for some and remains a dream for many. It has become a reality for the few people privileged enough to live in this culture that values the human individual regardless of race or gender. It is this culture that provides me with the vocabulary, the legal tools, the material resources, the platforms, and most of all, the opportunity to meet like minded individuals who will stand for the rights of those fellow girls and women who haven’t been as lucky as me or you.

It is within this culture that it pays to fight for equality.

Unfortunately, it is this culture that is under threat today. Many of those born into it take it for granted--or worse, apologise for it.

So dear men and women of colour, and dear women of all colour: Let’s join together to protect this culture of life, this culture of liberty, this culture of "ladies first."

Ayaan Hirsi Ali is a resident fellow at AEI.

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