What is a little girl worth?”
Rachael Denhollander, the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual assault, repeatedly asked this question to the judge and court during the trial.
Given the long and detailed path to the Lansing, Michigan, courtroom, where Nassar was sentenced to more than 100 years in prison for molesting young female athletes, for many years prior, Denhollander was desperately seeking justice, to no avail. It took more than 150 women speaking up before Nassar was convicted. The case’s disturbing details exposed a decades-long culture of enabling at Michigan State University. Many victims claim they sought help from others and shared their ordeals with several MSU officials, but no one believed them.
As the Nassar case was making headlines in the United States, across the globe in Pakistan, the suspected murderer of a 7-year-old finally was arrested. Zainab had been kidnapped and was missing for five days before her body was discovered in a pile of garbage. Zainab’s alleged murderer is believed to be a serial killer accused of seven similar attacks. Had it not been for the huge outcry on social media, the suspect would still be at large and free to carry on his killing rampage unabated.
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It is hard not to see the striking similarities in both these tragedies. They occurred in different corners of the world that are poles apart in social and economic terms. The United States is an economically developed country, yet its girls remain easy prey, as vulnerable to sexual predators as their peers in an impoverished region of a developing country like Pakistan.
The abuse of the young gymnasts at Michigan State University continued unabated for 20 years. The girls suffered in silences and said that doubted themselves despite being the abused ones. Had it not been for the extraordinary resilience and persistence of Denhollander, the harrowing abuses would have persisted.
In terms of worth, the young female gymnasts from Michigan don’t fare much better than little girls in Pakistan. They have all been seriously wronged and humiliated. Just the fact that they are girls and powerless, rendered them vulnerable to the lust of powerful men who abused them to satiate their bestial desires.
The two horrific cases come amid the #MeToo movement that gained traction after the Harvey Weinstein revelations exposed the harassment of women in Hollywood. Since then, many powerful men in media, politics and entertainment have been called out and forced to resign amid allegations of sexual abuse against them.
The universal mistreatment of women and girls exposes their vulnerability that transcends cultures, races or geography.
If one out of every six women is abused in a developed country like the United States, it isn’t completely unfair to question the efficacy of the feminist movement. Has it really affected women’s lives and moved beyond the rhetoric? If a woman gets paid 79 cents to a dollar compared to her male counterpart, it validates the systemic injustice against women that extends beyond the physical realm.
The universal, systemic imbalance against women compels one to wonder if there exists a viable framework that guarantees equal and fair rights for women and girls and protects their worth. Islamic guidelines of modesty start out with guidelines for men who are advised to control their impulses. The Quran says: “Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes.”
Men must demonstrate responsibility and show restraint in their behavior. Also they must not abuse their physical power to intimidate, harass and abuse those who are weaker than they are. Some men have an inherent aggressive disposition, often predatory. When all inhibitions are removed, they default to this instinct. Unless and until such men are able to restrain themselves, sexual assaults will persist. Curbing or removing factors that facilitate predatory behavior could be an effective deterrent.
Employers can demonstrate responsibility by providing regular training on how to manage and avoid predatory behavior. They could create mandatory affidavits for both men and women to inquire about sexual harassment on a regular basis. Had this system been in place at Michigan State University, many girls would have been saved from the lifelong trauma of abuse.
Until society takes concrete steps to change the status quo, the true worth of women will remain under threat, and #TimesUp will not move beyond the rhetoric. A societal shift toward attitudes that treat women as something other than objects of desire can protect their sanctity and let them flourish and regain their inherent worth.
Mansura Bashir Minhas is a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community USA. She lives in Fort Lauderdale.