Atrocities Against Women Essayists

A photo campaign against child sex abuse cases in Mandalay calls for harsher penalties for the offenders. / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy

By San Yamin Aung 17 October 2017

YANGON — After four years of waiting, Myanmar’s first legislation tackling violence against women will be submitted to Parliament during the parliamentary session that reconvened on Tuesday.

The Prevention and Protection of Violence against Women Bill has been in development since 2013, drafted by the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement and women’s rights groups amid calls for an urgent need to cover women and girls with separate legal protection.

In just one recent example of brutality against women, a husband killed his wife and three daughters in Irrawaddy Division’s Bogale Township. He had asked his wife for money in order to buy alcohol, the request escalating into an argument and the attacks. He was later arrested and confessed to the murders.

Upper House Lawmaker Naw Susana Hla Hla Soe, who is also a secretary of the parliamentary Women and Children’s Rights Committee, cited the quadruple murder as an instance of the increasing violence against women.

Offenders are not deterred from committing violence against women—even murder, she said, adding that the rule of law is essential in preventing such cases.

The final version of the bill has been finished, according to women’s right activists who helped draft the legislation. They told The Irrawaddy the draft bill would be submitted during the current parliamentary session.

The bill will better protect women from all forms of violence, including domestic violence, marital rape, sexual violence, harassment and assault in the workplace and public place, they said.

Hla Hla Yee, co-founder and director of Legal Clinic Myanmar, which provides mostly women and children with free legal aid, said when the bill is enacted, survivors of violence will receive more effective legal and healthcare support.

The draft bill carries a life sentence for rape of girls under the age of 18 and disabled women. Those found guilty of marital rape face two to five years in jail. The bill also includes harsher punishments for hurting girls and women.

The Women and Children’s Rights Committee secretary Naw Susana Hla Hla Soe said the committee has been working on the implementation of the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (2013-2022) in addition to the new law.

Working committees to implement the action plan were formed soon after lawmakers returned from presenting the government’s report on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) to the United Nations last year.

It was online that I first read Gay and Jamison (who has since become a Bookends columnist), and it’s online that I’ve done most of my essay reading in recent years, discovering and sharing work by writers both new and already known to me. In this insular yet influential milieu — where the measure of success has nothing to do with book deals or best-seller lists but is quite simply many people posting a link preceded by a sentiment along the lines of You have to read this — the personal essay is king. Online, any number of women essayists have found, if not fame, at least a fervent following of the sort that would be hard to imagine happening elsewhere. Among even the noblest publishers, essay collections are generally as popular as a kid with head lice at a slumber party, thanks to the oft-repeated mantra that essay collections don’t sell. Never mind Joan Didion, Anne Lamott, Alice Walker, Nora Ephron, Annie Dillard, Meghan Daum, Sloane Crosley, Zadie Smith and Sarah Vowell, among many others — and I haven’t even mentioned all the men essayists — whose collections definitely sell in spite of the fact that they aren’t supposed to. (I also wonder about the maddening chicken-and-egg situation of those essay collections not made available for sale because, well, they “don’t sell.”)

When I saw “The Empathy Exams” appear on the best-seller list in April and “Bad Feminist” appear there in August, I felt that the ground had shifted ever so slightly. Not for women, necessarily, but for the essay itself. Surely many factors can be rightly credited for the success of those books — that they’re intelligent and beautifully written, for starters. That they were well served by editors, designers and marketing and publicity teams who knew what they were doing counts too. But I can’t help thinking their success also owes something to those in the online literary community whose You have to read this enthusiasm spilled over into the real world. By which I mean a whole lot of people went out and bought books by authors they probably wouldn’t have found if it weren’t for the Internet. If we’re in a golden age of anything, I’d say it’s that: a slightly more democratic route for essayists of both sexes to get themselves on the literary map.

Cheryl Strayed is the author of the #1 New York Times best seller “Wild,” the New York Times best seller “Tiny Beautiful Things,” and the novel “Torch.” Strayed’s writing has appeared in “The Best American Essays,” The New York Times Magazine, Vogue, Salon, Tin House, The Rumpus — where she wrote the popular “Dear Sugar” advice column — and elsewhere. The movie adaptation of “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon, will be released in December. Strayed holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. She lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband and their two children.

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By Benjamin Moser

Much has changed — Sontag’s department head at Harvard did not “believe” in female graduate students — but one thing has not.

“Above all, they thought of women as ‘we,’ ” Carolyn Heilbrun wrote of the poets — Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich — born between the wars. Would Susan Sontag, Joan Didion, Elizabeth Hardwick, Renata Adler, Maya Angelou, Janet Malcolm — essayists of roughly the same generation — agree even to be described as “women essayists”? The adjective “women,” after all, so often places them in quarantine, suggesting, in Clarice Lispector’s words, “a closed community, separate, and in some sense segregated.”

If these writers thought of women as “we” — surely none thought of women as “them” — they rarely agreed on what, beyond biology, that meant. Biology was the starting point for what the French feminist Hélène Cixous called l’écriture féminine, and Rich urged women to “begin, at last, to think through the body.” Others feared that writing too explicitly as women would mean erecting a ghetto wall. Unwilling to brick themselves into traditional subjects like education, romance, motherhood and fashion, they tried to carry on as if sex didn’t really matter. “I would lie to myself about how complicated it is to be a woman,” Sontag had one of her characters confess. “Thus do all women, including the author of this book.”

But what did it mean to be honest about how complicated it is to be a woman? What, besides a sex, did women share? As only Jews announce that they aren’t really that Jewish, only women announce that their sex is irrelevant. But in artistic matters, it is disagreement rather than agreement — texts and their responses — that lay out territory, that make up a tradition. And the creation of a tradition where there was none before is the great legacy of the women essayists born between the wars.

This tradition came to life with all the energy of a people freed from a ghetto. In 1929, the year Adrienne Rich was born, Virginia Woolf could still ask: “Who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?” As if on cue, essays by Rebecca West, Simone de Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt began pouring forth. It was a start, but not yet a tradition: Carolyn Heilbrun, born in 1926, titled her intellectual memoir “When Men Were the Only Models We Had.”

No essayist young enough to be Heilbrun’s granddaughter could say the same. If entering a golden age means stumbling forth from a desolate medievalism, the successors of Sontag and Didion have a high bar to clear. But the good thing about having such illustrious predecessors is that they don’t have to try. Tradition, like grammar, is something that exists for a writer to rubbish or pervert, elevate or refine; it lays out paths of expression but does not confine its users to them. It is a great conquest of feminism that women writers today no longer have to write as women. That does not mean writing as men; it means writing as writers.

But if the feminist revolution was a movement for individual liberation (“the poet’s heart”), it was also, like the gay and black revolutions to which it was intimately connected, a movement for social justice: for “women as ‘we.’ ” Barriers have fallen, and much has changed — Sontag’s department head at Harvard did not “believe” in female graduate students — but one thing has not. With its thicket of allusions and the expensive education required to grasp them, the essay has largely been a bourgeois form. It doesn’t have to be. A generation might prove itself worthy of those predecessors who opened the genre to women by opening it to more people, women and men, black and white, gay or straight, who didn’t go to Harvard, who never took a seminar on l’écriture féminine.

Benjamin Moser is the author of “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector,”a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and the general editor of the new translations of Clarice Lispector at New Directions. A former New Books columnist at Harper’s Magazine,he is currently writing the authorized biography of Susan Sontag. He lives in the Netherlands.

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