Women and Power inspire Watch Over Me

All this week as part of our celebrations of International Women’s Day and the Be Bold For Change theme, our authors are writing about bold women that have influenced their work. Today Claire Corbett writes about how recent events and women’s power struggles have come together to inspire her new novel Watch Over Me and a need to be bold. 

Women have the human rights men decide they can have.

Recently I tweeted this line from my novel Watch Over Me and it struck a chord. I was responding to another woman who’d said: “I have a big problem with the phrase ‘gave women rights.’ What are we? Non-human?”

Other women reacted, referring to the Oklahoma lawmaker who, when criticised for calling pregnant women ‘hosts’ while discussing his bill that would further restrict women’s access to abortion, said he didn’t know of a better term to describe a pregnant woman. For making it sound like a woman is nothing but an incubator for an alien in a horror film – and indeed there are times when being pregnant can feel that way – I doubt we can think of a better term to describe this man than as an asinine and oppressive member of the American Taliban.

Unfortunately, there are many such men and they have a lot of power, which seems to be increasing at the moment, and what animates them more than anything is restricting the rights of women. In this they have much in common with repressive groups and administrations around the world, as shown by the recent decriminalisation of family violence by the Russian parliament. Russian lawmakers claimed this fitted ‘with traditional values’ – this in a country where a woman dies from such violence every forty minutes. Clearly these deaths are part of ‘traditional values.’

In this deepest sense, then, at the level of survival in their own homes, women have the human rights men decide they can have. This line is key to one of the main themes of my book – the pressure on relations between men and women under the stress of war and occupation. A key insight is that one of the main purposes of war is to render women desperate, enforcing their dependence on armed men to protect them from other armed men. ‘It’s a protection racket,’ an Australian soldier once admitted to me.

This insight was crystallised for me long ago by that wry old truth-teller, veteran of World War Two and survivor of the fire-bombing of Dresden, Kurt Vonnegut. In his wise and witty novel Bluebeard, his main character boasts to his former lover about how many women were available to him as a soldier in war-torn Europe. Her response devastates him:

‘I guessed that wherever you went there were women who would do anything for food or for protection for themselves and the children and the old people….The whole point of war is to put women everywhere in that condition. It’s always men against women, with the men only pretending to fight among themselves.’

‘They can pretend pretty hard sometimes,’ I said.

‘They know that the ones who pretend the hardest,’ she said, ‘get their pictures in the paper and medals afterwards.’

That a former soldier – and a man – would state this so clearly hit hard. The role of war, as we see documented by the Women Under Siege Project, is central to the degradation of women. Without peace there is no future for women’s rights or any human rights. It’s important to remember the impact of modern war on civilians. In the affluent West we tend to hear mostly about the trauma and pain of soldiers but civilians under siege are left not only with the terror and casualties of wars they are helpless to influence but the after effects of weapons such as Agent Orange and depleted uranium, which can linger for generations.

Current events reveal that human rights for women are an ongoing battle. This is not a counsel of despair but a statement of the need for all of us to work together. We cannot protect our rights alone. All over the world the most inspiring women are working with each other and with men for women’s rights, human rights and protection for the environment without which there can be no human rights: from Polish women striking nationwide to protest draconian abortion legislation and winning, to the work of Nobel Peace Prize-winning Liberian feminist and peace activist Leymah Gbowee, leader of a nonviolent movement that brought Muslim and Christian women together to play a crucial part in ending Liberia’s destructive 14-year civil war in 2003.

As we can see from the peaceful Australian protests of the Climate Guardians to the global advocacy of the Women’s Environment and Development Organization, both working for climate justice and sustainable development, the times demand even more boldness.

My book is set in the European High Arctic, home to the Indigenous Sámi people. It was thrilling to read reports in October 2016 that Sámi activists, many of them women, have been instrumental in persuading DNB, Norway’s largest bank, to pull funding from the companies involved in the Dakota Access Pipeline. I am in awe of the role of Michelle Cook, lawyer and member of the Navajo nation, whose report documenting human rights abuses at Standing Rock was critical to the Sámi case against DAPL. This shows how the work of local women, Indigenous groups and many others can link up across the world.

There are many more stories like this; may they inspire all of us to #beboldforchange.

Claire Corbett was born in Canada and has worked in film and government policy. Her first novel, When We Have Wings, was published in 2011 and shortlisted for the 2012 Barbara Jefferis Award and the 2012 Ned Kelly Award for Best First Fiction. Her recent fiction and essays have been published in a range of journals, including The Best Australian Stories 2014/2015, Griffith Review, Southerly and Overland. She has written on defence and strategy for The Diplomat, The Strategist and The Monthly. Her new novel, Watch Over Me, is published in May 2017.  

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