The house of women is vast and unfinished. The west wing is fairly complete. Most of us who live there enjoy privileges such as the right to vote and run for office. We have access to education and may support ourselves if we choose. We've convinced most of our legislators that domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape are crimes. We have control of our bodies and our sexuality; parents, teachers and leaders may coach us, but not coerce us into or out of relationships. Prospective mates may woo and worship but must swallow their pride if we reject them. (Story continued below...)
As in all homes, things in the west wing don't always run smoothly. Sometimes the rules aren't enforced. Domestic violence is ignored or the perpetrators get off too lightly. Some women feel they don't get equal compensation for doing the same jobs as male colleagues. Others hit a glass ceiling. Thus some women seek to furnish the house with more rules and to smash the see-through roofs.
Go east and you'll find that the house is unfinished. Parts of it have been started, then abandoned, and are now falling into ruin. In others, every time a wall goes up someone bulldozes it down. In what should have been beautiful courtyards are shallow unmarked graves, wherein lie girls who died because they were deemed not worth feeding. In the east, some girls are transported as property—often with their parents' connivance—to gratify adults' sexual desires. Girls work the land, fetch water, tend to livestock, cook and clean from dawn to dusk with no pay. Others are beaten with impunity. Hundreds of thousands die while giving birth because they lack the most basic hygiene and health care.
In some corners of the east, women are not happy when they learn they're pregnant. Often they get a doctor to check the sex of the unborn child. If it's a girl, the doctor removes it, and if the woman can't afford the abortion, the child, once born, is suffocated or left alone to die. This removal of girls is so systematic in some rooms of the east wing that men can't find mates to marry.
In the middle of the east, most women are banished from the public rooms, and when they are glimpsed at all they are covered from head to toe in garments dark and ugly. Many never learn to read or write; they are forced into marriage and seem to live pregnant ever after. They have no reproductive rights. If they are raped, the burden of proof lies on them to show their innocence, and in some rooms, women and girls as young as 13 are publicly flogged and stoned to death for sexual disobedience. In the eastern side of the house, some people are so terrified by a woman's sexuality that they cut the genitals of girl children, mutilating and branding them with the mark of ownership.
These days many people from the east wing are finding their way to the west, where the fate of their sisters back home is often forgotten. And while the girls in the west are preoccupied with creature comforts, men from the east claim rooms for themselves where they practice eastern habits.
In Davos—high on a pristine mountain in the manicured gardens of the west wing—words like "Sharia" are as exotic as fairy tales. But in Birmingham, Berlin and the banlieues of Paris, the house of women's liberation is being hollowed out from within.
Suppose that the men and women who gather in Davos in 2009 could see the sharp differences between the two wings of the house that we all share. Suppose they could grasp the magnitude of the suffering of those on the unfinished side, or open their eyes to how tormentors of women are chipping away at the keystones of the west. Suppose this led them to make it a top priority to preserve everything people in the west side have accomplished and to improve matters in the east. Imagine if women's liberation were a task to be carried out with the same unwavering conviction as the abolition of the slave trade, the demolition of apartheid or the pursuit of civil rights.
Imagine what would happen if world leaders committed themselves to the cause of equal rights for all women; staunchly refused to entertain cultural and religious arguments that violated female rights; and knocked over the obstacles put in their way by those who have a vested interest in the oppression of women. Imagine the number of lives they would save. Imagine how many prison doors would fly open. Imagine how many girls would be saved from death or punishment at the hands of their judges or their fathers. Imagine what the pent-up energy of those freed girls and women would do for the world. Davos Man doesn't have the imagination. Or does he?