To a Sudanese Woman:
Some months ago, I watched a video of punishment meted out to you—a lawfully mandated public whipping that I understand is not uncommon in your country. I have seen many instances of human brutality, but this one was particularly harrowing.
In the midst of my revulsion, certain thoughts surfaced.
I have been wondering how much courage it takes to lash a woman. (Even guillotine executioners had the decency to mask their faces to hide their shame as they cut off heads.) Perhaps the man who whipped you took pride in his expertise: in never missing, always connecting his whip with your flesh. How satisfying it must have been to maul a helpless, weaponless female. How empowering, how masculine. Watching those onlooking men laughing at the spectacle of your humiliation distressed me as much as watching the executioner. I understand that historically the control of women—not only their movements, their speech, but especially their uteri, their ova, their fetuses—is one of the major foundations of sovereign nations. And although certain modern nations are slowly abandoning that ancient requirement, some, like yours, as well as Saudi Arabia and others, cling to male guardian laws as a singular characteristic of power. For them an ovum is a matter of state; sperm is not. The raped is responsible for her assault; the rapist is not.
How afraid such regimes must be, how puerile their claims of power.
I don’t know, or care to know, what “law” you broke. What I do know is that the infractions of which women like you are guilty pertain to their being untethered. And in regimes such as yours—whether chaotic or silently oppressive—the unleashed are lashed: for being alone in public, for mingling with unrelated males, for owning a cellphone, for driving a car, for wearing trousers. The helpless are punished for bearing the child of a rapist employer. And age does not matter. Children of 11 and women of 75 have all been jailed and bloodied for contesting, forgetting, or ignoring incomprehensible, even silly, rules.
Nevertheless, the abused-animal life so many women are required to live is being challenged. The lasting response I had watching that video is the most important. You did not crouch or kneel or assume a fetal position. You shouted. You fell. But you kept rising. After each cut of the lash into your flesh, you tried to stand; you raised your body up like a counter-whip. It so moved me to see your reactions; I interpreted them as glimmers of hope, of principled defiance.
Each cut tearing your back hurts women all over the world. Each scar you bear is ours as well. I have no advice for you and would not presume to offer any, but like thousands of women everywhere I will not give in to sorrow or retreat into despair. Women are speaking out, saying aloud what you are forbidden to say at all, doing in public what you are not ever permitted to do. They are gathering together, demanding that your efforts to rise up in the face of brutality are not in vain.
Morrison, a Nobel Laureate and Pulitzer-prize winning author, is a board member of Advancing Human Rights.