“Karen” entered the American lexicon during the age of social media to refer to white women who behave in a way that seems entitled, creating a high-drama, public scene as they demand their (perceived) right or privilege over another person. Pop culture and media outlets now refer to 2020 as “the year of Karens.” But this girl-name-turned-synonym-for-obnoxiousness reveals more about our culture than meets the eye. It is not just about the calling out of racist, classist and generally terrible attitudes toward fellow humans that are ingrained in the Karens and too many other people, but arguably the whole Karen bandwagon also shows the ease with which women are demonized. After all, men have been behaving badly and acting like “Karens” and much worse since time immemorial. Yet even now when a man oversteps his bounds and footage of him doing so goes viral — and even though there’s a push to introduce the male version of the name as Ken — these terrible men are still called Karen.
This should not surprise us. After all, most languages in the world today have been advanced, shaped and bolstered by patriarchy, a worldview that casually promotes the male gaze and male toxicity.
We find this in the common proverbs used anywhere in the world — from Egypt with its endemic culture of sexual harassment, to Germany with its shockingly high rate of femicide, to the United States where women’s health is not yet enshrined as a human right — that objectify and demean women, even encouraging violence against us. “Al mara afaa,” one saying goes, meaning “women are snakes.” Another goes “darb al habib zay akel el zebeeb,” meaning “hitting a loved one is (as mild as) eating raisins.” And in the English language dismissing women as “hysterical,” “desperate” or “crazy” continues in some shape even among sophisticated circles. Not to mention the endless and vulgar misogynistic phrases unfit for print, yet casually sung in songs or traded, say, during the Super Bowl, when domestic violence around the country spikes.
It is as if a global war on women continues, from medieval Europe’s burning of witches at the stake to the Hindu tradition of Sati — expecting a recently widowed woman to self-immolate — to Jordan’s legally and culturally sanctioned femicide under the banner of “honor killing.” In some parts of the world, women still do not have access to education and basic health care; in some places, women are banished for a good chunk of their lives while menstruating because the patriarchal gaze deems this to be “impure.” And anywhere in wartime today, women are bargained for and exchanged like pawns, raped, maimed, bereaved and killed in games of reprisals and violent displays of masculinity. When men feel superior to women, empowered by culture and the law, or the lack thereof, violence and bloodshed follow. By the time you finish reading this piece — and every 11 minutes thereafter — a woman will have been killed by someone she knew, even trusted. In 2020, according to the United Nations, 47,000 women and girls were killed in acts of deliberate violence against them, and too often laws do not seek appropriate punishment. Most recent statistics show femicides are on the rise, from the United States to Europe to Africa.
For perspective, this is what the past week looked like for some women around the world. In the United Kingdom, 35-year-old Zara Aleena was beaten to death by a stranger while walking outside in London. In the U.S., two women, 26 and 24, were shot while at work at a Subway restaurant by a male customer for putting too much mayonnaise in his sandwich. In Egypt, a female student on her way to an exam at university was stabbed multiple times to death after years of rejecting marriage proposals from her killer. Inspired by the Egyptian killer, days later in Jordan, a man threatened a nursing student that she, too, would suffer the same fate if she said no to him. The woman was shot on campus and later died.
In Malta, the only country in Europe to have a blanket ban on abortions no matter the reason, an American woman, Andrea Prudente had to be airlifted to Spain to remove the remaining fetal tissue in her body after having a miscarriage. The woman was on a “babymoon” with her husband when the miscarriage happened at 16 weeks of pregnancy. Any delay in her emergency abortion meant enduring extreme physical pain that could cause psychological distress and be life threating, a form of gendered suffering to which Malta’s lawmakers appear indifferent.
The week ended with a Jordanian man in Sharjah, United Arab Emirates, stabbing his ex-wife 16 times. These are just some stories that made it into the news. Hundreds more did not.
Determined not to allow such travesty to be even considered in their country, French women have already mobilized to push the state to add abortion and the right to choose in the constitution to cement this human right in law. In the U.K., Members of Parliament are asking for this to be added as a right in the constitution, as it is currently in Northern Ireland.
Indeed, when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, upending decades of reproductive care, women throughout the world felt an immediate threat to their personal choices and well-being, enough to march en masse through the streets and demand protection from the dark wave of misogyny that seems to have befallen us.
And women in America are regrouping to move toward a future — hopefully one not too far off — where our basic rights also become enshrined in law with no possibility of ever going back again, because as we enter into this cycle in history of female oppression, it is America, sadly, that is leading the world by example.
As most of us know, the terrible ramifications of overturning Roe don’t stop at denying a woman’s access to safe abortion. What the ideologues and the religious fundamentalists don’t seem to grasp is that this move will handicap the medical establishment’s ability to care for female patients. Let me say this again. Overturning Roe prevents doctors from saving a woman’s life because now a doctor can go to jail if someone argues that they killed a fetus while attempting to save a patient’s life.
Make no mistake. Women will die in the U.S. today because a doctor was reluctant to treat them. Equally devastating, women in the U.S. will be publicly shamed, persecuted, sued, prosecuted and jailed for seeking a safe abortion across state lines. Even women who naturally miscarry may face manslaughter charges.
Ignorant ideologues with contempt for science and biology (especially female biology) keep writing laws that are endangering the well-being of half the country’s population — laws that are totally unhinged from reality. In 2019, the Ohio House of Representatives passed a law requiring physicians to take all possible steps to preserve the life of an unborn child, including “reimplant an ectopic pregnancy into the woman’s uterus.” Had they consulted a physician — or, frankly, even conducted a basic Google search — they would not have approved a law requiring a procedure that is medically implausible. Not even in the Middle East or countries where gender apartheid is the norm are laws that affect women’s health written without consulting medical and scientific knowledge. And I know this personally because I have borne witness to it firsthand through my years of reporting in the region.
It seems that this year especially, courts and laws have caused serious harm to women at large — even if unintentional. When Johnny Depp sued his ex-wife Amber Heard, the high court drama was accompanied by weeks — now stretching to months — of an online barrage of hatred toward women, trading in misogynistic memes and sentiments that are resonating in every part of the world, delivered to us in various languages and dialects. Writers and experts who for years worked with domestic violence victims have observed that the Heard-Depp verdict single-handedly reversed much of the gains of the #MeToo movement.
Where once women in the West looked at women in the East with pity, the roles have reversed. Women in Saudi Arabia, the Middle East-at-large and the wider Arab and Muslim world (places that the same actors pushing to curtail women’s human rights in America like to use as go-to examples for all things backward, “anti-women” and “uncivilized”) are able to get medical help no longer available in parts of the U.S. It is indeed already safer and easier to undergo a medically necessary abortion in the Middle East than it is in Texas. From Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, women who need an abortion to protect their life or health can have one. And if they are having a miscarriage, a doctor will provide them with the care they need and not for one minute worry about facing manslaughter charges or a mob of angry, “God loving” ignoramuses camped out in front of the clinic as some doctors must endure today in America. Even in cases where a woman wants an abortion by choice and not for medical reasons, and if she is found mentally unfit or too vulnerable to be forced to carry her pregnancy to term, she will be granted one in accordance with local law.
If history has taught us anything about what will follow, it is that what happens in America has a ripple effect worldwide. If America no longer protects a woman’s right to health care, it won’t be long before other parts of the world follow, one way or another. It may not be about abortions per se, but normalizing such an attitude in the U.S. enables other forms of anti-women sentiments everywhere. For one, America can no longer hold the rest of the world accountable for any laws that are abusive against women. If we no longer have bodily autonomy in the freest part of the world, then God help us all.