Words by: Binari Almeida Art by: Betty Gu
CW: This article discusses sexual assault, rape, torture and mental health.
Note: The term “women” in this article refers to anyone who identifies as a woman.
From #FreeBritney in the United States to the Taliban raping and murdering women in Afghanistan, 2021 has shed light on a struggle that has persisted through decades — the struggle of bodily autonomy.
Since 2008, Britney Spears’ business and personal affairs have been controlled by her father, Jamie Spears. Under the guise of a conservatorship, aspects of Britney’s life have been restricted — including who she is allowed to date. In 2021, we saw the rise of #FreeBritney after the release of the documentary Framing Britney Spears. After 13 years of silence, Britney came out saying, “I deserve to have a life. I deserve to have the same rights as anybody does by having a child, a family, any of those things, and more so”. In mid-July, Britney told the court that she wanted to press charges against her father. She decided that she was going to use her voice and speak up for herself.
As someone who had always seen Britney as a sex symbol — a woman who empowered other women — reading about Britney’s conservatorship shocked me in a way that I couldn’t quite comprehend. I listened as she spoke about how her whole life had been controlled for the past 13 years, how she was forced to perform even though she didn’t want to, forced to use her voice, forced to use her body, all against her own will. As I heard all of this, all I could think about was how nothing could protect her — not her fame, not her money. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, as a woman in this world, you will always be vulnerable.
This year, the 2020 Olympics held in Tokyo brought not only victories and gold medals but protests and criticism on the uniforms women were instructed to wear. In April, the German women’s gymnastics team, led by Sarah Voss, decided to ditch their traditional outfits, protesting the sexualisation of their bodies. Voss said: “as a little girl, I didn’t see the tight gym outfits as such a big deal. But when puberty began, when my period came, I began feeling increasingly uncomfortable”.
When I first read about this issue, my first thought was I cannot believe these women are complaining about what they have to wear when other women face worse things in this world. But the more I thought about it, the more their struggle began to resonate with me. As a young girl I was always told what I could and couldn’t wear — not because my parents inherently cared about what I wore — but because of cultural expectations. And so, I rebelled by wearing whatever I wanted. When I was told to cover up, I did the opposite. I started wearing miniskirts and showing off my legs. For me, this was my way of protecting my bodily autonomy. Although now at the age of 22 this is less important to me, during my teenage years it was a battle that meant the world to me. Something as simple as the right to wear what clothes we want can have a profound effect upon us.
In August, the world watched in horror as the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan — and, in the process, seized control of women’s rights, too. Afghans are flocking to airports to escape a future that looks dark for all, yet darker still for women. Women are being harassed, abused, sexually assaulted, raped, tortured, murdered, and worse — so much worse that I can’t even bring myself to type it out. “The Taliban first torture us [women], and then discard our bodies to show as specimen of punishment. Sometimes our bodies are fed to dogs,” says Khatera (Alias), an Afghan mother.
When I was 15, I was sexually assaulted on a tram on my way to school. And to this day, that 10 minute encounter is one that impacts my ability to function. Most of the time I choose to drive myself around instead of catching public transport, because the thought of getting on a packed train or tram makes me have a panic attack. Although my experience feels a lot different to what women in Afghanistan are experiencing, the one thing that I am able to understand is an immense feeling of hopelessness. These women and girls in Afghanistan feel hopeless. 15-year-old me on a tram felt hopeless. It doesn’t matter to what extent you experience sexual assault, what every woman faces in that moment when their body is violated is hopelessness.
Most days, I struggle to reconcile the multitude of attacks that occur on women’s bodily autonomy. I feel as though we need to prioritise certain attacks over others, as though they have to be situated in order of priority on our agenda of what to combat first. An Afghan woman’s experience feels more “urgent” and “important” to me than athletes in Europe protesting against certain outfits. Yet, it seems all our struggles are linked. As I’m writing this article, news has come from the United States that some of the most extreme abortion laws will take effect in Texas. These laws will prevent abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, at which stage most women don’t even know they are pregnant. I can’t even begin to imagine being put in a situation where I didn’t have the option to choose what to do with my own body. My heart goes out to the 16-year-old girl who was just beginning to explore her sexuality when a condom broke. My heart goes out to the 40-year-old immigrant mother who gets raped by her husband. My heart goes out to every woman in this world who has their body and their choices controlled by others.
Sometimes it can be overwhelming and confusing, trying to navigate all these emotions. It’s a sense of this is so fucked up combined with oh well, what’s new? I think what I’ve learnt through all these different stories is that an attack on one woman’s bodily autonomy, is an attack on all women’s bodily autonomy. Every single one of these battles is intertwined. It’s a reminder to me that the fight for bodily autonomy is no more important in the United States than it is in Afghanistan, and no more important in a developing country than it is in a developed one. Across the world, for every woman, the fight for bodily autonomy is different in its own way, and yet equally important and valid. The fight for our rights is not a battle against one another, but rather a fight against the governments and societies that will continue to police our bodies beyond our generation’s existence. This fight is ours.