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NON-FICTION: No sign of a ceasefire

Updated March 19, 2017


Journalist Sue Lloyd-Roberts lost her personal battle with leukaemia in 2015, but her work survives in many media archives. The War on Women represents the crowning glory of her risk-ridden and exciting career. Roberts worked at both ITN and the BBC and visited many countries in search of intriguing and often harrowing stories on women’s issues. Thus, in spite of her engaging and readable style, this book is not for the faint-hearted. It covers a staggering variety of topics including female genital mutilation (FGM), sex trafficking, rape, institutional abuse, forced marriage, ‘honour killings’, social repression, female foeticide, and pay inequality stemming from gender discrimination. Bookended between a moving introduction by her daughter Sarah (who also penned the last few pages of the final chapter) and an equally emotional conclusion by noted journalist Lyse Doucet, the chapters portray the ongoing victimisation of women at the hands of patriarchy.

A chapter by chapter breakdown will hardly do justice to the disturbing thematic content of the stories, but it helps contextualise why Roberts viewed her work as part of a genuine war. The first chapter dwells on FGM in Africa, notably in The Gambia; the second on the fate of pro-socialist pregnant women who were spirited away during Argentina’s ‘Dirty Wars’ of the 1970s, and the lamentable destinies of their children. Roberts comments on the cruel treatment meted out to unwed mothers and their children at the Magdalene High Park laundry in Dublin, Ireland. She then switches her focus to the Middle East with two chapters on the repressive conditions in Saudi Arabia and Egypt (both prior to and during the Arab Spring).

She then examines sex trafficking in the Slavic countries, especially Latvia, and dedicates an entire chapter to how the greatest offenders related to this practice are UN peacekeepers. Pakistan and Kashmir make an appearance as she comments on forced marriages in Mirpur, and honour killings in both Jordan and the subcontinent. The book grows increasingly depressing as she writes about rape in both present-day India and during the Bosnian war. Although the last chapter, on gender pay inequity, seems somewhat anticlimactic, it serves to indicate to the reader that there were few, if any, major feminist issues with which Roberts was unfamiliar.

From Ireland to Saudi Arabia, women continue to lose the battle for survival and dignity simply because of their gender

Certainly she was a committed champion when it came to women’s rights. Against all odds she attempted to get to the bottom of things, and though people linked firmly to patriarchal establishments — such as the president of The Gambia and even well-placed women in Saudi Arabia’s corporate world — refused to speak with her, she persisted in her endeavours. Male clerics in Egypt and The Gambia who agreed to speak with her offended her personal political sensibilities with their rigid, at times illogical, stances and even some of the women whom she personally saved from a fate worse than death proved far more actively ungrateful than one might have expected. Catholic clerics and nuns who had been complicit in the maltreatment of young women forced into rough domestic service were especially uncomfortable with Roberts’ investigations. Roberts does not even spare the present pope, claiming that he played a grim role in the governmental cover-ups of the Dirty Wars that followed the disintegration of Isabel Peron’s socialist regime in Argentina.

Roberts’ writing style is that of a journalist, not an academic sociologist. There is no reason to extensively question her accounts since she appears to be fanatically sincere, but her sources leave much to be desired. Endnotes are few and far between, and many are woefully sketchy. When she sweepingly cites India as having been labelled the worst place on earth to be born a woman, a glance at the relevant footnote shows her source to be no more substantial and erudite than The Telegraph. What is more disturbing is the glib manner in which she claims to have used her personal feminine wiles to unethically manoeuvre her way into places where she would not have been allowed otherwise. Indeed, she states flatly at one point that for her the means justify the end. This is why Doucet’s well-meant compliment, “There’s a correct way to do things. That’s very Sue,” sometimes rings problematically false.

But Roberts may be forgiven to some extent, given the anguished portrayals that abound in the book. Sometimes she gets so caught up in the trauma herself that she forgets to include important points. For instance, she never fully addresses why villages in The Gambia don’t have trained medical personnel present to prevent some of the female children from bleeding to death during circumcision. She does not explore what Pope Francis’ present stance on Argentinean history is, nor examine whether sundry other clergymen were also compelled to act in a similar manner. She does not trace the fate and lives of any of the children born as a result of the horrendous violation of Muslim women at the hands of Serbian men.

Women who have made it against the odds in Saudi Arabia clearly did not want to talk to a woman reporter who had come to their country for the purpose of telling their stories. Even the allegedly successful ones were apparently afraid to speak publicly. Maybe they hoped that by quietly going about their business without drawing attention to themselves, the resistant male population would not notice they were there. More than 80 percent of the women in Saudi Arabia of working age cannot or do not work. The poor remain prisoners in their homes. The rich can be observed in the shopping malls that are open to midnight. Leaving their drivers outside, the brightly lit shops filled with Armani, Gucci and Rolex brands are the only places where they can escape the house with the permission of their guardians. —Excerpt from the book

She never explores the history behind honour killings; this is a grievous omission since the practice has been going on for centuries. She faithfully documents what numerous NGOs in countries as diverse as the dirt-poor Moldova and prosperous India have been doing to assist women, but hardly ever mentions the United States except in a couple of cases related to specific violations committed by UN peacekeepers. She vividly describes Jyoti Singh’s gang rape, but makes no major comments on what India has done to improve security in areas such as Haryana or Delhi. If anything, she piles on story after story of defiant women who more often than not fought battles that they lost devastatingly, and this is what makes the book come across as unremittingly grim.

Obviously she cannot be expected to do everything, but The War on Women is an emotional cry for help as opposed to a comprehensive (or even ultimately useful) study. It promotes awareness on many fronts but is so polemical that eventually one takes away very little from it other than the impression that Roberts wants to expedite changes that are taking place at an excruciatingly slow pace. In the culminating chapter, her daughter notes that four decades of work on the gender pay inequity issue have only halved the gap in pay between men and women in the United Kingdom, not eliminated it. Parts of the book are written better than others; the problem of rape in the Congo is dealt with too rapidly to be satisfactory, and her personally negative stance towards Saudi Arabia is so intense that it detracts from her commentary on some of the serious sociological problems about the country that she had set out to expose. However, the central chapters on sex trafficking are undoubtedly well-written, and it is likely that anyone who peruses the book will find something or the other to interest them.

The book contains eight pages of interesting, coloured photographs spanning Roberts’ career, including one of her meeting Prince Charles when she was working at the ITN newsroom in the late 1970s. Her cameraman, Tony Jolliffe, sums up her essence most accurately as he notes that, “She was unapologetic about being a campaigning journalist.” Roberts never apologised because she could not afford to; the challenges she faced were too enormous to allow her that luxury. Yet in spite of the fact that she was something of a feminist champion, it is disheartening, sometimes demoralising, to note that despite her best efforts she was thwarted at every step. Virginia Woolf once loftily claimed, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.” As one puts down Roberts’ book, however, one reflects soberly on whether well-behaved women may in fact be the only ones who make history. After all, they are often the only ones who survive.

The reviewer is assistant professor of social sciences and liberal arts at the Institute of Business Administration, Karachi

The War on Women
By Sue Lloyd-Roberts
Simon and Schuster, US
ISBN: 978-1471153914

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, March 19th, 2017