What Women in Texas and South India Have in Common

Summer began at a documentary film festival in Sheffield where I ended up sitting on a bus next to a lovely woman, Muslim Tamil poet and activist named Salma, who is also the subject of a film about her life. Little did I know that our conversation about patriarchy and women's rights and the parallels between her rural impoverished part of South India and my home state of Texas would ring so true only a few weeks later when Senator Wendy Davis stood for half a day to filibuster for women's right to choose.

Salma had been locked away once she had her period, taken out of school and married off young to a man by which she had two children. Her anger became her action. Just as young women in Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, Kansas, and Wisconsin are being politicized, so too was Salma.

Salma went back into the villages in and near where she grew up and goes door to door trying to help women and convince families to keep their daughters in school and not marry them off young. An average of 43.8 million abortions take place around the world each year. If abortions are banned, who will adopt and care for all of these children?

In Texas alone, approximately 10,000 foster children need care and almost 900 other children are waiting to be adopted. Who will adopt the older, disabled, HIV-plus and special needs children? Why doesn't the GOP focus on helping these children who are already here instead of hurting women who are in difficult situations, have even been raped or been the victims of incest or are very very young and do not want to add more unwanted children to this world?

I sometimes wonder if (after my daughter goes to college) I should move back to Texas and start homes where young women can live with their babies if they are forced to keep them but have no money to raise them, no money for child care and so that they can finish school. Can we organize pro bono legal services for women who do obtain illegal abortions if it comes to that? How can we help these protect these women from the Dark Ages brutality we are witnessing? It is like a medieval witch hunt.

I worked at a home for teen mothers for five years while in grad school and I spent a lot of time talking to the teen moms, both while pregnant and later their children were born, about their families. All of them were officially homeless when they came to live with us. None of them knew how to cook, shop affordably using their limited food stamps, how to use the nearly non-existent public transportation, or keep themselves from being victims to male predators who included the local police. Sixty percent of these young women had been sexually abused, many by stepfathers and much older men. Many were kicked out of their homes once they became pregnant. They had no childcare and no money for books for school. The fathers of their babies were sometimes silly lost teens themselves, but there were others who were gang members in jail, drug users, abusive men who would steal food stamps and money and threaten the girls. Yet in places like Texas, girls like these who choose abortion might end up in jail? What is the difference between how these girls are forced to live and a backwards country where fundamentalist Islam and poverty thrive and women are endangered? I see very little difference.

I have had so many of these conversations about patriarchy before with Muslim women friends, recently I spoke with one whose parents and increasingly fundamentalist brother are refusing to attend her wedding to a non-Muslim this summer. She will marry her lovely fiancé no matter what. I told her about Texas in the 1950s when Catholics and Protestants were still segregated in many ways. She is one of the lucky ones who could afford a good education but still had to walk away from her home and sadly will not be able to celebrate with her family on her special day. Things change, they get better, we progress... or we don't.

I had an exchange with Muslim women in North Africa who are also shocked at how backwards their governments have become, and they too are being politicized. It is no longer ironic to compare what is happening in Texas to what happens to women who are attacked by the Taliban. I recently read that women who obtain illegal abortions in the state will be charged and prosecuted. So it is official, you can replace "fundamentalist Muslim" with "fundamentalist Christian" and you would not be able to tell the difference between one anti-women group and another. (Actually Islam is more rational when it comes to both birth control and allowing for abortion.)

What's next, Texas patriarchy (and I include the self-righteous and frightening female GOP and "so-called" pro-lifers in this), stoning women to death for having sex outside of marriage? Women are attacking women. Because of the pieces I have written here I have been called a "baby killer," "harpy," "rabid feminist" and so many other things, often by other women. Where is the solidarity? I (almost) give up. But I will not and I will use my anger to make sure that these women's rights are protected and I know other Texas women feel the same way.

But mostly I am so sadly reminded of why I left Texas, of the hypocrisy and conservative religious judgmental atmosphere that Texas had been when I was young,. I am reminded of the elitism and the focus on money. My hometown of Houston earned the disturbing award of being the most economically segregated city in the U.S. with both the wealthiest and the poorest living side by side. It hasn't changed. It has become worse. Those once moderate pro-choice Republicans, like Bush Sr. was back in the beginning of his political career, are few and far between. It feels like there is a scary fraternity of gun-toting idiots who wear their badges of small mindedness proudly, at the helm of a ship they are actually trying to sink on purpose. No one will want to come live and work and bring new businesses to Texas which denies its women basic human rights and ignores their pleas and now angry voices.

Remember when President Obama was left with that huge economic and war-strewn mess to clean up by Bush Jr.? And how hard he has been trying to fight to bring the U.S. into the 21st century and gets stopped by these tea party folks every step of the way? I sometimes wonder if the Texas GOP is doing this because they know they are losing and that Texas is indeed changing but they will fight every step of the way and make it harder for Texas to progress. They simply cannot stand the idea that they are a minority and that their world is changing. Strong, bright women like Wendy Davis actually represent the future and the reality of Texas, which has 60 percent single parent households of which most are headed by women.

Ironically, I had finally really enjoyed coming back to Texas during the past year, as the state has become more diverse, and I assumed more open-minded, and my home town of Houston, more fun... or so I thought. While I was thrilled to discover my now-all-grown-up cousins in Texas who are open-minded and politically active, I was also saddened by the conversations I had with women I knew many years ago, conversations in which old fashioned and deeply disturbing judgments were made by women against women. These women are educated and should know better, but their disgusting elitist talk is not Texan. Anti-democratic and money-focused mindsets that would suck the profits out of Texas while leaving it a battered shell of what it could be turned me off, and made me extremely happy I live in Europe. Texas is a rich state it should have the best health care, the best public education and transportation, and the best environmental protections. It should be able to afford the most sane regulations and top quality of life, but it doesn't have any of that unless you are rich and can pay for it.

Some people told me that the U.S. changed after 9/11. I could feel that, but I did not believe it had become this backwards. What have we done? How do we stop this insanity? We vote. We organize. We find solutions. We discuss alternatives and we make our voices heard. We continue to protest. We show up at the capitol over and over. We write letters. We help one another. We protest outside their churches if they protest outside of health care centers. We boycott their companies. We make the Good Ole Boys and their anti-women women feel the negative economic effects of their bad and dangerous decisions. But most of all, we teach their children, and our own, that a better world is possible. One step at a time.