A Message to Legislators: You Deny We Have Rights


This is the text of a speech given at the WomenUnite Rally in Washington, DC on April 28, 2012, one of 53 events that took place in 45 cities around the country. The marches recieved little or no national coverage, despite the fact that thousands of people participated in a grassroots movement of more than 50 events co-ordinated by volunteers in fewer than 10 weeks.

Eight weeks ago, I was sitting, alone, at my desk thinking to myself: “Do I Really Have to Say the Words “Women are Different From Pigs and Cows” out loud?” For weeks people had been sending me depressing and surreal updates on rights-eroding legislative initiatives, including one in which the Georgia state legislature debated women’s reproductive health by comparing pregnant women to pregnant farm animals. There was also a description of a young man’s offer to trade his chickens in return for outlawing abortion.  Oh, and a casual mention of dog hunting.

So, I wrote: Women are Different from Pigs and Cows.  Why?  Because…I wrote…since it is not apparently obvious:  “I am a woman and I have these human rights.”

Like many women before me, I sadly felt it was urgent, necessary and important to say these words out loud. We take our fundamental rights for granted. We need to take them seriously and remember that they were hard fought for and fragile.  Women’s rights, it turns out, are neither self-evident nor inalienable.    We are all busy, mostly trying to do our best. In general, we are not thinking,  as we race to work, feed our families and go about our days, “Will I be considered fully human today? Will my daughters?”  It is hard to pay attention to what words mean and how the scope of what is happening, sometimes far away, affects each and every one of us.

I was asked to read a short version of what I wrote that day, as a letter in the Huffington Post, to the people who are pursing dangerous and oppressive legislation and judicial policies. This piece was liked or forwarded more than 400,000 times in Facebook and shared thousands of times in other ways. It clearly struck a chord. It was heavily focused on reproductive rights, not because other issues are unimportant, but because there is no economic or societal justice without reproductive justice for women.

So, here is what I wrote:   A Letter to Legislators:

I am a woman and I have these human rights:

The right to life.

The right to privacy.

The right to freedom.

The right to bodily integrity.

The right to decide when and how I reproduce.

The policies you support strip women of their rights and deprive them of dignity and freedom in the following ways:

Sacrificing women’s health and the well-being of their families through a single-minded focus on curtailing their reproductive freedom.

Criminalizing pregnancy and imprisoning women who miscarry, have accidents,  are suffering from substance abuse, or have to make sad decisions regarding non-viable fetuses. Then compounding the harm by forcing women to carry dying or dead fetuses, when they otherwise wouldn’t.

Inhibiting, humiliating and punishing women for their reproductive choices, such as mandating permission slips from men, requiring “we know best” waiting periods or forcing women to undergo medically unnecessary and involuntary bodily penetration (otherwise called rape)

Seizing women, disabling them or sacrificing their lives by withholding and delaying medical treatment or forcing them to undergo Caesarian deliveries.

Lastly, depriving women of their right to make decisions that enable them to earn a living, be paid fairly and equitably and support themselves and their families.

I morally object to you presuming to consign me, my daughters and yours to function as reproductive animals. Just because you cannot get pregnant does not mean I cannot think clearly, ethically, morally, rationally about my body, human life or the consequences of my actions. Just because you cannot get pregnant does not mean that I do not have rights when I am pregnant.  

I have responsibility but am powerless. You have power but are irresponsible with my rights.  By not trusting me, you force me to trust you. And YOU are not trustworthy. What you are doing is disgraceful, hypocritical and morally corrupt.  And, no, I am not crazy. I am angry. 

These archaic bills and laws, wasteful of time, money and lives, obscure an enduring and unchangeable truth: safe and effective family planning is the transformative social justice accomplishment of the 20th century.

Your actions, which betray our nation’s fundamental beliefs, deprive me of the right to privacy, life and equal protection under the law.

These rights are mine.

We are here today because women have yet to be recognized as full citizens, with agency in both the private and public spheres.  “Equal enough” is unacceptable. I close by asking you all to continue to speak loudly, in ways that boys and girls can hear and understand, in defense of girls’ and women’s rights, to speak loudly when you encounter bias, sexism, misogyny.

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Follow Soraya Chemaly on twitter: @schemaly