The Criminalization of Women's Bodies

The issue of the criminalization of women's bodies represents a pressing topic in the policy-making field, which is unfortunately often oriented by the biased and discriminatory lenses of patriarchal views. In particular, not even the identification of a commonly-shared regime on women's rights has succeeded in eradicating the systemic abuse that women endure. A deeper analysis of current socio-political foundations could aid in identifying the representation of this discriminatory system.



Pondering the social, political, and economic implications of gender, writer and poet Sylvia Plath questioned how the same idea of femininity was inevitably marked by the looming shadow of societal expectations. According to the writer, these standards were not crafted to safeguard, let alone benefit, women. In the “Unabridged Journals,“ Plath states that “Being born a woman is my awful tragedy: from the moment I was conceived I was doomed to sprout breasts and ovaries rather than penis and scrotum; to have my whole circle of action, thought, and feeling rigidly circumscribed by my inescapable femininity” (Plath, S. 1982). This eerie account of the obstacles that the mere fact of belonging to the female gender entail, was unfortunately just as accurate in the 1960s as it is today. We are living in a time and age in which the fundamental rights of women are questioned and curtailed daily, through either political, economic or social forms of oppression, most often enforced by male figures. In this context, the bodies of women are quickly turning into battlegrounds for ethical and political bloodshed between ideological adversaries. The issue of the criminalization of women’s bodies represents a turning point in the direction in which the global human rights regime is headed, and the whole discourse surrounding the matter is strictly intertwined with the notion of power.


Photo by Gayatri Malhotra on Unsplash


Contextualizing power as an instrumentalist concept identifies the mechanisms through which the political, economic, social, and cultural contexts enshrine specific individuals with capabilities, skills, and power while leaving other actors at the opposite end of the power structure (Allen, A. 2021). In this sense, it would be possible to apply this methodological approach to the issue of systemic discrimination against women. They most often fall victim to the mechanisms that deprive them of the means to dispose of the same amount of power as men. These theoretical instances of oppression find a translation in the current socio-political environment through many different representations, from economic disparities to political discrimination, and even to social injustice.

Although today, women and female-presenting individuals face decreasing obstacles in participating actively in the different levels of policy-making, their presence in the political field is still limited, especially in comparison with men (Hubbard, C., Brechenmacher, S. 2020). This issue is commonly defined as the “gender divide” that characterizes political participation and reflects the aforementioned mechanisms of the unequal allocation of power and capabilities. The concept of patriarchy, as understood by many feminist scholars, could be identified as a prominent issue in the deepening of the gender divide in politics. The previously-existing power structures, which affected social relations between men and women, were introduced to the game of politics to reflect those same subordination processes. The family relations that promoted the subordination of women in the patriarchal social structure eventually bled into the employment and political sphere, fundamentally repeating the same patterns. Heidi Hartmann highlighted this specific point by supporting the idea that the hierarchical domestic division of labor inherently gets perpetrated in the labor market and, therefore, in the policy-making spheres (Hartmann, H. 1976). In this context, it is understandable that the concept of male power permeates the political environment, not only by pushing women to the sidelines of its scope but also by often excluding them from the definition of policies whose scope will certainly impact them directly.


Photo by Monica Melton on Unsplash

Sara Nichols further highlighted how the promotion of a very strict abortion policy by the Texas state administration further reflected how misogynistic attitudes were at play in the political process. These perspectives gave a group of people whose experience with reproductive rights were limited, the ability and power to draft legislation on women’s bodies and their freedom of choice (Nichols, S. 2021). The systemic exclusion of women from the debate surrounding reproductive rights is an example of the imposition of male power. The subsequent effort to criminalize abortion and reproductive rights is but a representation of how these power structures reflect issues of discrimination and misogyny.


In regards to the economic field, women experience the intersection of both the patriarchal and the capitalist nature of society, fundamentally being subjected to a plurality of oppression that retraces the outline of established marginalization structures. Although these two elements tend to describe different phenomena, they intertwine, particularly at the expense of women. Capitalism is nothing other than a very peculiar social order, with its objective being the maximization of profit by exploiting power relationships. In this sense, it is possible to understand how these mechanisms inherently present power hierarchies based on the ideas of gender, stemming from patriarchal societal interpretations. The capitalist system's pursuit of the maximum form of profit fundamentally justifies the exploitation of the workforce of minorities, by leveraging on those social and political inequalities that create social disparities between groups. Considering the issue of the gender wage gap would prove useful to understand how the undervaluing of women’s work not only serves the purposes of profit maximization but further pushes the narrative that women’s work is somehow less valuable and therefore requires lesser compensation. The European Commission reported that the gender pay gap floats around 14% (European Commission, 2022). This general issue could be explained by focusing on the plurality of mechanisms that further engrave gender-based discrimination in the economic field, like occupational segregation. The fact that a big portion of the gender pay gap is related to the overrepresentation of women in low-paying sectors like health, education, and care allows for the underpayment of women.



Photo by Jack Prommel on Unsplash


The commonly-shared human rights regime that has been developing since the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has progressively shown an effort toward the implementation of provisions aimed at safeguarding women’s rights. Although the general effort of the international community aims at intersectionality and inclusivity, many national instances have shown the tendency to pursue the criminalization of women’s bodies. Women’s human rights include, among many others, the right to equality, dignity, autonomy, bodily integrity, respect for private life, and the right to attain the highest possible standard of health. Needless to say, sexual and reproductive health are to be regarded as categories protected by women's human rights. Nonetheless, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around 225 million women are deprived of access to essential modern contraception (WHO, 2019). Access to safe abortion services is a basic human right. International human rights law protects the right to life and health, as well as the right to freedom from violence, discrimination, torture, and cruel treatment. Therefore, decisions about one’s body are autonomous: this is what, in the last decades, has become known as bodily autonomy, or integrity. Access to abortion is therefore a primary human right that is strictly interconnected with the development and upholding of the rights of women, girls, and others who can become pregnant. As such, it must be considered vital to achieve social and gender justice.


Human rights bodies and courts worldwide recognize and embrace that abortion care is an essential and fundamental part of health care, and that it represents a critical aspect of women's and girls’ basic human rights. Yet, throughout the world, restrictive abortion laws and other barriers tend to push abortion underground, increase rates of unsafe abortion, and delay access to essential and time-sensitive care. By disproportionately harming low-income countries (LICs), as well as marginalized ones, these laws and policies exacerbate social inequality. In the Italian case specifically, the jurisdiction is still very limited, with a law that provides neither the liberalization nor the decriminalization of abortion, but instead merely establishes certain conditions in the presence of which the woman has the right to resort to the voluntary termination of pregnancy (VTP): outside of these, abortion remains a crime (Italian Penal Code, 1930).


It is therefore clear how access to abortion services and voluntary termination of pregnancy practices constitute a basic human right to which all women, girls, and other individuals that can experience pregnancy should be entitled. Nonetheless, it is important to respect and embrace the aforementioned human rights, as it also benefits the achievement of social and gender justice. In this perspective, the respect for and promotion of women’s human rights become a prerogative of the global environment, and therefore, it sets the standard for common action. This approach, implemented by the international community, highlights how these objectives require a widespread effort to combat the different embodiments of conservative male power and gender-based discrimination. Yet, the right to abortion and access to VTP practices is still denied to women and girls around the world, according to baseless and sexist interpretations of reproductive rights that lack legal reasoning.



Sources

Allen, A. (2021). “Feminist Perspectives on Power", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Edward N. Zalta (ed.), Retrieved from: https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2021/entries/feminist-power


Boucher, J. (2003). “Male Power and Contract Theory: Hobbes and Locke in Carole Pateman’s ‘The Sexual Contract.’” Canadian Journal of Political Science / Revue Canadienne de Science Politique 36, no. 1: 23–38. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3233344.


Cockburn, C. (1981) “The Material of Male Power.” Feminist Review, no. 9: 41–58. https://doi.org/10.2307/1394914.

European Commission. (2022). “The gender pay gap situation in the EU”. Retrieved from: https://ec.europa.eu/info/policies/justice-and-fundamental-rights/gender-equality/equal-pay/gender-

Hartmann, H. (1976). “Capitalism, Patriarchy, and Job Segregation by Sex.” Signs 1, no. 3: 137–69. Retrieved from: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3173001.

Hubbard, C., Brechenmacher, S. (2020). "Breaking The Cycle Of Gender Exclusion In Political Party Development”. Carnegie Endowment For International Peace.

Italian Penal Code (1930). Article 546. Retrieved from: https://www.imolin.org/doc/amlid/Italy/penal_code.pdf

Nichols, S. (2021). "Letters To The Editor: The Originators Of Texas' Anti-Abortion Law? Men, Of Course". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from: https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2021-09-09/originators-of-texas-anti-abortion-law-men

Plath, S. (1982). “The Unabridged Journals”. New York: Anchor Books.

World Health Organization (2019). Family planning and contraception methods: an analysis.



Visual Sources


Malhotra, G. (2022). "No hanger abortions". Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/lz6BW7Ku1EQ


Melton, M. (2017). Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/pF68nzXm_NA


Prommel, J. (2022). Retrieved from https://unsplash.com/photos/hDmML7Ywyu8




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Niccolò Fantin

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