Are we really different from them?

Leonard Pitts Jr., syndicated columnist

We are different from them.

Instinctively, that’s what you’re thinking, right? Not that you don’t have reason.

The news out of Iran that a 22-year-old woman named Mahsa Amini mysteriously died in custody after the nation’s “morality police” hauled her in for some violation of their oppressive dress code for women is appalling. As thousands of Iranians take to the streets in protest, women publicly cutting their hair and burning their hijabs, CNN’s Jake Tapper certainly spoke for many of us when he called on Western leaders to make it clear “that they stand with the women, with the people, of Iran.”

One could not blame any of us for looking at that mess and being grateful to live elsewhere. Grateful that we are different from them.

After all, no American woman risks being carted off to jail for allowing too much hair to show from beneath her scarf. On the other hand, she — or her doctor — may face that fate if she has an abortion, thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling that robbed women of that right. That, however, is but one iteration of the larger age-old struggle for control of women’s bodies.

Consider for a moment the era of lynch laws in which thousands of African-American men were maimed and murdered for usually fictitious crimes of passion against white women. This was routinely framed as a means of controlling the supposedly dangerous sexuality of Black men.

Yet — and this is rarely commented upon — the violence also controlled the sexuality of the women it theoretically protected. This is not to draw equivalence between what Black men and white women endured; that would be silly. But it is to note that the same mechanisms that restricted Black men from white women necessarily did the same in reverse. So any white woman who wanted, as a free adult, to give her body to some Black man, was proscribed from doing so by custom, law and threat of violence.

There is a throughline linking that prohibition with modern fights over Black women’s hairstyles, requirements for transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions, women being kicked off airplanes for cleavage violations, public acts of body shaming and more. Meaning the pervasive, if little-spoken, understanding among men that women’s bodies are community property, ours to regulate, approve, critique and use as we see fit.

This is not to say men’s bodies have not also occasionally been subjected to those same processes. Yet it seems obvious that there has always been a special interest in policing the bodies of women. Perhaps you saw last year’s TikTok wherein a random guy complains to a group of women that their bikinis are “pornography” — at the beach, no less.

One strains to imagine a scenario wherein a random woman feels herself emboldened to tell a group of guys she doesn’t approve of their swimwear. Or that they are too fat, bald, ugly or exposed for her approval. Or that they must jump through some medically unnecessary hoop before they can receive healthcare.

All of which tempers any temptation to smugness over Iran’s deadly excesses. We are different from them, yes, certainly.

But as this nation lurches toward an authoritarian model restricting what people may read, see and say, as prohibitions on same-sex marriage and even contraception are contemplated and as women’s bodies are policed with increasingly brazen impunity, let’s be honest with ourselves.

We are not nearly different enough.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 3511 NW 91st Ave., Miami, Fla., 33172. Readers may contact him via email at lpitts@miamiherald.com.


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