WASHINGTON -- Many years ago, in 1971 to be exact, I was covering the Middle East for the old Chicago Daily News when I came upon horrific cultural practices being exercised on women. From the northern Arab states to central black Africa, young girls were being tortured in order to be "chaste" and "pure" as wives and mothers.
So, of course, I wrote about it, certain as the rising sun that I would change those worlds.
The practice that so enraged me -- and many educated Egyptian, Sudanese and Saharan women -- was known as "cliteridectomy," or "female circumcision," or just plain "cutting." It involved girls of about 8 or 9 being tied to a tree and having their clitoris and other sexual organs cut off. The practice had to be stopped.
I worked with my Egyptian women friends, and we got testimonies from eight to 10 Arab and African women about what this "purification" involved. Each story was more horrifying than the last.
When I returned to Chicago, I proudly showed my well-researched article to my editors. Really, I should have known. The two who saw it, both wonderful men and excellent editors, nevertheless turned shades of the rainbow that I honestly had not seen before. Neither said anything. Finally, the next day, one said something like he didn't think this was a subject we should print in a "family newspaper," and that was that.
So it was particularly gratifying to me when I saw the immediate and overwhelming response in India to the heinous attack on the as-yet-unidentified young woman and her male companion on a bus they boarded after a movie, mistaking it for a public vehicle. In truth one of the six males now accused of murder was a regular bus driver and was out illegally joyriding with his "pals" on this bus.
Joyriding. We know now that, in that hour of horror on Dec. 16, the six males from the slums of New Delhi attacked both the woman and the man, beating them with steel pipes. One wonders whether we should not redefine the word "rape," considering what then happened.
The attackers jammed a pipe into the woman's vagina in such a deadly manner that all of her intestines and some of her internal organs were totally destroyed. After several days at a leading hospital in India, she was emergency-airlifted to Singapore, the most civilized spot in South Asia, where, despite the best of treatment, she died of total organ failure.
This was not rape in any medical sense; this was torture and murder. The fact that the Indian authorities immediately rounded up the six suspects and charged them with murder, instead of rape, may be the harbinger of a new age. And the fact that so much of Indian society has erupted in fury over the attacks adds to the possibility that the 21st century is truly the "century of women." The cry, "That girl could have been any one of us," has reverberated through the city streets and shows the degree to which women are now becoming ferocious in defense of their very lives.
But, CAN change really happen? The cultural norms, even in rapidly developing India, are appalling. Seats are reserved for women in buses, yet women who are raped often are forced to marry the rapist for fear that no other man will marry them. Prominent politicians have attributed rising rape numbers to women's increasing use of cellphones and going out at night.
But the truth is coming out. People are beginning to see that Gloria Steinem was right, all those years ago. Rape is not about sex, the muse of the American women's movement always said. Rape is about domination.
And although the mountain to climb is high, one can see the position of women changing in what has been known as the "developing world." Women are in high positions all over Asia, and particularly in Africa, picking up the bloody messes of death and horror that men have left behind. People are noticing that men can't "do it," can't rule and can't even clean up.
In developing countries, it is the women who have the skills -- mediation, listening, building up -- that are needed in the modern world.
As to my Egypt story on cliteridectomy, it is now written and spoken about openly, and with all the details. A recent PBS series by The New York Times' Nicholas D. Kristof not only outlined the problem, but actually SHOWED the girls tied to trees, told how all the skin around the clitoris is also cut out, and how painful it is for them both then and later.
I predict that we are in for an interesting -- and yes, hopeful -- century for women. There will be many more awful cases. Yet one can hear echoing from the corridors of the U.N. to the Red Fort of Delhi to the offices of the many women presidents and ministers of Africa, "We aren't going to take it anymore."