In Cameroon, some mothers "iron" their daughters' breasts to delay or prevent them from having sex. The procedure often involves grinding a very hot rock into the chest of the girl, but sometimes kerosene or hot plantain peels will do the trick. The practice, which permanently disfigures the girls, starts with adolescence because that's when girls start becoming attractive to boys.
And heaven forbid that anyone expect anything like self-restraint from the boys.
I'd never heard of the practice until I read about it in the Washington Post. But the story is all too familiar. Around the world, women -- girls -- have to pay the price for the barbarity of boys.
In Saudi Arabia, and across the Middle East, men can't handle seeing a little leg -- or even an ankle -- so rather than put a blindfold on the men, they throw a tarp over the women. Indeed, throughout vast swaths of the Muslim world, men can't compute dealing with women as equals, so they lock up the women.
The Taliban in Afghanistan is the most extreme example of the trend. Its members claim they want to keep the "chasteness and dignity" of women "sacrosanct," but it seems like what they really want is to protect themselves from the apparently hard work of not being a savage. So under the Taliban, women couldn't ride bicycles. They couldn't wear high heels because the sound of women's footsteps might excite men. Forget appearing on radio, TV or at public gatherings. Women couldn't step out onto their balconies.
The Taliban has hardly given up on its agenda since being forced from power. In 2008, 10 Taliban militants were arrested for throwing acid in the faces of 15 girls going to school in Kandahar.
The worst cases of female-phobia appear to be in the Muslim world, but the problem is hardly unique to Islam. Across Southeast Asia and throughout Africa, in Christian, animist and Muslim countries alike, women are asked to pay for male inadequacies.
In Cameroon -- not a majority Muslim country, by the way -- an ob-gyn told Washington Post contributor Jamie Rich: "It's very rare to see a 13-year-old girl who is still a virgin." And that's why the mothers mutilate their daughters -- because boys can't be expected to keep it in their pants.
"Feminism" is a loaded word in the United States because it carries so many controversial connotations. Professional feminists often insist that they have a monopoly on the word and its meaning, which forces lots of people to reject the label. Conservatives are the most obvious example of that, but many young people, including very "liberated" young women, avoid the term because they think it means rejecting any traditional understanding of motherhood, courtship, etc.
But if you can lay aside all of those worthwhile arguments about Western society for a minute, the simple fact is that "the feminists" are absolutely right when it comes to the treatment of women in much of the developing world. If women were seen as a religious or racial minority, this would be glaringly obvious. Imagine if a white country refused to let blacks learn to read, never mind go to school or even go outside. I don't know a social conservative -- and I know many -- who doesn't agree with radical feminists when it comes to recognizing the barbarity of female circumcision, wife-burning, breast-ironing and the rest.
Forgetting the question of decency and morality for a moment, there's the matter of national interests. Female equality seems to be a pretty reliable treatment for many of the world's worst pathologies. Population growth in the Third World tends to go down as female literacy goes up. Indeed, female empowerment might be the single best weapon in the "root causes" arsenal in the war on terror.
The reason strikes me as fairly simple. Women civilize men. As a general rule, men will only be as civilized as female expectations and demands will allow. "Liberate" men from those expectations, and "Lord of the Flies" logic kicks in. Liberate women from this barbarism, and male decency will soon follow.