Why Do Other People Get to Decide Who Is a Woman and Who Is a Girl?

| Reproaction

By: Shireen Shakouri

The International Day of the Girl was last week, and because my social media appetite is heavily skewed in a certain direction, my feeds were a parade of affirmations for young women and girls about education, ambition, and Girl Power.

On the other side of the coin, however, was the infuriating story of a 17-year old undocumented immigrant at a detention facility in Texas being denied her constitutional right to an abortion. Not only that, but Homeland Security employees forced her to go to a Crisis Pregnancy Center (CPC), and if you’ve read my previous posts, you know how I feel about them. [1] Texas funds many of its CPCs with millions in taxpayer dollars annually, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds intended to feed needy families, and it’s one of the strictest places in the country for abortion access. [2,3] Minors must receive judicial bypass by presenting their case in court to have an abortion without parental consent. [4]

This is one of many examples of how justice for immigrants, and for young people, is a reproductive justice issue: because this woman lives in a place that restricts decisions she is allowed to make about her own body, and her status as a resident was deemed “illegal” which forced her into a detention center, she has even more barriers to personal bodily autonomy. The courts intervened this week, ordering the government to allow her to receive abortion counseling and the procedure if she wishes, and not impede in any way on those rights, but a federal appeals court as of Thursday has temporarily blocked that decision, with a hearing scheduled for this Friday morning. [5, 6]

The news got me thinking about womanhood, girlhood, and how we don’t get to define when we are in one state or the other. You are either or both, depending on what is convenient for the person judging you. You are a girl when someone wants to control your actions, but a woman when you defy that control … and women must be punished and bear the consequences of their actions.

Women who visit CPCs are often infantilized, described by CPC staff as needing protection and counseling – which comes in the form of deception and stigmatization. They’re made into impressionable girls who can be bent to the will of their “counselor” and stripped of personal decision-making power: girls can’t be trusted to calculate the outcomes of our decisions and augment (or continue) our behaviors accordingly, because girls are fickle, frivolous, and don’t think things through. Girls must be protected from having an abortion – what if you regret it afterwards? Surely a girl can’t make such a big decision for her life on her own.

And if you assert that you do want the abortion? You’re a woman now, and women must accept the consequences of their actions. A woman shouldn’t have had sex if she didn’t want to be a mother, and a woman would change her life course and carry that unintended pregnancy to term, despite her desire or the odds against her. I’m finding this framing suits other circumstances, as well:

You are woman enough to receive unwanted sexual attention, but a girl when you “can’t take a compliment.”

You are a woman if you couldn’t consent to sex because you drank at a party, but a girl when someone could have protected you from strangers in alleys.

You are a woman because you need to advocate for yourself or no one else will, but a girl because it’s immature to be that mouthy.

You are a woman because contraception is viewed as your responsibility, but a girl because someone else will decide your access to it.

You are a woman if you are Black, no matter your age: a recent study showed that Black girls are chronically viewed as “less innocent” and thus don’t get the privilege of girlhood. [7]

I know: It seems really bleak. Changing how people think about women and girls is no small task, and the recent revelations about sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood prove (if we even needed proof) that patriarchal culture does a great job protecting itself. But we are organizing to dismantle it, and I believe young women and girls can lead the way.

Next week, Reproaction is partnering with Advocates for Youth and Lady Parts Justice on a week of action to call out CPCs, with a special focus on campus activism. We are proud to lift up youth-driven actions and propel the movement to expose anti-abortion fake clinics. So here’s to the girls, the women, and the femme-of-center people of all ages doing the work to make the future more feminist.




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