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How stoning of a woman riled the world

By Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
updated 8:34 AM EDT, Fri May 30, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In Pakistan, a pregnant woman who wanted to marry for love was killed by relatives
  • Gayle Lemmon: In Nigeria, as well as U.S., we see crimes and hatred against women
  • She says the hashtag activism and social media outrage is a start, but it's not enough
  • Lemmon: There should be laws that can protect girls and punish abusers

Editor's note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a fellow and deputy director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations. She wrote "The Dressmaker of Khair Khana," a book that tells the story of an Afghan girl whose business created jobs and hope during the Taliban years. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- "We were shouting for help, but nobody listened," said Muhammad Iqbal about the slaying of his pregnant 25-year-old wife, Farzana Parveen, at the hands of her relatives, who gathered to kill her in front of a courthouse in Lahore, Pakistan.

More than 20 members of the woman's family stoned her to death for the "crime" of "dishonoring" her family by choosing to marry someone she loved rather than a husband her family had chosen. A police officer said "one family member made a noose of rough cloth around her neck while her brothers smashed bricks into her skull."

Social media immediately picked up on the horrific and very public killing. #Farzana became a hashtag that provoked a conversation about the crime of so-called "honor killings" and society's tolerance and the police's alleged indifference to it. Suddenly a crime that not long ago would barely have elicited a headline was now a source of conversation and consternation among those on social media both within and outside Pakistan. And discussion about the slaying turned up another grim fact: Iqbal told CNN he killed his first wife so he could be free to propose to Farzana.

Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon

The #Farzana hashtag comes on the public heels of another long-known and rarely noted issue that caught fire in the public's imagination and provoked a storm of well-deserved outrage: the kidnapping of schoolgirls in northern Nigeria by the militant group Boko Haram.

A Nigerian lawyer created the #bringbackourgirls hashtag to call attention to the mass abduction of young women who gathered at school to take their exams.

Once the word got out, people around the world began talking about the issue over social media. Reporters and politicians rushed to follow their lead, and discussions about girls' education and the crimes of Boko Haram at last punctured public indifference.

Pregnant woman stoned by family members
Human rights activist speaks on violence

In America, another horrific crime unleashed a gush of online discourse. This time it was a 22-year-old man on a quest for what he called his "day of retribution," when he would torture and kill "good-looking people" before launching a "war on women" to punish girls and women who he said had "starved (him) of sex." The misogyny in the killer's more than 100-page diatribe led women to begin using the #Yesallwomen hashtag to push forward a conversation on Twitter and Facebook and Tumbler about the rarely discussed though frequently experienced issues of violence against women, from sexual assault to harassment to domestic brutality.

The #Yesallwomen hashtag went global and began trending on Twitter. Once again the mainstream media picked it up from there and followed the lead of women who had had enough of crimes and abuses perpetrated against them to speak publicly on the toll they have taken on their lives.

Yet, for all the hashtag consciousness-raising and social media meet-ups of the like-minded the question remains: Will what happens in cyberspace stay there? Or will online outrage lead to real world change? Will crimes committed against women and girls across the globe finally come to be seen as harming and hampering not just women, but the communities in which they live?

Much could be done if online activism led to real-life campaigning for concrete progress, such as:

-- Enacting and enforcing laws to protect girls as young as 8 and 9 from being married against their will

-- Providing aid and incentives to keep girls in schools -- built near their homes -- and to combat traditions that keep them out of the classroom

-- Pushing for more stringent laws in the United States and abroad to punish traffickers rather than children

-- Highlighting as role models the many fathers and brothers who value their daughters and allow them to pursue their futures unfettered, sometimes at the risk of their own safety and standing in society

And these are only the start. The hashtag activism and social media outrage is an important start to addressing issues to which the world for so long had remained indifferent. But it is just one step.

It falls to each of us to see whether all the talk about the power of women and girls and the shame of harming them translates into on-the-ground change. The stakes are high -- for all of us.

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