America the not-so-free

Lina AbiRafeh
6 min readJul 4, 2022

Today the US celebrates its independence.

Let’s recall our history: the country declared independence from Great Britain on July 2, 1776. The official Declaration of Independence was adopted two days later. The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia went ding! And the rest is history.

Except, there’s something missing. What is independence day about, really? And many of us are asking: Independence for whom?

Not for more than half the population, clearly. Not for minorities, not for people of color, not for too many Americans. And certainly not for women — 168 million American women, to be precise.

We’ve heard lots of people talk about what was intended in the first declaration, who was included in the first independence, and — more importantly — who was left out.

Today many of us are wondering… What is freedom without freedom for women?

Surely you’ve all seen the meme by now:

4th of July has been canceled due to a shortage of independence.

Sincerely, Women

It’s been making the rounds. And for good reason.

Too many Americans aren’t really free. And now American women aren’t free to decide what to do with their own bodies and lives — that’s not freedom. Freedom starts with our abilities to govern ourselves. Bodily autonomy and integrity is a critical freedom.

We can’t really celebrate a so-called independence when the country doesn’t protect and respect all equally — and this discrimination is now codified in law.

A country built on patriarchal — misogynistic! — foundations does not make for a free country. And if women aren’t free — no one is free.

It’s not just about the latest denial of our bodily integrity and autonomy. We’ve been moving backwards in other ways.

American exceptionalism and world leader rhetoric is exhausting. In some ways, there’s truth behind it. But looking at social indicators gives us a very different picture. In reality, as a so-called developed country, the US does not rank very highly.

Let’s start with the Global Gender Gap Index, measuring the distance to equality for women based on education, health, politics, and the economy. The US ranks 30th — behind countries such as New Zealand, Rwanda, Philippines, South Africa, and Burundi. While this is relatively high, when compared to other so-called developed countries, it is pretty poor. We should be better off. We think we are better off. And herein lies the danger. Meanwhile, the world needs 136 years to close the gender gap. North America needs 61.5 years.

Moving on. The Women, Peace and Security Index, measuring women’s inclusion, justice, and security in 170 countries, ranks the US as 21st — behind countries such as Norway, Switzerland, the UK, and Canada. Essentially it means women’s equality and rights in the US have slowed considerably. The report highlights in particular how racial disparities have affected women in the US where, unsurprisingly, white women typically did better when it came to college degree attainment, legislature representation, and maternal mortality.

Breaking it down further, the maternal mortality rate is several times higher than other high income industrialized countries. The US has 23.8 deaths per 100,000 live births, while France, the next country, has 8.7. And Black women are three times more likely to be affected by this, while Hispanic women saw the largest maternal mortality increase.

The US has one of the lowest expenditures on childcare for children under two–0.2% of its GDP, which translates to $200 a year for most families. Maternity and paternity leave in the US is also considered one of the worst among so-called developed countries. The Family and Medical Leave Act stipulates up to 12 weeks unpaid leave for new parents. Some new parents.

Illiteracy rates are also higher than we’d imagine. 21% of US adults are illiterate. According to data this year, 54% of adults have a literacy below 6th grade level. Poverty is high — and on the rise. The official poverty rate in 2020 was 11.4%. That equates to 37.2 million people in poverty, approximately 3.3 million more than in 2019 and — you guessed it — women have higher rates of poverty than men.

And in 2020, the USDA estimated that 10.5% of American households were food insecure — that’s 13.8 million households. Another 3.9% of households had very low food security. These statistics are bleak — and probably a lot worse than we imagined.

And as for violence against women? 36% of women in the US reported physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in 2019 — and that’s just the reported figures. Between 2015–2019, more than 11,000 women in the US were killed with a gun. Every month, an average of 57 women are killed with a firearm by an intimate partner.

So, where is the US a world leader?!

Military spending, unsurprisingly. US military spending amounted to $801 billion in 2021. Also — unsurprisingly — private gun ownership. There are more guns than people. There are a whopping 120.5 firearms per 100 residents. Excessive?!

Also, we’re among the top nations for obesity levels, with an adult obesity rate of 42.4%.

Yes, all these things are important. But women — that’s the lens through which I view the world. And today, women’s rights are the frontlines. Women are the frontlines. And — women are on the frontlines. Our bodies and our lives are, quite literally, on the line. Same for members of the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, and minorities. This country was built, and is sustained, by old white dudes.

Let us repeat: we are no democracy if half of our population does not have basic rights — let alone equal rights. Abortion rights — and full rights to bodily autonomy and integrity — cannot be divorced from democracy. If we cannot decide about our own bodies, we cannot decide anything.

Looking at our lives today, it is clear that democracy is in question.

We — women — have always been the barometer by which any element of freedom, equality, rights, dignity, respect should be judged. If it doesn’t work for women, it damn well does not work. Period.

We saw this during COVID too as the suffering of the pandemic disproportionately affected those who were already poor, vulnerable, marginalized — and women.

Being American now means challenges to the safety we should take for granted, fights for the rights we should have (and thought we had!), and an imbalance of power resting in the hands of a corrupt few.

Honor, freedom, and opportunity — and equality — were myths we all subscribed to, searched for, believed in. America waxed poetic about a dream long enough for it to become a parody. Was it a false narrative sustained by hope?

I hope not.

Let me be clear before you all start frothing at the mouth. I’m an immigrant. A US-passport holder. A dual citizen. A woman. A brown person. A Lebanese-Palestinian. An Arab-American. A helluva lot of things. Yes, I continue to be grateful for my US passport — and will say quite clearly that I’m not sure which other country would have taken us at that time?! But also hear this: gratitude doesn’t blind me. As an American, I have a civic duty to fight for the values this nation is supposed to espouse. I belong here. And I’m going to say this.

So, for this independence day, it is part of our duty — and our right — as citizens to extend the freedoms we celebrate to ALL Americans. We’re all equal before the law. Don’t we actually say that somewhere?!

This is no “land of the free” unless we are all equal. As for “home of the brave,” women are going to have to demonstrate that bravery in ways they never anticipated — because they have no choice. They shouldn’t have to — but they will, again and again, until their independence is recognized and respected.

And me?

This year, I won’t be celebrating. I’ll be protesting.

This year, I don’t want fireworks.

I want freedom.

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Lina AbiRafeh

Global women's rights expert, author, speaker, aid worker, feminist activist with 25 years of experience in 20 countries worldwide - and lots of stories!