Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Pro-woman, pro-western

by Thomas Dollar

One of my tasks last week was to draft a proposal for a project to empower women in Sierra Leone. As you might have gathered from my previous posts, this is a Sisyphean task, and there are no quick ways to accomplish it. Empowering women here means overcoming the barriers imposed by both traditional culture and biology.

I discussed culture in my last posting; now I’ll talk about biology. Men and women are physically different in a number of basic but significant ways. Only women have the ability to bear children. (And, thus, only women have the potential to die or suffer injuries during childbirth.) Only women have the ability to breastfeed. On average, men have larger, more muscular bodies than women. On average, men produce more testosterone, which makes them more aggressive and prone to violence. In a traditional culture like Sierra Leone’s, these small physical differences translate into vast social differences. Biology is not destiny, but it is still an obstacle to gender equality. The societies that have (mostly) overcome biology share two critical factors:

1) Enlightenment thinking. Feminism has its origins in the Western Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th Centuries. It was this movement that gave our society its foundational ideas: that certain rights are inalienable, that individuals have autonomy over their own mind and body, that there exist personal freedoms that the group may not infringe. The old, dead, white guys of the Enlightenment may never have thought that equal rights and personal liberties would apply to women, but ideas have consequences, and it wasn’t long before women demanded that they Remember the Ladies. When women and men gathered in Seneca Falls, NY in 1848 to draft their Declaration of Sentiments they applied the Lockean language of natural rights to women’s struggle for equality.

Women’s rights are human rights, and a society can’t possibly have the former if it doesn’t have the latter in general. History has been riddled with hierarchies meant to preserve social order: master over servant, clergy over layman, chief over subject, majority over minority, man over woman. Enlightenment philosophy brought hierarchies into scrutiny; the fact that they were traditional was no longer good enough. Absent a society that had already accepted the notions of dissent and personal freedom, the movement toward gender equality never would have begun.

I realize that saying anything good about Western society is a totally un-P.C., uncool thing to do amongst modern, feminist circles. Philosophies like Ecofeminism and Third-World Feminism manage to trace all the planet’s ills to that Hyphenated Hydra of Oppression called Eurocentrism-Colonialism-Imperialism-Male Chauvinism-Natural Destruction-Military-Industrialism-Patriarchy. This “West is Bad” attitude leads to misplaced multiculturalism that enables and excuses real patriarchal oppression. (Just ask Ayaan Hirsi Ali.) Enlightenment ideals may have originated in Europe, but they are a universal good—not the property of any one race, society or ethnicity. We as feminists should embrace Western culture and share it, not shy from it.

2) Industrialization. The second great factor in the rise of women’s rights was the Industrial Revolution. Industrialization got women off the farms and into factories. In an agrarian society, land is power, children are wealth, and women’s work is inextricably tied to bearing and raising children. In an industrial society, this was subverted. Women working in mills and factories finally achieved their own income and their own sense of independence. As labor became mechanized, the physical differences between men and women became less important. And as science and technology progressed, biological sex differences became far less significant. Hormonal contraception and safe, sanitary abortion gave women the ability to control their reproduction—and the modern, urban-industrial economy gave them an alternative to a life defined by bearing children.

The result of these twin factors—the Enlightenment and industrialization—is that today’s Western societies are more egalitarian than any other in the history of the world. This is not to say that they’re perfect, or that the status of women is the same in all Western countries (there’s a big difference between Sweden and Chile). But in a society that tolerates, even celebrates dissent, change is not only possible but inevitable. On the issues of women’s rights, civil rights, and gay rights, we’ve seen a fringe position become a minority position become a mainstream position. In a traditional culture, this progression just does not happen.

So where does this leave Sierra Leone? Industry is what the women and men of this country need more than anything else. One Nike factory would do more for women’s empowerment than ten years of campaigns and slogans. (NGOs like Planned Parenthood and Marie Stopes provide free birth control, but traditional culture still places a premium on large families.) When women work industrial jobs, they marry later, have fewer children, and exert more control over their lives. And when people embrace modern, liberal society over traditional, hierarchical ones, everyone has more control over their futures. So by pushing for women’s empowerment in Africa, I’m proud to be pro-Western, pro-industry. If you read Equal Writes, it’s likely—even if you don’t know it—that you are too.


At March 31, 2009 at 1:43 AM , Blogger Roscoe said...

Eli Zaretsky, Capitalism, The Family and Personal Life

Read it for a class, though you might like. It should still be on reserve at firestone if you want...

At March 31, 2009 at 10:12 AM , Blogger Courtny said...

TommyD is far from Firestone, Roscoe.

Excellent post, Tommy. The term for "Eurocentrism-Colonialism-Imperialism-Male Chauvinism-Natural Destruction-Military-Industrialism-Patriarchy" is "kyriarchy".


At April 1, 2009 at 1:07 PM , Blogger Sam said...

Cool post. I don't have a lot of time for cultural relativism when the innocent are suffering (and I don't like to allow culture to be defined by its most reactionary elements). That said I think that the best way to export enlightenment morality is to do our best to disassociate it from western culture. No one likes being told what to do, especially by foreigners... and the incredibly cynical way the previous administration used enlightenment rhetoric did not help anything.

Also, I thought the industrial revolution put a premium on big families because you can send those kids to work for more $$?

At April 7, 2009 at 6:55 AM , Anonymous African Woman and Proud said...

I'm sorry. I am not sure where you and some of your commenters are coming from on this.

No, wait. I DO know where you are coming from - although you are working in Sierra Leone you are still clearly stuck in your eurocentric bubble, which is blaringly evident through your lack of hesitation in placing western culture on a solitary and unique pedestal that inevitably groups ALL non-western (asian, south asian, south pacific, central american, south american, west, east, and central african...) cultures below it.

Do you really have an equally expansive knowledge of such cultures/societies to do so?

How can you possibly make such an expansive blanket judgement, based on your solitary experience in sierra leone?

Not only does this seem an unbalanced comparison, but it seems one that is biased from the outset in using eurocentrism as its point of departure. Note that while you cite the enlightenment and industrial revolution as real events to back up your position, you are unable - or perhaps unwilling - to cite real events in the non-western societies that you are so quick to criticize. Unless, of course, you count the "hyphenated hydra" critique, which serves nicely as a straw man that you conveniently burn down, without giving any concrete (historic,textual,theory,etc) examples aside from a quick link to your admission to being a cultural imperialist (in Freetown Calling), and, of course the citation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali who you have mistaken as being a critic - like you - of all 'traditional' or non-western societies.

In so doing, you make a grave error - she (unlike you) does not conflate culture and society with religion and has specifically targeted the ways in which religion itself (islam - which is not a society, right?) has been perverted by male actors in such a way that it often sanctions the abuse of women's rights. Further, she has NEVER suggested, like you, that cultural imperialism is an answer. I'd challenge you to have her read your blog and see what she thinks.

As a side note on Ms. Ali, I'm also sure she would be slightly dissapointed by your commenter "Sam", who arrogantly states that "No one likes being told what to do....especially by foreigners". Sounds a little like the Dutch in her case, doesn't it?

It's also important to point out that the vast majority of the ideas signed forth in the two documents you mentioned are FAR from being achieved, even in the societies - your societies, apparently - that you speak of. Needless to say, judging from the current reality (just check statistics on female vs. male payscales in the workplace) in such nations the "Lockean language" you speak of is just that - language. It has not been translated into reality and remains an ideal.

Semantic arguments aside, the main reason that I find that this post borders on ridiculous is that it cherrypicks events in history and presents them as pro-feminine while ignoring their historical context in relation to the "traditional" societies that you are so quick to dismiss.

Western enlightenment ideas were used repeatedly to justify racism, colonial conquest, religious indoctrination, and the wholesale masssacre of millions of 'traditional' and non-western people. You own perspective is disturbingly similar to such in assuming that the imposition of western ideas are the cure to the ills of the non-western world - and those "ills", of course are directly related to being non-western. A little cyclical in terms of reasoning, no?

The assumption of superiority that you make here is, in short, disgusting when rightly and properly couched in its historial context.

It appears convenient for you to ignore how both the ideas of the enlightenment - namely that the west placed itself in a privileged position to teach and share these ideas (by force in most cases) - and the engine of consumption of the industrial revolution, which required massive amounts of raw materials (taken by force from colonies) were some of the main drivers of colonialism and its consequent crippling of entire nations and social structures (human rights abuses included, min you).

This system of colonial exploitation of course "freed" countries of political exploitation during independence (which is still highly ebatable), but many would argue that the gross global inequality created by the wholesale economic exploitation of such colonies continues to be reflected in today's world.

Sadly, it seems you have learned little from history's lessons which prominently display the negative effects of your own style of thinking.

As a final note on history, it's nice that you give the West the benefit of over 350 years' worth of reflection on women's rights. You also of course privilege the written documentation of history as opposed to the oral documentation which is found across a variety of 'traditional' societies, which tells a different and interesting story.

Sierra Leone, for one, has has less than 200 years' worth of such "reflection". Sigh. Yet another lopsided comparison.

Perhaps you'd just prefer that we return to total imperial control over africa and other such nations, so as to prevent nuisances such as "traditional societies" , Eco-feminism and Third World feminism from getting in your way? It might better serve your purposes as per this post and ideas promoted by your other post, "The New Imperialism" in teh blog Freetown Calling.

Frankly, your perspective is outdated and wholly beyond me. And to top it all off, you jump at the opportunity to rob thousands of African and other non-western women of a voice simply because they don't embrace enlightenment philosophy. They are by no means obliged to do so. You rob these women of an equal voice, and thereby of the equal right to a legitimate perspective.

Pity that this point of view continues to persist among westerners, and those living an working in Africa, like you.

I am guessing you haven't incorporated the possibly relevant perspectives and theories of any "Third World" feminists or anthropologists from Sierra Leone in your proposal?

And those "traditional societies" and their women that you speak of....I'm guessing they don't have a say in your enlightenment-influenced proposal-writing either, do they?

I could continue for hours in critiquing the plurality of pompous eurocentric assumptions you make, but, for the time being, I'll just leave you to continue on your cultural-imperialist conquest.

Good Luck.

-African Woman and Proud

At April 7, 2009 at 2:40 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree wholeheartedly with the proud african woman's post. I just have a few questions for Mr. Dollar:

Why did you pick Nike? I wonder if it is because they are infamous for their horrific labor conditions, especially for women? I'd challenge you to explain a little bit about how providing Sierra Leone's women with exploitative jobs making sneakers could be considered feminist, especially in light of the array of mysoginistic practices that occur in such factories.

Also, why the false comparison between a Nike factory and ten years of slogans? Why are these the only options? I'm not sure what organization you're working with, but I imagine some of your responsibility is to come up with creative ways to empower women. Frankly is both depressing and rather disgusting that the only thing you can think of is exploiting them for the benefit of American consumers. There have been lots of new ideas since the sweatshop was invented.

Can you define “traditional culture”? Of course we can all think of great stereotypes about how backwards foreign cultures can be, but what specifically are you referring to?

As for your observation that “history has been riddled with hierarchies meant to preserve social order,” can you explain how your “Western over traditional” hierarchy is any different? Maybe you can also think about how Western/colonial societies benefited from the social order created by that exact hierarchy and still do.

I sincerely hope you're reading these posts and letting yourself be challenged by different ways of thinking about things. And I sincerely hope you learn more than prescribing sweatshops to solve women's problems from your Princeton in Africa experience.


At April 8, 2009 at 1:19 PM , Blogger TommyD said...

Thanks to all who have commented on this post. Kudos especially to Sam, who hit the nail on the head with his remark that “the best way to export enlightenment morality is to do our best to disassociate it from western culture.” I used the terms “Western” and “Enlightenment” because they are heavily charged, and I hoped that by doing so I could make people reconsider their assumptions. Really, the value system to which I referred is a universal good, and does not belong to any one culture, race or religion. (I also need to acknowledge the contributions of the great scientists and philosophers of Arabia, Persia, India and China that led to enlightened morality and inquiry.) I will take a moment to discuss some of these values, without using the “W-word” that seemed to frighten some people. This system of beliefs holds that:
1. All individuals have certain inalienable rights that the collective may not infringe.
2. These rights include life, liberty and property—including the right to exercise autonomy over one’s own body.
3. Men and women are equal under the law, and deserve equal opportunities for social, political and economic advancement.
4. People should be judged by “the content of their character.” Prejudicing people based on their race, color, ethnicity, heritage, linguistic group, tribe or family origin is not only immoral, but harms society.
5. People have the right to dissent from prevailing beliefs and orthodoxies; indeed, society is enhanced by unorthodox thinking.
6. All people have the right to practice religion freely, or to practice no religion, as long as no one else’s freedoms are infringed in the process.
7. People have the right to express their sexual orientation openly, and without fear of reprisal, injury, imprisonment or death.
8. Authority figures should be questioned and scrutinized.
9. New ideas and hypotheses should be tested by rational inquiry and the scientific method.
10. Long-held assumptions should be questioned and scrutinized. The fact that an idea is old, or that many people believe it, does not mean that it is correct.

Do you agree with any of these values? Does anyone agree with them strongly? Now, imagine you have a friend who disagrees with a number of these assertions. He vehemently disagrees with them. What would you do? Would you explain and defend your position? Would you attempt to persuade him that your position is correct and his is errant? Would you even try to convince him to agree with you? If you answered yes, you are what I meant by a “cultural imperialist”—you don’t have to be Cecil Rhodes. Your friend is what I meant by someone who subscribes to a “traditional” worldview.

Now, regarding the issue of sweatshops (I word that I eschew, by the way, as its very invocation is meant to preclude rational discussion), I’m going to assume that Sian is motivated by a genuine—albeit misguided—concern for the global poor. I can tell her about some of the creative ways aid organizations are empowering women. In Sierra Leone, we’re holding sensitization sessions on the 2007 Gender Acts, letting women know just what their rights are. We’re using traditional song and dance and comedy performances to educate women in a way that’s culturally appropriate and approachable. We’re sensitizing men, as well as women, because we know that to end sexual violence men must also be involved. We’re encouraging debate and inquiry among men’s and women’s groups, so that gender grievances can be aired and discussed. We’re employing paralegals to help women with wills and inheritances—one of the ways in which women have traditionally be denied their property. We’re building the capacities of small businesswomen, to help them run more efficient and profitable businesses. We’re improving women’s access to micro-credit. We’re training traditional birth attendants (TBAs) and improving rural clinics, to reduce the maternal mortality rate. We’re sponsoring projects that reverse gender roles—men carrying and caring for children for a set time—to create a more equitable division of labor.

The work of NGOs is very important in empowering women socially and politically. But there are limits to what aid organizations can and should do. We cannot be an economic base, and we cannot provide enough jobs for a country where the supply of labor far exceeds the demand. Factory jobs can build that base, and provide an avenue out of chronic poverty for future generations. I realize that these jobs seem awful to us, but when your other options are picking aluminum cans out of garbage piles, de-chaffing rice kernels by hand, or selling low-value goods to other vendors selling the same goods, the “sweatshops” start to look attractive. Often, they mean women will have an independent source of income for the first time. I have provided some background reading on the subject:
• A Spectator article on Nike in Vietnam (http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3724/is_200306/ai_n9251504/).
• This Paul Krugman article (http://web.mit.edu/krugman/www/smokey.html).
• This World Bank report (http://econ.worldbank.org/external/default/main?ImgPagePK=64202990&entityID=000112742_20040722172047&menuPK=64168175&pagePK=64210502&theSitePK=477894&piPK=64210520) on changes in the number of people living on less than $1 a day since 1980. In the rapidly industrializing countries of East Asia, the number has fallen by more than half (even as populations increase overall). In Sub-Saharan Africa, the number has doubled.

I know that opposition to “sweatshops” is motivated by good intentions, but I would also like to see the opponents think through the consequences of their goal. How are developing countries supposed to reduce their overall poverty levels if industrial jobs are put off-limits?


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