Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Global women's rights - the cause of our time?

by Amelia Thomson-DeVeaux

I've been looking forward to last Sunday's New York Times Magazine ever since its contents were released online last week. The cover seems almost too good to be true - with "Why Women's Rights Are the Cause of Our Time" emblazoned down the side, the issue promises articles about Hillary Clinton's campaign for global women's rights, women's philanthropy, the tragedy of missing or devalued daughters. I read the magazine on Sunday, but it's taken a few days to formulate my thoughts for this blog. For some reason, the whole package made me very uncomfortable, despite the fact that its primary goal seems to be taking "women's issues" - that often-played-down, snooze-inducing phrase - and making them "human rights issues". Which, admittedly, we've been trying to do for a while. And I certainly hope that these articles have opened the eyes of some NYT readers to the absolute necessity of empowering women worldwide. But, you must admit, it's interesting that for all of the global rhetoric infused throughout the magazine, the focus landed squarely on Asia, with a couple side trips to sub-Saharan Africa. Women's rights worldwide, eh? Well, surely that includes us too.

I think my problems with the magazine are two-fold. First of all, I completely agree with the excellent analysis at Feministing - however glamorous it may seem to throw on our American superhero capes and go flying into Pakistan to "save" the poor oppressed women from the terrible abusive Pakistani men, it's not a long-term solution. We need to take a couple of steps back and assess how we can help these women change their own lives - and admit when we're not seeing the whole picture. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, the authors of the magazine's feature article, seem to making the somewhat disturbing assumption that we need to take spending power away from the men of developing countries because they are inherently less likely to spend their money on medicine, nourishment and clothing.

"If poor families spent only as much on educating their children as they do on beer and prostitutes, there would be a breakthrough in the prospects of poor countries," Kristof and WuDunn write. "A series of studies has found that when women hold assets or gain incomes, family money is more likely to be spent on nutrition, medicine and housing, and consequently children are healthier."

Moralizing much? And really, shouldn't we be working on both men and women as part of the family equation? If we want to liberate women from traditional gender roles, that requires a change in the way men see themselves - if we assume that they're simply alcoholic spendthrifts and unworthy of any responsibility, they will become resentful and really, who can blame them? For an article that purports to change "women's issues" into "human issues", there is very little discussion of the fact that gender roles must change for men as well as women. Furthermore, I am bothered by the assumption that we should be giving women money because they will spend it more wisely. Women deserve economic opportunity because they are human. They deserve education because they are human. Period, end of story. The idea that we should be extending aid to women merely because they will do what we want, and what we believe to be morally right, is very disturbing.

This isn't to say that Kristof and WuDunn haven't written a powerful and compelling article - they're clearly both passionate about women's rights (we've written about Kristof here in the past), but I think their article, and others, leaves out another extremely important component. The fact is, when we talk about worldwide women's rights, we should include our own country. A few of the interviews - one with Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and one with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton - ended with a comparison between developing nations and the United States, all centered on the fact that we still haven't elected a female president. Clinton gave a fairly generic (and diplomatic) answer about her own campaign, but Sirleaf was much more direct. "I have to ask you that question," she said, when asked why she thinks the United States has never had a female head of state. "You've got to vote for her."

For me, the issue is not so much why we haven't had a female president yet - I'm hoping that this will be rectified within the next ten years. Rather, I'm wondering why we're not extending aid to women in our own country. Why we're not writing about extending maternity leave, so women can realistically have children and careers, or the fact that earlier this month, a man was so furious that he was denied access to women's bodies that he entered a gym and killed three people, or the fact that women in the military can seriously fear sexual assault from their own peers. We don't have economic equality of the sexes here - the Equal Pay Act was signed only eight months ago, and women are still paid significantly less than their male counterparts. What about domestic violence? Rape culture? Yes, things are certainly not as bad as they are in Liberia, where 70% of the population is illiterate, but we're not paragons of gender equality in the United States - for goodness' sake, most young women are afraid to say the word "feminism" aloud, much less attach it to themselves.

I do believe that women can change the world, and I admire the sentiments behind these articles - but even as we're airing these important issues, I think we need to bear in mind that there's a lot we're leaving out. Men need to be included - and, in some cases, empowered - and we must make sure that in giving aid, we're not running people's lives or attaching subtle caveats to our generous gifts. And let's not forget the women of our own country. It's much more difficult to look at one's own culture with a critical eye and rectify injustices, but these injustices need to be acknowledged. We can't allow ourselves to be so distracted by our quest to "save" the women of developing countries that we forget that we are far from perfect.


At August 29, 2009 at 8:29 PM , Anonymous Closed-minded said...

The article shows that war is hell but not that women have it worse, and that we should target aid to them and away from men.

More broadly, it is staggering that you see the devastation of war and your first reaction is not "This is terrible, how do we prevent it in the future?", but rather "Who has it worse, men or women?" Or rather, this narrow-mindedness should be staggering, but in fact it's primitive tribalism, valuing the well-being of your tribe (in this case, women) over other tribes (men) and that of humanity as a whole. Sadly it's an all-to-common worldview, the macabre logical conclusion of identity politics.

Perhaps you should think about why your driving principle is increasing women's welfare, to the exclusion of men, rather than, you know, trying to help people.

At August 29, 2009 at 8:31 PM , Anonymous Mangan said...

"Why we're not writing about extending maternity leave, so women can realistically have children and careers"

From here: http://www.doublex.com/section/kids-parenting/katie-roiphe-my-newborn-narcotic

"In the six weeks since my baby was born, I seem to have lost all worldly ambition. I can think about September, when I am supposed to go back to work, only with dread. I have a class to teach. I have to start writing again. But the idea of talking about ideas in front of students or typing a coherent sentence (i.e., my normal life) seems totally implausible. Even now, the prospect of writing a few paragraphs about this problem seems almost out of reach. Taking care of the baby—physical, draining, exhilarating—is more like farming: following the rhythms of the earth, getting up at dawn, watching the corn flush in the sunrise. It is not at all like writing. [...]

I imagine a better metaphor would be addiction. There is an opium-den quality to maternity leave. The high of a love that obliterates everything. A need so consuming that it is threatening to everything you are and care about. Where did your day go? Did you stare blankly at the baby for hours? And was that staring blankly more fiercely pleasurable, more compelling than nearly anything you have ever done?"

Must be society's expectations that did this to her. Or maybe her sense that God wants her to take care of her baby. Or because she loves her husband so much that she wants to devote full time to his child?

At August 30, 2009 at 12:39 PM , Anonymous Brenda said...

Dear Amelia,

Well said!

From the recent interview with Landler from the NYTimes, Clinton said, "I happen to believe that the transformation of women’s roles is the last great impediment to universal progress — that we have made progress on many other aspects of human nature that used to be discriminatory bars to people’s full participation. But in too many places and too many ways, the oppression of women stands as a stark reminder of how difficult it is to realize people’s full human potential."

You're absolutely right in that we need to start looking also for equality at home, because it simply does not exist yet. And, no, we haven't had a woman as president yet, and I'd also like to see more women in government. I don’t believe that enough change can or will happen if the majority of top policy and decision makers in a country remains male.

Women and children shouldn’t just be a goal in foreign policy. Equality should also be made a top priority at home.

At August 31, 2009 at 5:28 PM , Anonymous iSteve said...

You have to remember that in sub-Saharan Africa, according to decades of anthropological research (e.g., Jack Goody), women do most of the work. The things that African feminist organizations complain about are often the inverse of what Western feminist organizations complain about: that they are forced into the workplace while the men lay about. One African feminist organization estimated that in sub-Saharan Africa, women put in 80% of the hours worked.

Much of the agricultural work in sub-Saharan Africa is weeding with light hoes, at which women are at least as good as men at. There's very little of heavy plowing behind draft animals, the classic medieval male peasant's job.

So, sub-Saharan African women are often valued on the marriage market for being sturdy workers, while men tend to be valued for things like being large land owners, good dancers, singers, athletes, fighters, conversationalists, and lovers.

Sub-Saharan Africa is where monogamy breaks down and you most often see mass scale polygamy: some handsome devil with several dozen wives. Women clamoring for sexual anarchy should be aware of the consequences.

At September 2, 2009 at 3:01 PM , Blogger LSG said...

There's a lot of meat here, Amelia. I'm pondering. To get some unpleasantness out of the way...

Closed_minded -- what are you referring to? The article Amelia is discussing is about women's rights, not about war in general. She has no statements suggesting that war is worse for women than men. She specifically mentions we should be empowering men as well as women. She nowhere suggests we should target aid to women and away from men. In fact, she says it's "disturbing" that Kristoff and WuDunn that spending power is a zero-sum game, and that it should be taken away from men; she points out that men and women should share responsibility and that both men and women are capable of making good and bad decisions. You're not addressing any of her points or the articles she links to, you're just taking an opportunity to tell her she only cares about women and not about helping people. Untrue, and not constructive.

Mangan, that article is being discussed on Equal Writes right now. I'm not quite sure what you're getting at and at which points you're being sarcastic, but extended maternity (and paternity!) leave should be a good thing no matter what the source of a parent's love for their child, right?

iSteve, you refer to African men as "handsome devils," which is a racially loaded phrase when used to refer to black men, and your list of things African men are valued for reads like a "stereotypes of things black men are good at" list -- sports, sex, music, dancing... not to mention that you write that in sub-Saharan Africa "monogamy breaks down" like we're in freaking Heart of Darkness. Please provide evidence for your claims, don't generalize, and watch your language.

I thought that despite your very suspect language and assertions, you were trying to make a legitimate point about gender roles in different cultures, but then I got to the end and figured out you were just warning we women who are "clamoring for sexual anarchy" about the dire consequences -- apparently if we push for equality between the sexes we'll only be valued as "sturdy workers" and our husbands will be professional musical conversationalist athlete landholder lovers with dozens of wives. We'll make a note of that.


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