A Closer Look at “The Women’s Crusade”

27 08 2009

Earlier this week, I wrote a post about “The Women’s Crusade”, the leading article in last weekend’s New York Times magazine by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. The first time I read the article, there were several things that irked me but I chose to ignore them because I was just so excited that the Times, a prominent and well regarded mainstream publication, was dedicating an entire magazine to international women’s issues. Emblazoned on the magazine cover was of the magazine was “Why Women’s Rights Are the Cause of Our Time”. Seeing this thrilled me because it was exciting to see women’s issues being brought to the forefront instead of shoved aside, like what typically happens.

But after mulling over the article over the past few days, I decided that the things that irked me originally should not be ignored. While it’s phenomenal that Kristof and WuDunn wrote a compelling article about the need to elevate the status of women across the globe, it is also important to approach it with a critical eye.

The first thing that I noticed that was bothersome was right in the first paragraph where it says:

In this century, [the paramount moral challenge] is the brutality inflicted on so many women and girls around the globe: sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings and mass rape.

Kristof and WuDunn discuss these brutalities as they occur in Asian and African countries, but for all of the international rhetoric used, shouldn’t the focus then be truly global instead of just limited to Asia and Africa? Sex trafficking occurs in wealthy western nations as well, including the US. According to the Polaris Project, each year an alarming 200,000 American children are at high risk for being trafficked into the sex industry.

Rape, while utilized as a weapon of war in conflict ridden countries like the Congo, is also a brutality that women and girls endure in America as well. Let’s not forget the 68 page report released by Human Rights Watch in March 2009 that put Los Angeles to shame by revealing that at least 12,669 untested rape kits have just been sitting in police storage facilities and crime labs in Los Angeles. (But the good news: yesterday L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yarovslavksy announced that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department will 100% fund the testing of every single rape kit in the backlog within the next two years. Furthermore they will expand their staff to ensure that rape kits will no longer be just languishing on the shelves.)

My next issue with the article comes here:

If you’re reading this article, the phrase “gender discrimination” might conjure thoughts of unequal pay, underfinanced sports teams or unwanted touching from a boss. In the developing world, meanwhile, millions of women and girls are actually enslaved.

I agree that those of us who are reading the Times magazine are all privileged in some way, but the first bit of the section quoted above seems to trivialize gender discrimination in America. The wage gap, underfinanced female sports teams, and sexual harassment are legitimate and serious issues that girls and women experience on a daily basis. The Equal Pay Act was just signed eight months ago! Furthermore using the term “developing world” to refer to Asian and African countries is condescending, ethnocentric and paternalistic. In the “developed world” many women and girls are enslaved too.

Besides, the “developed world” is not entirely rid of problems and gender discrimination. What about rape culture? What about the fact that in comparison with other western nations the US has the lowest paid parental leave? What about the fact that since 2005, there have been 9 missing women (6 dead bodies have been found, 3 are still missing) from a poor section of a North Carolina city and no one seems to give a shit? What about how there is so much mainstream media coverage honoring Ted Kennedy’s death that conveniently forgetting to mention Mary Jo Kopechne and Kennedy’s participation in a smear campaign against a woman who accused his nephew of rape?

Kristof and WuDunn then assert:

But it’s sometimes said in poor countries that the only thing worse than being exploited in a sweatshop is not being exploited in a sweatshop. Low-wage manufacturing jobs disproportionately benefited women in countries like China because these were jobs for which brute physical force was not necessary and women’s nimbleness gave them an advantage over men — which was not the case with agricultural labor or construction or other jobs typically available in poor countries. Strange as it may seem, sweatshops in Asia had the effect of empowering women.

Saying that “women’s nimbleness gave them an advantage over men” is a very essentialist claim which basically says that all women have an inherent nimbleness that makes them better than men are in performing low-wage manufacturing jobs, or working in sweatshops. And it seems overly simplistic to claim that sweatshops in Asia empower women. I can see how sweatshop labor has influenced or altered gender dynamics and relations in China, but I w0uldn’t go so far as to say that it empowers women.

If you continue to the next paragraph you will read:

…the dirty little secret of global poverty: some of the most wretched suffering is caused not just by low incomes but also by unwise spending by the poor — especially by men.

This allegation seems to pit women against men, arguing that women are wiser spenders. A solution to global poverty should not involve pitting women against men or villifying poor men because they’re “bad spenders”. We don’t need more of the gender wars. Besides, pitting women against men is conceding to the patriarchal gender binary.

Then Kristof and WuDunn write:

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…Moreover, one way to reallocate family expenditures in this way is to put more money in the hands of women. 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.

Hmph. Reallocating family expenditures should include both men and women in the picture, since they both make up the family. Empowering women by liberating them from traditional, oppressive gender roles requires liberating men from their traditional, oppressive gender roles as well. In order to change “women’s issues” into “human issues”, as the article professes to do, there needs to be less singling out the behaviors of men and women, and instead a larger discussion of how gender roles must change for both men and women. We need to include men as allies instead of alienating them as the bad guys or the enemy.

It is also moralizing and paternalistic to be all “if you did this instead of this, then look how much better off you’d be.” Is it really their place to decide what kind of spending is wise or unwise? Furthermore, it is problematic to assume that we should give women more money because unlike men, they are not irresponsible alcoholic spendthrifts. Not only is this offensive to men, but it implies that women only deserve the money if they spend it in the ways we deem wise. This dangerously relies on the idea that women are deserving of social and economic power only if they behave as good citizens, according to our standards of good. It also obscures the point that women should be entitled to economic opportunity simply by virtue of being human. Women should be entitled to education simply because they are human.

Later on in the article, Kristof and WuDunn then venture another allegation that is troubling:

Yet another reason to educate and empower women is that greater female involvement in society and the economy appears to undermine extremism and terrorism. It has long been known that a risk factor for turbulence and violence is the share of a country’s population made up of young people. Now it is emerging that male domination of society is also a risk factor; the reasons aren’t fully understood, but it may be that when women are marginalized the nation takes on the testosterone-laden culture of a military camp or a high-school boys’ locker room.

Perhaps educating and empowering women does undermine extremism and terrorism, but championing female empowerment to lessen terrorism is problematic because it follows and complies with society’s lack of vocabulary for female perpetrators. Women can be terrorists too. Women can commit heinous acts of violence too. And indeed they have. By keeping women locked in the victim box, we risk forgetting and obscuring male victims of violence.

So having said all this, I’d like to reiterate that Kristof and WuDunn wrote a powerful article that has reached a wide audience and I do have a lot of respect for Kristof because he is genuinely passionate about promoting feminist issues and women’s rights. Kristof and WuDunn’s article clearly shows that they’ve done their homework as they cite many facts and touching, true stories of women in different countries. However, there’s also a lot that’s missing from the article. Like, for instance, the fact that the world is not limited to Asia and Africa. Looking at women’s issues from a truly global perspective would mean encompassing a critique and analysis of many more countries, like European countries and the US too. Furthermore, we can’t just put on our superhero capes and “save” the women of the “developing world” of their plight while overlooking the injustices we have at home too. While we musn’t take for granted the ways in which we are privileged, we also musn’t cast a blind eye to all the work that’s left to be done.


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