Normally, I get very excited when other people get excited about women’s rights. In this case though, I am just lukewarm. This Sunday’s New York Times Magazine spotlights women’s issues. NYT columnist Nick Kristof co-authored the cover article “The Women’s Crusade“. He does not make any illuminating remarks in the sense that the facts and arguments he presents have long been better articulated by feminist scholars and activists. But Kristof is a man and a longtime columnist of the reputable Nytimes automatically rendering him to the masses as more brilliant, credible, objective and thus worth listening to than any wacko feminist. I say that matter-of-factly with no bitterness, just awareness of the way things are. After all, if one has more credibility or privilege–earned or unearned–one would be dum dum not to use it. And that is what Kristof has been doing as a nytimes columnist, using his white man privileges to bring attention to women’s issues and global poverty. But not all attention is good. That uninvited slap on the ass I got last time I went clubbing? Bad attention. Unlike the sleaze I encountered at the club, I trust that Kristof has good intentions. However, the arguments and tone he and co-author Sheryl WuDunn uses to forward women’s rights carry some assumptions that simultaneously undermine women’s rights and dignity.
The “what’s-in-it-for-me?” approach to women’s right:
Kristof and WuDunn make no mention of women having any inherent human rights. The main justification they offer for giving women their rights is that many benefits can be reaped by doing so; that the key to solving today’s major problems, such as poverty and terrorism, is to give women rights. Kristof and WuDunn states:
“In many poor countries, the greatest unexploited resource isn’t oil fields or veins of gold; it is the women and girls who aren’t educated and never become a major presence in the formal economy.”
Surely, I’d rather people exploit women by providing them access to education than inflict violence on them; but what about not looking at women as objects of exploitation at all? It is true, Kristof and WuDunn are right, there is a lot of evidence out there that suggests a society that values women tend to be economically, politically, environmentally better-off. But women’s rights are on dangerously shaky grounds when they are being propped up not for women sake, but for some other end. Anna North from Jezebel offers a more thorough critique on this point:
“Indeed, all the programs the authors support — from improving girls’ education to reducing sex trafficking to repairing obstetric fistulas — are good ones. But their central thesis — that we should help women because it will reduce poverty and violence — is flawed. It relies on the notion that women are deserving of economic and social power because they are good citizens, not simply because they are human. What happens if women decide to spend their newly earned money on alcohol instead of their children’s education? What if they spend it on weapons? And what if, even though they spend it on all the “right” things, their countries still fail to develop economically? Treating women as agents of social change risks leaving them out in the cold if they don’t effect the change we want.”
Simplifying sexism into an act, not an attitude:
Kristof and WuDunn make clear that acts like honor killings, sex trafficking and child prostitution are heinous and gendered crimes. They, however, fail to put any investigation into the deep-seeded and pervasive attitudes that drive sexist behavior and acts. Sexism is talked about as if it is purely an act. In effect, Kristof and WuDunn simplify sexism, making it appear less daunting and easier to solve than it is. Their discussion of microfinance, for instance, makes it appear as a be-all-end-all solution to sexism: throw money at the poor women, and voila, problem solved.
They use Pakistani woman Saima Muhammad as their microfinance success story. Saima had was poor; her dead-beat husband had accumulated thousands of dollars of debt and regularly beats her. Because Saima had so far only given birth to two girls and not one son, her mother-in-law treated her terribly, urging her husband to take a second wife.
According to Kristof and WuDunn, all of this changed for Saima after she took a microfinance loan and started her own embroidery company, which became a financial success. Kristof and WuDunn write about Saima after she
“[Saima] doesn’t even pretend to be subordinate to her husband. He spends his days mostly loafing around, occasionally helping with the work but always having to accept orders from his wife. He has become more impressed with females in general: Saima had a third child, also a girl, but now that’s not a problem. “Girls are just as good as boys,” he explained.
As for her husband, Saima said, “We have a good relationship now.” She explained, “We don’t fight, and he treats me well.” And what about finding another wife who might bear him a son? Saima chuckled at the question: “Now nobody says anything about that.” Sharifa Bibi, the mother-in-law, looked shocked when we asked whether she wanted her son to take a second wife to bear a son. “No, no,” she said. “Saima is bringing so much to this house. . . . She puts a roof over our heads and food on the table.”
Microfinance presents great opportunities and hope for women. It can alter their economic position and quality of life, but it falls far from solving sexism. I take issue with the statement that Saima “does not even pretend to be subordinate to her husband”. I read the situation differently. After all, is Saima not still being valued for what she is able to produce? When not being beaten is contingent on her earning power, I would not go so far to say that Saima is no longer subordinate. This is no different from looking at Saima as a producer of sons. And what if, god forbid, Saima’s embroidery business takes a hit; what would happen to her?
Not ambitious enough:
For all their talk of women holding up half they sky and ‘”turning oppression into opportunity”, Kristof and WuDunn do not go far enough in their efforts to transform the current status of women. They do not lend any investigation into sexist attitudes, which explains their over optimism toward microfinance in solving Saima’s problems, and their complacency with women in sweatshop labor. “[For women in poor countries] the only thing worse than being exploited in a sweatshop is not being exploited at all,” they say. Sure, a wage, no matter how small and brutally earned, may be better than no wage. But can we not stretch our imagination to envision and strive for a world where women can work under fair conditions for a living wage?
If you at all follow Kristof’s work, you know that he is rightfully abhorrent toward the prostitution of poor women. But the same argument that he uses to justify sweatshop labor is awfully similar to some of the arguments used to justify prostitution–that women may be better off with it than without it.
Women around the world deserve more choices than the ones we are currently confined to. And Kristof and WuDunn believes in giving women more choices. But if we do not investigate the deep-seeded attitudes our socieities have toward women and gender, we won’t be able to think up new possibilities and opportunities for women.