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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Systems, not people

posted by Silvana
One of the things a feminist has to constantly contend with is the accusation that she hates or dislikes men. I've been fortunate enough not to have to field many of these complaints, but that's probably because I spend most of my time around like-minded people. Any time there is an allegation that a particular cultural artifact is sexist or misogynist, a sharp and hot-burning defensiveness comes to the fore: I am not a sexist. I am not an oppressor of women. I, me, my friends, my family, my colleagues, my co-workers, my frat buddies, my children, my parents, my mentors—are not bad people.

And I always want to say: it's not about you. It's about the system in which you a willing and/or unwilling participant (usually both, in different ways).

Last month, Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof published a piece in the New York Times called "The Women's Crusade," which is an excerpt from their forthcoming book on the worldwide oppression of women, Half the Sky. If you haven't read the piece by now, you surely must. It does two primary things. First, it catalogues the myriad ways, from the banal to the terrifying, that women are given short shrift, violated, hurt and killed throughout the world. Second, it makes the case for ending the oppression of women, not just as a moral good but as an economic and developmental good for the world's developing nations.

It's a beautiful and horrifying piece of journalism, and I am truly awed by the scope of their work. But as Melissa McEwan noted in an excellent piece analyzing the Times article, there's just a little something missing.
Inflicted by whom?
The injustices perpetrated by whom?
Marginalized by whom?
Takes place at the hands of whom?
Missing because of whom?

It's just the most amazing thing that the jack-booted enforcers of the patriarchy can't stop demanding, "What about the men?" in every feminist thread on the planet, but when there's actually a place in which it is not only appropriate and useful, but necessary to ask and answer the question, "What about the men?" there's a yawning cavern of silence.
I sincerely hope that the book from which the Times article is an excerpt does more to explain how it is that the world's women come to be so poor, downtrodden, disenfranchised, abused, and, ultimately, dead. Because the upshot of the article is "give women money." I don't disagree with the principle that putting development aid directly in the hands of poor people, specifically women, rather that in the governments that keep those poor people under their iron boots, is more likely to work. But the article simply elides the mechanisms by which women got to be the way they are. And because of its focus on developing nations, it gives the impression that we seem to have figured these things out in the west. And hoo boy, we haven't. Especially not here.

That brings us to this piece by Edwin Okong'o which criticizes the WuDunn/Kristof piece for painting an unfair and unrepresentative picture of the developing world as being full of monsters who do nothing but do harm to women and get drunk. Sometimes both. Okong'o gets it so very right, and at the same time, so very wrong. First, the right part:
This distrust is further aggravated by Western journalist’s reluctance to seek the expertise of local people. A common complaint of people of the developing world is that they only appear in Western stories as subjects – either as poor, hopeless victims, or as savage creatures in need of the West’s moral intervention. They are never considered vital ingredients of the problem-solving recipe.

Kristof and WuDunn, for instance, almost exclusively tap experts from the West: Michael Kremer and Erica Field of Harvard; Esther Duflo of M.I.T.; William Easterly, New York University; Dr. Lewis Wall, the Worldwide Fistula Fund; Michael Horowitz, conservative agitator on humanitarian issues; the activist Jo Luck, Heifer Foundation; Larry Summers, Bill Gates, the World Bank, the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Yes, yes, yes. The condescension and sense of otherness was dripping from the Times piece. Here in the West, we just have no idea what those crazy savages are doing to their women over there! Let me tell you about it! Top that off with a graphic that loudly proclaims "SAVING THE WORLD'S WOMEN" and you've got a knight-in-shining armor complex right there. But Okong'o mars his excellent analysis of the moral and cultural superiority demonstrated by such triumphalist journalism with some what-about-the-men-ism of exactly the kind Melissa McEwan wasn't asking for earlier:
Men in the developing world do not deny there exist serious violations of women’s rights. Many of us have seen injustices committed against our mothers, sisters and other women we love. We have lived with men who spend lavishly while their children languish in poverty.

But we also know men who protect their mothers and educate their sisters and daughters. To pile such men with rapists, misogynists and wife beaters is outright offensive and counterproductive.
Not all of us are bad! Of course there are men in Africa and all over the developing world who are allies, who are participants in the fight for gender equality and justice. But just like the existence of allies in the United States isn't enough to dismantle the patriarchy, it isn't enough in Kenya, either. And it distracts from the issue, and, frankly, insults all of our intelligence, to mount a "some of us are good guys" defense in the face of such terrifying stories and statistics. He says one more thing that drives me crazy:
One thing I have found more effective is encouraging young men to think about their mothers and sisters. You should see their faces when I ask them how they would feel if someone abused their little sister, or if the woman being abused by her in-laws was their mother.
I have heard this from so many men, Western and non-Western, black and white, old and young, as if the way to get men to fight sexism is to remind men that they are related to women. This does not work. Men around the world not only have no trouble being violent toward woman A despite the fact that they are related to woman B, they have no trouble being violent toward woman B herself. There's a reason that domestic violence is called domestic violence—because it's coming from members of your goddamned family. Men are not stupid. They fully realize that the things they are inflicting on women could be inflicted by other men on their mothers or sisters. Raising their ire with hypotheticals, and causing them to engage in destructive macho puffery ("I would kill anyone who did that to my mother!") only serves to help them feel better about themselves, to reassure themselves of their goodness and righteousness.

The problem with the WuDunn/Kristof piece is not that they painted third-world men as misogynist oppressors each and every one. It's that they left out of the conversation any discussion of the systems that endeavor to keep women oppressed and poor, leaving the racist, xenophobic and triumphalist Western reader free to assume that it is the fault of the dark and violent nature of the men of the developing world. It's a familiar and comfortable reflex, to paint non-Westerners as other. It creates a cocoon of fake security. (For example, you often see that conservative writers are hugely invested in painting Muslim countries, and Islam generally, as oppressive to women. This last week we saw even Phyllis Chesler railing against Naomi Wolf for daring to assert that some Muslim women might enjoy wearing the veil.)

Contrary to Okong'o, what WuDunn and Kristof needed to do was not qualify their statements by reminding us that not all men are evil patriarchs bent on oppression, but put their narrative in an analytical context, of why and how these things happen, and why and how they go unpunished in silence.


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