Sunday, August 23, 2009

Women's Rights: A Flawed Manifesto?

This weekend's New York Times magazine has a special issue devoted to women's rights. One article even claims to be a "21st century manifesto."(in the print version) The main idea of "The Women's Crusade"* is that the biggest moral issue of the century is women's rights. This is a bold statement.

In the print version, the word "Liberation" is enlarged on the title page, as though this is the main issue at stake.

Perhaps it is. But the kind of liberation referred to in the article (and in the magazine issue overall) has feminist undertones that I'm not comfortable with.

Liberation from abuse is one thing. But I believe that complete liberation from gender roles leads to confusion, making certain situations worse. +/-

I would even venture to say that many laws being used to oppress women were once intended for their protection. Covering up their beauty was an act of modesty so that women could be kept holy for their husbands and for the Lord. Differences in education were meant to reflect a woman's role in the home, not to withhold information from them. After all, there is plenty of head knowledge involved in running a household. Now that women may hold a variety of jobs outside the home in today's changing world, they still need protection. Throwing acid in a girl's face as she walks to school demonstrates complete misunderstanding of this principle.

While no one could deny that abuse and poverty deserve attention, the authors of "The Women's Crusade" fail to mention another important element in human rights, which is reconciliation. Without this key, I feel that "empowering" women simply alienates men further.

The article highlights the story of a Pakistani woman and her family. The example is used to illustrate how a little bit of aid (here, a microloan) can lift a family out of poverty, thereby changing its fate.

"A round-faced woman with thick black hair tucked into a head scarf, Saima had barely a rupee, and her deadbeat husband was unemployed and not particularly employable. He was frustrated and angry, and he coped by beating Saima each afternoon."(Kristoff)
After receiving a microloan and developing her own business, Saima's "quality of life" has improved, but I honestly don't envy her marital situation.
"She exudes self-confidence as she offers a grand tour of her home and work area, ostentatiously showing off the television and the new plumbing. She 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."(Kristoff)
Women are very emotional creatures. If my husband were beating me, I think I would be just as upset about his failure to love me than about the fact that he wasn't seeing me as an equal. Would it make me feel better to become financially secure and make him proud? Maybe a little. But it's a rather superficial solution.

Here's a little more about Saima:
"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.' " (Kristoff)
I doubt that's the whole story. Is Saima genuinely satisfied while her husband 'loafs around'? Is he secure as a husband? I doubt it. I wonder why they labeled him "not particularly employable." Was he disabled? Uneducated? Could he have been trained to do business just as Saima was?

As I read the stories of women's lives who have "improved," I can't help but feel a hopelessness that is perhaps reminiscent of a "house built on the sand." What happens when the fairytale ends? Young women who have fought hard to win scholarships and become first-generation college graduates may face countless challenges later on. What if Saima's family should fall into financial ruin again? Would her "good relationship" with her husband withstand more trials?

The aid workers have good intentions, but their message to the world is incomplete. A manifesto without the hope of Christ is flawed.

*Kristof, Nicholas D. and Sheryl WuDunn. "The Women's Crusade." The New York Times Magazine, August 23, 3009

3 comments:

  1. Your comments echo some of my thoughts - why wasn't the loan given to them BOTH? He sounds as much in need of assistance as she does, but my guess is that the microloans only go to women. Now, if that isn't discrimination, what is? And, since the article even suggests (simplistically) that he beat her to cope with the frustration of unemployment - perhaps the lives of all family members might have been improved had HE received the loan!

    I'd love to have someone interview her about the state of her home...and child rearing. Does she feel she spends enough time with her children? Is she comfortable and satisfied with the food they eat at home, the cleanliness and order in which they live? Is she able to give the attention to her parents and extended family that she ought? I can assure the authors that I'd like a microloan so I could stay home for part of the day and bring a little peace and serenity there....instead of the hurry, hurry, make-do, running-late frustration that I (and many working women) experience in this "enlightened" country.

    In the doctors' office I picked up a "Working Mother" magazine....and they'd done a poll - wow! The results? Working women who make enough money to hire a nanny and housekeeper are many percentiles happier and more satisfied than those who can't. What a shock!!!

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  2. Did you take the photo to illustrate your post? It is amazing!!!

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  3. Annie, the article mentioned that women are often the recipients of microloans because the men have issues with drugs or alcohol and might misuse the money.

    It does happen that women have to step up and be heads of families. Maybe giving them the loans is logical, but the men clearly need rehab or vocational training in addition to that.

    As far as the child-rearing, many of the clients receiving micro-loans live in African countries, where kids may play at their parents' feet while they work. That's just one scenario, but in general in other cultures, extended family often cooperates more to do childcare, or else daycare is more readily available. I don't think they mentioned that as a problem in the article.

    Re: the photo: I have a collection of foreign dolls, and I recently discovered that they are very photogenic!

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