Getting out of the way so women can save the world

Like most of you, I’m sure, I was excited to see the package of articles in The New York Times Magazine yesterday on the state of women’s rights globally. Times columnist Nick Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, authors of the lead article, have a forthcoming book on the subject. This is their attempt to show that women’s rights are not a niche concern or a “soft issue,” but are core to fixing the major problems that plague the world today. The simple fact is that in places around the globe where women are doing well, everyone is doing well. If only our foreign policy reflected that fact. (Hillary is working on it, I know. But it’s a long road.)

I am thrilled to see this point made so prominently. But there’s also something about the article that rubbed me the wrong way. I think the banner on the Times‘ website sums it up:

Saving the World’s Women? When I tweeted last week that the “we Westerners must save women!” phrasing rubbed me the wrong way, a few folks piped up to offer alternatives. Emily Douglas suggested, “How about getting out of the way so women can save the world?” I like that perspective a helluva lot better.

The international women’s rights groups that have worked on these issues for years (WEDO, MADRE, AWID, etc.) are absent from the articles. And, consequently, so is their framing that in order to build a better world, women need to be empowered to be an active part in making that change. The U.S. swooping in to “save” them will not actually fix things in a sustainable way. International women’s rights groups, most of whom are working in collaboration with women on the ground, emphasize the importance of supporting grassroots movements and change that is driven by women rather than imposed on them. (Yes, microlending is a way of directly supporting women, but Kristof and WuDunn fail to make this broader point about how Western nations should approach international women’s rights.)

Anna N. at Jezebel has another critique of their approach:

It may be true that a society is more peaceful when women are empowered, but the idea of promoting women’s equality in order to reduce terrorism is still problematic. First, as WuDunn and Kristof are no doubt aware, there are plenty of examples of female terrorists. But the very idea of helping women because they behave the way we want — not drinking, whoring, or planting bombs — implies that we have a certain ideal of how developing countries should operate, and we want to shape them according to that ideal. It’s also not necessarily good for women, who must continue to behave well in order to retain their status as model recipients of aid.

Just to be clear, I am really happy to see global women’s issues brought to the forefront. However, the way we look at these issues is just as important as the fact that we’re looking at all.

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  • Bethany

    The recent NYT interview with Sec. Clinton emphasized some of these same issues as well. Glad global womens issues are getting such thorough coverage, I hope it doesn’t stop (and I think we have the secretary of state to thank for some of it)

  • TD

    Emily Douglas suggested, “How about getting out of the way so women can save the world?” I like that perspective a helluva lot better.
    But in many cases its not simply an issue of the west getting out of the way. Many times its an issue of the west needing to actively intervene if both boys and girls are going to be able to go to school without fear of violence, or an active intervention to make sure that the school has funding, or that the school is relatively moderate, rather then a hardline madrassa which is just preparing new foot soldiers.
    Many times the west needs to actively intervene if people are to get micro finance, and to intervene to make sure that if the business becomes successful it is not simply burned to the ground by some local militia leader who doesn’t feel that he got enough protection money…

  • FrumiousB

    First, as WuDunn and Kristof are no doubt aware, there are plenty of examples of female terrorists.
    This is a red herring. Female disenfranchisement and empowerment are institutional, not individual.

  • Arvilla

    Do you think that kind of imperialism would ACTUALLY make women safer or more educated or more liberated? You don’t think they’d resent the foreign strangers who are telling them their customs and husbands and fathers and countries are backwards institutions that need help from the big, generous West?
    What you call “active intervention” is coercion of sovereign lands. It wins us no friends. And worse, usually instigates a rise in local fundamentalism as a rebellion. It makes life worse for women.

  • kahri

    Just to be clear, I am really happy to see global women’s issues brought to the forefront. However, the way we look at these issues is just as important as the fact that we’re looking at all.

  • Rose

    Yeah. I was both glad and underwhelmed with the Saving the World’s Women coverage. (Good catch on the problematic frame Ann!) A lot of it was really informative for me. But I couldn’t help but get a little anxiety about the notion that women’s rights issues for many mainstreamers can’t be a stand-alone issue. And when women’s rights is hinged with global poverty, it’s not in the interest of intersectionality of gender and class. It seems that the proposed solutions have more to do woth poverty than with sex discrimination. I know that the positive outcomes of microfinance is real. But it seems that getting women to circumvent domestic violence by making them economically mobile doesn’t get at the inherent problem of misogyny at all. I really think an international accountability forum that really attempts to hold men responsible for their culpubality in some of these matters is truly in order. I mean, for all this coverage and for all the great ideas, I just didn’t see any real emphasis on men and changing the attitudes of men. And that, to me, is half of the battle.

  • Gretel

    Thanks for this, Ann. I was also troubled that this article seemed to be an ad for microfinance, and would have liked the authors to explore the intersections between capitalism and worldwide poverty.
    I also cannot accept Kristof’s support of sweatshops. I know he argues that they are preferable to other forms of income, e.g., prostitution, but why can he not challenge the systems underlying them? Something is definitely wrong about a world that has sweatshops. The lesser of two evils is still evil, in my humble opinion.

  • Gretel

    I should clarify: When I mentioned prostitution I meant sex slavery. Sorry. I didn’t mean sex work where women have a choice of what they do. That’s why I said evil, because sex slavery is evil. (I hope we can all agree on that!)

  • TD

    First off, how is providing money through a very low interest loan to allow a woman to open up a small restaurant coercion or imperialism? She doesn’t have to take the money, so it’s not coercion. It in no way furthers the extraction of natural resources, nor does it further a realpolitik, so it’s not imperialism.
    When western troops move into a village in Afghanistan, and approach a council of elders which contains both men and women elected by the community and asks them what they need, and then provides the resources so the community can build, develop, and maintain it, how is that imperialism?
    Further you seem to be confusing the status quo with culture. The two are not always linked. Most of the time the beliefs of the west and the beliefs of the people we’re trying to help aren’t that divergent.
    Look at the polling from Afghanistan, the Afghan citizens widely object to corruption, and there is even support among low level corrupt officials to change the system and stamp out corruption. But without outside assistance there is not a sufficient means to change the system. The same holds true when it comes to farming, the majority of Afghans believe poppy cultivation is immoral, but unless there is an alternate livelihood readily available many of them will choose to commit the sin of growing poppies over the alternative, whether it is threats from warlord and drug dealers, or a lack of funds. This even holds true for people who fight for warlords, many of them prefer to work the fields, but unless they can make a living doing so, they will take the risk of fighting for a warlord over the guarantee of starvation.

  • Lilia

    One of the things I didn’t like about this issue was the label underneath the first picture in the “The Woman’s Crusade.” It reads:
    Saima Muhammad, shown with her daughter Javaria (seated), lives near Lahore, Pakistan. She was routinely beaten by her husband until she started a successful embroidery business.
    Doesn’t the 2nd line imply that now that she is “successful” she is no longer beaten, like being beaten was partly her fault?

  • Roodies24

    THANK YOU. I’ve been waiting for a critical response to the pieces in the Times.
    There was also a ridiculous article about “feminist hawks” ( As if we needed more articles that stereotype feminists. Ugh.

  • cattrack2

    This is a challenge. Its easy to sit in 2009 America and say Bangladesh shouldn’t have sweat shops, while overlooking the role sweat shops played in industrializing our own economy. Its harder if you’re the leader of Bangladesh to build a competitive economy without “sweat shops”. I mean there are some obvious things we can agree on: eg, people shouldn’t be shackled to an assembly line, the risk of death should be less than 90%, etc. Beyond those minimal qualifications however it rapidly becomes difficult to differentiate good sweat shops from bad. You could, for instance, employ a Cambodian peasant $10 a day and while that might be insanely inhumane compared to the US cost of living, that Cambodian peasant might be 5X better off than he would be without that sweat shop job. In other words, OSHA comes at a cost both to the gov’t and to competitiveness & not every country is able to pay it.

  • FrumiousB

    I had so hoped that she would toss the sorry bastard out. I’m sure she has her own reasons for staying married and living under the same roof.

  • jayjay323

    in political debates, it’s usually better to have a clear understanding of a common underlying objective rather than deontological vision of justice that may or may not be shared. In fact, a part of the teleology here is that the deontological issues may become important once the process has been initiated – it’s a positive feedback loop, in a way.
    That said, the one thing I don’t really understand (as a guy) is, why people working on these matters only try to argue morals instead of accepting the fears and working to reduce the fears of those currently in charge. Maybe you have a superior moral vision, but who cares if those in power are afraid that they will lose big time. And as gender related issues cut to the core of personal life, there will be a lot of men seriously afraid of what’s going to happen to them if women are empowered.
    Maybe you’re going to discount this with “what about ze menz”, but male fears, specifically male fears of social expendability and lack of sexual confidence (will women still want me if they don’t depend on me?) are, in my opinion, the two most important reasons for slow social change in the countries where it would be the most important.
    And that’s where “feminism” has a “branding problem” due to its anti-male history in the west. It would be much easier to convince men of the teleological as well as the deontological benefits of female empowerment if they weren’t afraid to lose out, particularly sexually. I’d say, teaching men that women will still want sex, and possibly even more, when they’re empowereed, would probably the most efficient way to deal with this issue.
    Maybe that’s guy-think. And maybe it’s inaccessible to a lot of the women mostly active in this field. Even Kristof doesn’t really address the issues I’d say are most relevant to men in those societies. I don’t know – it’s a mystery to me. If convince someone to change, don’t just explain social benefits but help reduce individual fears. Most men live with the impression once verbalised by Cato – “if we make women equal, they will be superior”. Not true, but a very male fear. And one that should be addressed to help empower women.

  • OpiateOfTheMasses

    It seems to me that many of the world’s worst violations against the rights of women occur in predominantly muslim countries. Of course some of these countries tend to have high poverty rates, but not all. I confess to not fully reading the article, but I think feminists should take more umbrage with islam as it is the 800 lbs gorilla in the room when discussing global women’s rights. I feel that many feminists are afraid to do so because they fear being labeled islamophobic or being grouped with gun-toting rednecks. And please don’t feed me the “that’s their culture” multicultural, kumbaya ignorance. Please let me know what you think of this

  • cattrack2

    You don’t have to hang around this blog very long (oh, maybe a week) to see how it feels about say, the flogging of a woman for violating Islamic law in Malaysia (last week), or Sudan (the week before).
    At the same time it sounds as if you’re suggesting a focus on just Islamic countries, which would be an odd position for a global woman’s organization. It would also mean ignoring the epicenter of sexual slavery in the Far East, the scourge of AIDS on women in Africa, or some of the less deadly, but still distasteful sexism against women in other parts of the world (the West included) which leaves 50% of the world’s population at the mercy of others. If you think that just by getting rid of the Islamic countries you’d get rid of sexism and misogyny, you haven’t really looked at the sujugation of women globally.

  • aleks

    No. He use to beat her, then she did something which improved her position, and he doesn’t beat her anymore. Those are facts, and were reported as such. That doesn’t imply he was right to beat her in the first place.

  • Lilia

    I would suggest reading this article that was linked from Feministing a few weeks ago:
    also @ aleks – I agree that when you read through the entire article it becomes clear that those are the facts of her life, but I’m commenting on the way the photograph and description of that photograph come off. Many readers glance through the nytimes and don’t read all the articles, or the full articles. Even if the overall message when you find out what’s behind it is a good one, that doesn’t separate the original statement from what it implies. I also didn’t think the article explored domestic violence on any kind of deeper, psychological level.

  • Joan

    true Alex!
    have you seen this:

  • synergy

    This is off-topic, mostly, but I’ve always wondered why so many people refer to Sec of State (whatever happened to Rodham) Clinton as “Hillary.” Generally, in their time, they weren’t referred to as Madeleine, Colin, or Condoleeza. Most people don’t refer to the president as Barack or the Speaker as Nancy. It just annoys me. She’s not my favorite politician or anything, but I think her surname or her title used more frequently would be more appropriate.

  • aleks