August 29, 2009

This is why

There's a deep and misguided smugness about women in developed countries rejecting and pillorying feminism as some anachronistic embarrassment.

Of course, for us - you and me - feminism has always been a middle-to-upper class indulgence.

Oh yes, how daring and darling to fight for the right to work and play, when poor women have never had the luxury of choosing either.

Feminism, perhaps, finally, is being ever so slowly replaced, not with the tawdry raunch culture, but with the first and last battle line, the real deal: the long, dangerous and unavoidable confrontation with misogyny the world over, in all its myriad of entrenched and systemic expressions.

While the obese like to claim they're the last permissible dumping ground for discrimination, that is an obscene self-pitying indulgence, the bleat of an over-stuffed child. Fat people might feel taunted, but they are not denied any basic human rights. They are certainly not mutilated, starved, beaten, raped, oppressed, murdered, aborted - cast away before even being born.

Feminism superfluous? A stripper's pole is more empowering?

Try telling that to an Afghanistan school girl prepared to give her life, if need be, for the sake of an elementary education:

"I did not witness the acid attack or report on the event. I had not yet seen the government film. I figured the school would be empty — that it would be boarded up like so many schools for girls in the area and the girls isolated behind the walls of their homes.

And so when I visited the school one morning in January I was stunned by what I found. The Mirwais Mena School had indeed closed after the acid attacks, but only for a week. When I arrived it was crowded and filled with the laughter of 300 girls. Nearly all of the 11 girls and four teachers who were burned by acid had returned as well. Most surprising was the girl in the video, Shamsia Husseini — she was not only in attendance, but animated and lively. I found her seated in the front row of a second-floor geography class. A scarlet scar, the size of a tennis ball, still covered her face.

The Mirwais Mena School is a sprawling and informal enterprise; the girls range in ages from 6 to 23, the older ones playing catch-up after spending their childhoods under Taliban rule.

When geography class was finished, I sat down with Shamsia. “I cried a lot after the attack,” she said. The scar on her left cheek was raised, and since the attack her eyes no longer functioned well enough for her to read.

Arja said, “We just told her to come to class and participate.”

Her mother and father, Shamsia told me, were both illiterate, as were most adults in Mirwais Mena. I asked her why they allowed her to continue coming to class.

“My parents told me to keep coming to school even if I am killed,” Shamsia said.

She exhibited a perfect grasp of the situation, both hers and her country’s: “The people who did this to me don’t want women to be educated. They want us to be stupid things.”

And so unfolded one of the mysteries not only of Shamsia but also of the Mirwais Mena School and perhaps all of Afghanistan. Women in Afghanistan are held to be lesser beings than men; they are accorded fewer rights and fewer opportunities. But build a school for girls, and the girls will come. They will face down death to come. And their illiterate parents will support them. Their illiterate parents will push them out the door.

“My father wants Afghan women to be educated in particular, since they have not been given their rights,” Fatima Ludin, Qadari’s daughter in Georgia, told me.

Following the acid attack, Qadari shuttered the school, but after a few days girls started showing up, sent by their parents. Why is the school closed, the girls asked? When do classes begin? Qadari went to the leaders of Kandahar Province and secured promises for a school bus, a team of police officers and a walkway over the national highway outside. Then he called a meeting of the parents of Mirwais Mena. Send your girls back, he told them.

“I told them, if you don’t send your daughters to school, then the enemy wins,” Qadari told me. “I told them not to give in to darkness.”

And so the girls returned.

One day, standing inside the compound of the Mirwais Mena School and watching the girls rush through the front gate, I suddenly realized that Afghan girls live their lives in reverse. Behind the school’s walls, the girls of Afghanistan comport themselves with confidence and self-possession. They are alive, alert and literate; they run, jump and laugh out loud. They confront male visitors, point their fingers, ask questions.

They do everything, in other words, that an adult Afghan woman, just outside the school’s walls, could never imagine.

Indeed, just outside the school’s walls, in the muddy streets of Mirwais Mena itself, it is rare to see a woman at all. ... without the benefit of literacy, without being allowed to roam outside, the life of an Afghan woman is, by and large, muffled and clipped.

Most of the Mirwais Mena girls, even if they are only 8 or 9, arrive at school fully covered. And as soon as they walk through the gate, they throw off their shawls and race around until the headmaster gathers them in the yard.

t struck me ... that the girls do not have the slightest idea what is in store for them. They do not know that this time inside the walls of the Mirwais Mena School will, in all likelihood, grant them the greatest freedom they will ever experience. The girls might as well be sailing down a stream, toward a waterfall and rocks.

Still, a large proportion of this generation of Afghan girls is attending schools like this one, despite arson and gas attacks. Over the course of the visits I made to the Mirwais Mena School between January and June, I sometimes sensed a revolution was quietly unfolding. In a second-story classroom, one teacher, Mohammed Daoud, stood before 25 girls and delivered what was ostensibly a talk about Islam. But after a while, the talk turned into something else.

“You should work,” Daoud told the girls. “You should serve your country — serve the people.

“You should strive to do great things,” he continued, “and you should try to be independent and self-reliant.”

The girls looked on, wide-eyed.

“A woman can do whatever she attempts,” he said. “But she needs skills, she needs effort and learning. This school, for instance, was built by human beings — people with skills.”

In a country where women’s rights are so curtailed, Daoud’s lecture amounted to a manifesto of liberation.

“A woman should have self-confidence,” he told the girls, “and she should trust in herself that she can do anything.”

The interwebs is a wondrous thing. The ultimate super-sized pamphlet. The locus of instantaneous reporting from around the world, a soapbox of dazzling sudsiness, and maybe, just maybe, a medium, ironically so nano in attention span, yet so tenaciously unrelenting, sufficiently obsessive as to be capable of eroding, post by post, tweet by tweet, the misogyny that still defines our way of life.

"Hawkish sites that have taken up feminism include Little Green Footballs, Jihad Watch and Horowitz’s FrontPage Magazine. On a recent day, the home page of the last featured reports of female prisoners being raped in Iran; prepubescent girls getting married in Gaza; and a possible honor killing by an immigrant in New York. This material is expected to help seal Horowitz’s general case for the war on terror, though he has not yet changed the name of his cause to, say, the war on misogyny."

It has taken an eon, hasn't it, for major global institutions to understand that when you educate or help a woman, you educate and help an entire family, or a village. Educate or help a man, and you help only him.

"There’s a growing recognition among everyone from the World Bank to the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to aid organizations like CARE that focusing on women and girls is the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism. That’s why foreign aid is increasingly directed to women. The world is awakening to a powerful truth: Women and girls aren’t the problem; they’re the solution."

And yet, and yet ...

" ... we came across an obscure but meticulous demographic study that outlined a human rights violation that had claimed tens of thousands more lives. This study found that 39,000 baby girls died annually in China because parents didn’t give them the same medical care and attention that boys received — and that was just in the first year of life. A result is that as many infant girls died unnecessarily every week in China as protesters died at Tiananmen Square. Those Chinese girls never received a column inch of news coverage, and we began to wonder if our journalistic priorities were skewed.

A similar pattern emerged in other countries. In India, a “bride burning” takes place approximately once every two hours, to punish a woman for an inadequate dowry or to eliminate her so a man can remarry — but these rarely constitute news. When a prominent dissident was arrested in China, we would write a front-page article; when 100,000 girls were kidnapped and trafficked into brothels, we didn’t even consider it news.

Amartya Sen, the ebullient Nobel Prize-winning economist, developed a gauge of gender inequality that is a striking reminder of the stakes involved. “More than 100 million women are missing,” Sen wrote in a classic essay in 1990 in The New York Review of Books, spurring a new field of research. Sen noted that in normal circumstances, women live longer than men, and so there are more females than males in much of the world. Yet in places where girls have a deeply unequal status, they vanish. China has 107 males for every 100 females in its overall population (and an even greater disproportion among newborns), and India has 108. The implication of the sex ratios, Sen later found, is that about 107 million females are missing from the globe today. Follow-up studies have calculated the number slightly differently, deriving alternative figures for “missing women” of between 60 million and 107 million.

Girls vanish partly because they don’t get the same health care and food as boys. In India, for example, girls are less likely to be vaccinated than boys and are taken to the hospital only when they are sicker. A result is that girls in India from 1 to 5 years of age are 50 percent more likely to die than boys their age. In addition, ultrasound machines have allowed a pregnant woman to find out the sex of her fetus — and then get an abortion if it is female.

The global statistics on the abuse of girls are numbing. It appears that more girls and women are now missing from the planet, precisely because they are female, than men were killed on the battlefield in all the wars of the 20th century. The number of victims of this routine “gendercide” far exceeds the number of people who were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century."

Whatever opinions anyone holds about Hillary Clinton, she has been a steadfast, lifetime feminist, and over this, it's impossible to find fault:

"I happen to believe that the transformation of women’s roles is the last great impediment to universal progress — that we have made progress on many other aspects of human nature that used to be discriminatory bars to people’s full participation. But in too many places and too many ways, the oppression of women stands as a stark reminder of how difficult it is to realize people’s full human potential."

A school bus for Shamsia

The feminist hawks

The women's crusade

A new gender agenda


  1. The problem is, men in power and influence rarely want anything that may diminish it.

    Now, I and other sensible people may feel it would be a good idea to distribute the power and influence more evenly between the genders, but it may be a while until this happens sadly.

  2. Dan - No small irony that the success and death of feminism - and discarding of feminism for pole dancing - coincides, in Australia at least, with a continuing decrease in women in senior management and on company boards.

    May be as long as two decades ago, Aussie women reached dizzy single digits in board / senior roles. That single digit is now a smaller single digit! We're going backwards, fast.

    I think the men who *act* as if they don't want to give ground are fully aware that no matter how much things change, the *little women* are so far behind in the power and influence stakes that it's a joke. Yet, they lurch against equality anyway. Mostly for the sake of being bloody minded twats, I think, just for the fun of it, and because they can!

    We're all damned because of it though, both men and women. Even productivity and business profits are effected. Fewer women = less successful organization (by huge margin, as much as 33% less profitable), and that's been proven.

    In full knowledge of that, men - and women - steadfastly cling to their sexism and male bias. It's so entrenched that most people don't even believe they're doing it.

    As for developing countries: imagine how quickly they would thrive and defeat poverty, illness and short life expectancy if only women were permitted an education, their own money, their own will.

    The biggest thing that pisses me off Dan: men are never diminished by equality, they're enhanced by it, including enhancing their own power and influence! But many men would rather forgo that (well, they already have more absolute power, so what does 'more' power matter?), than to treat all people with equity and equal respect and consideration.

    Humans are dumb.