I was excited to see the package of articles in The New York Times Magazine yesterday on the state of women's rights globally -- it's an issue that feminists bring up repeatedly, but one that tends to get little traction in major media outlets. Times columnist Nick Kristof and his wife Sheryl WuDunn, authors of the lead article, 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. (As Michelle Goldberg reported in our June issue, Hillary Clinton is working on it, but it's a long road.)
Yet there's something about the article that rubbed me the wrong way. I think the banner on the Times' Web site 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 much better.
The international women's rights groups that have worked on these issues for years (WEDO, MADRE, AWID, etc.) are absent from the article. 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 grass-roots 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 North 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 thrilled 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.