Feminism in the United States seems to be, well…in a slump. A large generation gap looms, building resentment and misunderstanding as my generation declares itself decidedly “Not Interested” in the issues mapped out by the Old Guard. Young women seem to display feminist values but don’t want to call themselves feminists; in some cases they say they are feminist while blithely expressing the opposite in the next breath. What is trendy in feminism in the U.S., though, is decidedly not at all helpful to feminists in other nations. Our lovely nation is facing a disconnect with the rest of the world, because we have been more feminist in a real sense than most of the rest of the world for decades now. We are in a different stage of discussion and development, something which U.S. feminists fail to appreciate when talking with international partners. Here are six issues I see as most important to the reduction of suffering and the advancement of women worldwide. You may notice that abortion does not make the list.
1. Thoughtful discussion of traditional customs. Part of the legacy of colonialism has been a reticence to examine the effects of culture, particularly traditional culture, on the well-being of women. There is a short story from Ghanian writer Ama Ata Aidoo called Hair which highlights this perfectly. In it, a female professor thinks about the pressure African women feel to have long, straight hair. This was one of the holdovers of colonialism, where all that was white was good and all that was African was ugly. The narrator describes her own struggles in a world with no easy answers: either she must wear a wig and embrace the inherent self-rejection in that act, or she must obey her brothers and leave her hair natural, garnering the social consequences of being African in a society that still likes European things better. No matter her choice, she must also watch other women make the same choice and compromises that reinforce their “inherent” lack of worth.
The short story also subtly brings up an interesting point, and that is that the narrator cannot make the choice to be “African” (or not) without also obeying male authority figures. Throughout the world, traditionalists struggling to maintain cultural identities from various threats have equated women’s rights with the threatening force. Whether the enemy is former colonial powers (as in much of Africa), capitalism (as in China, Viet Nam, and other communist nations), materialism and debauchery (as the West looks in the eyes of Muslims), threats to traditional religions (pretty much everywhere), or genetic diversity (as in Europe in its constant efforts to devalue immigrants), traditionalists declare that any change in women’s status is a direct result and poisonous consequence of the cultural invasion. Renewed repression becomes a way to assert cultural identity and authenticity.
The results of this are different depending upon local tradition. Indians and Chinese selectively abort female fetuses, reasserting even in the face of demographic disaster that females are not worthy of life. Critics of traditional practices, such as recently murdered journalist Uma Singh of Nepal, who criticized the dowry system, are intimidated and attacked. Women who seem to be go beyond their “places” are threatened. In her autobiography, Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai recalls being attacked as anti-African by Kenyan legislatures for the double crime of being an educated woman and one willing to participate in the political process on her own terms. Women whose clitorises have not been scraped off and their vaginas sewn shut sometimes face total rejection from all future partners. Women in the Middle East/South Asia region of the world risk being mutilated with battery acid if they reject (or accept) sexual partners or try to go to school. Worldwide, women’s sexual choices, no matter what they are, are used as justification for denying them and their children legal protection, for rape, for denying their very sanity. Muslim men in particular seem to enjoy taking it upon themselves to kill their female relatives for sexual misconduct – that is, any sexual conduct.
These traditions need to come under scrutiny. In many cases I will admit that traditionalists’ critiques of Western culture (it is pretty much exclusively this which they are fighting against) are valid. Materialism is and consumption-based economies are, in fact, bad things. Yes, our tendency to oversexualize women, to the extent that we make sexualized dolls and clothes for little girls (go check out the girls’ section in a store once and you’ll see) is not a good thing. Still, is it not also wrong to consider a woman such a burden that she must “pay off” her husband with a dowry? Why not view a dowry as assets she brings to a marriage, assets that she herself controls rather than her husband? That’s a twist to a dowry that retains some of its cultural purity without degenerating into an attempt to keep women without economic means. Discussions like this cannot be imposed from the outside of the cultures which they affect, and all attempts to impose them will backfire. Still, there is not an inherent conflict between women’s rights and traditional cultural identity, and we need to continue discussing how they converge in a meaningful manner.
2. Making it okay for women to say “no”. This is a debate from about forty years ago for the U.S. – whether or not women have an obligation to have sex because they are married, or because they are in sexual situations at all, or because they wore the wrong clothing, or because they were/are prostitutes, etc. It’s a debate that is still going on, unfortunately. (However, now the debate is whether someone can say “yes” without giving a blank check.) In most parts of the world there is no debate. The situation is so terrible that a large portion of research money into an HIV vaccine goes into developing ways for women to protect themselves without their partners knowing about it. The research is important, yet sad, because it means that a huge population of women cannot enforce condom use, dictate the terms of their sexual experience, or decide when and with whom to have sex. The Bush administration’s abstinence-only AIDS policy for the last eight years has employed a “just say no” approach for young women – but most HIV-positive African women contracted the virus after marriage. The policy also assumed that young African women were like teenaged U.S. women in that their sexual choices were determined by lust and social pressure. This does not square with the reality that, unlike in the United States, a woman’s rejection of sexual advances would not be upheld without question by the larger community. Boys and men do not need to take their partners’ requests into account, because there are few social consequences for rape.
I doubt that this is an issue that women can really make much headway on without male allies. A recent NPR story highlights the actions of one man who has embraced the importance of female choice, and there needs to be more men like him (except maybe for the “I was a rapist first” part). In fact, I see this issue almost exclusively as in the domain of men. Women can certainly band together on this issue, and they can teach their sons about consent (which would require, you know, actual conversations about sexual conduct), but they will win no legal battles without male allies. Their enforcement techniques will be poor at best without male enforcement. Children, especially sons, will not listen to their parents unless their fathers also assert that condom use is required during sex, that consent is not inherent in any situation, and that female opinions matter.