06 June 2011

A New Endeavor

It appears more girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the twentieth century. More girls are killed in this routine 'gendercide' in any one decade than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the twentieth century.

In the nineteenth century, the central moral challenge was slavery. In the twentieth century, it was the battle against totalitarianism. We believe that in this century the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality around the world.

-Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Half the Sky
Last week a few friends and I had our first book club meeting. I've never been in a book club before, but I was extremely excited to be a part of this one. Our topic of study is Women, Development and Equality. Our first book was Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn. It was INCREDIBLE! Truly. Kristof and WuDunn do an incredible job of bringing to light some of the most terrifying aspects of life for women across the world--from rape and honor killings, maternal mortality and fistulas, sex slavery and domestic abuse, they cover issues affecting women from every part of the world, and especially in developing countries. And yet, the book is hopeful and encouraging. Every chapter not only tells stories of women who have suffered under inequality and oppression placed upon women, but also stories of women who are standing up to these horrors and creating solutions and safe havens. There are some exceptionally inspirational women in this book. Women who should be our examples and our heroes.

But in our book club we want to do more than just read and learn about these issues. We want to find ways to become proactive in changing the status of women around the world. One of the things we all agreed on is that more people need to know what is happening to women in the world!

So, we have decided to try to share more about these important issues with those we know. It isn't always easy. Some people scoff at us as "feminists" (which we all readily claim! But unfortunately, many people we know use the term "feminist" in an inappropriate and negative connotation, thus casting our views aside as extreme or insignificant). Others recoil from hearing about such horrific and brutal realities. And at times people listen and agree that the inequality and disempowerment of women is awful, but they can't see solutions and they want go no further. What we realized is, maybe we aren't getting our message across in the right way. Maybe we haven't helped others to see that not only are these issues real and pressing, but we are all complicit. We all bear responsibility. And there are things we can do to effect change.

Now we just have to figure out how to spread that message. We have to figure out what people need to know and hear. And then we have to share it. For me, this involves continuing to read and learn--about problems and solutions. It means finding talking points and ways to include women, development and human rights issues in my day to day conversations. And it means stepping up to the responsibilities I have and finding ways to contribute.

As part of that, I will be posting weekly here on my blog about these issues in one form or another. I say that now to hold myself accountable. I hope you will nag me if I slack off. And I hope you will help me by posting your insights, questions and concerns. Because, ultimately, this effort requires all of us. As Kristof so astutely says in Half the Sky:
"[I]f the international effort is dubbed a 'women's issue,' then it has already failed. The unfortunate reality is that women's issues are marginalized, and in any case, sex trafficking and mass rape should no more be seen as women's issues than slavery was a black issue of the Holocaust was a Jewish issue. These are all humanitarian concerns, transcending any one race gender, or creed."

photo: Maria Elena, Bolivia 2009


Anonymous said...

If the people who do these sorts of things can't see that at the most very basic moral level, what they're doing is wrong, maybe soon they'll realize that they're shooting themselves in the foot by what they're doing. Last time I checked, women are kind of essential to oh... everything.

Quick soapbox time-

We (Americans) have the potential to get a huge amount of flak for intervening or imposing our ideas on other cultures. However, no matter what way you look at it, unless you're using a warped system of morals, it's plainly apparent that the practices of some societies are morally abhorrent.
Because it's in my interest to gain knowledge about the Middle East and what makes a good and a bad officer I read a fair number of books about soldiers and their deployments.
You'll see a myriad of negative adjectives used to describe the treatment of women in many parts of the Middle East, brutish, cruel, unjust, what have you. One descriptor that's not used very often though, is stupid. When I read your post, that's the first thing that came to mind. When I said that women are essential to everything, I wasn't kidding. During the initial invasion of Iraq, one Marine officer who was part of the advance guard kept a journal and eventually published a book about his experiences. Something he took notice of is how women did all the work. Seriously. Housework, cleaning, cooking, collecting water, hauling around junk, everything. While the men work jobs (when they have them) they don't contribute at all in on the domestic side. When you're literally not doing ANYTHING outside of working at a job, it doesn't make much sense to mistreat the people who do everything else. He wrote about how he saw that when the women were working, men would smoke and joke on the street.
In Afghanistan, a few small groups of Special Forces soldiers were deployed initially and worked with the Northern Alliance (Afghans that had been fighting the Taliban since its creation). What these soldiers learned is that after the Taliban came to power, they did everything in their power to subjugate and demean women. As you're probably well aware, literacy and the standard of living plummeted, especially for women. The Taliban sought to take away their self-reliance through ignorance. According to the Taliban, a woman's place was the home and the bedroom. Which is absolutely ludicrous. It should be worth noting that the society that the Taliban created, like in Iraq, called on (read: required) women to make it work.
The idea I'm trying to convey here is that not only are the practices of many Middle Eastern (read: hardline Islamic) societies morally reprehensible, they operate by persecuting the very people who make the society function.

Going back to the idea of how as Americans, we're not allowed to interfere with the indigenous population, when people in country see these sorts of things going on, it presents a moral dilemma. One of our cadre members related a story about when he was in Iraq and saw an Iraqi man beating a woman to the point where she was visibly bleeding beneath all that clothing. As soldiers, we're explicitly ordered not to interfere. As Americans, and human beings for that matter, whatever the reason, we don't want to see injustices stand. While he didn't specifically state what he did, it was implied that the Iraqi man ended up regretting his actions. In light of retributions that are pervasive in a society that doesn't operate on ideas of justice though, I don't know in the long term, whether his actions were a good idea or not.

Getting off soapbox now.

Vanna said...

So what can we do to help Kendal?

ktb said...

Joe- thank you so much for sharing your perspective! It is definitely a challenge to know where to step in and what the best solutions are and how to influence societies that are often different from our own. I agree that there are basic moral standards and human rights that cannot be ignored simply because of respect for culture or tradition. What is culture anyway- it's certainly not static, unchanging or set in stone! I think all of us have a responsibility to stand up against injustices for all people-- in our own culture as well as in others. And the United States is not exempt from injustice and inequality, though it is certainly different.

Savannah- Keep being amazing! Also, my next post is for you. So tell me if it helps. "Helping" is definitely easier said than done. But it can and must be done. I think caring (which I know you do) is the first step. The right actions to take will depend on each of us individually.


emilia. said...

i'm excited for this project! and i love the idea of a book club that has a subject to explore. totally copying that one.

you all are going to do fantastic things!