How can feminists counter `salvation’ lies?

A student group held a presentation of the movie Half the Sky, based on the book of the same name.  The movie stars journalist Nicholas Kristof, as he and special celebrity guests travel around the world, “saving” women wherever they go.

As many other feminists and activists have written, Half the Sky, and Kristof’s writing in general, are extremely problematic.  It reeks of racism and imperialism.  To celebrate the white savior narratives that Kristof propagates, especially in a university setting where it is given authority, is most unfortunate.

The film was followed by a panel discussion of experts from NGO’s, international organizations, and the academy.  One of the panelists was from The Girl Initiative for Results and Learning (GIRL), sponsored by Nike and Xerox.  The panelist spoke forcefully about the good that comes out of projects like Half the Sky, about how women in “developed” countries should “help” women in “undeveloped” countries, and that the women of the latter category need to be “empowered.”  She mentioned these women must endure honor killings, widow burning, forced trafficking, and other crimes of supposedly backwards cultures.

At no point did this panelist, or any other panelist, talk about the structural forces that affect and shape women’s lives globally; forces like structural adjustment programs from the IMF, so-called development programs from the World Bank, and militarism meant to “save” women in the Third World.  At no point did the panelists talk about the agency of supposedly trafficked women as sex workers.

Meanwhile, companies like Nike and Xerox, that fund research for The Girl Initiative for Results and Learning, have a history of violating women workers’ rights and attacking workers’ rights in general. When asked if it was a conflict of interest to accept money from companies that exploit women for funding her research, the GIRL panelist replied, “I firmly believe that companies like Nike just want their women workers to be rich enough to buy their products.”

For fans of Half the Sky, the endpoint of women’s empowerment is this: women’s bodies become just another accumulation strategy under neoliberalism.  If white people can’t save Brown women, then global capital will.  This endpoint becomes just another story that people like Nicholas Kristof fit nicely into yet another book, movie, or column. How can feminists counter such lies?

Writing about Half the Sky, a sex worker recently remarked that “it is crucial for journalists to confirm every piece of information they receive before sending it to print. I wanted to point out how easily such fabricated narratives can proliferate into the mainstream consciousness if reporters do not exercise caution…Sex workers are not part of the problem. We are part of the solution.”

Feminist researchers and storytellers must oppose the myths that circulate in global patriarchy and global capitalism that construct Third World women as needing to be saved. They must expand their methodologies to include and foreground those women most affected by globalization and structural violence. They must recognize and foreground the organizing and labor those women are engaged in. Theories and solutions must emerge from collaborative and collective conversations. Then, feminist researchers and storytellers can tell the truth. Women are organizing everywhere. Everywhere, women are working to create a better world and a whole sky.

We don’t need Nicholas Kristof.  We don’t need Half the Sky.  We all have other stories to tell.


(Photo Credit: Salon)


A Better Half: A New Nose, And a Life Changed?

In Afghan culture noses symbolize respect and pride. A man who feels stripped of his pride by “his woman’s” immoral act of trespassing cultural limits and ignoring traditional norms conceptualizes this as his nose being cut. He in turn cuts “his woman’s” nose. Looking at a beautiful but “noseless” face with piercing eyes looking at you, how can anyone resist sympathy, compassion and an eagerness to help in any way possible?

Helping may be a general human instinct. However most “helpers” make choices on their own assumptions concerning the situation of the ones who need help. How could we know that our help is the help which is needed; how do we know our help is effective?

I agree with Krisof and WuDunn who claim in their book Half the Sky that saving one woman makes a difference, at least in that woman’s life.  However, it also makes me think about Bibi Ayesha, the girl with a mutilated nose on the cover of Time magazine in August 2010. She was maimed; punished for running away from an abusing, baad marriage (a marriage in which a girl is given to solve a dispute). She was helped by American doctors in Kabul and then sent to the United States to undergo plastic surgery to be “given“ a new nose.

Those who do not /cannot speak for themselves – someone will speak for them. Where is Ayesha’s voice? A deeper epistemological and political analysis comes through by replacing the term image with that of representation, representation as providing a likeness or replica for that which it is subject. Representation does not stand for, or as, the original subject itself but rather for its meaning. Representation poses the question of who speaks for whom and which one person stands for the entire group.

Ayesha became an image that represents Afghan women, all Afghan women. And when we see an empty hole on a face where a nose should be, the first thing that comes to minds is covering it.  And now our part is done. Ayesha has a new plastic nose.

But have we really helped? What have we changed? It reminds me of a joke. A man was at the beach when he heard a drowning person cry for help. He jumped into the water and saved him. He had just reached the shore when he heard another cry for help. He saved this one, too. This happened several times and he was saving one after another. What’s the joke? The man never realized that there was someone on a cliff near by pushing people into the sea.

How many noses can we give to “noseless women”? Kristof and WuDunn claim that donating a goat can make a change in a family’s lives, or educating women can make them autonomous. Maybe, but what if the new nose makes her face itch? The irritation might make her throw it away.

Women live not only in families. We live in a larger political, economic and cultural domain. Most developing countries are war torn, entangled in poor economies, and caught amidst international or regional politics. This has left those countries with a continuum of the culture of patriarchy and violation against women. How effective could it be to help individual women by giving them loans, donating a goat, or giving a new nose; whilst in most of these societies according to De Beauvoir, “humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself but as relative to him; she is not regarded an autonomous being”? How can a dependent “other” be addressed while ignoring the “self”?

When I became a feminist and became engaged in women’s rights advocacy, I wanted to change people’s minds, to help or at least “save” one friend. But sometimes when we don’t consider the pros and cons and do not understand the situation and the culture, we might make things worse rather than better. I ended up trying to encourage a friend to step up against her parents and say no to a forced marriage. My only intention was to help, but my ideas and beliefs, coming from an educated and open-minded family, ended up in a broken friendship and a forced marriage. I learned the hard way. There are people on the cliffs pushing women into the sea. We should not forget them.

(Photo Credit: ABC News)

A Better Half: The Poverty Onion

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz thought that to understand the world, you had to understand an onion.

It is the concept of social embeddedness.  The only way to understand an onion is as a whole; peeling back layers will never lead to a core – only more layers, and watering eyes.  Geertz was writing about culture, but feminist scholars Ellen Ross and Rayna Rapp made the same point about sexuality: it cannot be removed from social layers of family, politics, media, economics, religion, world systems.

Since reading Kristof and WuDunn’s Half the Sky, I have been thinking about the poverty onion.  The global women’s oppression onion.   The violence against women onion.

In their book, Kristof and WuDunn tell urgent, compelling, personal stories about individual women – primarily in poor countries – struggling to overcome poverty and violence.  They are inspiring writers that make readers want to act.  As a former nonprofit fundraiser, I know the power of these stories.  (I also know the danger of turning lives into stories.)

Yet with this kind of writing, we always have the responsibility of asking questions like who is speaking for whom?  What kind of picture are they painting?   Do they show the problems women are facing as rooted only in individuals (i.e. sex traffickers) or do they show larger systems that act to constrain agency?  Is there an examination of structural causes?  Can one woman’s struggles be separated from economic influences, cultural influences, global trade agreements being negotiated an ocean away?  Can one woman’s struggles be separated from the world?

In other words, are they writing about the onion, or an imaginary onion core?

In a chapter about sex work and sex trafficking, WuDunn and Kristof write: “We’re not arguing that Westerners should take up this cause because it’s the fault of the West… This is not a case where we in the West have a responsibility to lead because we’re the source of the problem.  Rather, we single out the West because, even though we’re peripheral to the slavery, our action is necessary to overcome a horrific evil” (24-25).

Is the West not at all implicated or connected to sex work in poor countries?  This view ignores unjust global economic systems – and how the poverty that is influenced by these systems affects decisions individual women make about sex work.  Kristof and WuDunn’s argument that it is not our fault in the West that women are in these situations – but that we should do the right thing and help them – is a framework that leaves people in rich countries as the central and powerful figures and women in poor countries as objects.  Truly feminist work should disrupt, rather than reproduce, terms of domination.

But how do we as people who are concerned about global women’s issues do that?  Is it ever okay to speak or act for others?  Philosopher Linda Alcoff writes that “there is a strong, albeit contested, current within feminism which holds that speaking for others – even for other women – is arrogant, vain, unethical, and politically illegitimate.”   At the same time, she notes that sometimes not speaking for others poses similar ethical questions: “If I don’t speak for those less privileged than myself, am I abandoning my political responsibility to speak out against oppression, a responsibility incurred by the very fact of my privilege?….Is my greatest contribution to move over and get out of the way?”

Alcoff warns of the dangers of what she calls this “retreat response” – the retreating into a position of ‘I can only speak for myself.’  While the neo-imperialistic overtones of speaking for or acting for others is evident, so too is the danger, politically and ethically, of an individualistic and isolationist retreat response.

I do not think that our greatest contribution should be to move over and get out of the way.

Nor do I think feminists should cast aside this book because of its shortcomings.  When I mentioned Half the Sky in an undergraduate class, a few of my 18 and 19-year-old students stayed after class to tell me how Kristof and WuDunn’s book had moved them, made them take a Women’s Studies class, or learn more about violence against women worldwide.  In the end, what I struggle with is how we can best work with the energy and inspiration the book generates.

Despite – or perhaps because of – feminist critiques of Half the Sky, what can we do with the fact that thousands of people are holding this book in their hands?  How can we best harness the fact that this is a bestseller?   That we as a country are reading something about global violence against women, and use that as a jumping off point for a more in-depth dialogue about power, patriarchy, economics, and justice?

How can we start to talk about the poverty onion?

(Photo Credit: The Atlantic / SPKW / Shuttercock)