The Importance of Women

15 Jan


If you were following Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearings in the United States Senate, by now you know what anybody who’s followed her career, much less the Presidential primaries, knows: she’s a phenomenon. She’s smart, she’s on the ball and she knows her stuff inside out and backwards forwards.

So this little exchange with Senator Barbara Boxer (D. Calif.) was interesting to say the least (note: condensed version, you can read the  full exchange here):

BOXER: I wanted to pick off a few of the issues that I care about. I’m going to do it very quickly because there are so many — just to make my voice heard on those — and then ask you a question on a topic you raised, and we’ve discussed it before, the status of women in the world — in particular, violence against women in the world…

So I’m introducing some legislation. One is a companion piece of Representative Carolyn Maloney. Another one is the Afghan Women Empowerment Act, which many on this committee have worked with us on. And that’s just the beginning. No woman or girl should ever have to live in fear or face persecution for being born female.

And, senator, I know how deeply you feel about this. And so I wanted you to take a little more time to talk about your commitment to this particular issue. And, obviously, I would be so pleased if you would commit to help us work on a legislation to fight this immorality.

CLINTON: [And] I want to pledge to you that as secretary of state I view these issues as central to our foreign policy, not as adjunct or auxiliary or in any way lesser than all of the other issues that we have to confront.

I, too, have followed the stories that are exemplified by the pictures that you held up. I mean, it is heartbreaking beyond works that, you know, young girls are attacked on their way to school by Taliban sympathizers and members who do not want young women to be educated. It’s not complicated: They want to maintain an attitude that keeps women, as I said in my testimony, unhealthy, unfed, uneducated.

And this is something that results all too often in violence against these young women, both within their families and from the outside. This is not culture. This is not custom. This is criminal. And it will be my hope to persuade more governments, as I have attempted to do since I spoke at Beijing on these issues, you know, 13 and some years ago, that we cannot have a free, prosperous, peaceful, progressive world if women are treated in such a discriminatory and violent way.

KERRY: Senator Boxer, thank you.

Thanks for that important line of inquiry. And let me just say that Senator Boxer has talked to me personally about how the committee might focus on this. And I’m determined that the committee will… I think that all of the other members of the committee share a concern and passion about this. So we will find a way to appropriately work with the secretary and see if we can’t augment our international efforts on this.

In a way, this is a dog-bites-man sort of story: superpower sets moral agenda. Big deal. Also unsurprising: rhetoric focusing on the lot of women. It’s almost mandatory in international relations – Thou Shalt Judge the Morality of Other Nations Through the Behavior of Their Women.

But what struck me was the definite way she answered that question, no equivocations. There is no way she didn’t understand the implications of what she was saying, especially with regard to Saudi Arabia. When a former First Lady turned Secretary of State says she sees women’r rights as “central” to the foreign policy of the United States… it means something surely?

While the “Imperial America” faction will no doubt see this as further proof of America meddling in what is none of their business, I can’t help but be intrigued by the thought of America under Obama actually making an effort to instill an universal morality.

That is, of course, a loaded term: universal morality. It can so easily smack of ethnocentricism and with America involved in two costly and largely disastrous wars in countries with cultures that have little in common with its own, the Obama administration might want to think twice before it starts talking morality. And God knows President Bush with his talk of Good and Evil has pretty much put everybody else on the defensive.

Which is where Obama himself might perhaps be a symbolic help in this direction: to have somebody of his ancestry and intellectual curiosity, especially with his demonstrated willingness to engage with all sides, even if it is to his political cost (and even if it might not make any difference in the long run) pushes this line of thinking those necessary few inches away from universal morality and all its painful baggage and towards cosmopolitanism. Clinton’s answer to Boxer, viz. that you can’t use culture as a defense, for instance, could easily have been voiced by a modern day cosmopolitanist.

However, as (the amazing) Kwame Anthony Appiah, one of the leading proponents of cosmopolitanism today [fun trivia: he’s also the grandson of Sir Stafford Cripps] points out, there is just one problem: there isn’t any consensus even within these societies as to what is morally correct.

Take the Taliban, for example. Over the past several years, I’ve seen people, including Clinton in her exchange above, talking about the Taliban in Afghanistan as though they were a bunch of foreigners who’d somehow taken over the country. This is simply not true. The Taliban might be supported by fighters brought in from elsewhere in the jihad against the United States and the Soviets before them, and the al Qaeda is definitely a global organization drawing members from all over the world, but as and of itself, the Taliban is a homegrown affair feeding off Afghans themselves.

If the Obama administration is actually serious about this facet of their foreign policy, then they’re going to have to find a local solution to these problems. And they’ll have to adapt and replicate that in each nation. So while they might all come under the grand plan of “Women: Improve Lot of”, there is no one universal solution that I can think of.

Education, perhaps, is the one that we’re all hoping will be the magic bullet. But as the Taliban have amply demonstrated, they’ve got the memo too and are working bombs and acid to stop that particular idea from taking off.

I guess it all does comes down to the individual in the end. And her courage and strength of resolve.


Posted by on January 15, 2009 in Life, News, Newsmakers, Politics


14 responses to “The Importance of Women

  1. memsaab

    January 15, 2009 at 5:02 pm

    Well, she can’t solve it all by herself…but she will be in a position to influence and that seems like it will be a good thing. I can’t bear it when abuse of women is called “cultural”—I’m all for diversity, but infringing on a person’s right to happiness and health based on gender (or any other characteristic) is (as Hillary said) criminal.

  2. Chevalier

    January 15, 2009 at 5:25 pm

    This is well-analyzed, Amrita. I remember earlier in the primaries when someone had asked this question in a townhall in Texas that Hillary had offered up a compromise between, on the one hand, blatant America-knows-best-ism and on the other hand, people citing local culture/religion as supremely important. Her solution then was to take the UN declaration of Human Rights, which has been internationally ratified and signed onto, or other such multi-lateral agreements, and then use those as ground rules of ethics and discussions on what is acceptable and what is not. Unfortunately, the UNHR still excludes stuff like FGM (female genital mutiliation), etc. but it goes a long way in preventing stoning 13-year olds who’ve been raped for adultery, etc.
    However, doing so drastically reduces the onus on American moral authority and unilaterism, or on the power of the office of the American president. This way also gives every nation a stake in the outcome – that was her suggestion to bring people back to the negotiating table from George Bush’s strategy.

  3. pitusultan

    January 15, 2009 at 5:53 pm

    I’m sorry, it sounds like a joke. And yes, it does sound a lot like meddling. The very idea that the U.S. would be in any positon to tell other countries what is or isn’t morally correct is in itself hilarious to me. Meh. What rhetoric. Change must come to those countries from *within*. Some lady or some guy sitting in the White Hse ain’t gonna do nothin. And they’ll just invite more wrath from the Middle East.

    I really really really do wish American politicians would clean up their own country first :-X and then bother about others.

    Besides, I’d like to see how they react to their bedfellows, namely beloved China, and the way that country treats her own women, leave alone Tibetans.

    Why not solve women’s issues here first??

  4. Mamma Mia!Me a Mamma?!?

    January 15, 2009 at 9:56 pm

    Hillary Clinton…love her or hate her, you just can’t ignore her; the woman’s got stuff

  5. sachita

    January 15, 2009 at 10:21 pm

    1. You seem to have high expectations out of Obama and Hillary! Saying to actually wanting to implementing it to actually implementing it to actually implementing it right, there is a lot of hurdles.
    2. I agree with Pitu above. If I were US/ British, considering my past record I would just hung myself in shame. I hate the thought of one country acting as savior for other countries mainly because the so called developed countries has only acted in their own best interest rather than doing it for the actual purpose.

    I love the way how you covered every single side.

    PS: Also, would it even be actual priority to the foreign office? Even in my head it doesn’t seem to be that high a priority. World is going to spend a lot of time in trying to end the terrorism. prob, the next decade. they are going to botch up quite a bit in the process.

  6. sachita

    January 15, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    sorry, hang(not hung). 😦

  7. Amey

    January 15, 2009 at 10:57 pm

    I guess there would be some who misunderstand my comment, so let me say first: I find the intent admirable (although, in all fairness, I would be more comfortable with “Equality” act, but given the context… Plus it it a complete different discussion)

    That said, why should US Congress be working on an act for “Afghan” women? Isn’t Afghanistan an independent country? The title unfortunately reminded me of “Government of India” acts which were passed in U.K. parliaments.

    In short, I guess my objection is to the word (as you said) “global morality”.

  8. apu

    January 16, 2009 at 1:37 am

    I have conflicting responses to this. On the one hand, my knee-jerk reaction is to say, who the f&^% is the US to dictate things all over the world? On the other hand, there is no doubt that the plight of women in many countries is dismal. While it’s easy to say change should come from within, internal movements alone may not be enough. And the plight of women is too important for us to be bickering over whether or not the US should do something about it.

    So, on balance – yes, I think the US should play a constructive role in facilitating change. However, they should probably start with their own allies, the biggest offenders – the Saudis, rather than just take on conveniently placed countries in the ‘zone of terror’ that they define.

  9. apu

    January 16, 2009 at 1:38 am

    Also, I’m glad she trashed the culture angle. I don’t think respect for different cultures should come at the cost of human rights. Lets not forget, women’s rights are human rights too.

  10. ana

    January 16, 2009 at 10:29 am

    I would agree with most of the comments here. The whole notion of “legislating morality” makes me cringe. I like the fact that we as women and men are concerned about women’s rights, and we should be talking and (re)acting more, but no, there is no universal “legislation” or plan that can be imposed as change.

    I agree with what you say about it coming down to the individual.

  11. pitusultan

    January 16, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    “However, they should probably start with their own allies, the biggest offenders – the Saudis, rather than just take on conveniently placed countries in the ‘zone of terror’ that they define.”

    Totally! And let me say this also- They will *never* do that. They won’t talk abt the UAE or China or Pakistan or any of their other allies whereas India and some random issue in Bihar will crop up and become some priority for them. I can just see Christiana Amanpour getting all hoier than thou on some ‘Special Report’.

    But meh, this global savior/ world cop bullshit pisses the hell out of me! Grrrrr! I mean, what a messiah complex!!!! It’s laughable.

  12. ana

    January 16, 2009 at 3:16 pm

    Pitu, at the risk of sounding utterly cynical, this Flash Gordon/savior of the universe “bullshit” is going to go on interminably. 😀

  13. memsaab

    January 17, 2009 at 1:13 pm

    As an American I feel moved to say that in all fairness, my country (and by default we taxpayers) is very often asked to step in and help out when things are going wrong elsewhere in the world. And we often do: we contribute enormous amounts of money in aid and development, and it’s not *always* only when it’s in our best interests.

    Having said that, though, I’m in agreement with pitu and others that we should not consider ourselves moral arbiters and world police ESPECIALLY when we have not been asked. And we are very guilty of condoning double standards when our interests are at stake. I personally think that we SHOULD be addressing human rights concerns with UAE and China, especially as we do have some influence there.

    Human rights should not be about borders or commerce, but they are. And as others have said here too it ends up being up to individuals and organizations like Amnesty International to make any difference. But I’m hopeful that at least Obama’s administration will be better than the last one in terms of putting human rights above commerce and profit (it would be hard for them to be worse).

    Okay, now you can let me have it 🙂 *covers head and ducks*

  14. Amrita

    January 19, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    I think we’re all pretty much on the same page here… the idea of a superpower wading in and telling people how to live their lives is kind of icky in the extreme, esp to all those millions of people who still remember what it felt like to be under the self righteous rule of colonial powers.

    But if the Obama administration (because that’s who will be making the decisions, Clinton can believe whatever she likes, but ultimately she answers to the President) is actually serious about this sort of thing, then it might want to start with its allies so everyone knows this isn’t some kind of Trojan horse they’ve pulled out to interfere in other people’s business.

    Chevalier – one of the things I like about Clinton is that she’s one of the few American pols I’ve seen who actually understands the scope of possibilities presented by the UN rather than just attacking it ad hominem for being a failed organization. And frankly, America’s been anything but a force for good when it comes to the UN and women. The Bush admin in particular used its power to influence policy in directions more “morally” acceptable to it and less practically acceptable to the women the UN was trying to help.

    Sachita – the disconnect between agreeing that moral imperatives exist to do something and then actually doing the work to see that work accomplished is the greatest roadblock in theories like cosmopolitanism. I don’t really know how you bridge that divide. I don’t know if I have high expectations (my inner cynic is scoffing at me right now) but I do know that these are two people whom I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt to at this present point in time.

    Amey – I hate those Congress Acts. Its just so fucking tone deaf. I don’t care how noble the ideas are behind it, I just feel like I ought to take the contrary view the moment I hear it.

    Ana/Pitu – Ah, if only.

    Mamma – I kinda love her. 😳

    Apu – that kneejerk reaction is pretty much how I feel too. You’re right I think in saying that sometimes a country needs a push from the outside, but ultimately every country needs to be able to look itself in the eye and fix things for itself. Otherwise, the moment the outsiders leave, things go back to the same old.

    Memsaab – you tell me if they do anything of the kind! I’ll kick their asses for you!
    As I wrote this post, i was thinking vaguely how alike the human rights situation is to the trade reforms that have been stalled in Doha over the past couple of years… everyone knows that there are things that need to be done and that this is how trade will expand, but nobody really wants to make those sacrifices because those ‘sacrifices’ have human lives which will be destroyed. In the same way, you can say that human rights are something we should all think about, but when push comes to shove, we put it aside because there are so many other things that we want to get done first.
    And yes, Obama will have to try very very hard to muck things up as badly as Bush.

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