Tuesday, November 29, 2005

God(dess) forbid, we should consider ourselves more enlightened when it comes to women's rights...

Sunday's New York Times ran a wrenching front-page story on child brides in Africa -- girls as young as ten given, or rather sold, in marriage to men who are decades older (often as second wives). The main focus of the article is a story with a sort-of happy ending: 12-year-old Mwaka Simbeye, whom her father married off to a neighbor in his 70s to settle a debt of $16, eventually escaped and was taken back into her parents' home (partly because her father had heard that he might get arrested under a new policy cracking down on forced marriages of young girls). Others are not so lucky:

Uness Nyambi, of the village of Wiliro, said she was betrothed as a child so her parents could finance her brother's choice of a bride. Now about 17, she has two children, the oldest nearly 5, and a husband who guesses he is 70. "Just because of these two children, I can not leave him," she said.

Beatrice Kitamula, 19, was forced to marry her wealthy neighbor, now 63, five years ago because her father owed another man a cow. "I was the sacrifice," Ms. Kitamula said, holding back tears. She likened her husband's comfortable compound of red brick houses in Ngana village to a penitentiary. "When you are in prison," she said, "you have no rights."

The article notes that in Ethiopia, about a third of the girls are married by age 15. It concludes with another look at Mwaka and her family:

Mwaka's mother, Tighezge Simkonda, looks like an older version of her daughter and is no less shy. "I did object," she said softly, glancing nervously at her husband chatting nearby. "I said, 'My daughter is very young.' "

"But the control is with the man," she said. "The daughters belong to the man."

But, of course, it would be most deplorable if any American women were to read that and conclude that they're liberated while the women in those Third World countries are oppressed. After all, it would be "culturally insensitive" to suggest that the West is more enlightened when it comes to women's rights, and besides, it's important to understand that American women are really silenced in similar ways. Or so as a lot of women's studies professors would tell us.

There's also Dr. Edwin Nichols, a psychologist who has conducted "diversity" and "cultural awareness" workshops for numerous colleges, government agencies, and corporations, and who teaches in those workshops (among other things) that women in Africa are treated as equal to men.

Personally, I think the case for cultural imperialism has never been so clear.


Revenant said...

It drives me nuts that oppression seemingly only "counts" if the oppressor is at least two of the following: white, male, and rich.

You have to wonder if these people are interested in the well-being of their fellow humans, or just interested in getting paid to complain.

anniesmom03 said...

This piece is loaded with some of my favorite issues. I used to think I was a lefty and a feminist until I became a professor. Now I realize that not only do I not want to be in those clubs, but also that they wouldn't have me. Thank god(ess).

After reading this I was thinking back to the mid 80's, when I was in college and, yes, I took a few (2) women's studies classes. In those days, we were of course allowed to talk about the oppression of Muslim women, because, Khomeini aside, the US was not as intensely engaged in conflict with those cultures are we are today. And besides, so much of the opression of Muslim women was driven by their patriarchial religion which was designed, like all patriarchial religions, to keep women in their place, or something.

No, in my day, it was the Soviet women and the Cuban women who had it so much better than us American women. And the East Germans, of course.

African women were a tricky issue back then, as well, but of course opression of African women by African men was simply a response to the opression of Africans by whites.

I hope I am not generalizing too much. I do have some colleagues in women's studies (or women and gender studies as we now call it) that I respect, that don't engage in the kind of nonsense epitomized here and in other posts on this blog. I read a comment by someone who said of couse the idiocy makes the news, while the sane and rational slip under the radar. I would agree with this, but I still think it is instructive to deal with the idiocy.

I think, revenant, that these people ARE genuinely interested in the well being of others, but they have two character flaws working against them. First, we academics, most of whom are from the Left, are hopelessly myopic. Our world is tiny, our communities are homogenous, and our struggles are pathetic compared to what goes on in the outside world. This is annoying, but fairly harmless. We are not influential people, except to our students, who learn reality when they graduate. Some of them even learn reality before the get to us.

The second character flaw is more serious, however, and I've yet to fully wrap my head around it. Academics who engage in "Identity Studies" seem to have a very large stake in seeing, and getting others to see, their group as victims, struggling against an entrenched power. Unfortunately, the victim status is central to the identity and must be maintained. All gains must be offset by losses. All opressed peoples must unite against the opressor. We must not opress our fellow victims by asserting cultural superiority, lest we identify with the powerful and lose our victimhood.

Unfortunately here is where we can negatively influence our students. I shouldn't count myslef here, as I make it a point not to engage in identity politics, in fact much of what I am about to say is based on my experience as a college student. 18-22 year olds are a somewhat vulnerable and emotionally volatile polulation, and victim-centered identity obviously appeals to a sizable number of that population. This is understandable, given where they are in life, no longer children, not yet adults. However, I think it is intellectually morally irresponsible to let the average 19-year old western women believe that her plight is comparable to that of Uness Nyambi. Friends, RAs, the Counseling Center, and if they're lucky, a sympathetic biology professor with an open door policy, can validate their emotions and feelings that their parents or ex-boyfriends or religion have hurt them in some way, without conflating their violation with that of someone who has essentially no rights, no personhood even.

I don't mean to trivialize the emotional termoil of college students, especially women. Being a sympathetic adult support is one aspect of my job that I truly love. However, I believe that this role is best played out in my office with a box of tissue, or on a casual stroll through the botanical garden, and NOT in the classroom.

drumgurl said...

I think it's unfair to say that most leftist feminists feel this way, though. Ampersand, for example, blogged about child brides in Africa with a link to the article. Also, the Feminist Majority Foundation has "Global Feminism" as one of its major campaigns. Now, I may not think they propose the best solutions, but they are trying to help in what they think is the right way.

I graduated from college this year. I didn't take any Women's Studies classes, but I was involved in campus feminism. What I learned from that is that I'm a feminist, but not a leftist!

I think it's important for women my age to not see ourselves as victims. But I also think it's silly to not inform young women that there WILL be struggles they face that men don't (and men have struggles that women don't).

I know that I am often stereotyped because I am young, blonde, slim, and female. The usual assumption is that I'm stupid. I think that's a sexist assumption. But what do I choose to do with that information? I could 1) feel sorry for myself, 2) pretend it doesn't exist, or 3) acknowledge the sexism and then figure out how I can overcome it and present myself as NOT the dumb blonde. I think option 3 is the best.

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