The first week of March is supposed to be a big week for women around the world. With the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women convening at the U.N. the same week as International Women’s Day. celebrations are under way from the land of Tina Brown and Nick Kristof all the way to the Kalahari.
The theme of this year’s event is the “elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls.” That sounds about right, but if the past is prologue, the week will pass as an expensive orgy of earnestness by day, and a Babel of networking by night, chiefly benefiting the airlines ferrying delegations in and out of JFK, and hotels and restaurants in the East 40s. Broadway shows might see a jump in ticket sales.
To roam the ballrooms and conference halls of this gas-fest means scuttling from one event to the next, sliding into chairs before daises of well-meaning NGOs and academics discussing the status of women, without ever talking about the elephant in the room, which is that feminists have been in retreat globally for at least two decades.
Egyptian grandmothers who majored in gender studies in the 1970s are watching their daughters don purdah, nongovernmental organizations that once had hope for India and the backwoods of Pakistan stand by aghast at a rising tide of rape and acid attacks on girls, and Soviet professional women are watching their daughters become escorts. This after Russian women disappeared from top government posts following the fall of the Soviet Union.
Is there a new global problem that has no name, something erupting worldwide since the heady days of the late 1970s?
Last year, in Foreign Policy magazine, the Egyptian-American writer Mona Eltahawy asked, “Why Do They Hate Us?” She was referring to her Egyptian Brotherhood countrymen, who have taken to stripping and beating women who venture into the public square in post-revolutionary Egypt.
But the headline also applies here. The “War on Women” waged against reproductive rights in the USA is kin to the literal war the Taliban wage by blowing up girls’ schools. Seth McFarlane’s boobs song is hardly tantamount to legally sanctioned wife-beating in places like Egypt and Turkey, combat rape orgies in Africa, the Taliban’s heinous crimes against women in Afghanistan, or male sex selection practices in Asia. But all those things exist on a continuum.
How we as a nation react to misogyny elsewhere says a lot about the status of women here. Imagine the outrage if another nation’s laws allowed white people to beat black people inside their homes, or if a Christian country forbade Muslims to drive cars.
But men heap those abuses—and worse—on women in countries represented at the Status of Women conference in Manhattan this week. America does business with almost all of them.
Clearly, we have not exported feminism.
Last week, PBS premiered Makers, a documentary about the history of the American women’s movement. The film shows how rapidly American women’s rights advanced between 1955 and 1975. There’s Dusty Roads demanding that “stewardesses” be able to keep their jobs after they turned 32; there is Kathrine Switzer getting shoved by the organizer of the Boston Marathon for daring to be the first female to run; and there are Bella and Barbara and Gloria, arm in arm, marching in the streets with thousands, banners waving, demanding, demanding, demanding.
Those demanders are grandmotherly now, or gone. The program ends on a downbeat: with former Nixon protégé Monica Crowley and Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer talking about how feminism isn’t for them, like Groucho Marx not wanting to be a member of a club that would invite him in.
Today’s feminist fallback position is to bicker and eat its own. Now Sheryl Sandberg is up for a beat-down. If her name were Jack Welch, Ms. Sandberg would be carried around Michael’s Restaurant on a litter for writing a blockbuster telling women how to get rich and powerful. But Maureen Dowd used her Sunday bully pulpit last week to accuse her of using “the vocabulary and romance of a social movement not to sell a cause, but herself.”
How did we get to this place where we pick apart our own best and brightest, rather than focusing our energy on gender parity in Congress and the boardroom?
The Makers documentary makes clear that the women’s movement lost its focus trying to nurture differences rather than insisting on three or four basic rights that apply to all women, everywhere. It fell apart under charges of being elitist, not welcoming enough of minorities, the poor, or lesbians.
But women of all classes and ethnicities benefit from equality, a violence-free existence, reproductive freedom and the right to support oneself economically.
Last week’s passage of the Violence Against Women Act was an encouraging step in returning the U.S. to a place of leadership on women’s rights. The act requires the U.S. to make violence against women a diplomatic priority.
But the U.S. remains the only Western industrialized nation not to have ratified CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, sometimes described as an international bill of rights for women.
Countries that ratify CEDAW commit to incorporate principles of gender equality into their legal systems and to abolish all discriminatory laws in their countries. The U.N. ratified CEDAW in 1979, a generation ago, and 187 countries have signed on. America stands with Iran, Sudan and Somalia in not having signed it.
As Zainab Salbi, a global women’s rights leader and founder of Women for Women International, has put it: “American failure to ratify CEDAW at home presents a severe challenge to its credibility in any efforts to promote women’s human rights abroad.”
Last month, new Secretary of State John Kerry pledged in his Senate confirmation hearings to support CEDAW. After three female secretaries of state who could not muster U.S. muscle behind this important issue, it’s about time.
The United States should be a world leader in standing up against the sex-selecting practices in India and China that have led to huge imbalances in the numbers of men in those countries. The lack of women in India, where there are a whopping 37 million more males than females, has been blamed as one of the causes of the recent upsurge in sexual violence in that nation.
Instead, the climate in America is such that when a petition passed around Congress seeking support for women wanting to drive cars in Saudi Arabia, it garnered only 14 signatures—all from female lawmakers.
This year, we pull our troops out of Afghanistan. That’s a good thing, but in negotiating a peace with the Taliban, we leave millions of Afghan women vulnerable to a laundry list of abuses that include publicly accepted beatings, torture and mutilation of women who run afoul of Taliban strictures. Incredibly, the human rights of women are not on the negotiating table, bypassed in favor of our more pressing need to get billions of dollars of equipment safely out of the country.
There is a planet on which a Hollywood boob song might actually be funny. It’s one where women fill half the House and Senate, and half the CEO chairs in the Fortune 500. It’s a world where our government strongly and regularly places sanctions on horrific gender-based human rights violations instead of excusing them on the basis of culture and tradition.
But that’s not the world we live in.