Women’s Wrongs: Feminism’s Gains Are Washing Away

But we're too busy trashing Sheryl Sandberg to notice

screen shot 2013 03 05 at 7 12 49 pm Womens Wrongs: Feminisms Gains Are Washing AwayThe 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.