Thu, Jul 1, 2004
By Mahnaz Afkhami
In The Future of Women’s Rights: Global Visions & Strategies / Joanna Kerr, Ellen Sprenger, and Alison Symington (eds.) / Zed Books Ltd / London & New York / 2004
The concept of women’s rights is rooted in history rather than culture. Historically, the role and status assigned to women have been remarkably similar across the world. Until relatively recently, nowhere in the world could women choose a field of education, train for a job, get a job, or get paid equally if they were given a job, nor could they marry, have children, space their children, get a divorce, own property, or travel by their own free choice. Until the last decade of the 19th century when women of New Zealand gained the franchise, no woman in the world had the right to vote or to hold elected political office. Everywhere, patriarchy was the foundation of the social order, based on the concept that there is a “natural” place for women in accord with their assumed physical and mental characteristics and in line with the dictates of culture, religion, and tradition. Across the globe, otherwise diverse and varied societies uniformly believed in the complementarity of the roles assigned to women and men and developed a complex system of economic, political, legal, and cultural sub-structures that reinforced each other and the overarching patriarchal framework. Given the premise of complementarity of roles, the system was and is rational, comprehensive, and efficient.
Women in all cultures have struggled throughout history to improve their position in society and within the family. Until recently, the struggle took more or less the same form everywhere. Women tried to get what they wanted by using the means available to them—their sexuality and their position as mothers in the household. To express the human urge for freedom and equality they had to break the accepted rules of conduct and to employ means that were often not considered honorable. To behave honorably, they would have to behave according to the norms that imprisoned them in their allotted place.
Measured by historical time, the discourse for women’s freedom and equality was developed only recently. Mary Wolstonecraft’s A Vindication of Rights of Women (1792), perhaps the first treatise of its kind, was considered an oddity. Even John Stuart Mill’s The Subjection of Women (1869) was ahead of its time and Mill himself was subjected to ridicule by opinion makers in such influential journals as Punch. At about the same time as Mill’s essay, Tahereh Qurrat al-`Ain, a woman priestess in Iran, made a public appearance unveiled to claim rights on behalf of women. Tahereh lost her life for her courage, but she left a legacy that influenced thinking about women’s position in society, religion, and culture among Iranian women and men for years to come. The “woman question,” as it was called in mid-19th century England, touched on issues of sexual inequality in education, economic life, social relations, and politics. Women began to play a more important role in society, but not much happened practically to change their position legally until the beginnings of the last century. The struggle that brought about the changes sprang from ideas and concepts of justice, fairness, and human dignity, which were, as were the concepts underlying patriarchy, embedded in cultures, literatures, histories, and religions across the world. Women began to take a new look at these building blocks of social structure and to develop and articulate alternative feminist interpretations in each area.
The discourse of women’s rights is intricately tied to the discourse of freedom and equality. At its center is the course individual consciousness takes. Individual consciousness, as distinguished from communal consciousness, is a discovery that comes with time as science and technology provide the foundations for doubt about communal law—that is, law that springs directly or indirectly from God or nature. In this sense, history moves from law to right as the individual begins to perceive that she has a right to participate in the making of the law rather than submit to the existing law as unchanging and eternal. In this, all societies that develop and change move in the same direction. To the extent that feminism means anything, it must include the right of women to freedom of choice and equality in law. Otherwise the term loses meaning since without that basic belief, we would have to consider all men and women who have ever tried to improve the condition of women within existing patriarchal structures feminists.
I. The World and Women
The world has become a difficult place to fathom. This is partly because we are not sure whether we should take it as it is and try to adapt to it the best we can or to refuse to accept it as a given and try to change it to our liking. In fact we can do neither. Rather, we must opt for both. The values we have developed as feminists cannot be achieved within a patriarchal setting—whether local, national, or global. On the other hand, to ignore the systemic forces that shape our interactive lives is to become Quixotic. Let us examine some of the systemic forces that are particularly relevant to the rights of women.
Globalization as process has been going on for at least two centuries. Its beginning coincides with the rise of modern imperialism and its corollary—colonialism. It is a condition of economic and technological change. Its center was and is the west, first Europe, in recent years increasingly the United States. Because it is a condition rather than a policy, it must be taken as a systemic characteristic and therefore qualitatively different from situations that can be reversed by political decision or wished away by appeals to ideology or gender.
The distinction between condition and policy is important for the choice of strategy. Most third world countries that fought colonialism assumed that it was a consequence of policies adopted by western politicians. Anti-colonial struggle often took the form of xenophobic nationalism. A few countries took the foundation of colonialism to be a fundamental imbalance between economic and technological capabilities of the colonizer and the colonized. These countries—the Asia-Pacific rim, for example—opted for a different approach than did the xenophobic nationalists. They went for interaction with the west to acquire and implement the know-how necessary for building the infrastructure of development. They are now invariably in a better condition, not only economically, but also politically.
Globalism subjects local and national conditions to forces beyond local and national control. The new configuration of power has both positive and negative consequences for the rights of women. To the extent that nations will have to adjust to the requirements of economic competition at the global level, a tension arises between the requirements of competition and exigencies of justice. This tension is often resolved in favor of competition rather than justice, negatively affecting the condition of women. This is particularly true in the global south where we see many examples of this negative impact in both villages and cities. On the other hand, by transcending national boundaries globalization opens the national and local spaces to international influence making possible the flow not only of ideas but also of political pressure. A new venue has opened for women across the world that used properly may produce a synergy that can multiply power and energy many times beyond the simple addition of separate capabilities. But it takes understanding, planning, and commitment to reach this synergy.
Communication is the foundation of contemporary globalism. In theory, modern information technology (IT) has made it possible for women north and south to interact to produce the synergy needed to make a difference in the world along feminist lines. This, however, is easier said than done. Practically, IT fuels the machinery of power worldwide, not only in the economic and military realms, but also socially and culturally. In this as in every area of human endeavor power has been structured by men, gendered in masculine terms. The tools of technology are overwhelmingly owned and operated by the north and women’s access to these tools remains miniscule in the south. To change the balance we need to understand the relevance of the established structures of power to the values and objectives that are distinctively ours.
Culture as Competition
The culture of masculinity is based on competition. Individual women may succeed in this culture, but unless the structure is changed they will reinforce the masculine culture rather than alter it. We have numerous examples of such women, including some of us who appear reasonably successful in the world of men. The Thatchers, the Gandhis, and the Meirs of this world are well known, and we take some pride in their ability to break certain traditional stereotypes. But they do not change the world for the better. We succeed only if we transcend culture as competition, not by doing away with competition, an impossible objective, but by subjecting it to a culture that is infused with the feminist ideals of fairness and justice. We must change the meaning of success by turning hierarchical relations into communicative relations—leadership by command into leadership by sharing and consensus.
Privatization as Economic Salvation
Culture as competition forces all nations to adjust to the most powerful impulses of the global economy. The global need for capital and talent atomizes societies by releasing individuals and groups from the bonds of economic justice and social security that connected them to the community and to the nation state. Privatization becomes the end- all of economic planning—a process particularly hard on women because in many societies women are the lowest paid and least equipped to provide for themselves. The disconnect between the individual and the community makes everyone insecure and, in the absence of rational alternatives, responsive to irrational and destructive ideas.
Religious Zeal as Politics of Regression
Culture as competition, merit as material possession, and privatization as economic salvation signify the void in the value system associated with globalism. The ideologies of the 19th and 20th centuries—socialism, Marxism, communalism, humanism, liberalism, and utilitarianism—have yielded to an ideological system that has little to offer other than greater material gain. The new global capitalism is a powerful regime forcing every other system to convert or perish. In the absence of reasonable alternatives, religion has gained new vogue. Fundamentalisms of all kinds are growing across the world, in both developed and developing countries, turning religion into regressive ideology. Islamic fundamentalism is a particularly violent reaction to poverty, normlessness, dictatorship, and despair. God is turned into an avenger in whose name all manners of atrocity are committed. Religious zeal makes democracy problematic because it turns every attempt at understanding and compromise—the hallmarks of democracy—into an evidentiary test of religious righteousness. In Muslim societies, women are particularly targeted because there is no better proof of return to a golden past than pushing women back onto their “natural” place. Thus women’s position becomes the yardstick, the measure, for the success of the fundamentalist agenda.
Terrorism as Protest/ War as Counterpolicy
The concept of war as politics by other means was the beginning of the development of the concept of total war, a consequence of Napoleon’s taking the ideas of liberty, equality, and fraternity to Europe by the sword. The concept was tested in the American Civil War, developed during the First and Second World Wars, and perfected during the US-Soviet bipolarity in the threat of thermonuclear warfare. The fall of the Soviet Union has left the United States as the only superpower separated from other countries by a seemingly unbridgeable economic and military gap. In the global world the US, representing the west, is everywhere and everywhere a growing number of people live under insufferable conditions. But it is not poverty, disease, illiteracy, or despotism that lead them to support politics by other means. Rather, it is hopelessness about the future that drives them to desperation.
Terrorism as war and politics has had a long history, mostly as a personal act of political vengeance. As structured politics, it is a new phenomenon. We have the beginnings of it in the wars of liberation, whether of the Zionist type in the genesis of the state of Israel, the anti-colonial wars of the third world countries, the political abductions and assassinations by leftist extremists from a variety of countries in the 1960s and 1970s, or the Palestinian intifada during the last 20 years. All these cases are aspects of war as politics waged against manifestly superior military power. They are horrifying because they target innocent people, particularly helpless women and children. But they are no more terrible than wars carried on by established military powers that target, with enormous destructive force, helpless civilians in cities and villages.
Terror as policy has engendered war as counterpolicy. We are now faced with a new phase in the development of terror as a chain of action and reaction. The United States is waging war on terrorism but neither the definition nor the perimeter of this war is clearly stated. It is a war without end against an enemy unseen. Innocent men and women have been killed in the United States; innocent men and women shall be killed in revenge. If the aim of terror is to level the field of warfare by instilling fear in a far more powerful country causing it to give up the most cherished principles of individual liberty and right, then terror has already triumphed. Fear leads many people, including many women, to accept violence that can only lead to more violence as a rational policy prescription.
II. Strategic Choices for Women’s Movements
In the last quarter of the 20th century we witnessed a blossoming of women’s movements. Across the world women are now active in unprecedented numbers, conscious of the need to be involved in the decisions that affect their future. More importantly, they have succeeded in including the concept that all issues are women’s issues in setting the context for socio-political and economic debates. It is now accepted that women have a stake in everything that affects individual and communal life. This is a great leap forward, a revolution in thinking, a new perception of women’s role in the shaping of the world. The emerging consciousness, though activist and intellectually expansive, is neither homogeneous nor inwardly tranquil. Nothing is more natural for women than to differ on points of analysis, issues of priority, or choices of strategy. The world imposes itself on us no less than we seek to impose ourselves on the world.
Intellectually, the world is no longer seen only through masculine eyes, though men still run it. Men as well as women are increasingly conscious of the relevance to women of the decisions made in the name of society. Even governments and movements that are philosophically against equality find it necessary to deal with this development by defending their position and offering an alternate theory on the role of women that they hope will counteract the growing feminist consciousness across the globe. It may be that in many parts of the world men’s awareness of the relevance of gender has led to reactionary politics leading to a contraction of rights and an expansion of violence.
Important and regrettable though this is, it points to an irreversible historical moment that is a harbinger of what is to come: women playing their part in defining the world in ways that will transform exclusionary behavior into communities of equals working together harmoniously in quest of a shared vision.
Modern information technology has allowed women to communicate across the world. So far, the communication has been north to south mainly because northern women have greater access to the means of communication than the women of the south. Moreover, feminist debate has a longer history in the north and is often better organized. Northern NGOs were the first to make a dent in the essentially male-dominated governmental policy making at national and international levels. Partly as a result of the UN world conferences of the last quarter of the 20th century and the networking and solidarity that developed through them, women’s NGOs have expanded in the south, demanding a place in the political process. They need international support because they operate in social systems that are for the most part hostile to their demands. The support and solidarity from international NGOs and the donor community in the north are vital to their progress. There are, however, some caveats that need to be addressed.
Northern women’s advantage resonates with the northern advantage in general, that is, with the same processes that have led to globalism as a condition rather than policy. They belong to the culture of the powerful, the rich, and the politically and culturally dominant. Alert to the pitfalls of such hegemonic conditioning, some northern women, or alternatively, some women of the south residing in the north, have tried to level the field by taking intellectual stances that at first glance appear reasonable but not so upon deeper reflection. One such intellectual stance is cultural relativism, possibly a defining concept for making strategic choices about the future of women’s movements in an increasingly globalized setting.
Culture as concept determines how we look at feminism as theory and how we approach the politics of achieving the essentials of the theory in different cultural and political milieus. The problem with cultural relativism may be easily discerned by its political effects: it brings together as allies women activists who wish freedom, equality, and choice for women and regressive governments and movements that want exactly the opposite, namely, to keep women in bondage. The idea of cultural relativism, nurtured in western universities, begins with the principle (though not necessarily the fact) that women are free to choose, and, because they are, no one has the right to impose her cultural preferences (parochialisms) on them. Ironically, in Iran, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and many other countries where the rights of women are severely curtailed, governments and regressive movements base their claims on the same principle, accusing those who object to their treatment of women as cultural imperialists. They justify their usurping of individual rights by pointing to the fact that many women support them, seemingly by their own volition. The anomaly between the two positions is of course clear: one begins with the foundation of individual right, the other with the primacy of community and traditional culture. Clearly, a decision about the core of feminism, i.e. individual space and choice, is indispensable to any theory of women’s rights. On the other hand, practical policies for achieving space and choice will depend on the characteristics of each society.
Western thinking about cultural relativism is closely related to the resurgence of religious fundamentalism more in the south but also in the north. Women’s movements across the world are strongly affected by religious doctrines. In some cases, such as in the discourse of Islam, epistemology has been mistaken for sociology. The history of Islam as religion has been substituted for the history of the people who happen to be Muslims. The result has been favoring the clergy as the arbiter of social norms and moral values with devastating consequences for democracy, development, and especially women’s human rights. In the Muslim world, wherever traditional interpretation of religion has prevented modernity and spirituality to reconcile, the contradiction has paralyzed life. Perhaps the best example of the conflict between doctrine and reality is Iran where an Islamic theocracy is imposed on a modern people—almost all Muslims—resulting in constant contradiction and paralysis. We Muslim women especially must make sure that we do not confuse right with law or the right to choose with choices that have been imposed on the basis of preordained law.
“A room of her own” as a precondition of space and choice—empowerment—is now well established in women’s movements. This idea has transmigrated to the theories of development and aid, where women’s participation in development decisions is seen as a requirement of both sustainable development and equitable distribution. The concept must be refined in women’s rights theories and made a focus of practical politics for promoting women’s rights in the south as well as in the north.
Gendered development points to human development, a more comprehensive concept than economic development. It springs forth from gendered thinking, bringing to the idea of development a complex of values that supercedes the materialism of global capitalism while it shuns both the morass of religiosity as well as the void of the socialist utopias that in the past opened the way to totalitarian politics. Gendered development takes off from the feminist idea of a participatory world, a system of sharing that has its roots in interaction among equals, not just before the law but each in the eyes of the other. Such a world may not be easily attainable but it is perhaps the only possible way in which humanity may reach peace in prosperity, liberty, equality, and justice. The other way is that of hierarchy, senseless growth, militarism, normlessness, and terror.
Strategic Communication for the Expansion of Women’s Movements
How do we make our interactions purposeful without either dictating our point of view, losing sight of our point of view, or, in the bargain, forfeiting our principles? Strategic communication is efficient communication, that is, it conveys the message, gets the job done, without producing unwanted consequences. The end of strategic communication for women is to achieve shared vision. The only way to do so is to develop respect for the other—not as a ruse to achieve one’s goal but genuine respect. Genuine respect springs from within; it is a property of the “self” rather than that of the “other”.
Leadership as Dialogical Communication
We need leaders in order to get important things done. Important things, however, are not achieved by fiat, at least not in the world we seek. In leadership as dialogical communication everyone is assumed to have something important to contribute, not only in getting done what each of us considers important, but also, more importantly, in helping each of us determine what it is that we truly want. In this context no one is a leader all the time; everyone is a leader sometime.
Individual Freedom VS Coercive Community
We are all social by nature, creatures of community. The point therefore is not to disparage community. It is rather to distinguish between community as a set of coercive rules—habit, custom, or law—and community as an interactive system in which each of us is a free contributing agent. The cohesiveness of community—family, clan, village, or city—should not be maintained at the expense of individuality. I, as a woman, understand that I can be a happy human being only as a member of a community. We, the community and I, must therefore come to an understanding. Historically, this understanding has been achieved by force at my expense, even when I accepted the communal norms because I had internalized them, believing that they were eternal rules based on the will of God and exigencies of nature. It was then not possible for me to object because I did not know. Now I do. This does not mean that I no longer accept the norms. I only know that I must have a choice to accept or not; and that every other woman ought to have the choice, and that each of us is obligated to help the other discover that she has, or ought to have, choice.
Feminist Worldview VS Empowered Women Patriarchs
Feminism distinguishes between women-cum-men (Thatchers, Gandhis, Meirs) achieving high political or managerial positions and women leaders who promote feminist ideals. There is, however, a dialectic that must be considered. The more women are in decision-making positions, the higher the probability that women’s point of view will have a hearing. When the number of women in decision-making positions reaches a critical mass, we have or come close to having a qualitative change. We have reached such a critical mass in certain Scandinavian countries with palpable political effects. It seems that although individually women may rise in the world of men by becoming like men; collectively they exhibit many of the qualities we have associated with the feminist point of view. It is important therefore for women’s organizations across the world to help an increasing number of women to gain positions of leadership under existing circumstances while advocating for the values and methods that are an integral part of strategies of the future.
III. Strategies for the Future
A. We must insist that the rights of women are rooted in history rather than culture.
At the moment this is the most crucial strategic option women must take if they are to maintain a theoretically sustainable position as they deal with the plight of women across cultures. This is also at the heart of the controversy about relativism and universalism in the discussions of women’s human rights. Feminist theory—regardless of preferences its various branches may have for various issues of interest and importance to different clusters of women in a society or across societies—must make a sharp distinction between universal rights of women to individual freedom, space, and equal access to the protection of the laws universally acclaimed, and the practical ways and means of reaching these rights in different cultures and political systems.
- We must insist that no one—man or woman—may claim a right to a monopoly of interpretation of God to human beings or to forcing others to accept a particular ruling about any religion. The upshot of this position is that women ought not to be forced to choose between freedom and God. The same applies to claims on behalf of tradition.
- We must insist that international governmental and non-governmental organizations, national states, NGOs, as well as national and multinational corporations decide their policies about international, national, and local issues in cognizance of the universal rights of women.
- We must educate the decision makers at all levels about the plight of women and the reasons why they should try to shape their decision to help women achieve the rights internationally recognized.
- We must hold governments and organizations responsible for the effect on women of the political, social, economic, and cultural choices they make nationally or internationally. Such choices must have a political cost and the nature of the cost ought to be defined based on the characteristics of the deciding organization or state.
B. Women’s vision of the future must become holistic and comprehensive.
The patriarchal system in operation across the world is cohesive, internally rational, and structurally comprehensive. It is, however, anti-historical because it is based on a uniform definition of the role of women as naturally subordinate and complementary to the role of men. We need to conceive the future in which women play a decidedly different role—as equal to men and complete in themselves—in terms that are also cohesive, rational, and comprehensive. This means we must take a new look at the structure of human relations broadly defined. We need to achieve a balance between the sexes not only in the public arena but also at the level of family. Women must not only remain aware of the multidimensionality of the required change; they must also show the areas in which men and women should work together to construct the social, economic and cultural structures needed for the successful operation of the desired society.
- We must move beyond the theory of women’s human rights as a theory of equality before the law or a theory of women’s individual space or a theory of “a room of her own” to a theory of the architecture of the future society where the universality of rights and relativity of means merge to operationalize an optimally successful coexistence of community and individuality. This architectural theory will point to a dynamic design where human relations broadly conceived evolve with the requirements of the times as they also satisfy the needs both of individuality and community. We already have the beginnings of this kind of thinking in the idea that all issues are women’s issues. But this is just a beginning.
- We must take the statement “all issues are women’s issues” as a preliminary proposition opening the door for women to reformulate the issues emerging from the contradictions in the patriarchal society to create solutions that lead us to non- patriarchal relations. Only then will women’s empowerment make a real difference.
- Men must be regarded as actual or potential partners. Women must educate men to a future that is significantly different from the past and present. Women’s movements must “infiltrate” the institutions that influence the mindsets, inclusive of men and women. Education at all levels must clearly be a primary target. Women’s studies at the universities must be reconceived to become an integrated component of the courses that affect gender relations as well as individual- community relations. Courses in culture and religion are obvious choices. Just as important are such fields as social, economic, and political studies, public and business administration, architecture, city planning, development studies, and everything having to do with war and peace, including the military-industrial relations.
C. We must accommodate the strategic demands of globalism.
Globalization has brought about new opportunities as well as seemingly insoluble problems. It is changing the architecture of human relations across the world. We must adjust our understanding of the ways and means of achieving our ends to the evolving global conditions.
- We must acquire the intellectual wherewithal to foresee the future trends and their effect on women’s lives and values. It may be that we must now begin to define our interest in wider perspectives. We must bring into our organizations talents beyond those traditionally concerned with women’s issues. We now need a variety of informed input to our planning and operation—from economics to statistics, from concepts of human security including the problem of terror and counter terror to a more precise definition of cultures of war and cultures of peace. Women’s organizations across the world, but particularly in the west, should be infused increasingly with the so-called hard sciences.
- Because globalism is a condition and not a policy, it follows that we must address the factors that have created it and that will affect its future makeup, such as the multinationals and the military-industrial complexes. Women have tended to shun organizations such as the World Bank, IMF, and OECD because they are government-oriented and masculine in character. But these traits are precisely the reason we must infiltrate and reorient them. Otherwise, women’s movements will tend to remain at the periphery of the developments that shape the world.
- Women must be increasingly integrated in the global information technology at both scientific and operational levels. To bring information technology to women in the less developed world ought to be an overarching strategy of women’s organizations everywhere, particularly in the west. Women must use whatever clout they can muster to force the organizations of the type mentioned above to make the extension of information technology to women an integral part of their relationship with governments and the private sector everywhere.
D. Women must work to empower women across the world
We must learn how to appropriate and use political power. Women everywhere must help women everywhere to become leaders. To achieve equitable participation of women leaders requires us to reconsider the essence and form of leadership. We need to reconceptualize leadership so as 1) the chances for women to become leaders are optimized; 2) the probability that women leaders become surrogate men is minimized; and 3) a critical mass of women leaders in positions of political authority is achieved.
- We must work to encourage women to communicate with women everywhere— in their community, city, country, and across the world. An important part of the encouragement process is to help women in the developing parts of the world gain access to the means of communication—telephone, the Internet, the mass media. The technology exists; it must be liberated for constructive, humane use.
- We must use modern information technology to encourage women everywhere to become participants in the political process broadly defined, that is, participating in the making of the decisions that affect their lives and the lives of others in the family, community, state, or where possible, the world.
- We must bring to women everywhere an idea of leadership that is dialogical, non- hierarchical, communicative, and communal. We have developed the appropriate methodologies and begun to experiment with such leadership formats.1 We must develop them further to make them operational in complex political environments.
Conclusion: Subjecting the Inevitable to Feminist Choice
I began with defining globalization as a condition rather than a policy. Because it is a systemic tendency, it appears impervious to political decision-making. This may be so only because the system has been constructed on masculine foundations of competition and aggression. We can change the system by infusing it with feminist ideals. We must change the rules of the game, using modern techniques to subvert the system that has produced the techniques. As we negotiate our passage into the new century, we know that if we insist upon our rights, our movements will be the force that shapes the future.
1 An example of participatory, horizontal leadership based on collaborative partnerships for implementation is described in Leading to Choices: A Leadership Training Handbook for Women, Women’s Learning Partnership (2001).