What NOW? Feminist Fatigue and the Global Quest for Women's Rights

| Tue Dec. 18, 2007 1:41 PM EST

Western feminists can't win for losing.

We're taken to task for not gearing up the war machine against third world countries which, inarguably, treat their women like dogs. You know, since sexism is all under control here. Where, oh where, was NOW when a 16 year old girl in Canada was murdered by her father for refusing to wear the hijab? Anne Applebaum, at Slate, nags us about the Saudi Arabian gang rape victim sentenced to jail and 200 lashes and asks where our campaign on their behalf is. [Salon's Broadsheet adds that though she's been pardoned, it's only because she's suicidal and lost in despair (you might be, too, if your brother had already attempted your "honor killing"). Heinously guilty of being alone with an unrelated man, the "Girl of Qatif" drove those seven male passers-by to rape. She's as guilty as they. Had she not fallen apart emotionally, she wouldn't have been pardoned. Her psychological destruction, says good King Abdullah, is all justice ever required, hence her pardon.] Of course, let's not forget good old FGM. We got all NOW'd up over that one just to find ourselves dismissed, by the very women living with circumcision, as imperialists trying to deprive them of the joy of castration . Damned if we do, damned if we don't.

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Just today, Cherie Blair's dumped the plight of third world widows in my feminist lap:

In rural areas of Nepal and India, widows may still be expected to shave their heads, sleep on the floor and hide from men for the rest of their lives.

In Afghanistan, where two million women have lost their husbands in decades of fighting, widows are prevented from working and have no way to provide for their children. In Tanzania, among other countries, the legal system makes it difficult for widows to inherit their husband's property.

The result is that many widows and their children are kicked out of their homes, forced to live in abject poverty on the fringes of society, and are prey to abuse, violence and sexual exploitation. With no money to pay for education, the children of widows are pulled out of school. With no education, these children are doomed to spend their lives in the most menial of jobs, if they can find work at all.

Oh dear. What exactly am I and my hairy-legged, humorless fellow travelers supposed to do about all this? I remember, back a few years ago when Nicholas Kristof began his wonderful, brave reporting from Africa. He was the first to introduce me to the problem, let alone the existence, of fistulas in the third world:

...obstetric fistulas, a condition almost unknown in the West but indescribably hideous for millions of sufferers in the poorest countries in the world.

It typically occurs when a teenage girl cannot deliver a baby because it is too big for her pelvis. After several days of labor without access to a doctor, the baby dies and the girl is left with a hole between her bladder, vagina and sometimes rectum. The result is that urine and sometimes feces drip constantly down her legs. In some cases, she is also left lame from nerve damage.

Women with fistulas stink and leave a trail of urine behind them. They are often abandoned by their husbands and driven out by other villagers.

OH. MY. GOD. The numbers Kristof supplies are horrendous and staggering. I'd had no idea. I read on eagerly, only to get bitch slapped from the blue:

I know why most African governments have done nothing to help fistula sufferers: those women are the poorest, most stigmatized, voiceless people on the continent. But since it is difficult to imagine a more important women's issue in the third world than maternal health, I don't understand why most feminist organizations in the West have never shown interest in these women either.

Perhaps it's because Westerners can't conceive of the horror of obstetric fistulas (Americans haven't commonly suffered fistulas since the 19th century, when a fistula hospital stood on the site of today's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in Manhattan). Or perhaps the issue doesn't galvanize women's groups because fistulas relate to a traditional child-bearing role.

White boy, please.

Perhaps it's because some of us feminists never heard of fistulas UNTIL SOMEONE TOLD US ABOUT THEM. Perhaps it's because the problem is so immense, and so bizarre, it will take awhile to sink it. Perhaps feminists are disorganized, after generations of push back from trogolodytes like you and the vast right wing conspiracy that they simply don't have their shit together. You're a good journalist and all but are you so sure that feminists should be more focused on fistulas than, say, mass rape in Darfur or what about all the freaking widows and Muslim girls undergoing re-virginization surgery before their arranged marriages? Hoser.

Applebaum, in the piece linked to above, at least tries to see where feminists are coming from with their policy agendas; besides op-eds of the type that helped free the Girl of Qatif, exactly how are Gloria Steinem and I supposed to undo millennia of foreign culture? Especially in countries like Saudi Arabia whose oil reserves make it impossible for us to hold to them any sort of humane standards. Where's all the money going to come from for fistula hospitals and widows' homes? But the problem with a globalized campaign for women's rights is structural, and of course gendered, not the fault of let-them-eat-cake feminists:

"...the deeper problem is the gradual marginalization of "women's issues" in domestic politics, which has made them subordinate to security issues or racial issues in foreign policy. American delegates to international and U.N. women's organizations are mostly identified with arguments about reproductive rights (whether for or against, depending on the administration), not arguments about the fundamental rights of women in Saudi Arabia or the Muslim world.

Until this changes, it will be hard to mount a campaign, in the manner of the anti-apartheid movement, to enforce sanctions or codes of conduct for people doing business there. What we need as a model, in other words, is not the 1960s feminism we all remember, but a globalized version of 19th-century feminism we've nearly forgotten. Candidates for the role of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, anyone?

Anyone? Anyone?

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