Monday, April 20, 2009

Advocacy & the Western Woman

Funny how entering an international studies program precipitated my growing aversion to theorizing about people on the other side of the world. Life could be easier if my timing was better and my ethics just a little quicker on the uptake. Not so long ago I was two weeks into law school and having epiphanies about the pointlessness of competition and confrontational debate – both like kryptonite to me yet at the time were(and sometimes still are) perversely my go-to mannerisms. Now a year in an international studies program has left me reluctant to even gossip about my neighbor.

Should I really be so upset though, about not wanting to make snappy cultural judgements? Well, no. But it is crucial that a radical feminist be able to competently assess cultures and institutions for their gendered aspects. And don't we have a concomitant obligation to name and fight injustice wherever it operates? Feminists ought to be adept at identifying commonalities and therefore possibilities for empowerment whenever women are in need. And despite all the First-World meddling and agenda setting, I still believe in an international feminist movement that can transform women's and men's lives.

My role and agenda as an international feminist partly hinges on the resolution of this issue. No one has to come down on one "side" of the debate "between" multiculturalism and universal human rights. Toleration is not 'against' principled judgment - but if you're one of the hegemons, I believe more and more that it would be wise to back away slowly from judging anything more than 4-H competitions. And if an unawareness of privilege blinds you to the fact that the breathtaking view is made possible by the folks you're standing on, then for christ's sake watch your step. I do bitch a lot about injustice and inequity – but as a white, upper middle-class American do I truly have that much to gripe about? Sure I do – but I try to remind myself that bellyaching over "the Canon" does not compare with the way real hunger gnaws at the stomach (Haitians describe this as "Clorox" hunger, because the sensation of starvation feels as if bleach were eating their stomachs – a sharp, acidy feeling ). It is perfectly fine for me to be resentful about having to time a baby and a dissertation, but this means squat beside women who've had radically different reproductive "options" as victims of genocidal wartime rapes.

We must be able to rank and prioritize injustices if we are serious about stopping them. Wrongs and discriminations are concrete events that happen every day, and some of them are lethal. I may be resentful of many inequities I see in my reference group, but I am not hungry, carrying an unwanted child, prevented from driving, legally excluded from politics or suffering from poorly executed rituals involving my vagina. I would love to blame my family for picking out my really bad first husband (though the honor is indeed all mine) and my education hasn't been hindered by much except my hand getting too tired to sign another IOU. No one, for one of the first times in recorded history, has really prevented me from attaining general fulfillment (or at least as much fulfillment as most men) When I take myself seriously, it must be in a global context and I'm doing o.k.

God knows I'm an unfairness hawk, so these days I find myself in a perplexing situation when I can't find the right words to point out glaring injustices. Hey, I might be an American but I read – and the bottom line is that I have had the leisure time and emotional space not only to notice the suffering of others, but to amass the material resources that can relieve it. Much of the time I'm furious about how we're taught – through our cultural and political discourse – to think about other cultures. When we talk about how any minority group "treats its women," we tacitly reinforce the idea that men comprise the core of any identity, and that women are the passive agents of culture. How did we end up in a situation where human rights are dismissed as unique Western constructs? When I'm not mad about linguistically reinforcing patriarchy, I'm pissed at the absurd idea that "those women over there" must not share with us some basic desires or precepts of humanity – to live free from emotional and physical violence, to protect their children, to have a say in the laws that regulate their lives and families. Only women in the West want these things? This is a deeply awful idea – and one we should get away from right now.

I'm concentrating these days on tempering outrage with humility – and mostly failing – but I'm trying to strike a balance between being empathetic and so goddamn overpowering. Knowing my culture's colonial legacy cannot preclude me from honestly trying to do better. If we – relatively privileged Western women – aren't willing to be honest about our own roles in American cultural and economic imperialism, then what legitimacy do we have? Sleeping with the enemy, though we do it still, is never the way to resist. But as long as we benefit from economic policies that impoverish other women, as long as we hire them cheaply to raise our children and clean our homes, as long as we don't exercise what autonomy we've wrested from the patriarchy, we really can't claim to have an ethic to our names. I so want to believe like Virginia Woolf that as a woman I have no country - but the truth is that I represent many things I never wanted to be or do. I'm still not sure what to say about that.

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