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Saving Women, Saving the World

Deborah Kolben’s previous post, about how her first ultrasound initially mistook her daughter for a son, brings to mind an article in this weekend’s New York Times that discusses just how complicated determining a person’s sex can be. Fascinating and freaky, the article — and my seeing a look-alike for the androgynous SNL character “Pat” on the subway recently — reminded me that, while many of us like to think we strive for a world where opportunities are gender-blind, most of us would be terribly unsettled by a world that actually is gender-blind.

Fortunately, or more likely not, the world is far from reaching that state, as this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine makes clear. The issue’s cover story, “Why Women’s Rights Are The Cause of Our Time” (or “The Women’s Crusade”), in concert with several other of its features, makes the case that empowering women, especially in the developing world where they tend to be most oppressed, will solve a lot of the world’s problems, including terrorism and poverty.

How so? In the case of poverty, the argument goes, getting women out of the hut and into the educated, entrepreneurial workforce, making them producers instead of mere consumers, will grow the economies of the developing world tremendously (and as another article in the magazine argues, women tend to be much more effective producers than men are in these parts of the world). In the case of combating terrorism, the argument is less defined but still intriguing:

Now it is emerging that male domination of society is also a risk factor (for the rise of terrorism); the reasons aren’t fully understood, but it may be that when women are marginalized the nation takes on the testosterone-laden culture of a military camp or a high-school boys’ locker room. Indeed, some scholars say they believe the reason Muslim countries have been disproportionately afflicted by terrorism is not Islamic teachings about infidels or violence but rather the low levels of female education and participation in the labor force.

The issue is worth a thorough read, but here are a few things that struck me about it:

• The idea that helping one population can make waves that lead to positive changes in the rest of the world is one that’s not harnessed often enough. So frequently we try to tackle a problem in the most obvious, superficial way, rather than addressing the systemic roots of that problem and thinking about our interconnectedness.

• While I believe strongly in empowering women and ending their oppression around the world, I’m struck by how hard the magazine comes down on men in these developing countries. Perhaps this rebuke is well-deserved — I don’t know enough to judge — but it borders on political incorrectness in a way that’s rather surprising, and rather refreshing.

• While for the most part I buy the arguments made, I also wonder if this notion of saving the women and thus saving the world isn’t a bit naive.

• The mix of political incorrectness and naivete are best illustrated in a dialogue between Times’ interviewer extraordinaire Deborah Solomon and the Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Solomon asks, “If women ran the world, would wars still exist?”

It’s hard to imagine a Western woman answering this question unequivocally, but Sirleaf does:

No. It would be a better, safer and more productive world. A woman would bring an extra dimension to that task — and that’s a sensitivity to humankind. It comes from being a mother. Even Solomon seems taken aback by her answer, playing the more politically correct – or perhaps just more cynical — role here: “But if women had power, they would be more likely to acquire the negative traits that power breeds, like selfishness and territorialism.”

Yet Sirleaf concedes only slightly, insisting, “It would take a very long term of women absolutely in power to get to the place where they became men.”

Yikes. Though considering what I know of African heads of state in the last few decades, Sirleaf’s point of view seems less surprising.

Another interesting point that comes out of this interview is that the amount of equality women ostensibly have in a given society doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the likelihood of a woman being elected to that society’s highest office. In Liberia, Solomon points out, women are routinely gang-raped, yet the country managed to elect Sirleaf. In the U.S., where such violence against women happens less and where women have the recourse of the law when it does happen, we have still not had a female president.

On a final note, it was nice to see an ad for the American Jewish World Service right at the start of the magazine. It underscored the importance of having a strong Jewish presence in the fight for bettering the world at large, not just our own community.

Rebecca Honig Friedman writes about Jewish women’s issues on the Jewess blog at Jewess.Canonistand is a producer for The Jewish Channel.

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