Friday, August 26, 2005

Why Don't Women Count?

My Private Idaho - New York Times

[F]ormer C.I.A. Middle East specialist, Reuel Marc Gerecht, said on "Meet the Press," U.S. democracy in 1900 didn't let women vote. If Iraqi democracy resembled that, "we'd all be thrilled," he said. "I mean, women's social rights are not critical to the evolution of democracy."

Why aren't my rights critical? If half the male population of a country didn't have the right to vote, hold political office or have equal rights under the law would we call it a democracy?

Maybe we would given our soppy romanticism about 5th century BC Athens as the paradigm of democracy in spite of the fact that 2/3 of the population were slaves or metics who were excluded from political participation and of the remaining third, Athenian citizens, half were women who had no political rights. And of the sixth of the population who were free male citizens the majority were thetes who were too busy laboring or working in their fields to participate in Athenian democracy--or walk in the groves of Academe. What percentage of the population, one wonders, has to be disenfranchised to make a country an oligarchy rather than a democracy?

It isn't just a matter of numbers either. Suppose a country were divided almost equally between two ethnic groups--Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Bosnians, Protestant and Catholic Irish or "Arab" and black Sudanese--we would certainly consider it critical to the evolution of democracy that both groups had full political rights. We would never consider it, even if not ideal, acceptable if Bosnians, Irish Catholics or black Sudanese were disenfranchised. We do not consider consider equal treatment for ethnic groups a luxury to be pursued only once the important business of establishing democracy had gone some way forward.

Why are women different?

Let's be honest: the assumption is that, unlike disenfranchised ethnic minorities, women will be supported financially and taken care of even if they don't have full political rights--like suburban housewives in the US and other affluent countries 50 years ago. But this is precisely what will not happen in the Third World where women are routinely beaten, "circumcised" and burned in "kitchen accidents" if their relatives don't kick in an acceptable dowry.

What may be at work at bottom is the assumption of a three-gender system: unisex upper-middle class males and females in affluent countries for whom equal rights are a matter of importance, traditional males and traditional females in the third world and amongst the lower classes in the US. And when it comes to lower class females, particularly women of color, their rights aren't "critical to the development of democracy" and don't count.

We'd certainly oppose wife-beating in the US and be horrified at any proposal to make women's testimony in court weight half of male testimony or punish women for being raped, but hey it's their culture and that's how it works with them. Maybe the bottom line is that women's rights aren't "critical" because women aren't big enough or strong enough to do damage. We want to stop those terrorists and suicide bombers, and all the young lower-class males here and abroad who do violence and endanger us. If affirming their "traditional cultures" including their right to dominate, and beat up on, women keeps them happy and off our backs, that's ok.

I'm still left with the question: why don't I count? why aren't my rights "critical"?


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