Over the past several months, I have come to enjoy articles written by Meera Chowdhry. However, her two recent articles, have raised some concerns for me. Titled: "Strength of a Woman" (Parts 1 and 2), Mrs. Chowdhry writes on the issue of female empowerment, giving accounts of her personal life: as a mother, as a wife, and as a woman, to delineate on what she sees are the strengths (and weaknesses) of a woman. I applaud her thesis for female empowerment, however her premises and arguments trouble me. I wish to reflect on some of the things Mrs. Chowdhry illustrated in her articles and hope to stir a constructive conversation between us (and others) on this issue of female empowerment.
Mrs. Chowdhry begins with the premise that: "things have changed to some extent." True, women won the right to vote in the United States in the 1920s followed by passages of federal statues that granted equal rights to life, liberty, and property. The sexual revolution of the '60s transformed women's status; women gained the right to choose, along with rights to control their sexual activity and pronounced their rights to equal access through measures like affirmative action. Title IX allowed equal access for women in schools and in universities and paid the way for federal funding towards Women's Studies Research, and Women's Healthcare Research. Although these achievements mark the 20th century and equal rights and opportunity are somewhat achieved through law, the defacto debasement of women still remains a stark reality. The electoral political system, the business sector, the scientific and technological communities are still dominated by (White) men (in affluent countries of the North). Economically, a woman makes 60 cents for every dollar a man makes, and women are constantly discriminated and sexually harassed at the workplace. Four rapes, or attempted rapes, take place every minute in the United States.
The conditions of women in developing countries are even more insidious. India would be a prime example, where one out of every five female child is killed at birth (based on gender, and Amartya Sen estimates that there are 100 million such "missing women" around the world), two-thirds of the rest only live up to the age of five. Women are on a startling majority who are undernourished, deprived of adequate health care, and education. Those that do struggle past these hurdles are often sold into "sex slavery," and forced-arranged marriages and held in shackles of economic slavery through the dowry system and an insidious culture that sustains all of this. Martha Nussbaum, a feminist philosopher, observing the studies of economist Amartya Sen, notes, "women have lived their entire lives in situations of deprivation frequently do not feel dissatisfied with the way things are with them, even at the level of physical health."1 This is the plight of women in the world and the global picture for women is still disturbing in that not only are they devoid of equal rights and opportunity, but often times women are so immersed in their culture that they do not recognize these oppressions. Women are the most marginalized group due to globalization and neocolonialism sponsored by the North.
Thus Mrs. Chowdhry's premise fails to take these things into account, providing us with a picture where individual gains and goals can set things straight as opposed to transforming the social norms and cultural values. It also fails to take into account the economic factor: monetary systems are controlled through highly bureaucratic channels, and political regimes, which also need to be challenged to achieve equality and justice. For instance, Mrs. Chowdhry says, "there are some people more fortunate" than others, and later "we get what we deserve." She is instructing women to find their uniqueness as individuals and then to use their talents to excel in their area of interest. She is also lurking around the neo-conservative argument that personal ambitions and talents can bring about a higher status for women, and that failures and inadequacies in women's lives are due to their own failures and not to be criticized as a result of the sexism in our society. I feel obligated to remind her that although we are all unique individuals with unique talents and abilities we are still driven and motivated for a huge part by our social roles, more specifically: gender roles. If women are brought up under social settings, where they were only taught to play with Barbie dolls and kitchen sets, they are more likely to believe their talent can only be expressed through those means, as opposed to getting involved in politics or science. When my mother wanted to pursue political science and law, her conservative parents readily rejected, citing women do not enter such fields, she was thus directed towards a study in the biological sciences. Similarly, social normative and internalization of those norms shape our goals and they themselves might restrict us in our activities. As we can see not everyone has equal access to our facilities and thus female empowerment, and individual growth for women should be intricately connected with the need for solidarity among women (and men) to address social, political, and economic injustices.
Mrs. Chowdhry states, "when someone tries to put us down or looks down upon us, it is written on our face that 'okay they can do it.'" This is not true; more, it is obscene to blame the victims of their plight. Let us extend this logic to the fate of a rape victim. Could we really, as rational human beings, point the finger at the girl that got raped at the party by five thugs, citing she probably shouldn't have been there or that she had a stamp on her forehead that read: "Rape me"? When someone is being exploited, it is not the fault of the exploited, but the criminality of the exploiter, which needs to be crucified. Women who do allow men to exploit them, to treat them as means to the man's ends, are not at fault themselves, and it is easier said for us ask themselves to simply remove themselves from the exploitative situation; but the reality of these women are much different. A battered housewife, especially immigrant housewives (such is the case with many Indian immigrants in the US)2 simply cannot leave their husbands or the exploiter to find their own avenues. They simply do not possess the equal opportunities to venture in the world and find their own ways of income, security and other needs that are fulfilled in an institution of marriage. A mature critique should be of those that exploit, and to call into question the whole institution of marriage that serves as the means for the male spouse to achieve his desired ends while the female is forced to remain, withholding her desires. We must also call into question the sexism of our society and not simply blame the victims of their fate. Mrs. Chowdhry's statements perplex me.
In response to a girl that complained having less freedom than her male siblings, Mrs. Chowdhry poses this banal rhetorical question: "Would you like your mom to go to a bar alone and have a little good time at the late hours?" The question presupposes that something "bad" is prone to happen to women in bars at late hours. It also presupposes that when female children ask to stay out late, they are necessarily spending time at bars having "some late night fun," as opposed to maybe staying longer with a study group or staying over at a friend's house partying. The question also supposes that women should have limits to their freedom and fun in the name of "practicality," while men should not be restricted. Naturally, what follows, is the legitimization of the stereotypical male: the picture of a sex crazed maniac with the need to rape and harm women; and the passivity of females. And if the former is true of "some" men, it is a problem that we as a society need to address and female children should not be unfairly deprived of their fun and entertainment and forced to make concessions. I agree, given the "practical" nature of our society, women do need to exercise caution, but this is not to be confused with legitimizing these dangers faced by women; neither should be a cause for restricting activities of women. Rather, this should serve as a cause to find solidarity between women and to push for a safer society for all citizens.
Without a doubt the issue of female empowerment is a complex one. However, there are some simple truths that I hold to be self-evident and I hope Mrs. Chowdhry would join me in pronouncing these: 1) Women in our society need to be viewed as ends in themselves and not as means to an end, and should be treated with dignity. 2) Women's liberation and consequent empowerment must necessitate the need to criticize cultural "tools" of oppression and reform the social structures to promote equality and justice. We cannot simply suggest that the individual woman "get her act together and stand up for her own rights," we must work as a society for female empowerment.
1. See Martha Nussbaum, and Amartya Sen in "Quality of Life" which contains a series of essays on what constitutes a good quality of life. Nussbaum and Sen have dedicated a section to answering issues of gender equality in developing countries. Nussbaum was quoted from "Onara O'Neill: Justice, Gender, and International Boundaries". Also see, Nussbaum's "Sex and Gender Equality" which includes extensive field studies done by Nussbaum in villages in India.
2. Congress passed legislation in 1998, called the "Battered Women's Legislation" aimed at protecting immigrant women (mainly with H4 visas - issued to dependent spouses of the H1B visas, given out to our infamous technocrats from India) from their husbands and in guaranteeing stay in the United States for a year and opportunities for finding a job. Again, these measures show that community and legislative action is necessary to help and advance female empowerment.