Aug 302010

Okay, I get that there is a percentage of the population that feels rather strongly that feminists are to blame for everything that ever went wrong, but what I don’t get is when feminists themselves start blaming feminists. That however seems to be the gist of several recent posts by Rafia Zakaria on the Ms. Blog. Several weeks ago, Ms. Zakaria dismissed posts on the Feminist Peace Network as, “The Left’s framing”* and now apparently Zakaria is worried that feminists are to blame for the slow response to providing aid to Pakistan.

While very correctly pointing to the gendered impact of the disaster, she then writes,

For feminists, the crisis in Pakistan presents particularly tough questions regarding the ability of women around the world to come together for a humanitarian cause. Despite the fact that Pakistan remains a prominent ally, few American women’s groups have initiated campaigns to either collect funds for flood survivors or to coordinate efforts that would insist that American aid be disbursed in a way that insures that women’s needs are accounted for.

First of all, why should aid be tied to the fact that Pakistan is an ally, this is a humanitarian issue, not a political issue.  Women’s groups regularly raise a ruckus about the need to provide women-responsive aid, but the scope of this disaster is far beyond what most women’s groups can begin to adequately address and it is well past time that women-responsive aid be an internationally recognized need, and not something  assumed to be an issue that women or feminists are responsible for addressing.

While the Global Fund for Women has mounted an admirable effort to raise funds for flood-affected women in Pakistan, the issue has failed to gain significant traction among feminist groups, even those that have been focusing on the region with campaigns on ending the American military presence there.

Being opposed to militarism makes us impotent in the face of a humanitarian crisis?  Must one be in favor of militarism to be empowered to mount an aid effort?  Zakaria’s logic here escapes me.

The silence points to some of my worst fears: that the fervor of arguments preaching immediate withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan may have bled into a general attitude that wants nothing to do with the region at all. Simultaneously, as I discuss here, the admirable push to empower Afghan and Iraqi women may at times slide into the wishful thinking that they can perform a miraculous, by-the-bootstraps self-empowerment, without support.

No one is suggesting that and Zakaria provides no examples. Demands for immediate military withdrawal should not be confused with support for humanitarian efforts.

Could an unfortunate consequence of such thinking be that respect for the ability of Pakistani women to help themselves without foreign interference has been crudely transformed into the belief that they do not need any help from feminists around the world?

With all due respect, how could any thinking, compassionate person possibly think that?

Indeed, acknowledging the integral possibility of self-empowerment must not impose an insularity on global feminism that prevents solidarity at crucial times of humanitarian catastrophe. These unfortunate realities are abstract and achingly difficult to explain to the hundreds of thousands of women crouching in small makeshift beds and holding crying babies who continue to ask aid workers why the world does not care about them.

So the question stands for us to answer: Has global feminism been ravaged by the contentious debates over Iraq and Afghanistan, or can it revive in the face of the worst humanitarian disaster in the history of the United Nations?

That question is quite a leap. Zakaria offers no evidence of what she terms ravaging but with so many examples of how feminism continues to grow this is an odd assertion.  To the extent that feminism is strained, the root causes lie in economic hardship, racism, ecological stress and patriarchal politics, not contentious debates.  In any case, there has never been any debate that we should offer our support to Afghan (and Iraqi) women.  Women in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo and many other places need our support too.  That we are not providing it is a reflection of our misguided national vision and extreme lack of understanding of the dire nature of this need, not our lack of humanity or feminist principles.

It defies understanding as to why there is still debate in the feminist community regarding whether military intervention is a viable way to provide that support or whether in fact a policy that includes the crass and cynical use of the difficulties faced by these women to justify our presence in these countries does more harm than good.  The amount of money we are spending for destruction dwarfs the amounts spent to enable Afghan women, or for that matter spent to provide humanitarian aid to Pakistan.  While there is no doubt that the women of Afghanistan need support, our current policy is not providing that support nor was it ever primarily intended to do so.

As regards Pakistan, again, the way we provide aid needs to be re-conceptualized but in fact, it is worth noting as the Feminist Peace Network did last week that feminist groups from around the world are working to help women in Pakistan.  I find it disturbing and disheartening that Ms. continues to run pieces on their blog that bash other feminists with little to back up those assertions.


Note:  This is the response I wrote to that particular piece.  As a result of that, a productive dialog was held between Ms. and myself regarding the issues  involved and they were very kind to put a link to my rebuttal on their web page.  In the aftermath of that dialog, this most recent post is particularly baffling.

 August 30, 2010  Posted by on August 30, 2010

  2 Responses to “Ms. Magazine Blog: Feminists Conflicted About Helping Women In Pakistan–Say What?”

  1. What sophistry! There is no logic to her argument and no evidence. I have heard a few calls from feminist groups about helping women in Pakistan, btw, like Madre I think…
    Good response!

  2. AWID (Association for Women’s Rights in Development) Statement on the Post-Floods Humanitarian Crisis in Pakistan, August 2010

    (click on the links at the top right for Spanish and French versions)

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