Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Reflections on Capitalism and Feminism

October 19, 2015, New York

It has been a long time since I wrote a new post for this blog.  Not that there hasn't been much to say or to observe or to share.  I spent the last three years in India representing the Ford Foundation and seeking to make grants in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka to non-profit and non-governmental organizations that could help to strengthen civil society groups, including women's rights groups, research groups, policy and advocacy groups, human rights associations, farmer producer cooperatives and companies, and a range of educational organizations. I was in Delhi when the tragic and brutal gang rape of a young woman on a bus shook the nation and the world into paying renewed attention to the ugly reality of persistent sexual violence that women and girls face across the globe.

But, today I am writing because I just had the pleasure of reading something that made me practically jump up and down in the middle of each sentence in affirmation. This is a brilliant and insightful analysis of how feminism and capitalism are linked and how essential it is that we understand that reality if we hope to create a different world.  I don't know Nancy Fraser, a professor at the New School in New York, but I will be reading as much as I can by her, because she has placed a wise and very important word of caution out there for all of us who care about human rights, about gender justice, about girls' and women's struggles for equality and dignity. You can read the interview here at:

But, in case you want the essence that I took away:

  • Feminism cares about the structures and underlying systems of inequality.  In that sense, it has to ask where did patriarchy come from? What sustains it after so many aeons of development and progress?
  • The answer is rooted in our fundamental economic and political systems just as much as it in our cultural and social norms.  In fact, the former two deeply affect and often determine the direction and nature of the latter.
  • So, if we want to unpack and overturn the fundamental gender inequalities that continue to keep women in positions of subservience and limited power in the personal and public spaces we inhabit as human beings we need to understand that: "feminism is not simply a matter of getting a smattering of individual women into positions of power and privilege within existing social hierarchies. It is rather about overcoming those hierarchies. This requires challenging the structural sources of gender domination in capitalist society — above all, the institutionalized separation of two supposedly distinct kinds of activity: on the one hand, so-called “productive” labor, historically associated with men and remunerated by wages; on the other hand, “caring” activities, often historically unpaid and still performed mainly by women."
  • We once used feminist analysis as a brilliant critique of why unpaid caring work was not valued (no matter who performed it!) and sought to change that but today feminists have seemingly slipped into accepting the dominant capitalist idea that "wage work" is the only valuable form of work and that all "care work" or "unpaid work" slips into insignificance or is pushed onto the backs of others - usually poorer women of colour.
  • For real change to happen now to challenge the current hierarchy of global capitalism, feminists across the world must work closely with other movements - environmentalists, labor, and race and ethnic equality activists for progressive emancipatory change!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Kony and Kissinger: Jacob and Trayvon

April 20, 2012 is supposed to be D-DAY for Joseph Kony, thanks to a 30-minute video by Jason Russell, co-founder of the US-based NGO Invisible Children. In less than five days, Russell’s video garnered over 55 million hits on YouTube. It provides a moving, graphic, and simplistic story about Kony, the evil war criminal and founder of the Lord’s Resistance Army who is allegedly responsible for the abduction, rape, and abuse of 60,000 children over the past two decades.
“Kony 2012” ends with a rousing call to action to young people to make Kony “famous.” The mobilized youth are to plaster cities across the United States with Kony’s image, so that US politicians and decision makers intervene—supplying Uganda and other Central African nations with US military advisors and resources to track down the war criminal and bring him to justice.
Those of us who have spent a lifetime seeking to achieve social change and justice are awed by the sheer potential of this video. As the Israeli paper Haaretz warned in a March 14 editorial, “Israel should take note of ‘Kony 2012.’ It would not be far-fetched to assume that a similar film will be made about the Palestinian conflict. And once the heartrending images of bleeding children are seared into the consciousness of tens of millions of people, it’s doubtful that even 46 pauses for applause in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to AIPAC will be able to erase the damage.”
It is a wonderful thing to live in times when media access is broad enough that people can view a video and then be mobilized to try to put away someone who has brought violence, abuse, and death to thousands of people in Uganda and across Central Africa. That same access made it possible for the followers of the video to learn that its maker—a passionate advocate for Kony’s capture and the father of two children—was arrested for bizarre and perhaps lewd behavior just a few nights ago. It made it possible for us to learn the dubious details about the financials of Invisible Children. It allowed us to learn that Invisible Children has financial support from right-wing Christian fundamentalist groups that are homophobic and may have supported the current law being debated in Uganda making homosexuality a crime punishable by death. It has also resulted in numerous statements issued by Ugandans and other Africans who demand an end to the presentation of African children and adults as needing to be saved by well meaning Americans.
Although it’s impossible to predict what will happen next month, I suspect we won’t see the kind of mass action that Russell hoped would propel the United States to send military advisors to Uganda and provide East African troops with weapons to capture Kony. I hope young Americans can be similarly motivated by filmmakers who may try to use this medium to achieve justice for Trayvon Martin—a black teenager who recently was shot by an armed neighborhood-watch volunteer in broad daylight in a gated community in Sanford, Fla.
Unlike the Ugandan children in Russell’s video and its main character Jacob Acaye, Trayvon was not kidnapped by a warlord. He did not live in the middle of a war zone in Africa. He was not abducted in the middle of the night. He was simply coming back from the grocery store with a bag of Skittles in his hands and a hoodie over his head. His crime was being a young black man in a southern state with a legacy of racism and new laws that go by the innocuous title “Stand your Ground”—laws that are a thinly veiled pretext for the use of concealed weapons to “defend” one self in the case of a “perceived threat.”
This use of force to resolve conflict—the choice to fight fire with fire, so to speak, is one of my grave concerns about the Kony video. From the opening sequences in which Russell’s four-year-old son imagines a video game to bomb and destroy “bad guys,” to the video’s recommendations for US military intervention, viewers of “KONY 2012” are encouraged to make Kony a household name in the United States, thereby pressuring lawmakers to use military force in central Africa. After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, after the death of more than 6,000 US troops and close to 1 million Iraqis and Afghans in wars ironically titled Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, it is chilling that a call to bring a war criminal to trial requires more soldiers, more military advisors, and more weapons.
That message of militarism in the Kony video is not the only thing that causes me unease. The video completely fails to acknowledge that we live in a world where power is unevenly distributed. It is a world where mass action by American teenagers can presumably "save" Africans and find the “bad guy" Kony, but also one in which it is not considered appropriate for Ugandans, Congolese, or Vietnamese activists to make videos exhorting their young people to pressure their governments to send military advisors to the United States to round up alleged war criminals there. More than four decades after the massacres of hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians as a result of the napalm bombings authorized by Henry Kissinger, and over a decade after the illegal invasion of a country that did not attack the United States, there is no global call to go after men like Kissinger, Donald Rumsfeld, or George H. W. Bush. Indeed, the United States is not a party to the very international criminal court (ICC) that is so prominently spoken of in the video, because it would require that Americans be held to the same standards as war criminals from other nations. In the narrative exemplified by “Kony 2012,” it is Americans who write history and Africans who are victims in need of American help.
Yet, if I have learned one thing in my 15 years at the Global Fund for Women, it is that while food and clean drinking water may be lacking in many of the world’s poorest nations—courage, dignity, and resilience are to be found on every street corner and in the most humble barrios. Ordinary people—mothers, school teachers, doctors, and farmers—have been standing up to warlords like Joseph Kony and thousands like him from the smallest villages of Sierra Leone and Liberia to the mountain ranges of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Leymah Gbowee, who received a $5,000 grant in 2003 from the Global Fund for Women for her organizing work, was the 2011 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. She worked quietly and determinedly for many years without recognition along with thousands of other women in Liberia to challenge the violence of dictator Charles Taylor and the LURD rebels. Patricia Guerrero in Colombia, founder of La Liga Mujeres Desplazadas, will remind you that men with weapons—whether they are named Zimmerman and live in Florida or whether they belong to the Colombian army or the FARC rebels—are no friends to civilians.
Military intervention is often foreign policy folly. In the 20th century, American military advisors in Latin America helped oversee the brutal death squads of juntas in Chile, Argentina, and Brazil, not to mention in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Women and their families are still paying the price for those travesties of justice. Just this past week, a single US soldier using a semiautomatic weapon killed 16 Afghans, although he cannot recall the incident.
Weapons, particularly the small arms that have flooded Central Africa and Latin America, give men the power to kill, maim, rape, and terrorize. Let’s not repeat history by calling for Congress to authorize more men with guns to go in search of the “bad guy.” Let us catalyze the power and inherent democratic promise of social media and hope that the next video calling for civil society to hold war criminals accountable—or for peace in Central Africa—will focus on long-term solutions beginning with an end to the sale and trade of weapons as Amnesty International has done. Let us hope there will soon be a D-DAY for weapons that kill and maim children whether they are Ugandans called Jacob or Americans called Trayvon.

Kavita Ramdas is executive director of Ripples to Waves: Program on Social Entrepreneurship at Stanford University, and served as president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women from 1996 to 2010.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Where Are the Women?

Today is international women’s day. The last few weeks have suddenly moved women’s health issues to the headlines. From Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a slut for speaking out on the importance of birth control access for women’s health; to outrage expressed by religious leaders about employers having to pay for health insurance coverage that included access to contraception; to Virginia’s law on mandated ultrasounds, we have been painfully reminded about how vital it is to have equal representation of women at the decision making tables in domestic politics. We asked: where are the women?

Despite the gains women have made socially and economically – and their contributions public health -- major philanthropic resources remain controlled by a few very wealthy men such as Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg, George Soros, and Richard Branson. The Gates Foundation accounted for 4% of all global spending on health in 2009, and, as Forbes recently noted, Bill Gates provides most of the private money for public health.

It was startling to witness the Congressional hearing on insurance coverage for birth control in which an all white, all male panel was treated as the expert consultant on the matter. Representative Carolyn Maloney said, “When I look at this panel, I don’t see one single woman representing the tens of millions of women across the country that want and need insurance coverage for basic preventive healthcare services, including family planning. Where are the women?”

Before we could catch our breath, wealthy business man Foster Friess, widely credited with funding Rick Santorum’s political resurrection – dismissed the controversy saying that in his day, women knew how to use their aspirin as a contraceptive – they simply put it between their knees.

Around the same time, the Virginia legislature pushed for a bill that would mandate a vaginal ultrasound for all women seeking an abortion. This invasive procedure, which technically meets the VA criteria for rape, has no medical justification. David Albo, a Virginia lawmaker changed his vote on the bill. His reason, he explained, was that his wife refused to be intimate with him when she heard his name mentioned on TV in support of the bill. He claimed he had to change his vote if he hoped to resume marital relations. The almost all male legislature guffawed. And then there were Rush Limbaugh’s comments -- and troubling comments by liberal commentators as well. Where are the women?

The dismal representation of women, who make up less than 16% of the U.S. Congress, in politics is clearly a problem. Still, every elected member of Congress regardless of gender is theoretically accountable to men and women in roughly equal proportion. And at least public Congressional hearings ensure that the public knows when there are no women at the table.

Philanthropists, unlike lawmakers, aren’t elected and do not have to hold public hearings to explain their decisions on how their money will be directed.  Resent research suggests that the wealthy are less empathetic to the needs of others. People with lower incomes tend to give a greater percentage of their incomes to help others and show greater empathy and compassion -- perhaps because they know they might face the same circumstances.

With few exceptions, the leading women in philanthropy, notably Melinda Gates, are the wives or daughters of rich and powerful men. This doesn’t diminish the work that they do. Still, women must have a place at the table that is not based on their relationships to powerful men. Women and their dependent children make up 70% of the poor, but women comprise only 2 percent of the world’s self-made billionaires.

We derive some comfort from the likelihood that Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, a women’s rights advocate, will soon be joining that elite group and in the success of efforts like Women moving Millions that raised over $180 million for women’s funds and causes last year. Sara Blakely, the creator of Spanx, just joined the ranks of self-made billionaires. Even with these bright spots, the statistics are daunting – giving to organizations led by and serving primarily women and girls made up less than 5.7% of all philanthropic giving in 2010 and of that, less than 2% went to women outside the United States. If a primarily male economic elite continues to drive and shape global policy that affects the well-being and health of women across the globe, we may find ourselves once again asking: “Where are the women?”

Monday, January 16, 2012

Beyond Vietnam: In Memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

"Abba, Amma, did you know we used to have to ride on the back of the bus?" our five year old daughter Mira Husnara emerged from her Kindergarten class full of indignation.  "And," she added breathlessly, "did you know, that Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks fought for us so we can swim in a swimming pool and not in the Mississippi?"  We smiled - our dark skinned daughter, born on the South Side of Chicago and growing up in  pale Palo Alto, appeared to have found her sense of belonging and community. Celebrating Martin Luther King's birthday was her introduction to the gross inequalities and divisions of the United States, but also to a rich heritage of social justice, human rights activism, and non-violent resistance.

Our daughter is now 18 and on the cusp of a new adventure as she readies herself for college.  She has grown up watching King's dream for greater racial equality in the United States is on its way to being partially realized.  In her sophomore year at high school, a black man with a Muslim middle name that sounds close to hers, Barack Hussein Obama, was elected President of the United States.  Yet, she also has grown up in a world where the United States has been at war for the greater part of her childhood.  It still is.  

Pakistan, home to my husband’s family is known to her friends for being a scary place - home to Islamic fundamentalism, terrorism, military dictatorships and coups.  She has grown up traveling between the US, Pakistan and India and is used to being pulled aside for special security screenings because she and her father have names that match suspects on the "list".  The United States, which we once viewed as valuing social equality in ways that could be models for India and Pakistan, has become one of the most unequal societies in the developed world.  Mira has been exposed to great wealth and privilege in this suburban town, but barely a mile away across Route 101 in East Palo Alto, Latino and African American families live from paycheck to paycheck, without access to good schools or healthcare, and vulnerable to violence in their everyday lives.   

In other words, the other part of King's dream, his hope for a more egalitarian and peaceful world, is far from being realized. On his birthday most of us hear and read excerpts from King's famous "I have a dream" speech.  Yet, it is King's “BeyondVietnam” that is the one that goes beyond the issues of racial equality and civil rights.  He bluntly denounces the US invasion in Vietnam, challenges the direction of global capitalism and calls for a  "a true revolution of values”.  This new approach he asserted, “will look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say: "This is not just." The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just."

King goes on to argue that it is only through such a transformation of values that communism can be challenged.  It is easy to substitute Islamic fundamentalism or terrorism for communism in the following passage: "This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops." 

The year that has just ended began with remarkable and largely peaceful protests by common people on the streets of Tunisia and Egypt that led to ousters of dictators and serious challenges to military regimes long propped up by the United States. These struggles are far from done and here again King's words have much resonance: "These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression and out of the wombs of a frail world new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. We in the West must support these revolutions. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism.” 

This is not a popular message in today's world where force is regularly used to settle conflict and where the United States has the world's largest defense budget and remains the world's most significant military power.  He minced no words when he said, "A true revolution of values will lay hands on the world order and say of war: "This way of settling differences is not just." He went on to add, "The only change came from America as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received regular promises of peace and democracy -- and land reform."  He might easily be speaking about the despotic governments that the activists of the Arab Spring sought to topple, many of which remain allies of the United States. Saudi Arabia recently received a commitment of over $60 billion in armament sales

In an ironic twist, the Obama administration has been forced to redo King's quote on the newly innagurated memorial in DC.  It  is an apt metaphor for how totally we have forgotten King's radical call to action. "We must rapidly begin the shift from a "thing-oriented" society to a "person-oriented" society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered."  These words were not written or spoken in a post 9/11, post Arab Spring, post Occupy Wall Street world but they were never more relevant than they are now.  If Mira and her generation are to have a fighting chance to transcend the wars of Iraq, Afganistan and Pakistan and realize King’s dream, they will need the wisdom, humility and courage of "Beyond Vietnam"

Friday, October 28, 2011

Peace Unveiled and the Truth Unveiled: Women, War and Peace

October 27, 2011

"Disillusioned", "outraged", "despairing", "frustrated", "conflicted", "sad", "hypocritical", "shaken", "angry", the words came tumbling out.  A small group of students at EAST house on Stanford's campus had gathered to watch and discuss "Peace Unveiled", the third in Women, War and Peace, a 5 part series on PBS, created and filmed by Abigail Disney and Gini Reticker. As usual, there was much else happening on campus - across the way in the brand new business school Knight Management center, Laura Arriallaga was launching her new book, "Giving 2.0" In it, she argues it is not how much you give, it is how you give.

Giving. The women of Afghanistan profiled in Peace Unveiled know a lot about the how of giving.  For over 30 years now, they have given their lives, their health, their safety, their security, and their dignity in the struggle for freedom, peace, and equality. Activist philanthropist Abby Disney captures on film their fierce desire to do something, not just to better the status of women, but to change the future of their country.  The filmmakers also mince no words about how little support women, (or for that matter, men) in Afghanistan, can count on from the United States or the international community in this battle. In careful painstaking, yet nuanced detail we learn how the words spoken by the diplomats fail to translate into protection for women's rights.  "Where after all do human rights begin?" asked Eleanor Roosevelt many years ago. "In small places, close to home, so small you cannot see them on a map." 

The film shows us the difference women's leadership is making in those small places - the young man in Kandahar bursting with pride as he speaks of his mother, who is now a delegate to the peace talks.  The little granddaughter parading in a burka behind her grandmother because she wants to leave the house to go to Kabul too.  The lone female Afghan voice at an international donor gathering making a presentation that claims space and rights for women.  The filmmakers strike a fine balance between those glimpses of "another world that is possible and breathing and on her way" with brutally honest clips that expose the double standards that the West imposes on Afghanistan. We watch the Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador who once spoke so forcefully against Karzai, urge a delegation of women to back down and be more forgiving of what transpired in the past to enable the US to make a "better case" for supporting the Karzai government to forge a "peace deal" that will include negotiating with the Taliban. We watch Hillary Clinton promise the Afghan representatives that she will never accept a peace deal that is pushed through at the expense of women and then we watch the peace jirga where women sit in stony silence as Mujahideen warlords, war criminals, and known Islamic extremists are showered with kisses and affection by an effusive Karzai.  One brave woman stands and shakes her fist, shouting that she cannot accept this travesty of justice in the name of "so called" peace.  Karzai laughs and she turns and walks proudly out of the gathering.

I saw the same pride and determination in the Afghan women I met in 2003 in Kabul and earlier this year when I was in Peshawar, Pakistan for the Global Fund for Women.  For all the intentional and unintended efforts by extremists and/or the mainstream media to turn women and girls into victims, there are hundreds of stories of quotidien resistance.  They stand up and demand to be noticed.  They send their children to school.  They teach school and train teachers.  They lead civil society organizations like the Afghan Institute for Learning (AIL) and the Afghan Women's Network (AWN).  They find a way to feed their children despite having little or no access to jobs. They laugh and sing the latest Hindi movie songs.  They run for office.  They eat ice-cream in the open.  They teach their daughters and their sons soccer.  And whether covered in burkas or deliberately unveiled, they walk tall carrying the weight of their world with grace and tenacity. That is Giving 10.0.