Thursday, March 21, 2013

More on the UN Commission on The Status of Women

Women's eNews reports that the head of the commission has resigned:

The 17-page document produced by the latest global gathering here on women's rights leaves open what appears to be a long-term fight between conservative and progressive factions within the Commission on the Status of Women.
"It's turning into a battle ground over women's rights and that was not the original intention of the Commission on the Status of Women," said Savi Bisnath, associate director of the Rutgers University-based Center for Women's Global Leadership, in New Jersey, in a phone interview. "It was supposed to be a forum in which we can discuss and negotiate and advance women's rights."
UN Women's Executive Director Michelle Bachelet announced her resignation as the head of the gender equality superagency on March 15, the same day 131 U.N. member nations jointly issued the outcome document.
In parting words, the former president of Chile said she was "particularly heartened" that conclusions were reached, given that in 2003, when the commission also tacked the thematic issue of violence against women, it ended without an agreement.
The rights of women are becoming more prominent and contentious at the U.N., as more agencies, offices and initiatives are expected to work together on gender equality, sexual violence in armed conflict and maternal health.
Member nations of the U.N. sit in on the Commission on the Status of Women, a policy-making body of the U.N. Economic and Social Council. They negotiate mostly as regional factions.

What is more interesting is the fight the author of this piece believes is taking place within the commission:

Shannon Kowalski is director of advocacy and policy of the New York-based International Women's Health Coalition.
"One of the biggest challenges was that the African group, which includes Egypt and a number of ultra-conservative countries, continued to work together as a group," Kowalski said. "The more progressive countries, like Kenya, Zambia and South Africa, were not able to moderate those positions in the way we would have hoped."
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood criticized a draft agreement last week, calling the document misleading, deceptive and contradictory to the principles of Islam. It listed free contraceptives for adolescent girls, equal rights for adulterous wives, equal rights for homosexuals and the right for women to file legal complaints against their husbands accusing them of sexual assault as "destructive tools meant to undermine the family as an important institution."
The Observer Permanent Mission of the Holy See also mustered strong conservative positions on sexual and reproductive health. The mission was unable to respond to an interview request to meet this publication's deadline.

I have  bolded the sentence which seems crucial in so many debates about women's rights.  There are two general arguments opposing feminism (other than the men-are-better-people-than-women argument or the women-suffer-under-equality argument), and those are the focus on some presumed ideal family which cannot survive without the oppression of women and the assumed pushmi-pullyu aspect of gender equalityIf the lot of women improves, then by definition the lot of men gets worse.  The latter usually ignores the fact that the two lots are not identical, to begin with.

These arguments come together in countries with patriarchal laws and beliefs about marriage and family.  That women's increasing equality IS a real threat for the kind of marriage where the husband has all rights is true, of course.  But that shouldn't imply that no alternative family arrangements are possible, arrangements of greater equality and ultimately greater well-being for all, and to regard this as a threat suggests that the speaker ignores the negative aspects of the patriarchal marriage or privileges the husband's role in such marriages.

What struck me about that bolded part of the quote is that it is just a somewhat more exaggerated form of much of the debate about the role of women in the society everywhere.  

What about the children?  Who is going to take care of the children (on a salary of just bed and board) if women can earn a living wage or decide to go for careers?

What about the men who are falling behind in the labor markets (well, not leading by as much as before, actually)?  The writing on these issues often implicitly argues that it would be sufficient if women did less well, not that men should objectively get more education or learn to share more in childcare or anything of that sort.  It's a pushmi-pullyu kind of argument.

Ultimately the debate really is about who is deemed valuable and in what role.  But I have never really understood the privileging of a concept, such as family, over the well-being of all the individuals in it.  Families are not living creatures but social arrangements.  It is the members of a family who should matter, and the mothers should not matter any less than other members of the family.