Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Backsliding in Women's Rights? Two Examples.

Two recent items about women's rights possibly going backward made me think of the process I go through when grieving after the death of someone who meant a lot to me.

That process is like a circular staircase.  You start at the bottom of it and pretty much go around in a circle, to reach the next level, and then you keep climbing the staircase of, say, grief.   You both climb higher and face the same painful questions again.

I'm not sure what's at the top of that staircase, but during the climb it often feels as if one has come back to the starting point, walked around a circle.  It's not true because the new circle of grief is on a higher level.  We see the loss from a new perspective and we are a little more removed from it.

After that philosophical opening, the actual items which provoked it may seem mundane (which does not mean that they are not important). 

The first is the partial return of a practice restaurants once used as lot: That of either refusing to serve women who entered the establishment on their own (or even in groups as long as the group included no men) or seating them somewhere hidden, such as by the kitchen swing door or next to the toilets.

The reason for that discriminatory practice was that women on their own were assumed to visit restaurants only as sex workers looking for clients, not as customers wanting to have a meal or a drink.

Now at least one New York City restaurant seems to have partially gone back to that old practice, by refusing to seat women who are alone at the bar, while men who are alone are seated at the bar:

In an essay published Tuesday and entitled "The Night I was mistaken for a Call Girl," London resident Clementine Crawford relays how she has for years frequently dined at the bar of a Madison Avenue eatery while in New York on business.
During a recent visit, Crawford describes being ushered to a table and told nobody is allowed to eat at the bar anymore. Then, after spotting a man perched at her favorite spot, eating a meal, Crawford inquired further, learning the owner had ordered a crackdown on hookers and he could run his business as he pleased.
At first this felt like something coming back to its starting point, like a circling back to old discriminatory customs.  But then I thought of the circular staircase image.  Excluding women who are not accompanied by a male "guardian" from eating and drinking in restaurants is really not a business practice which would thrive in the US today.  Still, the above quote gives an interesting example of profiling based on sex.

The second news item is more frightening.  It's about the lack of women's voices in the peace talks with the Taliban in Afghanistan. 

Some Afghan women believe that the cost of any peace with the Taliban will be a return to the heinous practices which kept women imprisoned in their homes and girls out of schools during the last time the Taliban was in power:

When Rahima Jami heard that the Americans and the Taliban were close to a peace deal, she thought about her feet.
Ms. Jami is now a lawmaker in the Afghan Parliament, but back in 1996, when Taliban insurgents took power, she was a headmistress — until she was forced out of her job and told she could leave her home only in an ankle-length burqa.
One hot day at the market, her feet were showing, so the religious police beat them with a horse whip until she could barely stand.

No one needs to sell Afghan women on the need to bring an end to the bloodshed. They have buried far too many husbands and sons and brothers. But they fear that a peace that empowers the Taliban may herald a new war on women, and they want negotiators not to forget them.
“Afghan women want peace too,” Ms. Jami said. “But not at any cost.”
When she thinks of that time she was beaten, she said, “I remember it and I actually feel faint.”

And like many women, Ms. Jami is convinced that any peace deal that gives the Taliban a share of power will come at the expense of freedom for Afghan women. “Come that time, they will complete their incomplete dreams and they will be crueler than in the past,” Ms. Jami said.

This, too, feels like reverting to the times of the past, like a full circle now completed.  Who knows if the new promises of the Taliban (to be a somewhat kinder prisoner of women) are anything but empty propaganda thought?

Has the Afghan society actually climbed to a higher step on that circular staircase  in the last eighteen years or so when it comes to gender equality?*

Or were all the emancipatory changes enforced by outside forces (who now don't care about women's rights) and supported by such a small fraction of the society that they can be easily wiped away?

Only time will tell.  But I do find it interesting how negotiable women's rights seem to globally be and how cultural differences can be viewed as a valid justification for the oppression of women when they are not seen as a valid justification for, say, slavery or the mistreatment of gays and Lesbians.


* The linked article suggests that this might not be the case and that the problem is not just the Taliban.  Ryan Crocker, who was a US diplomat in Kabul during the creation of the first post-invasion government, says:

“What really bothers me is, what is going to happen to Afghan women and girls?” he said. “Acute misogyny in Afghanistan goes way beyond the Taliban. Without a strong U.S. hand there, it is not looking very good for Afghan women. They can do as they like to them after we leave.”

That quote brings up a whole hornet's nest of issues.  What does it mean if a country "voluntarily" chooses to oppress women and if even many of its women agree with that, perhaps because they see the oppression as religiously ordained?

Is the emancipation of women real if it is enforced by outside powers?  If it is not real, how can the women in Afghanistan fight for their own emancipation, with the support of those men who want a more egalitarian culture, given that most girls are still not going to school, given that women can't easily get together with other women, and given the far greater power, economic resources and military might of those who do not believe in women's rights?

That's the more pessimistic take.  The more optimistic take is that the new generation of educated women and men in the cities won't accept the return to the old Taliban times and will fight for a fairer society, even if there's some initial backsliding. 

To what extent this fight would improve the plight of women in the rural areas of the country is an open question.  Afghanistan is still one of the most difficult places in the world for women.