Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Tag: women (page 1 of 2)

On Listening (a response to the Mona Eltahawy criticism)

Unless you live under a rock, dear blog reader, you’ve probably witnessed the hulabaloo over the past 24 hours about an article by Mona Eltahawy entited “Why Do They Hate Us?” I don’t feel the need to comment on the article’s content, particularly as many already have, but I would instead like to comment on a thread of commentary that I find particularly bothersome.

I can’t find the tweet, but last night I noted someone–a journalist, no less–tweet something along the lines of “Hmm, interesting – most of my [American? foreign? can’t remember] friends like [the article], most of my Arab friends don’t.” While the tone of the comment was ambiguous and I’ll assume a bit of irony, I’ve seen other similar comments that are a bit more…obtuse. The problem, of course, is that while the audience for Eltahawy’s piece was obviously highbrow-ish English speakers interested in foreign policy (I mean, c’mon, Foreign Policy ain’t USA Today), the idea behind some of these comments is essentially: “Hey – foreigners find this valuable, shut up dissenters!” I even spotted one foreigner–who presumably lives in Egypt–telling various Egyptian women on Twitter that they were simply wrong.

The thing is, Arab women, in Eltahawy’s piece, are not active participants in the conversation, but subjects. That, I think, is why so many women took issue to her use of “us” — it felt disingenuous. I realize, of course, that there’s backstory here and she has a considerable number of non-fans and trolls, but this article in particular provoked a stronger reaction than any I’ve ever seen, and there’s a reason for that.

So the problem that I have is that, while the majority of long-form responses have come from Egyptian or other Arab women, most have been dismissed outright. Take, for example, this tweet from Foreign Policy editor Blake Hounshell:

That one is particularly ironic given that Foreign Policy appears to have pre-commissioned five responses to Eltahawy’s piece, indicating they knew how controversial her piece would be. Another:

(Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think Hounshell is amongst those not listening to Arab women, but his comments were nonetheless tone deaf – below one response, from Pakistani-Canadian Sana Saeed)

More troubling is the fact that, as Gigi Ibrahim points out in her post, “Many who have criticized Mona’s article get accused that we are defending the actions of discrimination against women or simply denying it and that couldn’t be farthest from the truth in understanding the fundamental problem with Mona’s argument in the first place.” I can’t tell you how many tweets I’ve seen claiming that, in opposing Eltahawy’s framing of the issue, any dissenters must not be taking the real issues seriously. This, I will say outright, is bullshit. I read approximately eight of the bloggy responses (including some of those in Foreign Policy) and every one was written by someone who does speak out about vital issues to women. The dissent is not coming from apologists, it’s coming from women who take issue with Eltahawy’s particular framing of the issue…and there’s nothing unfair about that. I think everyone agrees with Eltahawy when she says FGM is awful and must be eradicated – where I think most disagree is with her take on the root cause.

Ultimately, and even though I disagree with it, I’m glad Eltahawy wrote the piece. When you acquire a certain amount of clout, as she has, you have also acquired a platform from which to shout about whatever you choose, and I would rather, on any day of the week, see Eltahawy using that platform to talk about women’s issues–of vital importance to all of us–than to call Israel the “opium of the people.” I also hope, earnestly, that amongst the criticism of her piece a few more voices arise that can step up, take such an amplified platform, and speak about threats to women in a way that doesn’t cause such a visceral reaction and allows us to learn, and eventually, conquer these threats.

(Talk) Vivek Wadhwa: “Entrepreneurship: where are all the women and minorities?”

Today’s Berkman luncheon hosted Vivek Wadhwa, a “a senior research associate with the Labor and Worklife Program at Harvard Law School, an executive in residence/adjunct professor at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University, and a visiting scholar at the School of Information at University of California at Berkeley.”

Wadhwa’s talk centered around entrepreneurship, and the general dearth of women and minorities across a variety of industries, particularly tech (in fact, he cited a stat that Blacks constitute only 1.4 percent and Latinos only 4.7 percent of Silicon Valley workforce).  Providing various statistics and tidbits (90% of successful entrepreneurs did NOT raise venture capital; entrepreneurs are not necessarily ivy league; tech entrepreneurs are typically not young; average is age 40, married, with kids), Wadhwa demonstrates that women and men entrepreneurs exhibit more similarities than differences, but that women still lag far behind in the area of entrepreneurship in general. Wadhwa also asks what’s stopping people from becoming entrepreneurs?  The strongest factor in survey, for both genders, is fear of failure or an unwillingness to take risks.

Wadhwa used a variety of examples from the Indian community, sharing a personal story in which he, looking to start up a company, approached various venture capitalists, all to no avail.  Finally, frustrated, he approached an Indian venture capitalist in Silicon Valley, who in turn advised him then introduced him to several others, who, as he said, were “fighting with each other to invest in his idea.”  When Wadhwa finally got the chance to ask one why he hadn’t returned his calls in the first place, he was told, “Because your people don’t make good CEOs.”  The moral of the story?  Racism, as well as sexism is alive and well in the field.

Wadhwa also focused on the issue of women as entrepreneurs more specifically, stating that women entrepreneurs are generally slightly older than men, are similarly likely to be married, but tend to be more educated and have better credentials.  If that is true, does that mean that it takes women more effort and education to succeed?  I was live-tweeting the discussion, which resulted in the question being asked by another Twitter user: “At my all women’s university, our dean warned us we’d have to be twice as good to be considered half as good. Still true?”

Looking at solutions to the problem, various ideas were discussed; starting at the early level.  He then introduced Roshni Academy as an example; the academy, based in New Delhi, works with young, rural, poor girls to help teach them skills in entrepreneurship.  It was clear from the interviews Wadhwa conducted with some of the students that the academy is doing incredible things for some of these girls, but is short-term intervention enough?  Will these girls succeed in the long run?

Bringing the discussion back to the US, Wadhwa pointed out that in many cases, women entrepreneurs are unlikely to help other women.  This point caused several women attendees to speak up; some spoke of women playing so many roles that they’re often too busy to play mentor as well.  Others raised the point that once women achieve a certain level of success, they’re often afraid to lose it and thus shy from helping other women.

Another attendee, seated next to me, pointed out that young women (let’s say, Gen Y) are less likely to identify as feminists and likely to criticize the approach of earlier generations of women in breaking down barriers, claiming that they were “too brash” or “too confrontational.”

Discussing the talk later with two female colleagues, this particular point presented itself again: Why are women of my generation so likely to renounce feminism?  One hypothesis is that (in the US, anyway) our landscape is just so different from that of our mothers: We grew up with women in leadership roles, and for many of us, college was encouraged, if not expected.  Thus, the barriers seem lesser now; we are less likely to fight loudly because the types of barriers with which we are presented are less institutional, more personal or local.

Here’s my thought on that: While it’s true that many of us have had many “elite” opportunities (college, an urban job landscape), the more successful we become, the more likely it is (especially in certain fields) that we’ll hit a gender ceiling.  While it may not be true of our micro-environment (our office, our company), even at higher levels, it could very well be true of our field or our area of focus.

One final point discussed amongst my colleagues was the idea of recognizing privilege: We may have access to certain things our mothers didn’t, but who’s to say that’s true for all American women, or beyond?

Finally, one thing I’m interested in is how to address this issue globally without being patronizing or neo-colonialist.  How can we realize and recognize the needs of women worldwide, and support those women, without talking down to them or imposing a Western ideal of feminism?

A Step Forward for Women?

As Hisham notes here, the Moroccan elections were significantly overshadowed on the world stage by those in Iran, and no wonder – no matter the outcome, they would have been met with little protest anyway.  What was notable this time around however was a rise in the number of female candidates, as reported by MAP: 20,458 women ran for 2009 local elections; 15.7% compared to only 4.8% in 2003, according to the Interior Ministry.  Even more notable is that Morocco’s second ever – and third – female mayors were elected…Fatima Zahra Mansouri was elected mayor of the growing city of Marrakesh (population of a little over a million), and Fatima Boujnah is the new PAM Mayor of Tizeght, at only 21 years old.

Now, as my friend Anas points out, she is backed by the newly formed Party for Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), dubbed the “King’s Party” by the blogoma, and is therefore perhaps just a royal pawn.  On the other hand, the ascendancy of a woman to a role that has almost exclusively been held by men since its inception (Asmaa Chaabi was the first female mayor in the country, elected in 2003 to Essaouira’s city hall) can’t be a bad thing.

On the other hand, the influx of women into candidacies is not a coincidence: a number of U.S. governmental organizations helped train female candidates, and party leaders are certainly aware that, in order to keep relevant, they must cater to the new voter demographics (young, and often female).

In a country where the literacy rate for women still lingers under 50%, it would seem that any step forward for women is a good thing.  But when those women are played as pawns by the governing elite, is it really a step in the right direction?

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