Katha Pollitt, The Nation
February 23, 2004
Viewed on February 24, 2004
This morning I got an e-mail from Feminist Majority asking me to e-mail the President protesting the Iraqi Governing Council's approval of Resolution 137, which would abolish current family law and allow Sharia to take its place. This depressing development has not been widely reported, but I already knew about it thanks to Madre, the women's international human rights organization. No sooner had I dispatched my message than up popped Amnesty International, alerting me to the work being done to end sexual violence around the world by V-Day, Eve Ensler's feminist activist organization. Then it was Madre again, with news of an Islamic fundamentalist death threat against Iraqi feminist Yanar Mohammed.
My snail mailbox is the same story: news and appeals from Equality Now, which uses letter-writing campaigns and legal action to combat injustices around the world, from female genital mutilation and honor killings to the imprisonment of Nepalese women who've had abortions; the Global Fund for Women, which sponsors a wide variety of pro-woman projects in 160 countries; Network of East/West Women, which supports women's rights activists in the former Soviet bloc; the women's desks of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch; and many more.
I'm reminded of these good people because the New York Times's Nicholas Kristof is once again accusing American feminists of ignoring Third World women and girls. Last spring, he discovered obstetric fistula in Africa -- the tear between the birth canal and the lower intestine that can happen during protracted labor and that, unless corrected, condemns a woman to a lifetime of physical misery and social ostracism. Kristof profiled Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia and wondered why "most feminist organizations in the West have never shown interest in these women." Perhaps, he wrote, "the issue doesn't galvanize women's groups because fistulas relate to a traditional child-bearing role." Right, we all know that feminists only care about aborting babies, not delivering them safely. The Times got a lot of letters (and published some, including one from me) pointing out that feminists, in fact, were behind numerous efforts to combat fistula and other maternity-related health problems in Africa, including the work of the UNFPA, praised by Kristof, whose funding was eliminated by the White House to please its right-wing Christian base.
You'd think he'd learn. But no. Now Kristof is complaining that American women's groups such as NOW and Feminist Majority don't care about sexual slavery and the trafficking of women and children for commercial sex. In a series of columns, he describes his efforts to "buy the freedom" of two Cambodian teenage prostitutes living in a sleazy brothel in Poipet and to get them home to their families. Evangelical Christians, he argues, care about girls like these; feminists are too busy "saving Title IX and electing more women to the Senate," he observed in a Times online forum. Right, why should American women care about equal opportunities and electing to office people who think contraception is as important as Viagra? Never mind that putting more feminists in the Senate -- not more "women" -- would mean more help for the very causes Kristof supports!
To tell you the truth, I thought those columns were a little weird -- there's such a long tradition of privileged men rescuing individual prostitutes as a kind of whirlwind adventure. You would never know from the five columns he wrote about young Srey Neth and Srey Mom, that anyone in Cambodia thought selling your daughter to a brothel was anything but wonderful. I wish he had given us the voices of some Cambodian activists -- for starters, the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center and the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) -- both of which are skeptical about brothel raids and rescues, which often dump traumatized girls on local NGOs that lack the resources to care for them. Instead he called Donna Hughes -- a professor at Rhode Island University who publishes in National Review, The Weekly Standard and FrontPage Magazine, and whose opposition to all forms of prostitution is so monolithic that she has written against the Thai government's policy of promoting and enforcing condom use in brothels to prevent transmission of AIDS -- and gave her space to ventilate against American feminists.
Just for fun, I called Kim Gandy, head of NOW, something Kristof forgot to do. "We're basically a national organization with a domestic agenda," she told me. "I mean, that's what our mission is. If we had more money, we could do a lot more." Still, NOW had, along with Equality Now, Feminist Majority and other groups, lobbied for passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, passed in 2000 under President Clinton, which established legal rights for trafficking victims in the United States and mandated cuts in aid to governments involved in the sex trade. Over at Feminist Majority, Ellie Smeal was peeved as well. They'd spent hours, she told me, informing Kristof's assistant about their organization's work on sex trafficking -- beyond lobbying for the trafficking bill, the Feminist Majority's Center for Women and Policing holds regular conferences on implementation for law-enforcement officials. "You could say that on every issue, we could do more," she said. "But 'complacent?' 'Shamefully lackadaisical?' I don't think that's fair." Jessica Neuwirth and Taina Bien-Aim� of Equality Now also met with Kristof, to little avail. "It's great that he brought the issue to greater public attention, and we hope he'll stay with it," Neuwirth said. "But I don't think he appreciates how stretched women's organizations are."
You can see the narrative in the process of creation: Third World women are victims; American men are saviors. Right-wing Christians care about Third World women; feminists only care about themselves. Meanwhile, Equality Now fights the good fight on 'spit and a nickel,' as Bien-Aim� says, and gets ignored.
As my daughter used to say when she was small, "What do you have to do to get some attention around here?"
Katha Pollitt is a columnist for the Nation.
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