It was bound to happen eventually. The 1970s-style thinking that has dominated the discourse about women’s rights over the past fifty years is remarkably narrow-minded. Those who espouse it often see themselves as the owners of the women’s movement. They demand adherence to a threadbare ideology, even if their stance hurts the very women they claim to protect. Any fresh approach by people they view as outsiders is viciously eviscerated as soon as it is visible.
The remarkable energy, sincere passion, and innovative viewpoint building within the women’s economic empowerment movement was, therefore, certain to attract attack sooner or later. Nevertheless, I am sure that many who work so passionately to economically enable women around the world were surprised and dismayed to read yesterday’s New York Times op-ed by Rafia Zakaria. Though she appears to be uninformed about both the nature of this movement and its evidentiary basis, she belittles many programs currently being tried and tracked, reducing the entire effort as “chickens and sewing machines” being offered to women as a substitute for “real” empowerment.
To Zakaria, the one and only path to liberation is political engagement. All other means for building a foundation from which women can claim equality, from land rights to girls’ education to contraceptive access, are to be abandoned in favor of politics. Zakaria claims that those who work in the economic domain intend to “excise” political engagement from its definition of “empowerment.” She claims that, “In [place of a definition of “empowerment” that includes politics] is a narrow, constricted definition expressed through technical programming seeking to improve education or health with little heed to wider struggles for gender equality.”
As with so many of this viewpoint—like academic Nancy Fraser and Guardian columnists Dawn Foster and Eve Livingston—Zakaria cannot imagine that other forms of equality can run parallel to political engagement nor that economic equality might assist women in asserting political voice–nor that having women in positions of leadership in the economy is as important as having them in government leadership. She, like so many others, claims that people who work in this area intentionally exclude politics from their vision of women’s empowerment and, further, that they do not understand the structure and subtleties that hold the gender system in place. Yet she very clearly has no actual experience with either the programs themselves nor the people who design, deliver, and monitor them.
After more than ten years of engagement in women’s economic empowerment, after having evaluated a wide range of the programs Zakaria trashes, and after having worked with the dedicated men and women from most of the major institutional players, I can honestly say that I have never heard anyone express the opinion that economics for women should be pursued to the exclusion of legal rights and political voice. Never. Not once. But I have heard many—too many—on the side of Zakaria argue that political engagement should be pursued exclusively, while the utter economic subjugation of women around the world is left to fester.
I also believe that the women’s economic empowerment movement is coming to an understanding of the true constraints of gender that is more complete and nuanced than writers like Zakaria have ever seen before. And I believe that the people in this historic global effort are getting directly involved at both the ground and systems level, and, by attending carefully to hard evidence, are learning about the needs, desires, and vulnerabilities of women everywhere.
It is high time for critics like Zakaria to become knowledgeable about this work. They do not seem to understand that economic exclusion is both a systemic and a systematic drag on the viability of women in every country and in every walk of life. By “systematic,” I mean that there is an extraordinarily patterned and integrated set of economic exclusions that hold women in a dependent and disadvantaged position—and that these constraints vary only in the particulars from place to place. By “systemic,” I mean that the economic exclusion of women is like a cancer that produces illness throughout the global body politic, spinning off poverty and suffering, and resulting in further cruelties against women from domestic violence to human trafficking. They do not seem to understand that this systemic and systematic exclusion is as core to the subordination of women as is the political system.
It seems the least one could ask of a critic is that they be informed about the things they set out to destroy. But this stream has been building. Labels like “neoliberalism” and “corporate feminism” are being thrown around by critics who clearly have not bothered to investigate the depth and importance of this work. I think we can expect more of these attacks in the coming months and years. I hope everyone who has committed themselves to helping women achieve economic autonomy will simply keep working. This effort is too important to drop because of a bunch of unschooled critics.