The paternalism of rescue

If girls’ schools remain open in northwest Pakistan after Jan. 15, Taliban leaders threaten to attack schoolgirls and teachers and blow up the schools.

In response to a Crooked Timber post suggesting feminists have been reluctant to take up this cause, Keith M. Ellis comments on the inherent paternalism of Westerners trying to rescue Muslim women, which is “especially pernicious in the context where someone has been methodically and institutionally disempowered.”  Rescue “unfortunately continues the pattern of disempowerment.”

I happen to care a great deal about the oppression of women, in Afghanistan and everywhere else in the world.

. . . (But) it is not our job, as westerners — as outsiders — to specifically fight to improve the lot of Afghan women.

David Thompson notes the self-indulgence of this argument:

Well, one might argue against military intervention on an economic or tactical basis, or on grounds of pragmatism and self-interest. One might, for instance, argue that not every injustice can be engaged and it’s best to choose one’s battles. The ability to intervene is finite and conditional, and there are almost always other demands on whatever resources are available. But that isn’t the argument here.

Instead, Ellis argues the oppressed must empower themselves, while the rest of us “fight injustice” and “oppose those barriers which prevent Afghan women from empowering themselves.”  That way, “we can fight sexism in Afghanistan without placing ourselves into a paternalistic position.”

The “barriers” that prevent empowerment would be armed men willing to murder and maim unarmed girls and women.  I think by “fight” Ellis means “not fight.”

In response to Brahmin demands to continue the practice of burning the widow on her husband’s funeral pyre, the British governor of Sind, Gen. Charles Napier, said:

You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.

Horribly paternalistic. That poor widow survived unburnt — rescued and disempowered.

About Joanne

Comments

  1. I think that the complaint has more to do with the disingenuous nature of the claim. The purpose of the Afghan war was not to ‘rescue women’, nor is that the reason for a continued presence there. The purpose was, very explicitly, to satisfy the needs of the men in power in the western world, and to rebuke the men in power in Afghanistan. After all, we do not see a similar military campaign to ‘rescue’ women in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Indonesia – indeed, the subject does not even come up.

    Protecting women from oppression is not what disempowers them. Using their rights as a smokescreen for other, much less legitimate, endeavors is what disempowers them. Knowing that you and your rights are being used to support and sell a war that is based on completely different premises is what disempowers. Knowing that your rights will be protected only if it satisfies the needs of the western governments – and not otherwise – is what disempowers.

  2. I’m not aware of specific threats to attack female students and teachers, and to blow up schools in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan or Indonesia. Perhaps others are?

    If paternalism is bad, then I’m sure that those arguing that the West should not intervene in this case, as it would be disempowering, would also argue that all development and humanitarian aid from developed nations should stop. Immediately. After all, it’s up to those who are starving to feed themselves. It’s up to those who are dying of cholera to heal themselves. Etc.

  3. Catherine says:

    You’ve hit on one of my major reasons for despising US feminism today–they generally ignore the truly egregious abuses women suffer in other countries while whining about the invisible sexism still inherent in, well, practically everything they don’t like.

  4. When my peers go into their multi-cultural, all things equal, I usually bring up that quote. It’s amazing how quiet a room gets when you use it.

    I also really enjoy Parent2’s logic. Thanks, another arrow in the fight against illogic.

    Which unfortunately, seems to be neverending.

  5. Stephen, that really is a nice little theory. Too bad it’s not what Ellis was saying. Here’s a longer excerpt of the original comment:

    There is something inherently paternalistic in rescuing someone. There’s no avoiding this. And this is especially pernicious in the context where someone has been methodically and institutionally disempowered—”saving” them, though well-intentioned, may change many circumstances but it unfortunately continues the pattern of disempowerment.

    This is why I’ve come to believe that an important distinction should be made between fighting against an injustice and fighting for an oppressed group. I think that only members of the oppressed group should fight for themselves; it’s not appropriate (or helpful in the long-term) for outsiders to fight on their behalf. However, it is appropriate and helpful—indeed, I think everyone’s duty—to fight against injustice. The distinction might in practice seem ambiguous and artificial, but I believe that were everyone involved to embrace this distinction where it is relevant, it would have beneficial consequences and reduce a lot of conflict.

    It’s nothing more than navel-gazing. Fight the Taliban because they’re oppressing women, fine. Fight the Taliban to help the women they’re oppressing, that’s too paternalistic. Read the comment, there’s no deeper meaning to it unless you bring your own.

  6. Parent2: Girls’ schools in Saudi Arabia are frequently burned down. Blogger Sabra at http://stilettosinthesand.blogspot.com/ (she lives in Saudi Arabia) keeps a record of the number of times she reads about it happening in her local news paper.

  7. Margo/Mom says:

    How about a maternalist approach instead? A “mother’s march” of western women every day to escort female students to school? Or foster homes in western, or other, countries that do not explode girls who go to school?

    BTW–is it “paternalistic” that the right to an education is “granted” from birth to males? Are they more “empowered” because of this, or is it something that they just “go along” with?

  8. Mrs. Lopez says:

    Joanne, and then Catherine — I couldn’t agree more.

    But then Stephen Downes said, “Knowing that your rights will be protected only if it satisfies the needs of the western governments – and not otherwise – is what disempowers.”

    Knowing something never disempowers anyone. Get real.

  9. Catherine, said, “You’ve hit on one of my major reasons for despising US feminism today–they generally ignore the truly egregious abuses women suffer in other countries while whining about the invisible sexism still inherent in, well, practically everything they don’t like.”

    Well said, Catherine. In general, feminists don’t care about women. They care about power.

  10. I’m so glad you pointed this out, especially the “fight=not fight” part.

    And I’ve always relished General Napier’s commentary.

  11. Margo/Mom

    There is no practical right to education in Afghanistan for anyone. I do not think universal public education exists in Pakistan either.

    Do you think a mother’s march of infidel foreigners would deter these men? My limited understanding of the local culture allows the men to kill and steal from those outside of their family and tribe. The only restrictions come from the customs of hospitality, your own ability to protect yourself, the possibility of retaliation or disobeying a tribal or family elder. Interfering with a family decision would not be the behavior of a guest.

    Maybe it would be better to send Muslim Clerics to preach women’s rights. I do not know how they would be received.

  12. Catherine says:

    “Do you think a mother’s march of infidel foreigners would deter these men?”
    It might, depending on the level of armaments and defensive clothing the mothers had. 🙂

  13. Keep in mind these men believe they are carrying out God’s will and dieing for their cause is a blessed act.

    Defensive clothing and armaments are not a defense or even intimidating unless you can demonstrate the abilty to use them effectively.

  14. Andy Freeman says:

    > Do you think a mother’s march of infidel foreigners would deter these men?

    There’s no shortage of mothers wanting to be human shields in other cases, so why is that question relevant here?

    > Interfering with a family decision would not be the behavior of a guest.

    Female genital mutilation is a family decision. As is bride-burning.

    I note, that this respect for “family decision” doesn’t extend to the US, at least not with respect to abortion.

    Is it the skin color, the distance, or the “active” opposition that is actually the relevant difference.

  15. > I think that the complaint has more to do with the disingenuous nature of the claim.

    And I think radical feminists have been stung by accusations that they’re missing in action when it comes to the sorts of horrors radical Islam visits on women.

    This is just one of what’s probably any number of rationalizations to explain that absence. A Darwinian process of selection will determine which rationalization best defends the indifference of radical feminists to the plight of women in radical Islamic nations and that’s what lefties will go with.

    Better a shabby, threadbare excuse then the admission that the vast bulk of radical feminists prefer to put their courage on display where it isn’t likely to be needed.

  16. Richard Brandshaft says:

    If I understand Mr. Ellis’s argument, the analogous domestic policy would be to pull the police out of high crime areas and give the residents guns.

  17. Andy Freeman

    “There’s no shortage of mothers wanting to be human shields in other cases, so why is that question relevant here?”

    I am confused. I have seen no evidence of people clamoring to be human shields to protect women’s rights in Afghanistan or Pakistan. … maybe in other countries?

    These are unpleasant places for a westerner to live. There is a good reason it has been referred to as the diarrhea zone. There are lots of unpleasant diseases and parasites that come with living in these lands. These western women would also be attractive targets for bandits, the Taliban and Al Qaeda even if they were not defending women’s rights.

    I agree with you about the barbaric “family decisions”. But it appeared to me that only by being a guest in these lands could they gain some local sympathy, avoid being assaulted for being outsiders and possibly avoid being martyred.

    Guns are very common in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are used to defend the local version of family honor, but not ours.

  18. Andy Freeman says:

    >> “There’s no shortage of mothers wanting to be human shields in other cases, so why is that question relevant here?”

    > I am confused. I have seen no evidence of people clamoring to be human shields to protect women’s rights in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

    That’s the point. There’s no shortage of women willing to be human shields in other cases. Yet, when it comes to actually protecting women from real abuse, human shields are no where to be found.

    Instead, we have “women’s rights” organizations arguing that it’s wrong for outsiders to interfere, citing reasons that they reject in other circumstances.

    Why do “women’s rights” organizations treat those women’s rights differently?