The Women's Crusade Without Women

Nicholas Kristoff seems like a nice guy.  He has on-the-ground experience witnessing - albeit as a NYT journalist - some of the worst abuses that people- and particularly women- face in the poorer parts of the world.  He has brought attention to issues like trafficking, health, labour conditions, and poverty to a greater degree than most white male journalists working for a source as conservomainstream as the New York Times probably would have - and he has done it with a level of human detail that makes these issues moving, rather than eye-glazingly boring.

He has gotten too big for his britches, though, in the context of discussions of women's poverty.  The new article that Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn have authored, "The Women's Crusade", like most of Kristoff's work on women in the poorer parts of the world, is deeply problematic.  It is paternalistic, has no analysis of the importance of social movements, and relies on bottom-up capitalism and donor-country led aid to 'solve' women's poverty.   It appears in a forthcoming issue of the New York Times Magazine called "Saving the World's Women."

For all these reasons, I will say that, however nice a guy Kristoff is, this kind of work is irresponsible and maybe even dangerous, for all its real and imagined benefits.  It reinforces the idea that women in poor countries are there to be saved by the beneficent, and the powerful, and through small measures and above all without any social conflict or overt changes to social structures.  It also erases the global power structure and the place that the people who present these analyses have in them.  To go back even further, it presumes that a one-size fits all cure is even possible, that you can discuss the conditions facing most of the women in the world in one breath.

Consider the following passage:

The hours were long and the conditions wretched, just as in the sweatshops of the Industrial Revolution in the West. But peasant women were making money, sending it back home and sometimes becoming the breadwinners in their families. They gained new skills that elevated their status. Westerners encounter sweatshops and see exploitation, and indeed, many of these plants are just as bad as critics say. But it’s sometimes said in poor countries that the only thing worse than being exploited in a sweatshop is not being exploited in a sweatshop. Low-wage manufacturing jobs disproportionately benefited women in countries like China because these were jobs for which brute physical force was not necessary and women’s nimbleness gave them an advantage over men — which was not the case with agricultural labor or construction or other jobs typically available in poor countries. Strange as it may seem, sweatshops in Asia had the effect of empowering women.

The most important point is this: all the empirical claims in the article may be true, but that still does not justify an endorsement of the strategy that led to it.  The error in logic (whether implicitly accepted or expressed) is to fail to imagine that something better could be designed than small amounts of financing (or predatory lending), targeted foreign aid, and acceptance of the overarching social structures regionally, nationally, and globally.  In other words, if I have $100 and I give you $1 and someone tells me to give you $1.15, is that really a solution?  In contrast, one could propose, say, a targeted national industrial policy driven by a social force that makes strides towards including women and taking into account women's issues would address some of the structural barriers that keep women disempowered and poor in the world, and all the negative consequences that ensue from that.  So then the policy prescription would be to build that social force and make sure it's feminist and driven significantly by women.

Consider the following:

One place to observe this alchemy of gender is in the muddy back alleys of Pakistan. In a slum outside the grand old city of Lahore, a woman named Saima Muhammad used to dissolve into tears every evening. A round-faced woman with thick black hair tucked into a head scarf, Saima had barely a rupee, and her deadbeat husband was unemployed and not particularly employable. He was frustrated and angry, and he coped by beating Saima each afternoon. Their house was falling apart, and Saima had to send her young daughter to live with an aunt, because there wasn’t enough food to go around.


Saima took out a $65 loan and used the money to buy beads and cloth, which she transformed into beautiful embroidery that she then sold to merchants in the markets of Lahore. She used the profit to buy more beads and cloth, and soon she had an embroidery business and was earning a solid income — the only one in her household to do so. Saima took her elder daughter back from the aunt and began paying off her husband’s debt.


Today, Saima is a bit plump and displays a gold nose ring as well as several other rings and bracelets on each wrist. She exudes self-confidence as she offers a grand tour of her home and work area, ostentatiously showing off the television and the new plumbing. She doesn’t even pretend to be subordinate to her husband. He spends his days mostly loafing around, occasionally helping with the work but always having to accept orders from his wife. He has become more impressed with females in general: Saima had a third child, also a girl, but now that’s not a problem. “Girls are just as good as boys,” he explained.

I have no doubt that increased social status and wealth for this woman transformed her life, assuming it's described accurately.  But has it really transformed her husband and gender attitudes and relations to the extent argued?  Her mother in law?  Her kids?  In other words, has it transformed family structure the way it's described?  I would say that, if Kristoff's description is accurate, it probably has to some extent, in that small way that, when multiplied, can lead to enormous change, especially over time.   

Next question, though: what will happen if you multiply that small change?  What if you consider the results in the aggregate rather than the anecdote? In other words, if this kind of social change were happening across the board in a particular community or place, what would men do?  What political leaders would appeal to them and what message would they use?  What are the labour conditions of the new women who are working for Saima now?  In other words, if we imagine that social change can occur without the privileged resisting or the social hierarchies reinforcing themselves or new barriers being erected, where will that leave us?

And what if you consider the method that is advocated for making that happen? What if microcredit organisations and the U.S. government miraculously decided that Pakistan should have 1,000,000 Saimas and made this possible?  What kind of political response would that produce among the political elites in poor countries that appealed to these newly threatened men?

Of course, social change frequently engenders backlash, so that by itself is not a reason for rejecting this worldview.  However, how is it going to be sustainable or eevn occur if you don't grasp fundamental realities like gender and sex hierarchy?  They are, as the writers show, interlinked with economic power- but they are not identical.  Removing barriers to people's life choices may increase their capacity to exercise power, but there are hierarchies of wealth and other forms of power still affecting people.  

This leads to the other point about Kristoff's and WuDunn's article: that presenting stories and a worldview like this has also allowed the writers to avoid fully taking into acounnt the gender hierarchies and discrimination that exist in wealthier countries.    That is why there is still domestic violence and rape in the wealthiest countries in the world and their governments are not even close to 50/50 men and women, and that is why eliminating fistulas by itself will not resolve gender discrimination around the world.

In this sense, you can consider Kristoff's corpus of work a foreign policy extension of the Obama-Hillary Clinton brand of multiculti liberal capitalism.   They care - care deeply in some cases - about particular identity issues.  But the best salve for a guilty conscience is not open acknowledgement of structural discrimination, but the alleviation of an alleged problem to an extent that does not endanger one's own comfort.  This is true for me, and I think it's true for these other people as well. 

Descriptions like Kristoff's will allow a lot of people to point to something 'good' they did while silently supporting or advocating measures that will lend credibility to massive global inequalities- the same ones that were necessary preconditions for Cheney and Rumsfled to do their worst (also invoking women's rights, incidentally).  But when it comes time, as is long overdue, to ask them to place these issues in a framework of power and deal with the complicity of other factors or even themselves-- well, they're not there yet, and in some cases there is no reason to imagine they ever will be.   But we're supposed to ignore all that, even if those inequalities help produce the poverty that is allegedly being attacked by the article.

Presented in a different political framework, would I take some or many of the article's very specific policy sugguestions?  Definitely.  Do I think it's a net positive contribution to present these ideas to the American elite that reads the New York Times magazine?  I don't know - probably - I don't expect much out of them, and the situations that Kristoff has described over the years truly are dire and raising the issue means that it at least puts the issue on the radar unlike, for example, hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils in refugee camps.

But that doesn't mean Kristoff and Wudunn's comprehension of the world is mostly accurate or in the interests of most of the people in the world, including women.  They haven't gotten the memo about postcolonialism or Foucault...or really any number of other things, and it's arguable whether they're making it easier or harder to circulate that particular note.

So, um, yeah, Nicholas Kristoff seems like a nice guy...but he and WuDunn have to go a hell of a lot further and to be a little more self-aware while doing it.

Orientalism rears its ugly head in Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn's latest piece in the New York Times Magazine on global poverty and women.

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Hi, thanks for posting this


thanks for posting this critique.  I found it from your post on SM.  I am wondering why the discussion about this article is so heavily neoliberal??  I appreciate your critical viewpoint. :)

Hi shellifer.  Thanks for

Hi shellifer.  Thanks for your comment.  Do you mean the discussion here or the discussion on SM?

Thanks for this excellent,

Thanks for this excellent, insightful piece.  Why don't more people get it?

History repeats itself if you read the story of William Stead.

Thanks!  I just looked up

Thanks!  I just looked up William Stead (imperialist and then anti-imperialist).  Which part of his life / work were you drawing a parallel to?

The thing is - in a place

The thing is - in a place like India, for example, practically any work place is a sweat shop.  The country is HOT.  Electricity is often scarce.  And few people have AC. 

Also, regarding child labor - nothing wrong with it!  It keeps kids out of trouble.  I propose the United States implement it.  In fact, put the poor Indian kids in school and take the US kids out of school and put them to work.

Indians do better with studies and often have a deep sense of respect for the process of education and for those whom educate them.  Many American kids have neither.  Education would be more appreciated by the Indians and the smart-ass, lazy, angst-ridden American kids can learn to grow up by WORKING.

But really, there's no such thing as a "problem kid" - show me a problem kid and I'll show you problem parents.

The reason why American kids are such rot is because they are, by and large, products of single parent homes and have to grow up watching their moms and dads trying to score some.

That must really screw up a kids head.


This would be funny, if only

This would be funny, if only it was funny.

What a pious critique about

What a pious critique about gender issues coming from a man with a history of abuse, violence and coercion towards women, Dr. "Anonymous". You're not anonymous to me. You are utterly unaccountable.

It seems that some spout all this pious social justice rhetoric for pay, self-image and self-aggrandizement, but don't seem to find these interpersonal hypocrisies to be seriously problematic. You abused someone ten years younger than you, not well-connected, lacking community and recovering from the trauma of gender-based violence.

You seem to be propped up by so many rock-solid hierarchies that you'll probably perpetually be excused by others for the ongoing issues of sexualized hostility and aggression that you even reveal in some of your writing on here.

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