The war on terror and women’s rights: the connection?

Religion Dispatches interviews Michelle Goldberg, author of The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World. In the book Goldberg tackles issues like population control, female infanticide, genital cutting, HIV/AIDS, and global poverty. She makes the convincing case that women’s oppression is at the heart of many of the world’s problems; that, as she puts it, “underlying diverse conflicts—demography, natural resources, human rights, and religious mores—is the question of who controls the means of reproduction.”

RD: Indigenous movements for women’s rights can be much more effective than movements led by outsiders. (I’m thinking of Agnes Pareyio and Sandra Kabir in Kenya and Bangladesh, respectively.) How can Westerners get involved without coercing or compromising the integrity of an indigenous organization’s work?

MG: There are a number of organizations that are really good at channeling aid to women working at the grassroots. The Global Fund for Women, for example, does amazing work. On a more macro scale, people in developed countries often have access to levers of power that people on the ground don’t. Agnes Pareyio’s story is instructive. She’s an amazing Masai woman in Kenya who runs a shelter for girls who have run away from home to escape female circumcision. She enrolls the girls in boarding school, and, because circumcision is such a right of passage among the Masai, she has created an alternative ceremony that offers girls a meaningful transition into adulthood. No outsider could do what she’s doing. But one reason that her work is possible is that the United States and other developed countries have pressured Kenya to ban female circumcision. One result of that is that parents can’t enlist the police against Pareyio when she shelters their daughters.

One of the things I tried to do in this book is to show the real connections between some of the seemingly abstract debates that happen at the international level and the experiences of women on the ground. Through the international feminist movement, women working at the grassroots can sometimes leverage the privilege of their allies in rich countries. Alex De Waal described how this process works in his fascinating book AIDS and Power:

“Blocked from direct routes of access, African activists meet with their Western counterparts, who have access to policy makers in Washington and Brussels, who in turn squeeze African governments.”

He was talking about HIV activism, but the same dynamic exists in the realm of women’s rights. It’s kind of a strange way to effect social change, and it raises all kinds of really knotty philosophical questions about democracy and sovereignty. But people have to use whatever tools they have.

Read more of the interview here

The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World By Michelle Goldberg (Penguin, 2009). Goldberg is currently working for PRA on a project on Antisemitism and Islamophpobia on college campuses

Other stories on women, power and religion below:

The Guardian asks:

Is religion good for women?

Are the world faiths as oppressive, and as patriarchal, as they seem?

Also in the The Guardian, UK

Sometimes the liberator, sometimes the oppressor

USAToday writes:

Two-thirds of women say religion is a very important factor in their lives, as opposed to roughly half of men — percentages that are about the same for those who say they pray on a daily basis. Forty-four percent of women attend weekly religious services, as opposed to just a third of men.

One would think that these facts would translate into women’s rise to positions of spiritual leadership — surely the mark of genuine equality — in the various denominations. Alas, as a glance at some of the largest organized religious groups in the country shows, the picture is at best mixed when it comes to women’s ability to break that stained-glass ceiling.

As reported by the Dallas News, the final words of the Pope in Africa: “Toward the end of his Africa trip, Pope Benedict XVI said discrimination against women “forms no part of God’s plan.”

More from The National Catholic Reporter.

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