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Tina Brown's Post-Feminist Summit

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Tina Brown has given Western feminism something it has lacked since the 1970s: a contemporary purpose worthy of its illustrious past.

Tina Brown, editor of Newsweek and The Daily Beast, held her second annual “Women in the World” conference earlier this month at the Millennial Hotel in New York City. When I told a writer friend I was attending and urged her to come along, she e-mailed back, “zzzzzzz.”

I knew what she was thinking. Women’s conferences are usually tedious affairs, organized by women’s studies professors and Title IX lobbyists and filled with complaint, victim-talk, and “anger issues.” But this one was different. Its subject was not the travails of middle-class American women, but rather the genuine hardships and dangers faced by women in Muslim and other cultures in the developing world. Not a single representative from the National Organization for Women or the American Association of University Women was in evidence. The panels were moderated by well-known journalists—Christiane Amanpour, Charlie Rose, Leslie Stahl, and Barbara Walters. Several prominent American women served on panels, including Kirsten Gillibrand, Melinda Gates, Cheryl Mills, Amy Chua, and Diane Von Furstenberg. But the stars of the summit were activists from the poorest regions of the world. And the spirit was not self-pitying and anti-male but self-confident and serious.

One after another, women from Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Congo, and Egypt spoke about how they were organizing against honor killings, mass rapes, genital mutilation, child marriage, and gender apartheid—and getting results.

In a session called “Stealing Beauty,” panelists discussed acid attacks. A Cambodian woman named Yem Chhuon described an incident six years ago when her husband’s mistress threw acid in her face, also hitting her infant daughter cradled in her arms. Her face is badly disfigured, but instead of retreating from the world she is campaigning against the “culture of impunity” that surrounds acid assaults in her country (both Cambodian men and women wield this horrific weapon). A philanthropic group called Virtue Foundation (whose guiding principle is that “true global change must begin within each of us—one person at a time, one act at a time”) has helped her and her daughter find expert medical attention. Today Chhuon is advancing a series of reforms: regulating the sale of acid, improving police awareness, and sensitizing judges. Her daughter, Sophorn—charming, scarred, and nearly blind—came on stage to greet the crowd. Suddenly, “acid attacks” were no longer a distant abstraction; they were as real as the disfigured six-year-old girl standing onstage in her velvet dress and patent leather shoes.

One after another, women from Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Congo, and Egypt spoke about how they were organizing against honor killings, mass rapes, genital mutilation, child marriage, and gender apartheid—and getting results. We met the “Rosa Parks of Saudi Arabia,” Wajeha Al-Huwaider. As co-founder of the Association for the Protection and Defense of Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia, this divorced mother of two is waging a brave and relentless campaign against sexist injustice. A social networker, she has posted a provocative video of herself on YouTube—with more than 200,000 hits so far. What makes it provocative? She is driving a car and encouraging other Saudi women to do the same. In another video she revealed details about an upcoming marriage between an eight-year-old girl and a 50-year-old man. Local journalists as well as CNN picked up on the story. An unusual public discussion of the horrors of child marriage ensued—and the little girl was set free.

Two Somalian women stole the show. Dr. Hawa Abdi, a sixty-three-year-old doctor and lawyer, was introduced as “equal parts Mother Teresa and Rambo.” She founded a hospital and refugee camp in rural Somalia that has attracted nearly 100,000 men, women, and children. Under her leadership, the settlement has evolved into a model civil society. Tribalism and wife abuse are endemic to Somalia, but not in Abdi’s village. No one is allowed to talk about tribes, and any man suspected of beating his wife is put on trial by a small group of women. If guilty, he is sent to a makeshift jail until he repents. Abdi’s Somalia is the antithesis of the lawless, woman-destroying, pirate-infested hell we read about in the news.

The spirit was not self-pitying and anti-male but self-confident and serious.

The other Somalian woman was the renowned Ayaan Hirsi Ali, my friend and colleague at the American Enterprise Institute. Superficially, the two women are worlds apart. Abdi is a practicing Muslim who wears traditional Somali garb; Ayaan is a self-described infidel in Jimmy Choos. But both are devoted to transforming the concept of male honor: to require protecting, respecting, and educating women rather than subjugating, intimidating, and harming them. Ayaan urged a rapt audience of philanthropists, political leaders, and human-rights activists not to abandon hard-pressed Muslim women in the name of multiculturalism.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was a featured speaker. Walking on stage with none of the trappings of high office, she was clearly overwhelmed by the proceedings. "Oh my God,” she said. “This is unbelievable.” She struggled to find words to describe what she was witnessing: “Cutting-edge … extraordinary … absolutely central.”

All quite exciting —but here is where the “cutting-edge,” “extraordinary,” and “absolutely central” come in: Unlike most women’s conferences in the United States, this one was politically inclusive. Liberals and conservatives made common cause. Bill and Hillary Clinton were honored guests, but so were Rupert Murdoch and his wife, Wendi Deng Murdoch. With few exceptions, there were none of the standard feminist denunciations of men, capitalism, Western colonialism, or even the Bush administration. In fact, two prominent members of the Bush administration were speakers: Condoleezza Rice and Dina Habib Powell. Empowering women through entrepreneurship was a central theme of the conference.        

Suddenly ‘acid attacks’ were no longer a distant abstraction; they were as real as the disfigured six-year-old girl standing onstage in her velvet dress and patent leather shoes.

The only trace of establishment feminism was the conspiracy-minded Egyptian activist, Dr. Nawal El Saadawi. She described Egypt as an “American colony” and blamed Defense Secretary Robert Gates for instigating attacks on women in Cairo’s Tahir Square. When she announced that one of her popular lectures is entitled “George Bush and Female Genital Mutilation,” the audience was amused and bewildered. In feminist circles, El Saadawi is noted for her view that women’s makeup (lipstick, mascara, and eyeliner) is the “post-modern veil.” According to El Saadawi, who has been a visiting lecturer at Duke University and Spelman College, “Women in consumer societies are victimized by advertising and Islamic women are pressurized by religious groups—it’s the same!”

But the cutting edge of The Women in the World gathering was that almost all the participants understood that the two are not the same. El Saadawi’s eccentric rhetoric—standard fare on feminist websites and in women’s studies departments—was a carnival side-show. When panelist Anna Holmes, founder of the website Jezebel, denounced fashion magazines for retouching photographs of female models, Brown refused to see it as a pressing moral issue. "When I get photographed," she quipped, “the first words out of my mouth are, 'Am I going to be retouched?'" A dismayed Holmes replied, “But you still want to look human!” "No," said Brown, “I just want to look great.”

Both are devoted to transforming the concept of male honor: to require protecting, respecting, and educating women rather than subjugating, intimidating, and harming them.

Nearly all of the participants, including Secretary Clinton, took it as a given that the serious work of the today’s women’s movement is in the developing world. As Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said of American women, “We’re here because we know that with good fortune comes not just the opportunity to help, but the responsibility to help others.” The conference showed how to meet that responsibility, by joining forces with women still struggling for equality and freedom. Visitors to the Women in the World website will find a long list of results-oriented organizations to support, join, and publicize—such as the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation and Virtue Foundation.

Brown and her colleagues now plan to make Women in the World an annual affair. Next year there will be more women, more stories, more funders, more leaders, and more solutions. An irresistible force of self-directed and valiant women from across the world is colliding with the so-far immovable object of patriarchal tyranny. The political and cultural consequences will go far beyond the next stage of women’s liberation. In the meantime, Brown has given Western feminism something it has lacked since the 1970s: a contemporary purpose worthy of its illustrious past.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

FURTHER READING: Sommers has also written “Take Back the Sports Page?” “Are There More Girl Geniuses?” and “The Equal Pay Day Reality Check.” She discusses “Is Science Saturated with Sexism?” says “Domestic Violence Myths Help No One,” and considers a new edition of Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex in “Not Lost in Translation.”

Image by Rob Green/Bergman Group.

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