Women everywhere share common challenges.
Do women lack confidence? Is there a natural tendency to blame women victims in every culture? Do women in developed countries have similar problems as women in developing countries?
I recently attended the Women in the World 2011 Stories and Solutions summit. If you caught up with EcoSalon last week, you may have read our summit coverage on child trafficking and girls in sports. As I listened to the different topics, ranging from women on the front lines, to women business leaders, to a woman who wants to build a floating hospital on Lake Tanganyika, to Hillary Clinton’s address, I noticed three persistent themes in the varied panel topics. Confidence. Victim-blaming. Strength.
Interestingly, confidence cut both ways. Women like Divya Keshav and Eva Walusimbi lit up as they told about how they started their own businesses and were able to contribute to their families and their communities. Divya built a thriving accessories business in Haiti with the help of Diane von Furstenberg before the earthquake wiped out her shop and all her hard work. Undeterred, she is in the process of rebuilding, strengthened by her previous success. Her growing confidence was plain to see due to the support and praise from von Furstenberg (who was also present at the summit).
Walusimbi is part of Solar Sister, an Avon-type women’s business network supported by ExxonMobil’s Women’s Economic Opportunity that sells solar lights to rural residents in Uganda. She beamed as she told the audience how she helped women have safe lighting so they could extend their work day into the evening and girls could study after their chores were done. Other women from developing countries told similar stories of feeling immeasurable pride in themselves when they were supported and encouraged by others – whether they were starting a business, recovering from a trauma, or fighting for women’s rights.
However, during at least two sessions, The Marzipan Layer and New Ways to Lead, the panelists talked about the tendency of women in the U.S. to lack confidence, to have difficulty negotiating for themselves, and to understate their worth during job negotiations. While women in developing countries, who are only beginning to be able to explore opportunities, are building their confidence in themselves, women in the U.S. who have many more opportunities, are seen as still suffering from a confidence problem.
Victim-blaming is a universal issue. In Stealing Beauty, we met Yem Chhuon and her daughter, who were victims of an acid attack by her husband’s mistress. The panelists explained that acid attacks are meant to severely injure, but not kill their victims, and they are carried out by both men and women. Acid is an easy weapon to get, and assault carries a light sentence, if it is even prosecuted.
Acid attacks are the equivalent of burning a scarlet letter onto victims’ faces. Society’s first instinct is to believe that the victim did something to deserve the attack, and since most often the victims’ faces are affected, it is the first reaction they get from everyone they meet for the rest of their lives. If it sounds barbaric, that’s because it is. But it has also arrived in the U.S. Even as we were learning about acid attacks in Manhattan, there was one reported the same day in Brooklyn. And it’s not the first one in the U.S.
Other panels focused on the widespread problem of rape in developing countries and how to stop it, the cultural attitude that allows it, and the victim-blaming that accompanies it. However, that’s an attitude that is present everywhere. Sadly, victim blaming is practically a recognized sport in the U.S. For every tragedy, there are people who respond from the heart, showing empathy and support, and there are always those who believe that somehow the victim brought it on herself. What was she wearing? What is her sexual history? These inappropriate and subtly accusatory questions are all too common.
Recently, there has been a furor over the victim-blaming of an 11-year-old victim in Texas who was raped by 17 men. Mother Jones took the New York Times to task over what it perceived as their victim-blaming reporting, but the residents of the town itself seemed more concerned about the effect this crime would have on the accused men (including two basketball stars and the son of a school board member) while few showed any sympathy for the child victim.
After CBS reported the sexual assault of CBS reporter Lara Logan in Egypt, a frenzy of public reaction swept across the Internet. Shockingly, several public figures showed little concern for Logan. Nir Rosen joked about Logan’s assault on Twitter, saying she was “probably just groped, like thousands of other women,” resulting in his dismissal from a fellowship at NYU. Debbie Schlussel publicized flagrantly cold-hearted comments on her blog including, “so sad, too bad, Laura.” Even other reporters seemed to blame it on her looks. Some of her colleagues rallied to her defense, but they were all but drowned out by the controversy.
Many sites that reported on her assault were inundated with comments from readers ranging from insensitivity to claiming that it was her own fault for being there, and worse. NPR was forced to close their comments due to their inappropriate nature, and its editor scolded commenters equally for victim blaming and for vilifying all Egyptian and Arab men. Saying that she should not have been there because she is a woman, in my opinion, is still victim-blaming, dressed up in a benevolent chauvinism.
In our piece on child trafficking, we already discussed the victim-blaming attitude that persists for young girls. Evidently there are no circumstances where victims cannot somehow be blamed. There have been vicious tweets blaming the Japanese people for the recent earthquake. Hearing and reading about it everywhere has become profoundly depressing. Why is there such a persistent need to blame the victims of crimes, particularly women?
While there were grim stories shared at the Women in the World summit, there were also many stories of strength, bravery and accomplishment.
Condoleezza Rice and Madeleine Albright demonstrated that although their politics are vastly different, they have much in common in their support for women’s rights and opportunities. They both called for more women to join politics and make their voices heard.
One of the most powerful moments of the summit was when Hillary Clinton spoke. She introduced a partnership between the Seven Sisters colleges (Barnard College, Bryn Mawr College, Mount Holyoke College, Radcliffe College, Smith College, Vassar College, and Wellesley College) and the U.S. State Department, to launch a new Women and Public Service Initiative – another milestone in her lifelong work on the behalf of women.
Host Tina Brown and other female titans such as Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, Zainab Salbi, Founder of Women for Women International, and Kirsten Gillibrand, U.S. Senator (NY) also demonstrated through their accomplishments that women today have more opportunities than at any other time in history. Yet, we still have so many obstacles to overcome, and there remains a vast divide between women and men on the uneven playing field of respect and common decency. In many ways, some attitudes toward women have not progressed much, even in developed countries.
Will Equality Solve These Problems?
How do we build confidence in all women, eliminate victim-blaming, and continue to celebrate women’s strength and accomplishments? In Editor-in-Chief Tina Brown’s debut issue of Newsweek, Kathleen Parker writes an article about how “women make lousy men.” She posits the idea that women are striving so hard to be equal to men that they are losing sight of what it means to be a woman. That women are trying, in effect, not only to be as good as men, but to be men. “It turns out that women make lousy men, a fact for which we should feel grateful rather than apologetic.”
She writes, “Women have tried to fit into a male-constructed world and found it either uninviting or inflexible to their needs.” She goes on to say, “Until women are equal partners in the human race, we are less secure and surely less interesting…When women achieve parity in boardrooms and legislatures, they’ll no longer have to twist into male versions of themselves but can help fashion a world that is a better fit for them and the human beings they create.” Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that women are just as valuable as men, but their identities and needs will always be different. Maybe just that concession could make a difference in how women are perceived, treated, and appreciated.
As for the cure for victim blaming? I wish I knew.