Knowing Our Worth

Knowing Our Worth

Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights, once and for all. –Hillary Rodham Clinton, 1995 UN Conference on Women, Beijing, China.

Please settle in, because this may take awhile. I write it with a heavy heart.

You and I think we know about the dangers inherent in the “corporatization of feminism,” the tightrope-walking required to win advances for some women, but not do so at the expense of other women–or at the expense of our souls. We know that there are certain lines we can’t cross, certain sell-outs we cannot ignore, despite Mika Brzezinski’s “know your value” rallying cry and Sheryl Sandberg’s exhortation to “lean in.” We know that with leadership comes responsibility. And we know that we cannot underestimate the cynical capacity of our opposition to alternate between crushing us and co-opting us. Corporate feminism is not necessarily a rising tide that will lift all boats; a rising tide can also drown you.

Then along comes something hard to believe, yet painfully true.
First, some background. The text below is from the United States Department of State’s Executive Summary on Democracy and Human Rights. It is a Country Report on Human Rights and Democracy in The United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The UAE is a federation of seven semiautonomous emirates, population approximately 9.8 million, of whom an estimated only 11 percent are citizens, the rest imported workers. [Foreign nationals account for 90 percent of the population, according to the World Bank.] Abu Dhabi is the capital. Seven hereditary rulers of the emirates, chosen by the ruling families, constitute the country’s highest legislative and executive body. The emirates are under patriarchal [sic] rule with political allegiance defined by loyalty to tribal leaders, leaders of emirates, and leaders of the federation. A limited (appointed) electorate participates in periodic elections for the partially elected (only consultative) Federal National Council.

The law forbids citizens the right to choose their government in free, fair elections based on universal equal suffrage. Significant human rights issues include credible reports of: torture; arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention; political prisoners; government interference with privacy rights; substantial interference with freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including very restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil-society organizations; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious government restrictions of domestic and international human rights organizations; laws criminalizing consensual same-sex sexual activity between adults; and male guardianship laws making female citizens permanent minors. Political parties and independent trade unions are illegal, as are strikes by public-sector employees, security guards, and migrant workers. The government imposes significant restrictions on freedom of the press, including censorship, criminal libel laws, and blocked internet sites with LGBTQI+ content, atheism, negative critiques of Islam, and testimonies of former Muslims who converted to Christianity.

Not our sort of government, wouldn’t you say?

Let’s glance at those Male Guardianship Laws. Muslim women must have the consent of their guardians to marry. A husband may prevent his wife, children, or adult unmarried daughters from leaving the country by taking custody of their passports. Muslim women are prohibited from marrying non-Muslims. The law says a man can have as many as four wives. [Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International (AI) have noted that women’s rights recently came under heightened scrutiny after the emergence of new videos of Sheikha Latifa, daughter of the Dubai ruler, in which she describes the conditions of her forced confinement following her abduction and forcible return to the UAE in 2018. She also pled for an investigation into her sister Sheikha Shamsa’s abduction and forcible return to the UAE in 2000.] Non-Muslim women normally inherit less than men. A judge can deem a woman has breached her spousal obligations if she leaves the house or takes a job deemed outside “the law, custom, or necessity,” and a woman can lose her right to financial maintenance from her husband if she refuses to have sexual relations with him without a “lawful excuse.” To obtain a divorce with a financial settlement, a woman must prove her husband inflicted physical or moral harm upon her, abandoned her for at least three months, or did not provide for her or their children’s upkeep. Claims of physical abuse require medical reports and two male witnesses, and it is up to the judge to consider women as full witnesses or half witnesses. A divorced woman may lose custody of her children to their father once daughters reach age 13 and sons age 11. Fathers can seek custody of a son younger than age 11 if they believe the child has become “too soft.” In 2020, the government decriminalized consensual extramarital sex, but changes to the penal code stipulate that consensual extramarital sex is punishable by six months’ imprisonment if a complaint is filed by a husband or guardian of either party. Laws may still penalize adultery. Sharia courts still impose flogging as punishment for adultery, prostitution, consensual premarital sex, and pregnancy outside marriage. Abortion is illegal, permitted only when the pregnancy endangers the woman’s life, or there is evidence the birth will be deformed and not survive. Pregnancy outside marriage is punishable by imprisonment. Rape is punishable by death, but the penal code does not prohibit spousal rape. In Sharia courts, the extremely high burden of proof for a rape case contributes to low conviction. The law does not prohibit Female Genital Mutilation, and private clinics and traditional circumcisers continue to perform it during infancy and childhood. In 2020, the government repealed a penal code article allowing men to receive lighter sentences for “honor murders” (killing a female relative found in the act of extramarital sex). The government restricts academic freedom, including speech both in and outside the classroom, and censors academic materials; federal law prohibits coeducation in public universities, except in the UAE University’s executive MBA program and graduate programs at Zayed University. Both civil law and Sharia criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults, subject to the death penalty; Abu Dhabi’s penal code allows a 14-year prison sentence for such activity. Discrimination on the grounds of race remains common in areas like employment. [AI reported detention of 375 African migrant workers held incommunicado for six weeks in overcrowded cells, with leg shackles on women detainees.]

As Rothna Begun, senior women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch, noted: “The UAE has spent considerable time and money portraying itself as a champion of women’s rights and empowerment. Now it needs to turn rhetoric into reality.”

You might think listing such practices by a country would give anyone a heavy heart, but why single out Abu Dhabi? Because, shockingly enough, for three days this month surrounding March 8, International Women’s Day, Abu Dhabi was the chosen site to host what pretended to be an international conference of the Global Women’s Movement. It was sponsored by numerous corporate entities, Forbes (the business magazine that thinks it’s witty to call itself “a capitalist tool”), and the Emirati Government, and was the brainchild of MSNBC -TV host Mika Brzezinski. It featured such speakers as Mika, Billie Jean King, Olena Zelenska (“first lady” of Ukraine), Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Gloria Steinem.

Mind you, this did not bill itself as a conference of business-world corporate CEO women, who comprised much of the audience, although that at least might have been more honest. No, it was hyped as “the greatest global gathering of women in history,” and promoted widely as “The Women’s Summit” to be held at the “crossroads of the world — Abu Dhabi.” We will charitably leave aside the idea that Abu Dhabi is a crossroad of much other than extreme patriarchal wealth, horse racing, oppression of women, death penalty for same-sex love, silencing of the press, and suffocation of human rights. We will also leave aside the sorrow that accompanied our disbelief in watching (the main session was televised) distinguished women embarrass themselves and viewers by their presence, without anyone saying publicly that Abu Dhabi, even given some progress compared to its neighbors, had a very long way to go.

I suppose it’s assumed that Madam Zelenska will go anywhere to plead Ukraine’s plight, but the context was distressingly ironic. If HRC recalls her own famous statement on human rights, the words surely stuck in her throat and the chyron running beneath her TV image could have read “Good god, what was I thinking by coming here?” Billie Jean made clear she has no limits when it comes to raising cash for women’s sports, and cheerfully proclaimed “follow the money!” — making a viewer wonder just how much the UAE and corporations paid these panelists; the sum must have been considerable–if not, they were royally had. It’s depressing that such women gave cover to UAE policies.

Still, none of them (and certainly not Mika Brzezinski) are considered activists, much less leaders, of the Women’s Movement. But then there’s my dear friend and colleague of many years, Gloria Steinem. Here’s where a lead-heavy heart comes in. That is, if lead could break.

Close friends, colleagues, political wise ones, weighed in over the weeks preceding her trip to Abu Dhabi, imploring her not to attend this “feminist” conference because of its location: akin to the Holocaust Museum hosting a convention in 1933 Berlin. Because you can’t throw a cosmetic cloak of ethics over a place with Abu Dhabi’s deplorable reputation, despite all their slick public-relations boasts about their progress on human rights. No matter how much they pay. No matter who else attends. No matter how many lifetime achievement awards they bestow. What’s more, Gloria’s physical fragility (she and I share back-pain agonies) made for an excellent, diplomatic, and true excuse, if one were needed at all.

Gloria sensibly agreed. Then she changed her mind, then changed it again. In the end, she decided to go. Perhaps it was pressure from other influences, perhaps she was tired and just gave in. She even praised the conference and its organizers on TV. The Emirates must have been pleased.

She knew that if she did go, I would have to write about Abu Dhabi, the conference, and her attendance. I told her so in advance, so that it wouldn’t surprise her–and she said of course she understood. Yet I find myself in tears writing these words. This woman and I have been friends for over half a century, ridden to each other’s rescue, seen each other through marriages, divorces, funerals, marches, illnesses, deadlines, sit-ins, books, laughter, political arguments and solidarities, a thousand ups and downs. We’re “chosen family” for each another.

I treasure her dearly. This criticism in no way weakens that. I will continue — as I hope she will — treasuring her and working with her for everything we mutually believe, until we’re ready to turn up our toes. (I’m now 82 and she’s about to turn 89 later this month, so time’s winged chariot is double-parked for us both.) It’s just that on this occasion, these women crossed a line. Since I’m ethically responsible for myself and feel answerable to the Women’s Movement (and since I do read my mail), I need to dissociate myself from the hypocrisy that Abu Dhabi currently represents. And yes, I think acknowledging attendance at the conference as a mistake would be wise, if for no other reason than people’s legacies.

Corporate feminism, vast wealth, political repression—these constitute a powerful troika that can celebrate select women to legitimize the troika itself. But what does that say to the migrant laborer, raped and beaten by her UAE employer? Or to Emirati human rights defender Amina Al-Abdouli, arrested without a warrant, separated from her children, and still kept in solitary confinement after her hunger strike and her refusal to self-incriminate? Or Emirati Maryam Al-Balushi, jailed since 2015 for peacefully “publishing information that disturbs the public order,” who was tortured, and who, having attempted suicide, now faces three more years for cooperating with the UN’s Reports on Reprisals? Progress in the UAE has not reached them. These women wait in prison at this very moment.

Feminists can “lean in” only so far without falling on our faces, and we might not “know our value,” but we damned well better know our worth. Grasping that demands hearing one’s own whispered conscience–so I have to believe that deep down Gloria knows better. Because she is my colleague, sister, and friend. And because I love her.