A 5 minute exchange on a recent (4/19/2013) Real Time with Bill Maher this week left me stupefied. It began at about 45 minutes into the show, and reinforces a growing notion in me that feminism is more an education than philosophy.
Panelist Nicholas Kristof, op-ed columnist for The NY Times, was allowed a segue to examine his book, Half the Sky. Bill Maher said it refers to, “[What] should be the defining moral issue of this century, which is the horrible treatment of women in so much of the world.” Kristof answers, “If you simply look at where you get leverage to bring about change in the world, to fight poverty, to reduce social conflict… it’s by educating those women, bringing those women into the formal labor force.” He then began about how the Taliban violently suppresses the education of young girls, but the conversation quickly goes back to the horrible treatment of women worldwide.
This is how Bill Maher introduced the nuclear-esque knowledge blast that completely sucked all the air out of my living room, and dusted me off morally. “Maybe the most eye-opening fact, that I didn’t know…” Maher then quoted from Half the Sky, “‘More girls have been killed in the last 50 years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the battles of the 20th Century. More girls are killed in this routine gendercide in any one decade, than people were slaughtered in all the genocides of the 20th century,'” and said, “That is astounding, and I’m ashamed that I didn’t know it.” Wow! That is incredible to try to conceive. It has led to gender imbalance in global population, as Kristof pointed out in turn, “Worldwide, there are actually more males than females because of this gendercide,” and again asserted, “Education makes the single greatest difference” regarding the economic empowerment of women everywhere.
Maher continues from the book, “630 million women in the world live in a place in the world where domestic violence is not outlawed. 2.6 billion women live in a place where rape within marriage is legal.” Before this had a chance to set in my mind, Kristof expounded with, “We often think that this is just about men oppressing women. One of the striking things is that there aren’t strong gender differences in attitudes towards these things. If you ask people their views about wife-beating, the greatest predictor for whether you’re for wife-beating is not whether you’re male, it’s how much education you’ve had.”
Kristof added, “The problem is patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes, but those are attitudes that can be absorbed and transmitted just about as much by women as by men. And that is why education is so critical.” This brought his point full circle from where he began the segue about educating women, “The Taliban knew what it was doing when it shot Malala [Yousafzai]. A girl like her, promoting girls’ education, is much more of a threat to them than our drones.”
Minutes later, after comments on the suppression of the Arab Spring that led into recent global outrage over the recently publicly castigated gang rape in India, fellow-panelist Salmon Rushdie contributed these summations of rape culture in India, “Yes, it was appalling. The fact is, that since then, there have been dozens more gang rapes, which have not had the same kind of attention, and that there is colossal daily rape going on in Indian villages,” adding, “Most of it is your father, or your uncle, or your grandfather, etc., and it’s not spoken about.”
The discussion continued with points that it is progress for there to be an outcry over the events. But Rushdie insisted, “India is not discussing what should be discussed, which is gender attitudes.” And only minutes before, Rushdie had interjected that the “abortion of girl fetuses” contributed to the global gender imbalance. I think the fact that certain cultures try to prevent women from even being born is the most damning evidence of the poor attitudes that exist in numbers too big.
Kristof ended the panel portion of the show with optimism. He noted that there is not really a gender gap in primary schools worldwide. “People are essentially sending as many girls to primary schools,” he said, “As they are boys.” Kristof concludes the topic, “One reason women have been so marginalized, historically, is that they didn’t have a chance to earn income. Only 1% of legal title around the world is owned by women. That is beginning to change as well.” 1%? I guess it can only get better.
Education for all girls is a clear-ringing bell through every one of these confounding discussions I hear on TV. But it isn’t just their education, it is our overall education, as a society, that will make the difference. Bringing about a lasting feminism, informed and current.
Having a positive attitude towards progress in women’s equality feels nice, but it isn’t enough from us towards making this a worldwide reality. A lifetime of education by all, regarding the plight of women globally, is how we can collectively see that these changes happen. Equal share and importance in society must come to all women. And as many experts surmise, we cannot cure the economic imbalances that exist globally until it does.