I just saw the most problematic image on Facebook. It was a photo of four blonde female pilots in combat gear with the caption, “Hey Taliban, look up in the sky! Your women can’t drive, but ours CAN!”
To me, this photo represents how blithely and blindly women from the Global North allow ourselves to be used as (actual and metaphorical) weapons of war against women from the Global South. In fact, that offensive caption isn’t significantly different from comments I’ve been hearing this week like, “These are countries where women have very little value.”
Sadly, the place where I’ve been hearing such phrases isn’t on some conservative TV program or website (where I think that all-woman pilot photo originated), but rather, on the PBS film Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women, a well-publicized neo-liberal “odyssey through Asia and Africa” hosted by everyone’s favorite white savior New York Times reporter, Nikolas Kristof.
Beyond his self-promotion, there remains the issue of whose story Kristof is telling. He has, in fact, answered critiques of his reporting style–which often focuses on white outsiders going to Asian or African countries–by saying that this choice is purposeful. When asked why he often portrays “black Africans as victims” and “white foreigners as their saviors,” he has answered, “One way to get people to read…is to have some sort of American they can identify with as a bridge character.” A presumption which assumes that all New York Times readers are white, of course, but I won’t get into that now.
[A]nd most problematically, Half the Sky replicates the same dynamic of that dreadful pilot photo by focusing solely on the oppressions of the Global South.
Although a few passing comments are made about rape, coerced sex work, and other gender-based violence existing everywhere in the world–including in the U.S., hello?!–the point that is consistently reiterated in the film is that gender oppression is “worse” in “these countries”–that it is a part of “their culture.” In fact, at one point, on the issue of female genital cutting, Kristof tells actress Diane Lane, “That may be [their] culture, but it’s also a pretty lousy aspect of culture.”
There’s nothing that smacks more of “us and them” talk than these sorts of statements about “their culture.” Postcultural critic Gayatri Chakrovorty Spivak, in fact, coined the term “white men saving brown women from brown men” to describe the imperialist use of women’s oppression as justification for political aggression.
Although Spivak was writing about British bans of widow burning and child marriage in India to make her point, we can see the reflections of this dynamic is the way that the US has justified wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as missions to “free Islamic women from the Veil.” (For a fantastic critique of this rationale, see Lila Abu-Lughod’s “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?“) According to Spivak, this trope of “white men rescuing brown women from brown men” becomes used to justify the imperialist project of “white man” over “brown man.”
And this formulation is consistent, pretty much across the board, with the film. White/Western dwelling men and women highlight the suffering, as well as local activism, of brown and black women. Brown and black men are portrayed consistently as violent, incompetent, uncaring or, in fact, invisible. And it’s only a small leap to realize that such formulations–of countries incapable of or unwilling to care for “their” women–only reinforce rather than undermine global patriarchy, while justifying paternalization, intervention–and even invasion of these “lesser” places–by the countries of the Global North.