Thursday, April 14, 2005

Empowering Women, Anywhere but the U.S.

In a recent interview, Elizabeth Cheney, daughter of the American Vice President and a State Department employee in the Near Eastern Affairs section, encourages feedback about the "Middle East Partnership Initiative" (MEPI). First of all, I'd like to tell Ms. Cheney that her contention that Iraqi elections energized the region is false. In her words, "What we’re seeing I think are people feeling inspired and a beginning of a lifting of the burden of fear." "We" have seen this before, in earlier waves of "Arab democratization" that didn't pan out. Arabs did not look over at the Iraqi elections and say "we want to be like that" as American officials like to think. We've had elections forever (here in Egypt at least since the 1920s); Arabs saw in the elections a deepening of ethnic and sectarian divisions, not a triumphant reclaiming of citizenship. Arab history didn't begin with Iraqi elections in 2005.

Second, I couldn't find information on Ms. Cheney on the State Department's website beyond news of her appointment (her job title is too long for me to reproduce), so I'd like to know: as the second-ranking Middle East diplomat at the State Department (number one is the former American ambassador to Egypt David Welch), what are Ms. Cheney's qualifications? What is her knowledge base about the region? Does she speak a regional language? Since she's the chief administrator of MEPI, I'm assuming she knows something about the region, but perhaps I'm wrong. Since she enthuses in her interview about "empowering women", what is her view of the state of women in the region?

The Cheney interview is predictably uninformative; she evades important issues and speaks in measured, meaningless, pious diplomatspeak: "We are guided in all of what we do by individual people in countries who are working for freedom. We provide support to people who want the support. I also think there is a bit of a misconception. President Bush has—in a more public and direct way than any previous American president—put the United States on the side of people fighting for democracy in the Arab world. We are very sincere in that. We want people to judge us by our actions and we want to provide support where we can." So for more information, I went to the MEPI website.

The website's main page features two women (one of whom is muhaggaba of course, the State Department has no problems with muhaggabat who are "for women's rights") at some Cairo conference funded by USAID. Just in case you haven't gotten it yet: the US wants to "empower women" in the Middle East, just like Mrs. Suzanne Mubarak wants to "empower women." This is a side issue, I'm sure: what does the US government do to "empower women" in the United States? I mean, what does the US government do about gender-based inequalities in the US and the conditons of poor and minority women? A recent report finds, "At the rate of progress achieved between 1989 and 2002, women would not achieve parity for more than 50 years." The report also says: "African American, Native American, and Hispanic women all have lower earnings and higher poverty rates than white women. But all groups of women have lower earnings and higher poverty rates than white men. Women are less likely to own a business and are less likely to work in high-paid occupations, such as jobs in science and technology or top levels of business." So, women in the US are far from "empowered" and face daunting structural gaps in their earnings and job prospects. Yet the US government is employing Elizabeth Cheney to parachute into the Middle East and teach women how to be empowered. Fascinating.

MEPI has "four pillars": political, economic, education, and women's "pillars". Read about them on the website, I summarize here (all below are direct quotes):
  • President Bush announced plans to launch a major new effort to provide resources for the Arabic translation of early reading books for use in primary schools in the region.
  • Partnership Schools also will focus on developing relationships with private industry. Businesses that invest in the schools and/or offer internship or job training opportunities will benefit by molding a prospective workforce. The goal of MEPI's Partnership Schools program is to demonstrate to governments, businesses, and communities that truly “transformed” schools can produce educated youth with the skills necessary to positively contribute to their society and economy.
  • Since each of the foreign national participants will be selected because of his/her demonstrated leadership capacity, it is assumed that he will utilize the experience derived from this program in positions of stewardship for reform in their home countries.
  • This program aims to empower women at the grassroots level through establishing advocacy networks supported by the National Council of Women in four Governorates in Egypt.
  • On U.S. Business Internships for "Young Arab Women": The mutual professional and business relationships forged on the corporate and personal levels will be a platform for the Middle East's economic future -- a future shaped with American partners.
  • On Judicial and Legal Reform: "In all elements of the program, MEPI will look for cost-sharing opportunities" and "All of the judicial and legal reform elements will have an emphasis on women's inclusion in the judicial and legal professions."

With the single-minded focus on translating books from English into Arabic (why?), exporting the US business model, "looking for cost-sharing opportunities", encouraging private industry-school links (why?), and all the rest, is it any wonder that those oh-so-paranoid Arabs worry that MEPI is nothing more than cultural-economic imperialism through the back door? The insistent drone on "women's empowerment" and "girls empowerment" is not fooling anyone. MEPI is designed to foster a core of pro-American, pro-business "critical elites" to occupy "positions of stewardship for reform in their home countries" and proceed to tether their home countries even more tightly to American interests. This is the lesson American officials took from September 11, and now they're industriously applying it. They can earnestly plead that they're "deepening" and "strengthening" "democracy in the Middle East" all they like, it's clear to anyone with half a brain that they have no intentions of doing any such thing. They've just figured out that "empowering women" and "strengthening democracy" are seductive accessories with which to garnish their hardheaded, interest-based foreign policy goals.

It's not coincidental that MEPI is premised on working with and through the existing regimes, as the National Council for Women bit cited above shows. The Council is of course chaired by Suzanne Mubarak and staffed by her garish high-society friends and third-rate toadies. What a feat: empowering women by giving money to the president's wife. Brilliant, Elizabeth Cheney, can you tell us more about how you plan to empower women in the Middle East while American women far less privileged and pampered than yourself struggle to escape grinding poverty or to get equal pay for equal work?

Empires have long made claims to "empower" and "rescue" women in the "backward" societies over which they ruled. Remember that Lord Cromer was an avid champion of girls' education and wrote about it at length in his memoirs, just as he waxed poetic about his unique friendship with Egypt's fellahin and his contempt for the know-it-all effendiyya. What better way to justify an invasion/occupation than to claim concern for women's oppression, thereby disarming domestic critics in the Metropole and confusing public opinion in the colonies. As Professor and blogger Juan Cole aptly puts it, "colonial occupation gives the occupiers an easy sense of self-worth and powerfulness. Thus the appeal of occupying other countries precisely for those sections of the dominant "whites" in US society that are least secure in their whiteness (e.g. lower middle class Southerners). Much about the Abu Ghuraib torture scandal can most easily be explained in these colonialist/racist terms. Likewise, the sex and power fantasy of white men saving brown women from brown men, which has figured so prominently in the new discourse of American empire, is best explained in this way."

How does it feel to be an object of earnest US instruction and reform (with the enthusiastic support of some American feminists)? I'll save that for another post if I have the energy. Back in the real world: A recent article in the Wall Street Journal shows how MEPI works on the ground: unknown "civil society activists" have mushroomed overnight to lap up the influx of dollars, which they'll use ostensibly to train people to run for parliament and "show Egyptian movies not often aired locally." Of course, I forgot about that: showing rare movies has been proven to "deepen" and "strengthen" democracy. The article also details the squabble between the Egyptian government and Egyptian "activists" over the money, like mangy dogs competing for scraps of fetid meat. A government official grovels to the reporter: "You are taking money from our bilateral program and giving it to someone else," while Moheb Zaki, a "senior adviser to the Ibn Khaldun Center" pants "Getting money directly from Washington puts us almost on a par with the Mubarak government." My, what an edifying spectacle. Note to self: never, never underestimate the venality of Egyptian government officials and "civil society activists."

A plague upon all their houses: hypocritical American officials, servile Egyptian bureaucrats, and grabby activists. Democracy and women's empowerment are innocent of them all.