The Magazine

What Third World Women Want

According to first world feminists

Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
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Cambridge, Mass.

What women want

Thomas Fluharty

The good news about the conference earlier this year titled “Driving Change, Shaping Lives: Gender in the Developing World” was that no one said, “Women hold up half the sky.” The bad news was that someone might as well have uttered this chestnut, reputed to be one of Mao Zedong’s favorite Chinese proverbs and a perennial favorite of feminists.

The subtheme of the two-day event, sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the women’s studies think tank that occupies what used to be the campus of Radcliffe College before it merged with Harvard, was how colorful, if chronically impoverished, the developing world can be, especially its women. The conference program was illustrated by photographs of developing-world people clad in ethnic costumes taken by a Harvard freshman who had been lucky enough or rich enough to take trips far abroad while still in high school: a veiled female crusher of argan nuts in Morocco (“She works at a women’s co-op,” the text read), a child beggar in India tricked out like the god Krishna, a Buddhist monk in China working a cell phone (an illustration of what the Harvard-freshman photographer called cross-cultural “hybridity”).

Most of the panelists at the conference and nearly all the audience of 150 or so was female. Indeed Asim IJaz Khwaja, a public policy professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and a rare male panelist, declared self-deprecatingly, “I take such pleasure in being a minority and being stymied by the intellectual ferment here.” Some of the women wore hijabs, saris, and towering sub-Saharan headdresses that announced their developing-world provenance​—​but most of them wore the uniform of First World women in academia: sensible slacks, puffy vests, and backpacks. All but a few of the former group were government officials, parliamentarians, and NGO activists from the countries that their ethnic dress denoted. As for the latter group, they were mostly what they looked like: professors and graduate students in such fields as politics, international relations, and, of course, women’s studies.

No sooner had we settled into our seats and listened to some opening boilerplate than came .  .  . the praise poetry. The poet, a rangy young man who leaped and chanted exuberantly down the center aisle, was Siyabulela Lethuxolo Xuza of Johannesburg. Although brightly clad in a dashiki-like overshirt and headband, Xuza was actually a Harvard engineering major who as a high school student had won a top prize in Intel Corp.’s International Science and Engineering Fair and had an asteroid named after him​—​in other words, a typical résumé for a Harvard undergraduate. Swooping and whirling, Xuza chanted his praise poem in a lilting South African language that featured numerous tongue-clicks. He never got around to translating his poem, but he did assure his audience that it was relevant to the conference: “This is about gender issues and cultural issues. I tried to use my act to entertain you on issues of gender.” 

“Wow!” exclaimed Swanee Hunt, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Hunt chairs the Institute for Inclusive Security, a think tank based in Cambridge and Washington that, according to its website, promotes “the vital but often unrecognized role” women play “in averting violence and resolving conflict.” As Xuza swirled gracefully to a final round of applause, Hunt rhapsodized, “I love the energy​—​isn’t it great?”

The first speaker was Valerie M. Hudson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, leading off a panel titled “Shifting Populations.” Hudson delivered a genuine population-shift shocker: In China and India, which between them account for about 40 percent of the world’s 7 billion people, women, who in the West slightly outnumber men because they tend to live longer, are outnumbered by the male sex to the tune of 33 million in China and 28 million in India. The reason? As Hudson explained, it was the female-lethal combination of sex-selection abortion following the advent of fetal ultrasound during the 1980s and China’s longtime one-child policy, which has resulted in widespread female infanticide along with many forced abortions. As she rattled off disturbing statistics​—​120 boy babies for every 100 girl babies in China in 2005, and 121 for every 100 in India​—​Hudson pointed out that sex-selection abortion and female infanticide are illegal in both countries, but the laws on the books have failed to dent the cultural phenomenon of “son preference” in Asia, in which sons are valued because they’re expected to support elderly parents, whereas daughters often cost dowry money. “That’s 90 million missing women,” Hudson said.

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