Gender and Development Workshop

“Women must take some sacrifices because that is the natural order, just look at monkeys, even among them females take the role of taking care of children,” a man who has no background in zoology, biology or any of the sort confidently states.

“Maybe in America but that wouldn’t work in Ethiopia. In Ethiopia women aren’t strong enough or ready for the roles that men have,” another man comments assuredly on the capabilities of all women in Ethiopia.

At these comments the Ethiopian women in the class exchanged eye-rolls to each other and giggled; however still remaining silent and passive to these comments.

Later in the workshop:

Finally, a woman speaks after repeated requests for a woman participant, which all of the women declined time and time again. Quietly, almost in a whisper, she states, “Well women have certain roles that are expected of them, it’s not that we don’t want to do the things men do, and we just have more pressure to do other things…” As she speaks her perspective, several men cut her off demanding her to speak up. Hearing this request, she falters in her response, and shrinks ever so slightly into her seat. At the end of her comment, another several men aggressively demand her to expand, to state more, and to explain her position. At this, the woman clams up once more, and shrinks into her seat.

Of 12 responders in this workshop on Feminist Economics and the Care Economy, one was a woman. The 11 male responders spoke over and over, boldly on women’s issues, the role of women, the strength of women, the capabilities of women etc. There was no question among these men that they knew qualities of Ethiopian women; to them their opinions were not opinions, they were facts. Women are less confident because they’re weaker, and therefore do not have the capability to take on the roles that men do.

As a facilitator of this workshop, I was at a crossroad: as a western, Indian-American, and privileged woman, how can I give these women agency and power to defend themselves, and still be an ally and speak up against these absurd comments? I see these women’s body languages and I knew they saw the illogicality in the men’s responses, however they did not speak. Were they choosing not to speak or were they silent because of the gender and power dynamic that was present in the room? These women did not show any overt expressions resisting these comments, none that the other men noticed at least. Was their body language a cue for me to speak for these women? As a privileged outsider, if I defend these women and speak for them, am I empowering them or am I perpetuating the orientalist mentality where I feel the need to save brown women from brown men? I realize the fallacy in my own rhetoric; “speaking for them” is an oppressive statement, but how can I speak with women who aren’t speaking?

My self-doubt overwhelmed me. I ended up choosing not to make any obvious comments on how wrong these men were. I chose not to regulate the space that these men were taking up. I chose not to point out the privilege that these men have, and that because of this privilege they may not be the best judges of character on this topic. I continued with my presentation, merely making subtle comments that attempted to defend these women, all of which went over all the men’s heads.

I left the workshop feeling a bit unsatisfied, getting lost in the question, “did I do enough?” As I begin my feminist scholarly and activist work, learning to leverage my privilege, so I can speak with women and not speak for them, is probably the largest and most daunting task I have. There have been so many times in my life where, in the name of Feminism, white and other western women have felt the need to speak for me and tell me that my culture and the men in my culture are oppressing me. In these instances, these women did not ask me, they decided for me that this was the situation. This is not what feminism is. Feminism is being in conversation with women; listening and understanding other perspectives/cultures/identities other than your own. I never want to be the former feminist, but I do want to the feminist who speaks up against misogyny, patriarchy and oppression. Did I miss my chance?

I wrestled with these thoughts after my workshop ultimately trying to decide whether body language is a way to be in conversation with women. I undoubtedly saw the way the bodies of these women, their facial expressions, their slight movements displayed their contempt for these men’s opinions. Does speaking mean words, or is it something more?

The next day in another workshop on Women in Agriculture, we broke off into small-groups to discuss the question “how can we empower women”:

I was in a group of two men and 4 other women beside myself. The first man turned to us and asked with grandeur, “What can we do to empower you!? You tell us!”. None of us women spoke. The women at my sides shyly smiled, giggled, and ultimately stayed quiet. Breaking the silence, the second man responded passionately stating that men’s attitudes must be changed about women. He went on and on how men think women are inferior and how that is simply not true. He said it is the responsibility of men to change, not women. He said empowering, progressive, amazing things, and in that moment, I saw the chance I missed the day before.

Once he finished I questioned him, “Yesterday many men said a lot of derogatory things about women. They said that women were weaker, we aren’t strong, that we aren’t ready to have the opportunities men have etc. Why didn’t you say these things then? Why didn’t you speak up for women then?” I looked at the women to my sides and asked, “right? Do you agree?” and they said, “Yes. You are right, why didn’t you say anything yesterday?” All four of them verbally agreed with me. At the questioning, the man became shy, giggled and remained silent. I couldn’t help but think, “Oh how the tables have turned.”

I was empowered seeing these women empowered and questioning this man! In that moment I received the answers to my questions from the day before. Using words to clarify that I am with these women, created a solidarity, which gave us power to challenge patriarchy. I was so busy trying to relinquish my privilege to empower Ethiopian women, I didn’t realize that I too was a victim of patriarchy; silencing myself and self-doubting myself in the presence of confident, loud, educated men the other day. Moreover, I was perpetuating patriarchy; why did I assume that empowerment works in one direction? In this second moment, these women and I were able to empower each other to break our silence!

What amazing learning moments to be apart of!