Scholars discuss the most important challenges facing women in the 21st century
In the post-feminist era of the 21st century, are the aims and goals of feminism still relevant? Will feminism survive the rush to globalization? What universal lessons can we learn from the unique ways women around the world have advanced their concerns?
These are a few questions students and faculty of the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies at The University of Texas at Austin have confronted this year in a series of events focused on the issue of global feminism.
The highlight of the year was the residency of Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer, human rights activist and the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Ebadi visited campus in April 2009 to speak about democracy in Iran. Several months later, she was speaking out against her government’s crackdown of those who protested the results of the presidential elections.
To honor her visit, and to spotlight the diverse issues facing women around the world, we invited eight faculty members from the Center for Women’s and Gender Studies to answer the following question: What is the most important challenge facing women in the 21st century?
Each of our respondents cross international borders in their exploration of the struggles and achievements of women, examining issues such as gender equity in the workplace, women and political participation, and access to education and health care.
Mounira Maya Charrad
Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, Department of Middle Eastern Studies
In the Middle East, women confront issues of legal rights and cultural discourse in a way that has become the stuff of high drama on the world stage. In Islamic countries, women’s rights as defined in family law are the crux of the matter. At stake is the set of legal rights and responsibilities men and women have in the family and, by extension, the society at large.
The central questions concern choice of marriage partner, age at marriage, rights and obligations of each spouse, polygamy, conditions for divorce, custody of children and inheritance for men and women. At issue is whether conservative interpretations of Islamic family law prevail, or whether legal reforms alter the balance of power the law gives to men and women in their roles—not only as spouses but also as members of larger kinship units and of communities.
The countries of the Middle East exhibit considerable diversity in regard to women’s rights. Some countries such as Tunisia, Turkey and Morocco have gone a long way in expanding women’s rights. In several countries, however, the law still deprives women of personal autonomy.
Women of the Middle East also face challenges that emerge from an acute tension between the local and the global. In the West, discourses on the Middle East are replete with images of victimized women hidden behind veils. In the Middle East, debates on women’s rights overflow with criticism of feminists importing Western ideas deemed inappropriate to the culture of the region.
Finding themselves at the center of this tension, women’s rights activists are framing their demands by reclaiming Islam and offering new readings of the Islamic tradition. They are also developing strategies that allow them to make connections to transnational networks concerned with gender equity, while retaining their cultural authenticity. How to navigate between the different discourses is likely to remain a daunting task for the foreseeable future.
Associate Professor, Department of Government
The most important challenge facing women in the 21st century is gaining access to leadership. Society needs more of the qualities women can bring to leadership positions. These are described in a 2005 study by Caliper, a workforce development company:
• Women leaders are more persuasive than their male counterparts.
• Women leaders learn from adversity and carry on with an “I’ll show you” attitude.
• Women leaders demonstrate an inclusive, team-building leadership style of problem-solving and decision-making.
• Women leaders are more likely to ignore rules and take risks.
In the United States, women leaders from my generation face the challenge of breaking through the barriers created by those of the older generation reluctant to release the reins of power to a new generation. Women need to take advantage of those who are willing to mentor the younger generation.
Talk about the “glass ceiling” is still relevant, but we need to move beyond the notion of a “ceiling” and think more carefully about how we develop women leaders, beginning with elementary school, and even into academia, where women are in the minority in the full professor ranks (as revealed in the university’s recent Gender Equity Report), and find limited options when it comes to running departments or colleges.
However, it’s important to note that women from my generation were some of the first to benefit from Title IX legislation that gave girls equal access to sports, particularly organized teams. There is a direct correlation between women’s involvement in these types of activities, and their confidence in working with men and taking on powerful leadership positions. We grew up during a time when women (and minorities) gained greater access to higher education. Although women and minorities are beginning to make headway in boardrooms, legislatures and even university hierarchies, there is a long way to go.
Women need to continue to make strides in balancing between their roles as caregivers and professionals. Studies show men are taking on more “second shift” duties but women still shoulder most of the family and household responsibilities. It is vital to our democracy that women’s voices carry equal weight in all aspects of society.
Susan Sage Heinzelman
Associate Professor, Department of English; Director, Center for Women’s and Gender Studies
All women live their lives under the threat of violence. Even those of us who appear to be the most privileged in terms of economic and social status can never be entirely free of the risk of sexual or physical assault, or other more subtle forms of harassment. For so many women and girls, that threat has been actualized in domestic abuse, rape, slave trafficking, forced prostitution, female genital mutilation and the many other ways in which women are reminded every day they are second-class citizens.
In Uganda, their faces are scarred by acid attacks because they are too “independent.” In Afghanistan, their schools are destroyed by religious fanatics because they wish to think for themselves. In Southeast Asia, their vaginas are sewn up repeatedly so they can be “sold” as virgins because they have been denied the right to own their own bodies.
International law proclaims the right of the individual to be safe from unprovoked violence and, yet, only occasionally, is there any outrage at the violence women and girls suffer every day and everywhere simply because they are female. Their lives are limited, their prospects dimmed and, as great as the loss is to those who are scarred for life, it is not confined to the victims. The loss to society of the potential for a productive and fulfilling life is immeasurable.
Women alone cannot solve this epidemic of violence against them. We must motivate the international community to take up the issue and recognize that gender-related violence is as serious a threat to the well-being of the world as the AIDS crisis or ethnic genocides. The international community must develop strategies to address violence against women through a combination of legal reforms and economic incentives.
Legal reform and laws that protect women and girls can do only so much, however, unless the state is willing to enforce these laws, especially in those areas of women’s and girls’ lives conventionally regarded as “private.” Moreover, the international community must make it economically disadvantageous to tolerate or promote violence against women and girls and make those who receive aid embrace the benefits in health care, economic empowerment and educational opportunities for women and girls in their society.
All of these strategies imply a level of interference in the affairs of others—whether those affairs are perceived as public or private, affairs of the state or family affairs. There seems no alternative, however, unless we are willing to concede that what goes on behind closed doors (or state borders) is none of our business.
Assistant Professor, Department of Government
As someone who was drawn to feminist theory by black, Latina and Third World feminism, my first answer to the question is there is no one most important challenge facing women in the 21st century, as these will be different depending on where you live in the world.
What this means is feminism’s central challenge is to recognize the variety of ways in which women (and men) experience sexism and gender oppression, and to find a way to link struggles for gender equity around the world. Otherwise, the risk is feminist movements across the globe will view one another with suspicion and distrust, and see their various struggles as incompatible.
Consider the controversies over women and veiling in the Middle East and in countries with immigrant Muslim populations. They could appear to be completely disconnected and directly opposed to women’s rights to sexual freedom and reproductive rights central to Western feminism.
Yet feminist arguments for veiling (or wearing hijab) that claim these prevent sexual harassment and harmful obsession with women’s appearance are connected to the concerns of feminists in the United States who are concerned about the exploitation of women as sexual objects.
One of the central tenets of feminism is that women should not only be free from the threat of sexual assault, rape and sexual harassment, but should also be able to freely express themselves as sexual beings. The key challenge for global feminism today is to recognize the links between such seemingly disparate elements of a global effort to make gender equity a reality.
Associate Professor, School of Journalism
Given the disastrous consequences of the human assault on the ecosystem that makes our lives possible, the most important 21st century challenge for women is the same as for men: Can we change the way we organize ourselves socially, politically and economically in time to reverse this ecological collapse? Can we learn to live in sustainable balance with the non-human world so that we might make it to the end of the 21st century with our humanity intact?
In facing these social, political and economic challenges, I believe women have a crucial contribution to make through feminism. My own intellectual and political development is rooted in the feminism I learned from women, both in the classroom and community. Much of my work has addressed men’s use and abuse of women and their sexuality in the sexual-exploitation industries: prostitution, stripping and pornography.
But from those women I also learned feminism was not merely a concern for “women’s issues” but also a way of understanding power and critiquing the domination/subordination dynamic that is central to so much of modern life. The roots of that dynamic are in patriarchy, the system of male dominance that arose only a few thousand years ago but has been so destructive to people and the Earth. Patriarchy is incompatible with justice and sustainability.
The challenge for feminism is to articulate an alternative to the illegitimate hierarchies that structure our lives: men over women, white over non-white, rich over poor, First World over Third. That isn’t “women’s work” but “feminism’s work,” which we all should undertake, in conjunction with the many other intellectual and political movements concerned with real justice. If we can change the way we treat each other, those new non-hierarchical social arrangements may help us solve the fundamental problem of the destruction inherent in human domination over the non-human world.
Associate Professor, Department of Sociology; Affiliate, Center for Mexican American Studies
“All of you study the lives of Mexican women, can you explain why our daughters are being raped and killed?” This is the question a young mother asked a group of panelists discussing various aspects of Mexican women’s lives at an event observing International Women’s Day in Ciudad Juárez in 2001.
At the time, violence against women living in the border city had not yet received much national or international attention. As one of the panelists confronted with this question, I came back to the United States feeling deeply humbled. In reflecting on women’s lives in the 21st century, I have recalled that mother’s painful question again and again.
My own research and teaching has taught me that making generalizations about all women is problematic and even dangerous. It may be that one of the greatest challenges facing contemporary women is the lack of accurate information and understanding regarding the complexity of social conditions affecting women’s lives. Women’s challenges in contemporary society vary dramatically from country to country, region to region and within and across racial groups. Women’s experiences also depend on socioeconomic forces, sexual orientation, religion, citizenship and historical contexts, among other factors.
For instance, the gender massacre happening in Ciudad Juárez remains an unresolved puzzle, but my activist friends fighting in the trenches of this border town have been shocked to learn that indigenous women represent a highly vulnerable social group experiencing violence in Canada. Latina immigrant mothers may feel happy to know that their daughters are exposed to college opportunities they did not have themselves while growing up in Mexico, yet their young Latina daughters are more likely to experience teenage pregnancy when compared to any other group in this country.
Thinking about the challenges women face in contemporary society continues to be a very humbling question for me, but also one that invites me to think more thoughtfully about the tensions and contradictions and paradoxes, as well as the diverse avenues leading to social justice and change for women in an increasingly globalized world.
Professor, Department of Government
For many women around the globe, the most important challenge involves meeting basic needs: obtaining sufficient food, clean drinking water and basic health care. Across the world, women are also subject to the daily threat of violence from war, terrorism and the lack of effective law enforcement. It is important to remember that where violence exists, women are its most likely victims.
Women in the United States are fortunate to have their basic needs met. Our water is clean, food is plentiful, our law enforcement structures are well developed. Yet poor working women and their families are among the most vulnerable populations in the nation. In a period of growing inequality, many low-income families struggle to make ends meet, obtain regular health care and provide their children with a decent education and a safe place to live. These problems are not specific to women, but women often bear the brunt of them.
Regardless of their income, American women today still struggle against the glass ceiling. In law, medicine, politics, the corporate world and higher education, there are too few women making it to the top of their fields. Just 16 percent of the equity partners at large law firms are women. While women make up about half of today’s medical school graduates, in the most lucrative and high-powered specialties female doctors are still a rarity. Last year only 1 percent of neurological surgery residents were women. Women make up just 26 percent of the tenured faculty at research universities, and they hold 17 percent of the seats in Congress. Today there are just 13 women CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies, and the United States has yet to see a female president or vice president.
Why are women so underrepresented at leadership levels? Because gender bias makes it harder for women to have their talents and achievements recognized. Further, our work structures and public institutions favor male styles of leadership and discourage participation by those with family responsibilities. Finally, we have yet to fully come to terms with the history of gender discrimination in the United States and to commit ourselves to making equal opportunity a reality for all people. Doing so will make us a more caring and democratic nation. The challenge for this century is to make equal opportunity—at all levels and in all fields—a reality for women.
Associate Professor, Department of Middle Eastern Studies
Since I am from Iran, a nation ruled by a repressive theocratic government, I will focus my answer on this country. The biggest challenge facing Iranian women in the 21st century is to gain equal status with men in every aspect of their lives. Women in my native country stand on the sidelines as they hear about other nations honoring women and counting them as equal human beings by law.
As I write these words, I am sad to know how defenders of Iranian women’s rights are under pressure to stop the One Million Signature Campaign for equality in Iran. The campaign started in 2006 and has gained momentum, yet the Iranian government accuses the campaign members of committing a crime through their signature collection.
The campaigners are paying a heavy toll for their belief in equality. They are arrested and punished with imprisonment and heavy sentences. Their daily lives are interrupted, their friends and family members threatened, their homes searched while they are physically abused, and their computers and property are confiscated. I am saddened to hear of such crimes against humanity, especially against women, all in the name of national security and safeguarding Islam.
Repressing freedom of speech has always been used to stop people from questioning or challenging the power of male religious authorities. In my opinion, securing freedom of personal expression, without fear of personal danger, is the most important challenge facing women in the 21st century.
Even if no immediate action is taken to change repressive policies toward women in Iran, the most positive outcome one can expect is to inform others about the plight of women there. I believe that hearing their voices will eventually lead to a path of democracy, and it is hoped, equality for all.