“Are female leaders better for the world’s women?”
So asks Nicholas Kristof, white savior extraordinaire, in his latest column. It’s a pretty big question, and one that I would imagine is best answered by, say, talking to some, or even one, of the “world’s women” and also, perhaps, examining the condition of women in Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Switzerland, Costa Rica, Malawi, Kosovo, Lithuania, or Liberia under their female heads of state.
Or you could go the Kristof route, and make an argument that women are not better off under female leaders because you don’t like the prime minister of Bangladesh:
It would be nice to think that women who achieve power would want to help women at the bottom. But one continuing global drama underscores that women in power can be every bit as contemptible as men.
It would be nice, wouldn’t it, sayeth Nick, but that’s just not the reality. This is one of my favorite things about smug patriarchal bastards like M. Kristof — the deployment of racism or sexism butressed by a preemptive claim of self-awareness so as to ensure that we-the-receivers-of-Kristof-wisdom understand that he doesn’t want to believe whatever racist or sexist thing he’s about to assert, but that’s just the reality. I want to believe that women are equal to men, but I’m going to cherry pick one example out of many in order to prove that they’re not and hope that you don’t notice what I’m doing.
Sheik Hasina is the prime minister of Bangladesh and she’s on Nick Kristof’s shit list for her behavior toward Muhammad Yunus, the founder of the microcredit Grameen Bank. I’m just going to say right here that I know a grand total of nothing about Bangladeshi politics and I’m not going to bother arguing with Kristof on whether or not Hasina is good or bad for the women of her country.
What I am going to argue with Kristof over is the laughable idea that he should make pronouncements about what is good or bad for the “world’s women” based A) on inferences drawn from the situation in one country during one period of time B) the judgments of a man whose every word drips with patriarchy and paternalism. This, after all, is a man who thought it was okay, nay - admirable - to purchase two women from brothels, as if his actions weren’t doing anything more than perpetuating the idea that men should have a proprietary relationship to women, and then had the gall to “write [one of them] off” when she didn’t live up to his expectations.
The very idea of writing a woman off as some kind of bad investment gives me the creeps, and in case you think this is some kind of one-off, unfortunate turn-of-phrase, here he goes again with the women as property hogwash: “Bangladesh is actually a prime example of the returns from investing in women.”
But getting back to the issue at hand:
Sheikh Hasina, prime minister of Bangladesh, is mounting a scorched-earth offensive against Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank and champion of the economic empowerment of women around the world. Yunus, 72, won a Nobel Peace Prize for his pioneering work in microfinance, focused on helping women lift their families out of poverty.
Yet Sheikh Hasina’s government has already driven Yunus from his job as managing director of Grameen Bank. Worse, since last month, her government has tried to seize control of the bank from its 5.5 million small-time shareholders, almost all of them women, who collectively own more than 95 percent of the bank.
What a topsy-turvy picture: We see a woman who has benefited from evolving gender norms using her government to destroy the life’s work of a man who has done as much for the world’s most vulnerable women as anybody on earth.
To her credit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken up for Yunus: “I highly respect Muhammad Yunus, and I highly respect the work that he has done, and I am hoping to see it continue without being in any way undermined or affected by any government action,” she said earlier this year. Two former secretaries of state, George Shultz and Madeleine Albright, have also called on Sheikh Hasina to back off.She shows no sign of doing so. One theory is that she is paranoid and sees Yunus as a threat, especially since he made an abortive effort to enter politics in 2007. Another theory is that she is envious of his Nobel Peace Prize and resentful of his global renown.
I still strongly believe that we need more women in leadership posts at home and around the world, from presidential palaces to corporate boards. The evidence suggests that diverse leadership leads to better decision making, and I think future generations of female leaders may be more attentive to women’s issues than the first.In any case, this painful episode in Bangladesh is a reminder that the struggle to achieve gender equality isn’t simply a battle between the sexes.It is far more subtle. Misogyny and indifference remain obstacles for women globally, but those are values that can be absorbed and transmitted by women as well as by men.