Leveraging the Power of Race and Gender
by KAVITA NANDINI RAMDAS
As the contest for a Democratic presidential nominee enters its final stages, the feminist dilemma has become palpable and painful. My inbox has been filled with passionate and provocative pieces from Katha Pollitt, Frances Kissling, Caroline Kennedy and Feminists for Peace and Barack Obama, all explaining why they are not supporting Hillary Clinton. Equally strong commentary in support of Clinton, and dismissing Obama, has arrived from Gloria Steinem, Robin Morgan, Ellie Smeal and Ellen Malcolm. All decry the misogyny evident in media coverage of the candidates and grapple–with varying degrees of success–with race and gender conflict. Clinton fans mention in passing that Hillary has been an international voice for women’s rights.
As a feminist whose daily work focuses on the challenges facing women outside the United States–particularly those living in poverty, in war zones and under extreme patriarchal control–I think these conversations have a surreal quality. They are surreal because they are so perfectly American in their insularity. What is alarmingly absent from our conversations and arguments, even as they allude to race and gender, is any sense of how our decisions affect the well-being of people across the planet–not least the status of women, 51 percent of us, who are being treated with appalling brutality around the globe.
There is something profoundly wrong when a conversation about qualifications to be President of the most powerful nation in the world ignores the reality facing most of that world’s inhabitants. While American pundits debate whether Clinton is being targeted unfairly, for example, thousands of women and children in Gaza are being collectively punished as Israel, a neighboring state and former occupying power, withholds food, fuel and electricity. Yet who is talking about that? In the face of such a travesty of human rights and international law, not one of the presidential candidates, regardless of race or gender, has the gumption to speak out and say this is wrong. Not one has said that he or she will not tolerate such behavior by any ally of the United States.
We live in a world where women are facing an epidemic of rape in conflicts from Nepal to Chiapas to the Democratic Republic of Congo, yet neither Clinton nor Obama has seen fit to mention it. Recent reports of the widespread murder of educated women in Iraq by religious extremists are adding new horror to an already horrifying situation but are going almost unreported. Women and children today form the bulk of the world’s refugees and make up the majority of the world’s poor. Despite doing more than two-thirds of the world’s labor, women own only 1 percent of the world’s assets. Yet not one presidential candidate has chosen to highlight the profound threat that gender inequality is posing to the development, economic stability and future peace of our world.
At times like these, the practical politics of US elections are staggeringly oppressive. We are told by the experts that Americans do not care about, or vote on the basis of, what happens in the rest of the world. We hear claims that presidential candidates cannot raise these issues during the race: we just have to trust that they will do better once they are in office.
That is not good enough. I want to hear from the woman running for President why being a woman and a mother matters to her and how it will inform her leadership. I want her to stand up for the millions of women who are not heard here or around the world. I want her to chart her course as the wisest, most humane President this country has ever seen, not to show us how much more macho she can be as our next Commander in Chief.
Women in the developing world are not reassured when they see Madeleine Albright standing next to Hillary Clinton. They have not forgotten that this former Secretary of State, when questioned about the death of more than 500,000 children as a result of sanctions against Iraq, responded that the price had been worth it. Most would prefer a President tough enough to say that Iraqi children matter to her as much as American children and that she would use the awesome power of the presidency to ensure the safety and well-being of all the world’s children. Hillary Clinton would not be alone if she chose to own her power as a skilled and qualified politician and as a woman.
There is a rising number of fiercely feminine and feminist leaders around the globe–people like Michelle Bachelet of Chile, who is unafraid to be an agnostic single mother in a deeply Catholic country, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, whose first act as president was passing legislation against sexual violence. Hillary has a unique chance to stand alongside them. For her to dance so gingerly around the question of gender in international affairs is to miss an extraordinary opportunity to use gender as a platform for healing the deep wounds left by the previous presidency.
But my high expectations are not limited to Hillary. I have equally high goals for the man who says he will unite us. Obama has his own powerful but underutilized tool: race. What prevents him, for example, from drawing analogies between the plight facing women–many of whom live in subjugation simply by virtue of their gender–and the experience of slavery? And why stop there? By owning the question of race on an international stage, Obama would have an amazing opportunity to reach out to people worldwide–who are in more need of hope than most Americans could imagine. Regardless of whether there are votes in it, this is of profound relevance to all of us in this country.
Yet Obama is also missing this chance. What is happening when a truly multiracial candidate, whose first name means “blessing” in Hebrew and Arabic and whose middle name is Hussein, feels he must spend his moral capital proving his Christian credentials? What I want is for Obama to stand with my husband, a man born and raised in Pakistan, who now is asked to step aside for a random search each time we board an airplane. He needs to tell us that he knows only too well that if he were not a US senator but an ordinary man with a foreign name going on vacation with his family, this could happen to him. I’d like to hear from him that when he looks at the United States or the world, what he sees are not Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Jews or atheists but simply human beings desperate to be treated with dignity and respect.
Like Clinton, Obama, too, can find inspiration and solidarity with a new generation of global leaders emerging from the shackles of their minority status. For the first time in Latin American history, for example, indigenous or mixed-ancestry leaders are holding power as the head of state in Bolivia and Venezuela. Obama has an unparalleled opportunity to speak to them from an empathetic perspective. And as September 11 showed us, our foreign policy is only a short step from our domestic concerns.
The next President needs the ability to demonstrate the inner courage and conviction that comes from owning his or her “otherness.” As a woman and a mother, Hillary Clinton could bring insights and perspectives no other President in US history could have brought to the negotiating table of war and peace. As the stepson of an Indonesian Muslim and the son of a Kenyan and a white woman from Kansas, Barack Obama manifests what it means to be a global citizen. What is at stake in this election is not merely the historic first that would be accomplished if either a black man or a woman became the next US President. What is at stake is the fragile future of our shared world.