Monday, May 13, 2013

Maybe not so easy

I was surprised by the responses to some problems are easy to solve.

First, I want to thank all those who commented and emailed because they really did help me to rethink the problem.

My first visceral response was that, if the rationale for disenfranchising women from the democratic process is that *men* cannot control themselves around women, then the creatures with no self control should be the ones that are disenfranchised.  After all, who wants to be ruled by an out of control democratic mob?

The responses, save one by email, gave practical suggestions for how to segregate the genders and still allow women to vote.

But, I want to ask how people would feel if we substituted race for gender?

What do you think about George Wallace's infamous speech that included the line, "segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever,"? You can hear an NPR story with the quote here.

Why must women cover themselves from head to toe, stay imprisoned in their homes, be denied education and autonomy, etc just because *men* say that they are unable to control themselves around women?

Does segregation eliminate the problem or perpetuate the "otherness" of women?

We now (mostly) accept in the US that racial segregation was bad and that racial integration in all aspects of life, public and private, is a social good.  We used the might of our government to impose this social good upon communities who did not accept this.

President Eisenhower sent the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to protect the Little Rock Nine as they tried to attend a historically white high school.  The other two branches of government, the US Supreme Court and Congress, also used their might to force integration upon unwilling southern states.

At the time, southern states used the same defense--that racial integration is just their culture and that nothing could be done about it.

Fifty years later, racial integration did not cause the sky to fall and most people, especially young people, see it as the natural order of things.

So why do we accept analogous arguments today for the segregation of men and women?

I really want to know why gender segregation is different than racial integration and why we should accommodate those who insist upon it.


  1. According to the laws of logic and goodness, sure, racial and gender segregation should be equally reprehensible. At the same time, it is difficult to fairly compare the culture in the US in the 1950s to that of Pakistan today. Consider the following comparison instead:

    In the US, it was a long time between the time when non-white males were legally given the right to vote (1870) and the abolition of literacy tests and poll taxes that kept many of them from voting (1960s).

    Meanwhile, it was only about half as long between the initial draft of the 19th amendment (1878) and ratification (1920). Several states/territories had already established full women's suffrage by then. And there were generally no sneaky maneuvers to stop (white) women from voting.

    Is/was the US during this time frame a cultural peculiarity in preferring gender integration over racial integration in voting? What is the situation with respect to racial integration or equivalent in Pakistan? Elsewhere?

  2. I don't subscribe to the theory of slow and steady incremental change. Often, it takes one or two positive experiences to shift the paradigm for a person.

    Experiences also spread virally.

    Eventually, enough people change their mind that society reaches a tipping point in social norms.

    It can happen very quickly once people are in contact with one another and see each other as human beings.

  3. Ok, I see one difference - at least in this particular case of voting. Officially the main reason for not letting women to vote is to protect them, not because they are not good enough to vote. Even in US, where political correctness is actively enforced, many men still stare and sexually harass women. So in the society where such behavior may seriously damage a woman's status and reputation, it may be necessary to guard women from, let's say, such primitive women behavior.
    Just to make up an example: if school decides that girls should not play soccer in the same team as boys, it is much easier to accept it if the reason is that some boys are too rough and make rude comments, compare to "girls are weaker and cannot keep up with boys".

    Don't get me wrong - I have really hard time accepting women position in certain coutries, but historically trying to make too big a change often swings the pendulum in the opposite direction...

  4. I think the difference is in who we are presuming is barring people from voting.

    In the instance of racial segregation in the US, we presume that this is desired by whites as a means of oppressing others and that if the safety of all voters is assured, that everyone wishes to vote.

    In the instance of sex segregation in Pakistan, we might presume it’s more complicated. We might presume that women themselves will not wish to vote if they will be seen by men, or that male family members will feel dishonoured if outsiders see “their” women, or both. In this view the problem is at home, not at the voting booth. The solution is then seen as removing the dishonour by modifying the voting process to conform to cultural norms of respectability.

    If that’s what local women leaders want, they would know. But we know that it’s not that simple. There’s a major bullying element. People conform to other people’s norms out of fear, and those norms are politically motivated. Malala Yousafzai wasn’t asking to be enabled to get to school invisibly or to hide in a burka. She simply wanted to be able to go to school, and to do so safely. If we presume that the pressure comes from outside, rather than inside, then escorts such as were provided to Ruby Bridges would enable women who wanted to vote, segregated booths or not, to do so.

    I think it’s somewhat naive for non-Pakistanis to presume that Pakistani women themselves would not want to vote if voting were safe but unsegregated, or that their male relatives would necessarily prevent them. Or — crucially — that there is nothing to be done about these attitudes.


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