This is not feminism

A woman mourns for a family member who was killed in the Karachi factory fire in September 2012. Photo from NBC News.
A woman mourns for a family member who was killed in the Karachi factory fire in September 2012. Photo via NBC News.

This was my response to Isobel Coleman’s “Gender Disparities, Economic Growth and Islamization in Pakistan” (2004), an assigned reading for my Politics of South Asia class today.

Quickly glancing at other students’ responses to this article, my critique differs quite a bit, as it does not focus on the strength of Coleman’s argument for women’s progress as promoting economic development, nor does it focus on the depth of Coleman’s analysis of how Islamization has hurt Pakistani women. Rather, I was compelled to evaluate the entire framing of the argument and the goals it seeks to promote.

The oppression of women in Pakistan is a terrible problem which, like patriarchy in all parts of the world, deeply concerns me. However, Coleman’s article sheds little light on the problem because it admittedly “focuses narrowly on the potential economic consequences of Islamization’s impact on women.”

I agree with Immanuel Kant’s formulation that humans cannot merely be means to an end, but should be treated as ends in themselves. Articulating women’s oppression as impeding growth implies that women are the means to the end that is economic growth, but as we have discussed in class previously, economic growth does not necessarily further the well-being of all people. How wealth is created (growth resulting from the exploitation of workers, for example, is not just) and for whom it is created (growth does not trickle down, so if it only benefits those who already had resources/privilege, it is not helping society at-large) are more important. Patriarchy intersects with capitalism in interesting ways because women generally lack resources and thus can be harmed by the deepening of inequality in which neoliberal policy often results.

Thus, I am wary of arguing for women’s empowerment as imperative to economic growth. It would be understandable (even if possibly inaccurate), maybe, if Coleman argued that economic growth would improve the lives of women (which she merely alludes to when she says that certain jobs are “a ticket to the middle class for the female employees and their families”)—but, without this goal in mind, she seems more concerned with the growth itself than with the status of women.

Coleman writes that female literacy and workforce participation “warrant examination because of their linkage to economic growth,” saying that education should be a national obsession “given the connection [to] economic development.” She does not say, however, that it should be a national obsession because it’s unfair that women are kept from economic opportunity. Framing the benefits of women working by saying “the returns to educating girls are greater than the returns from educating boys” also rubs me the wrong way because it conceptualizes women’s livelihoods as an investment off of which we can profit, again as a means rather than an end. Coleman uses this language of investment quite often; Islamists’ focus on traditional roles for women “limits the economic returns from girls’ education, reducing incentives for parents to invest in their daughters’ education.” Islamists limiting women’s possible choices is an injustice in and of itself; its wrongness should not have to be explained as resting in how it makes female education a bad investment.

Coleman says that “as education levels rise, labor force participation must also rise for Pakistan to capture fully its return on investment in girls’ education.” Again, “Pakistan” is “capturing” a profit from its “investment,” but what does that mean for the women themselves? This focus on women working for growth is highly problematic as mainstream feminism throughout the world already ignores the particular problems of poor and working-class women, who are further harmed by prevailing economic paradigms. Women, just like anyone else, can be exploited if they enter a workforce that exists to generate economic growth rather than the well-being of the people entering the workforce themselves (Remember the Karachi factory fire just a few months ago? “They prevented people from leaving, so they could save the clothes”). Coleman later talks about actual investments, too: “Religious extremism…also makes Pakistan a less attractive destination for foreign direct investment.” I can’t take this sentiment very seriously. I am more concerned with the impact of religious extremism on the women it oppresses, on the large swaths of the Pakistani population whose lives it often takes, than I am with the investment opportunity foreigners lose. Again, if this financial investment was directly tied to the well-being of Pakistanis, or especially women who are supposed to be the focus of this article, then perhaps I would care about the impact of religious extremism on investment in particular. But, even if perhaps foreign direct investment does further the well-being of Pakistanis and specifically Pakistani women, Coleman does not seem concerned with it for that reason.

She highlights something very important when she says that “female control of resources results in a greater positive impact on child survival, nutrition, and school enrollments than does male control of resources.” A lot of people can benefit if women are properly empowered. But this statement is spoiled when it is followed by this: “Simply, women tend to invest more in the human capital of their children than do men. The impact on long-term development is obvious.” Something inherently great, which is the improvement of children’s lives when their mothers have power, becomes an investment in “capital” that can help Pakistan’s economic development. Again, whom exactly this development is meant to benefit in the end is an open question.

Coleman does well to use the other half of her article to rather straightforwardly illuminate how Pakistan’s Islamization has hurt women. But if, as she reiterates in the conclusion, “the goal is simply to demonstrate that to the extent that Islamization promotes that traditionalist culture, it comes at an economic cost,” then I’m not sure what this writing is really worth. She talks about “the Islamists’ antipathy to family planning” as, again, “another factor that could hinder Pakistan’s economic development”—not as something inherently unjust for its control of women’s bodily autonomy or because it restricts women’s opportunities, economic or otherwise. Further, she mentions poverty three times in the article: once in the introduction, once in the body, and once in the conclusion. Poverty is indeed a grave problem that must be addressed. However, the first sentence of the article is “Pakistan’s economy has not sustained the growth rates required to reduce the country’s dire poverty,” and the later two mentions also uncritically imply that growth itself will reduce poverty—but as we have seen, unless growth is directed toward this goal, this empirically just does not happen. Thus, this discussion, of “whether [Pakistan] can afford”—Coleman means “afford” quite literally—”Islamization’s conservative notions of women,” feels rather meaningless. Putting women to work toward economic growth serves neither to reduce poverty (given the empirical reality), nor to promote the betterment of women as an end in itself (given that the end here seems to be economic growth, regardless of what happens to women during the process). And what of the broader structures of patriarchy?

If anything, Coleman’s article is a classic example of how not to talk about women’s rights. The plight of women in Pakistan is a serious and long-standing problem, but no kind of oppression anywhere can be overcome if we reduce ourselves to selling basic rights and freedoms as profitable investments for anyone other than the oppressed. But I actually don’t think Coleman intentionally sought to do even this, to frame women’s empowerment as profitable so that it is more likely to be pursued; she probably genuinely believes that what she’s written is an argument for the liberation of Pakistani women, and that’s the saddest part of all.

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