Friday, January 25, 2013

Women's Advancement in the Age of Mayajaal

We humans are an interesting bunch. Someone suggests a visionary way forward and we say that it does not meet the ground reality. Another points out how things are changing on the ground and we question the larger purpose.

Women must relentlessly advance and be on par with men. This statement is wishful thinking for some who point to orthodox Islamic societies or primitive Indian rural enclaves as examples of being anything but empowering. Others question the meaning of such advancement when women in general do not feel safe on our streets. They argue that advancement does not matter when life is in danger. 

It seems we constantly like our Top-Down vs. Bottom-up debates....

The Pentagon yesterday approved women to serve on the front lines of combat. A former Marine in the Wall Street Journal questions the wisdom. You can read it here (warning: some parts are graphic). When hygiene is compromised - he asks - should we not follow societal norms? Guests on Morning Joe that I watch online every day think otherwise. Women, they argue, have been on the front lines of combat for a while. This move just formally recognizes it. 

So I ask you. Is the Pentagon move a top-down approach where the agency's vision allows more women to get into combat roles? Or is it a bottom-up move where a vision blesses an already operational activity?

On Sep. 11 2001, a bearded extremist unleashed terror. His view was that women must not interact with men in public and must remain in the household. It turned out that his relentless pursuer is an American CIA woman (name unknown and called Maya in the movie Zero Dark Thirty). It is Maya who repeatedly clings to - and relentlessly pushes - the idea that the path to Bin Laden must lie through his personal courier when others think otherwise. (Note to Bin Laden: An American woman got you. Howzzat?)

So I ask again. Was there a Maya because the CIA changed rules to allow women in clandestine roles decades ago? Or did the CIA already have women in such roles before the agency formalized it?

And we can forever extend these questions to women in leadership roles,women in labor-intensive jobs  who just want to make ends meet, and to countless women who are not even allowed to step out of their households. Such debates can be emotional, spirited and occasionally frustrating.

But it is in the intensity of such debates that we miss the broader point. In our search for absolutes, we forget that the evolution of human action is much like economics (nobody understands a thing until some PhD cracks it decades later to win the Nobel Prize). Life always has been a combination of top-down and bottom-up. And does the approach really matter? After all, rudimentary laws allowed men and women to work once upon a time. When women entered the workforce in large numbers, laws were enhanced to guarantee equality. Some pockets remained regressive resulting in a soul-lifting Malala Yousufzai or a tragic Jyoti Singh Pandey. In response, the society will evolve with better laws and tighter enforcement.

This is called development. It is chaotic but forward leaning, and imperfect yet relentless. Improvise we must, but never should we lose heart.

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