The Names We are Allowed to Call Women….Reflections on Gender and Power in the 21st Century

Posted by Kavita N.Ramdas

In the last week, I’ve been struck by how easy it appears to be for men in positions of power and authority to dismiss or diminish the worth, value, and dignity of women colleagues.  It's astounding and it's time we took notice and resisted – speaking out when we see it and demanding apologies and improved behavior.

 

Mary Robinson
Mary Robinson

It began with the virulent campaign being launched against long time advocate for women’s rights and human rights, Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and former President of Ireland.  A Newsweek columnist (incidentally a former Israeli government employee) begins his column by acknowledging that she has been, “an indomitable defender of freedom across the globe” and then goes on to hold her personally responsible for acts of gross anti-Semitism at the 2001 World Conference against Racism, held in Durban, South Africa.  His article, while agreeing that the right wing blogosphere has been vicious in its ephithets, ends on this note, “She is an outright villain.”   This about a former President of another nation, a respected member of the international human rights community, a member, along with Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela of the group called the Elders, and someone whom the Obama administration deemed worthy of the highest award available to someone who is not a citizen of the United States. A number of women’s rights organizations check in on how we can issue statements of solidarity in support of Mary.

 

Kavita Ramdas and Mu Sochua
Kavita Ramdas and Mu Sochua

Dismayed at this hate campaign against a leading women’s rights advocate and colleague, I consider consulting my international board of directors, who represent wise women of multiple ethnic, national, religious and other identities.  As I open email, however, I see an urgent update to the Board from Mu Sochua, our board member from Cambodia.  Sochua has become the latest target of a campaign of personal smearing that began this April. During a public address in Kampot Province, Prime Minister Hun Sen derided the province's parliamentarian by calling her a cheung klang  – literally "a strong leg" in English, a term considered highly offensive to women.

Mr. Sen did not mention Sochua by name, but Kampot is her province, making the inference clear. Sochua says it was retaliation for her public criticism of Sen's policies.  Rightly indignant, she sued him for defamation. The result? A campaign of state led intimidation that has only resulted in her being counter sued, fined for defaming the Prime Minister by daring to question his authority at all, her lawyer being terrorized into dropping her case, and her immunity as a parliamentarian being stripped. She is not giving up the fight, but it is an uphill battle.

I try to calm down by heading to the kitchen to make a cup of tea, where I run into Christine Ahn, one of my colleagues at the Global Fund. A deeply caring activist for peace on the Korean peninsula, Christine is an expert on a part of the world about which most of us know very little.  She was on CNN a few weeks ago and, in light of the news of the release of journalists Lee and Ling, had spoken on the Krasney show, a talk show on San Francisco’s public radio KQED.  I begin to ask about the show when I notice that Christine looks pale and shaken without a trace of the warm smile that usually lights up her face.  Her words anger me, as she explains how the host of the show read on air a vicious email that referred to her as a, “terrible North Korean apologist.” The host did this minutes before the show ended giving her only a brief window to respond.  “I managed to say that I stand for peace and engagement,” she winced, “but what was that about?”  After consulting the Women’s Media Center, Christine calls the producer of Forum to express her disappointment.  I cannot believe it has barely been 12 hours since this day began.

 

Sonia Sotomayor
Sonia Sotomayor

On my way home from work, my phone lights up with a text from a friend – two words: Sotomayor confirmed.  I want to shout it out to all the passengers on my bus, I want to burst into a loud chant about wise Latinas and wise Irish women and wise Cambodian moms and wise Korean peaceniks.  And, I want the mudslinging and insults against women of courage to come to an end now.  Its nice to know they will have an ally on the highest court in the land.

Kavita Ramdas is the President and CEO of the Global Fund for Women.

 
 

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