Sarita Sarvate

Hillary Clinton Owes an Explanation to Women of the Third World

08-21-98

Voices

BY SARITA SARVATE

Pacific News Service
Los Angeles Times

Many women of the Third World took heart from Hillary Rodham Clinton's message of personal liberation at the Beijing Women's Summit. Now they feel confused, even betrayed, by what they see as personal capitulation to the demands of realpolitik. PNS commentator Sarita Sarvate, a Bay Area writer who trained as a physicist, was born and raised in India. Read a response to this article from a Jinn reader.

For decades, we women of the third world have looked to Britain and America in matters feminist. When I was studying physics at Nagpur University in India, I kept a copy of "The Female Eunuch" by Germaine Greer hidden among my textbooks -- which I would pull out and read late at night after my father had gone to sleep.

In those days, we listened carefully to every word Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan uttered. Because we didn't know how much liberation we should rightfully want.

It was personal liberation we were most confused about. On the professional level, we third world women of the post-war era enjoyed many opportunities for advancement -- India has trained as many female doctors as male for decades, and many of my friends studied science or engineering, as I did.

But our personal lives lacked role models. By the time we had graduated from college, many of us faced for-contract marriages arranged with the aid of dowries. A young cousin of mine faced a lonely life with two small children after being stigmatized by the death of her husband -- her only consolation was that she escaped the disfigurement of a shaved head like my grandmother endured after the death of her husband.

Not bearing a male child was, and still is, the cause of loss of respect, even abuse, from the family. In recent years, technological advances such as ultrasound have subjected women to novel means of abuse, such as forced abortion of female fetuses. Childlessness remains worse than death for many Indian women.

These facts of our lives explain why we women of the third world, immigrant and non-immigrant, were so heartened by the First Lady's candid speech at the Women's summit in Beijing in 1995. That was just the year before Clinton's re-election, but now it seems like another time, another era. For the same Hillary Clinton, who was preaching to us about women's rights for personal and professional fulfillment, is now eating humble pie in order to preserve her marriage at any cost. And we third world women are confused, bewildered, even outraged.

If we are to be guided by the words of Patricia Ireland, President of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the American feminist movement -- which taught us about sexual liberation, birth control, domestic violence, and sexual harassment -- is now teaching us to preserve our marriages even if our middle aged husbands engage in sexual liaison with women young enough to be our daughters. Moreover, the message is we should overlook our husbands' sexual lapses for the sake of our children.

Of course, we are not as fortunate as Hillary. Most of us neither have high paid careers as lawyers, nor husbands we can hold under our thumbs in some sort of a Faustian political bargain. Many of us come from a world where polygamy is still practiced -- one of my closest friends grew up in an Indian household in which her mother, the discarded first wife, suffered daily humiliation while living under the same roof as her father and the father's second wife. Chinese women of a certain generation can recall a time when middle-aged men with money and power frequently acquired young concubines.

To us, the Clinton-Hillary situation resonates with that horrific past we have struggled so much to put behind us. American feminists say that Hillary has a choice. But that is precisely the point. So many of the women around the world do not have the choice that Hillary has. That is why, to many of us third world women, Hillary Clinton's words of love and forgiveness were shocking, mystifying, and ultimately infuriating.

Hillary Clinton plans to attend a summit on Women in Emerging Democracies in Ireland at the end of August. But that Hillary Clinton and the American feminist movement condone Bill Clinton's actions constitutes to us a serious betrayal of trust. If she fails to offer us an explanation of her feelings and reactions towards Bill Clinton's confession, we women of the third world will consider it so much hypocrisy when Hillary Clinton and the American feminists start preaching liberation to us at the upcoming summit.