UN Women was created in July 2010, after intense negotiations between United Nations member states and women's rights organizations. This new structure will take over the mandates of the four UN organizations heretofore devoted to gender issues . It was created in response to the observation that despite progress in many countries' laws and policies, there is still little "tangible support for implementing these decisions and changing the lives of women and men.\"
Though heralded by every UN press release as "an historic victory," UN Women could well end up hurting the very cause it is supposed to help. Honorable though it may be, the project raises a whole series of questions. For starters, can the diversity of the feminist movement survive within this superstructure? Can activism thrive in a world of professionals and gender experts? And finally, will the fundamental reform demanded by many in the global feminist movement be supplanted by incremental adjustments?
As presented, UN Women confronts a mostly depoliticized adversary. This "dynamic and strong champion" giving the world's women "a powerful voice" will be no mouthpiece for feminist organizations in their struggle against the patriarchal model of socioeconomic domination. Quite simply, UN Women will be an emblem of the women's cause. According to Hillary Clinton, who advocates placing women at the center of UN concerns and US foreign policy, there are two basic reasons why we owe it to ourselves to subscribe to this new model.
First, because women are worth it and, in a sense, more worth it than men. They are compassionate - they are the ones "caring for the world's sick"; they are victims - increasingly affected by HIV "spread by men"; they are innocent - "rarely causing armed conflict"; and they are entrepreneurial - they know how to "take advantage of opportunities to improve their lives and those of their families." And second, because women are by nature more inclined to help one another, and to care about others and about peace and justice. In this sense, they are natural allies in the US and UN's fight for "a better and safer world for our children."
Of course, we need not point out here that men are the primary victims of armed conflict, that HIV is a virus, not a weapon, and that with the same mentoring or military training, women are the equals of men both on the battlefield and as torturers.
The UN's consensus view is reducing women to mere objects of indignation, and neutralized their subversive power. Left only the symbolic trappings of victimhood - and of its other face, the "brave woman" - women are being asked to play the classic role assigned them by the traditional view of gender: the mascot. To fully serve her rallying function, this mascot has to be identifiable anytime, anywhere - in other words, her image has to be as sharply defined as possible. She can have a first name, but she won't be allowed to express anything beyond the cause she embodies, to avoid obscuring her message with complexity.
She might, for example, be Aisha, the young Afghan woman whose mutilated face appeared on the cover of Time magazine this summer next to the headline, "What happens if we leave Afghanistan." (The publication charged the Taliban with the crime, though on closer examination, their responsibility seems hard to prove.) Or she might be Sakineh, the Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning, whose story has outraged and mobilized parts of the world - though it's hard to imagine that the letter of support penned by Carla Bruni is much comfort to her: "Sentence to be buried alive, and then stoned to death! Your beautiful face, beaten to a pulp! (...). Your eyes full of pain and dignity, your forehead, your mind, your spirit...transformed into targets for stone throwers, to be pulverized to pieces!"
An innocent face framed by an austere veil, Sakineh is -according to her attorney - "an ordinary woman, very ordinary." Nothing to be afraid of there.