Charlotte Allen is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute's Minding the Campus website.
The good news about the conference earlier this year titled "Driving Change, Shaping Lives: Gender in the Developing World" was that no one said, "Women hold up half the sky." The bad news was that someone might as well have uttered this chestnut, reputed to be one of Mao Zedong's favorite Chinese proverbs and a perennial favorite of feminists.
The subtheme of the two-day event, sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the women's studies think tank that occupies what used to be the campus of Radcliffe College before it merged with Harvard, was how colorful, if chronically impoverished, the developing world can be, especially its women. The conference program was illustrated by photographs of developing-world people clad in ethnic costumes taken by a Harvard freshman who had been lucky enough or rich enough to take trips far abroad while still in high school: a veiled female crusher of argan nuts in Morocco ("She works at a women's co-op," the text read), a child beggar in India tricked out like the god Krishna, a Buddhist monk in China working a cell phone (an illustration of what the Harvard-freshman photographer called cross-cultural "hybridity").
Most of the panelists at the conference and nearly all the audience of 150 or so was female. Indeed Asim IJaz Khwaja, a public policy professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and a rare male panelist, declared self-deprecatingly, "I take such pleasure in being a minority and being stymied by the intellectual ferment here." Some of the women wore hijabs, saris, and towering sub-Saharan headdresses that announced their developing-world provenance — but most of them wore the uniform of First World women in academia: sensible slacks, puffy vests, and backpacks. All but a few of the former group were government officials, parliamentarians, and NGO activists from the countries that their ethnic dress denoted. As for the latter group, they were mostly what they looked like: professors and graduate students in such fields as politics, international relations, and, of course, women's studies.
No sooner had we settled into our seats and listened to some opening boilerplate than came . . . the praise poetry. The poet, a rangy young man who leaped and chanted exuberantly down the center aisle, was Siyabulela Lethuxolo Xuza of Johannesburg. Although brightly clad in a dashiki-like overshirt and headband, Xuza was actually a Harvard engineering major who as a high school student had won a top prize in Intel Corp.'s International Science and Engineering Fair and had an asteroid named after him — in other words, a typical résumé for a Harvard undergraduate. Swooping and whirling, Xuza chanted his praise poem in a lilting South African language that featured numerous tongue-clicks. He never got around to translating his poem, but he did assure his audience that it was relevant to the conference: "This is about gender issues and cultural issues. I tried to use my act to entertain you on issues of gender."
"Wow!" exclaimed Swanee Hunt, a lecturer at Harvard's Kennedy School. Hunt chairs the Institute for Inclusive Security, a think tank based in Cambridge and Washington that, according to its website, promotes "the vital but often unrecognized role" women play "in averting violence and resolving conflict." As Xuza swirled gracefully to a final round of applause, Hunt rhapsodized, "I love the energy — isn't it great?"
The first speaker was Valerie M. Hudson, a political science professor at Brigham Young University, leading off a panel titled "Shifting Populations." Hudson delivered a genuine population-shift shocker: In China and India, which between them account for about 40 percent of the world's 7 billion people, women, who in the West slightly outnumber men because they tend to live longer, are outnumbered by the male sex to the tune of 33 million in China and 28 million in India. The reason? As Hudson explained, it was the female-lethal combination of sex-selection abortion following the advent of fetal ultrasound during the 1980s and China's longtime one-child policy, which has resulted in widespread female infanticide along with many forced abortions. As she rattled off disturbing statistics — 120 boy babies for every 100 girl babies in China in 2005, and 121 for every 100 in India — Hudson pointed out that sex-selection abortion and female infanticide are illegal in both countries, but the laws on the books have failed to dent the cultural phenomenon of "son preference" in Asia, in which sons are valued because they're expected to support elderly parents, whereas daughters often cost dowry money. "That's 90 million missing women," Hudson said.
In 2004 she and Andrea den Boer, a lecturer in politics and international affairs at the University of Kent, had published a book, Bare Branches, about the negative repercussions for a society, such as in China, that produces large numbers of surplus young men who cannot find wives and form families. "Those who don't marry tend to have no skills and no education," Hudson explained. "They are already at risk for violent behavior, since young men without stable social bonds tend to commit most violent crimes. They tend to be targets for military recruitment, and societies with surplus males tend to be marked by an aggressive foreign policy and ethnic groups pitted against each other."
Maybe it was because abortion makes women's studies people skittish, but Hudson's ominous statistics — and indeed her entire presentation — were promptly forgotten, submerged in what might be called the Battle of the Filipina Hostesses. The combatants were Hudson's two fellow panelists, Rhacel Salazar Parreñas, a sociology professor at the University of Southern California and self-described former Filipina hostess, and Amy O'Neill Richard, a senior adviser in the State Department's Office of Trafficking in Persons, a priority project of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. During the 1980s and 1990s tens of thousands of young women were imported into Japan by labor contractors from the chronically impoverished Philippines to sing, dance, flirt with, and coax drink purchases from stressed-out salarymen in bars and nightclubs — until a 2005 crackdown by the Japanese government reduced the hostesses' numbers by 90 percent, from 80,000 in 2004 to 8,000 in 2006. Few of the Filipinas, it seemed, had any training as the professional entertainers that their visas said they were. The Japanese government maintained that most of them were actually prostitutes or near-prostitutes, pushed into long hours of dubious servitude by the contractors and the clubs, many of which had ties to yakuza mobsters. A spate of brutal murders of hostesses — along with some murders committed by hostesses of their pimps — fueled the drive to clamp down on the hostess business and send most of the women back to the Philippines.
Taking the podium after Hudson, Parreñas went on the warpath. She announced that she had no intention of abiding by the 10-minute presentation limit for panelists and then proceeded to read a fiery 20-minute paper that she titled "Migration as Indentured Mobility: The Moral Regulation of Migrant Women." The paper blasted the hostess crackdown as part of "a U.S.-backed war" against "sex work" fueled by "moral imperialism and conservative values" (the U.S. government funds anti-trafficking programs in about 70 countries). In the crackdown the hostesses were "stripped of their livelihood," Parreñas lamented. "They go to Japan of their own volition — they're not drugged or forced to go. They find it empowering to be a hostess." Parreñas's theory was that "there are multiple moralities in society," and that some Filipinas' moral codes happened to permit "paid sex with the men they call their boyfriends." The problem, as Parreñas saw it, was that many Japanese clubs tended to have a different "moral culture" from that of the hostesses who worked there, but the hostesses couldn't quit until their indentures were up. Nonetheless, Parreñas insisted, "most of them resent the United States, and they resent being rescued" from the hostess life by being kicked out of Japan. Her solution to the hostess problem: open immigration in the West for developing-world sex workers so they could get jobs in, say, the Netherlands, where prostitution is legal.
Parreñas proved to be a tough act to follow. Richard, the human-trafficking expert from the State Department, seemed dumbfounded. "I think America is a wonderful country," she said. She rattled off some information about the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 2000, along with some alarming-sounding numbers: 70 percent of the estimated 12 to 27 million human-trafficking victims in the world these days are women and girls, most of whom end up in bondage, often sexual bondage, in East Asia and the Middle East. Parreñas was having none of that. "It's quite tricky to lump all trafficked people together," she sniffed. "Most migrant workers are domestic workers, and many countries, including the United States, don't even count domestic work as an occupation." Nor did Parreñas have any positive words for Hudson and her bare-branches research. "Did you interview any of those single men you describe as psychopathic and poor?" Parreñas demanded of Hudson. "Did they see themselves as unmarriageable?"
Read the rest at The Weekly Standard.