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To Speak Softly or Roar Loudly? That is the question.

March 19, 2010

Katherine Steeter - New York Times

Women, do you want a paycheck during the recession? You better use a gentle tone; your job is on the line. Want your rights? Speak softly (and give the big stick to the man sitting next to you).

Between last weekend’s Jobs section of the New York Times and a mid-week discussion over lunch with Suraya Pakzad, a strident women’s rights activist in Afghanistan, I got the message loud and clear: if women want to be heard, we need to watch our words. Our lives (and livelihood) depend on it.

As most people know by now, women in the United States comprise a majority of the workforce. Yet according to a recent Corporate Gender Gap Report by the World Economic Forum, “women employees tend to be concentrated in entry- or middle-level positions and remain scarce in senior management or board positions in most countries and industries … barriers to women in top jobs included a ‘lack of role models.’ Others included the ‘general norms and cultural practices’ and ‘masculine or patriarchal corporate culture.’

I’m sure most of us have first-hand experiences of double standards at our jobs. And there are research studies to corroborate our stories. According to one study, participants were given descriptions of men and women with equivalent qualifications who had applied for a fictitious job. When told that some candidates tried to negotiate for a higher salary, the study participants — whether men or women — found fault at twice the rate with the women who negotiated. I guess that explains why women make on average 18 per cent less than men (or as high as 40% less for more senior positions).

So, what are we to do? According to an article in the Jobs section of the NY Times,

Ultimately, women must be more mindful and use greater finesse when conveying their messages. We need to become better chameleon communicators and to carefully read our audience, adjusting our style to the circumstances.

My knee-jerk reaction is: NO. I don’t want to have to accommodate a patriarchal culture. The culture needs to change to accommodate me, and the other 50% of the population.

But I would like a successful career.

A conversation this week with Suraya Pakzad about her life and work promoting women’s rights in Afghanistan centered on the same issue. Except there it isn’t jobs women are fighting for, it’s their basic right to an education, run for political position, have access to health care, etc., etc.  Some women, like Malalai Joya, resist everything about the patriarchal system while others, like Suraya, believe in the value of building relationships within the system and working from a foundation of respect for Afghan culture.

Some women here have forgotten our cultural values and our Islamic values. What does it take to say Excellency to a Parliamentarian? Men see these women and believe that if a woman has power she will stand against Afghan culture. The conversation stops when women aggressively demand their rights and men feel threatened. We need our rights as women. We can have those and respect our culture. We just need to go about it the right way.

There is nothing new about this dilemma. The issue of how to convince men with power to grant women their rights has been around just about as long as women and men have. And the suggestion that perhaps it is a matter of asking nicely enough or providing convincing enough evidence that women’s rights are a value-added investment is also not new.

Despite my knee-jerk reaction to being a “chameleon communicator,” Suraya makes a compelling case for respectful confrontation. And there is no doubt that she is making great strides for women’s rights in Afghanistan. Suraya was named one of TIME magazine’s top 100 people in 2009 and US government officials are frequently looking to her for guidance on how to bring about change in Afghanistan.

I’m torn. I don’t want to concede to communication styles that are gender-acceptable and yet wonder if there isn’t some value in it if the goal is “for them to get the message without wanting to get back at you.”

What do others think?

6 Comments
  1. March 19, 2010 2:28 pm

    Alice Paul didn’t play nice. Nor did the Miss America Protestors. I am all about respectful dialogue sure, but I agree, “asking nicely” for my rights, bothers me. That makes it sound like I need permission to be a full and equal human being. And that’s what the patriarchal culture wants, women to constantly be begging for every little crumb that they get thrown. It is a hard question, because you don’t want to have to resort to the same destructiveness that dominant culture uses to get what it wants, yet sometimes I don’t know how else women are going to be treated as equals.

  2. Sue permalink
    March 20, 2010 5:37 pm

    This blog struck me. It struck me enough to make my first comment ever on the blogosphere. Initially, I had the same knee jerk reaction and response as the author and Jukebox. I wanted o say F them! I will not beg for my rights. But I think the issue is a bit more complex than pick one or the other, or F them or not. I would argue you need both soft dialogue and strong voices to accomplish true change. One of the main critiques I generally make of the second wave feminist movement in places like the United States (women in Latin American and other places like Afghanistan rely/ied on different strategies) is that it failed to demonstrate to the other 50% of the population of the value of gender equality (yes because sadly you have to be able to convince people that the cause you defend has value). I can’t help but compare this strategy of speaking softly to the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement. Both used a combination of soft voices and more extreme stances to start dismantling structures of inequality. I am not sure if this has been the case with the struggle for women’s rights. Perhaps it has been but the voices have been a bit too soft to hear them, or perhaps the screams too loud to actually be taken seriously. Lest I post too extensively, I can’t help but remember an old Spanish saying that goes, “Truth never screams.” It does not need to.

  3. March 21, 2010 6:41 pm

    Wow, a myriad of emotions jumped around inside of me while I read this post. I, like everyone else, wanted to scream “NO” at the top of my lungs at the thought of asking for the rights that I deserve. And I still feel that asking for my rights implies that they are not mine to begin with. But I can understand that sheer force won’t lead to the the kind of mutual understanding necessary for equality. I can’t believe I’m going to admit this, but I think “roaring loudly” and “speaking softly” both have their place in this fight.

  4. Mosa permalink
    March 24, 2010 4:38 am

    Women such as Pakzad are the US government’s showpieces in Afghanistan. What she says are exactly what the US mainstream media tries to say through its propaganda.

    She talks about “cultural values and our Islamic values.” this is what the US govt. say, they are supporting and bringing in power some dangerous fundamentalist leaders such as Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, Rabbani, Qanoni, Fahim, Khalili etc. and say they must be supported as they are “islamic leaders”!!!

    If Mrs. Pakzad wants to respect the “Islamic and cultural values” of Afghanistan, then she should stay in her house, stop appearing in public and stop showing her face in the photos and also stop talking about human rights and women’s rights. Because “Islamic values” say a woman is half a man and should cover herself head-to-toe and also stay in her house forever.

    Quran says: “Men are in charge of women… As for those form whom ye fear rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart.” (4:34)

    “Your women are a tilth for you (to cultivate) so go to your tilth as ye will” (2:223)

    Islam and human rights does not match, so Mrs. Pakzad should either select Islamic values or human rights.

  5. alicia permalink
    March 26, 2010 6:03 pm

    “The issue is a bit more complex than pick one or the other” … I absolutely agree with this, Sue. (And thanks for joining the blogsphere with your comment).
    I think that sentiment applies both to speak softly/roaring loudly and to the dichotomy that you brought up, Mosa, between Islam and human rights. Suraya is not here to respond to what sounds to me like a dismissal of her perspective. And I’m not going to speak on her behalf as I am neither Afghan nor Muslim. However, I think a critical aspect of feminism is permitting women to define their own identities and realities. Islam – as interpreted and defined by patriarchal, fundamentalist leaders – may have no place for human rights. However religions (and their texts) are interpretations. As a feminist, I am committed to supporting women, like Suraya, who choose to identify with a religion, call it their own, and participate in the redefining of it.

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