Dreamscape of a bureaucracy that ignores politics. / John Gillespie
Rafia Zakaria,  March 21, 2017

Slumber of the UN Women

A totally empty room will be the unfortunate side effect of administrative insularity

Dreamscape of a bureaucracy that ignores politics. / John Gillespie
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Like the citizens of Pompeii centuries ago, everyone clapped, cheered, ate, and ignored portents of coming catastrophe at the beginning of the United Nations’s sixty-first convening of its Commission on the Status of Women in New York. The meeting, which started on March 13 and will continue until this upcoming Friday, March 24, is the largest inter-governmental forum on women’s rights and gender equality. Yet faced with the “greatest Presidential onslaught on international law and international institutions in American history,” it opened with platitudes and gratitude, some familiar exhortations for improvement from UN under-secretary general and executive director of CSW Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, as well as a diplomatically crafted call for “constructive impatience” in attending to the world’s lapses in gender parity. A sprinkling of celebrities appeared at gala events, stood at podiums, and declaimed on unequal pay—this year’s emphasis. The whole thing seemed ensconced in an impenetrable bureaucratic bubble, its prominent participants inert and inured to auguries of the coming devastation.

That devastation struck Thursday when, four days in, the Trump Administration released its budget proposal in Washington, D.C., detailing how the UN would be starved with cuts and felled by lack of funding. None of it should have been a surprise; the signs after all, had long been there; the text of an Executive Order titled “Auditing and Reducing U.S. Funding of International Organizations” was leaked a long while ago, in January. It had pointed to a 40 percent hacking off from voluntary U.S. contributions to international organizations. The United States is currently the largest single contributor of funds to the UN. Secretary General António Guterrez now seemed perturbed, warning through his spokesperson that “abrupt funding cuts can force the adoption of ad hoc measures that will undermine the impact of longer-term reform efforts.”

Everyone seemed to assume that there would be more summits, more town halls, more opportunities for feminists from around the world to gather.

Still, at the CSW16 Town Hall, which the Secretary General held the morning after, it was business as usual. One speaker did draw attention to the empty chairs at the event, and the fact that they represented the delegates who had been unable to travel to New York because they had been denied visas. But when a representative from Somalia spoke, pointing again to the fact that even while the travel ban has been halted, women from Muslim countries had significant trouble in obtaining visas, she was told to be brief. The rest of the speakers showed little awareness of the necessity for urgency; some asked for more funding for gender mainstreaming, one for the appointment of a youth envoy, another for the appointment of a special liaison. One even inquired about changing the dates of the summit to summer months so visiting delegates could better enjoy New York. Everyone seemed to assume that there would be more summits, more town halls, more opportunities for feminists from around the world to gather.

To a cynic all of it added up to a tableau of administrative insularity, a chorus dominated by those so entrenched in a bureaucracy that their only vision for change is in the quotients of its expansion. In the end it was the secretary general who became grim and ominous; the funding issues, he concluded, “may go far beyond holding back the mainstreaming of gender, they may be more dramatic than we can imagine today, just look at the news.”

Few of the women seemed to have been looking at the news and one cannot help but feel that generations of feminists to come will judge them harshly for it. If the budget is passed and signed, the miseries imposed will be unprecedented in UN history: the closing down of girls’ schools, the shuttering of women’s health centers, and the cessation of women’s employment and training programs. It will hack to pieces the architecture of transnational feminism that women at CSW61 and around the world have counted on and become used to. The failure of the CSW to respond to the coming crisis is thus not a critique of what it does, but its seeming refusal to fight for what it will soon be unable to do.

The absence of some women owing to the discriminatory travel ban detracts from the general legitimacy of this convening of women.

Recognition of the costs of this surrender would have meant giving greater voice to women subject to the travel ban last week, possibly a turn to crisis activism—to marching or some form of protest (and optimists may hope that it can yet happen) in opposition to the arriving cuts, to the absent women, and to the already instituted exclusion—and definitely a visible and audible stand against its own demise. In the days leading up to the conference, at least one organization, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, did try to do this, refusing to attend, pointing out that the travel ban would have “a major impact on the ability of the UN to uphold the principles enunciated in the UN Charter, human rights law, and indeed in the CSW.”

The WIPLF made a point that seems to have been lost to the others at CSW61. The absence of some women owing to the discriminatory travel ban detracts from the general legitimacy of this convening of women, and its ability to provide a forum for transnational feminism across borders. It is because of this that the empty chairs of absent activists should have been front and center at CSW61, a repeated and pointed reminder to a global audience of the silencing and exclusion already occurring.

Instead there has been a dogged aversion to politics, a reluctance to step in the muck and take a stand without the rigmarole of special commissions and high-level experts. Few at CSW61 seem interested in considering a turn to politics and protest or in harnessing the energy of feminists present in the interests of preserving opportunities for feminists yet to come. In a world whose defining rift is between those who believe in the necessity of transnational co-operation and those who do not, CSW must fight for itself and abandon this apathy. Without such a transformation, future meetings if they even occur, will have more empty chairs, until, eventually, there are only empty chairs and no sign of the women who once filled them.

Rafia Zakaria is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan (Beacon 2015) and Veil (Bloomsbury 2017). She is a columnist for Dawn in Pakistan. She writes regularly for The Guardian, Boston Review, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, and many other publications.

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