Emily , I think Reihan Salam is onto something in his recent piece on the end of male power, in which he notes that the recession’s disproportionate impact on men resonates in the world of politics, where women are gaining ground (at least in places like Iceland) in a backlash against male financial mismanagement. Salam is right that the recession provides one more lens through which to observe global power’s shift from men to women; he’s also right that the backlash against men can spark a sometimes-violent secondary backlash against women in places where they gain economic and political power.
Though few people talk about it, the emergence of prominent female leaders in developing countries can often be a catalyst for the hardening of traditional gender roles and increased violence against women. This has been the case in Liberia, though it has been almost entirely overshadowed by the triumph of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf , a Harvard-educated economist and Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state. Accurate figures on violence against women are hard to come by in Liberia, but when I visited last fall, aid workers and some women suggested it was rising, in part because of male dissatisfaction with the perception that women are now running the show. Liberian women suffered acutely during the 14-year civil war, when as many as three out of four women are thought to have been victims of sexual violence . After the war, women voted in droves for Sirleaf, yet her ascendance has only heightened the contrast between her situation and that of ordinary Liberian women. “Men feel very threatened by what’s happening,” an aid worker with Merlin , a medical NGO that works in Liberia, told me. “You can hear it around the offices, you hear it on the street, you hear it on the radio … they feel women are being pushed into a higher position than them.”
When the West looks at Liberia now, it sees a shining example of functioning postwar democracy led by a strong, educated woman. But Liberian women see something else. “The men are saying, ‘The women are up, so the women want to control the men,’” a Liberian woman friend explained to me. She attributed this perception, in part, to the breakdown of her five-year relationship with the man she had planned to marry, who became increasingly frustrated by his inability to find a job in a place where the unemployment rate hovers around 80 percent (and that was before the recession set in). My friend, who runs a shop in a busy market, jettisoned her boyfriend after he beat her so violently that her eyes swelled shut. This woman is no pushover. She was a guerrilla field commander during the war. Now, she keeps a framed picture of her swollen face a few days after the beating to remind her not to forgive the man who did it.
Salam warns that the transition from male to female dominance will be “wrenching, uneven and possibly very violent.” I think the greatest danger for well-meaning observers in the West is a version of what legal scholar Deborah Rhode has called “the no problem problem”-the false sense of equality that can result from the rise of a few extraordinary women. As we celebrate women in developing nations who attain power, we shouldn’t lose sight of the many others left vulnerable by these changes. Change always hurts; in the short term, this particular change may well hurt women the most.