The Global Problem of Women’s Equality

That we are still strategizing how to achieve gender equality—the equality of women’s constitutional and legal status, social and economic opportunities, and daily realities with those of men’s—is the perplexing truth at the heart of Penelope Andrews’ important book, From Cape Town to Kabul. Known for her work on South Africa and legal feminism, Andrews here posits questions about how gender equality can be achieved on a global scale. She offers no easy answers or totalizing theories, but proposes a notion of “conditional interdependence” as a method of situating women within their various cultures as a way to move forward with the project of equality. It’s a concept that could go far in resolving some of the thorniest arguments about “choice” and “autonomy” that permeate questions of women’s equality.

At its most hopeful, Andrews’ book presents the struggle for equality in South Africa as it was mounted against the Apartheid state, resulting in a new constitutional regime devoted to transformative law and politics. Andrews attributes the fact that this transformation included gender equality to a confluence of forces, but most importantly women’s participation. She suggests that the path chosen by South Africa is a model for many other nations, stressing that the involvement of women at all levels and phases is vital.

Nevertheless, the path towards the goal of eliminating sexism is more labyrinthian than straightforward. In part, this is because the definition of what constitutes “sexism” is itself unsettled. Among the Constitutional Court’s decisions she discusses, Bhe & Others v. The Magistrate, Khayelitsha, decided in 1996 under the Interim Constitution, provides an apt illustration. In Bhe, male inmates challenged the constitutionality of an executive order by then-President Nelson Mandela pardoning all “mothers” in prison who had children under the age of 12. The Constitutional Court ultimately upheld Mandela’s order, rejecting the kind of reflexive formal equality so prevalent in United States constitutional equal protection doctrine. Instead, the Court acknowledged that Mandela’s order did discriminate on the basis of gender, but that this discrimination was outweighed because the order would assist mothers—and more importantly, children—in the real, rather than idealized, world. Yet the dissent argued such assistance would perpetuate gender stereotypes.

Differences in strategies for eradicating gender discrimination in South Africa, however, are not the major source of Andrews’ critique. Instead, she focuses on more entrenched obstacles. She is certainly not the first to note that specific guarantees in constitutions, even when they track the most progressive human rights documents, are not sufficient to change lived experiences. But she argues that in South Africa, “the eradication of apartheid and racism, while immensely challenging and still ongoing, has been popular and not as onerous as eradicating the numerous forms of discrimination against women.” (P. 100). She attributes this to three overlapping sources, including the masculinist culture emanating from the previous authoritarian and militaristic apartheid state; the masculinist cultural remnants of a violent anti-apartheid struggle; and aspects of indigenous customary law that continue to subordinate women. It would have been interesting in this regard to devote even more attention than she does to South Africa’s evolved stance on sexual orientation equality, including a constitutional textual guarantee and a powerful doctrinal jurisprudence. Nevertheless, given the obstacles she names, it seems rather miraculous that South Africa’s commitment to gender equality is as robust as it is.

An even greater miracle would be necessary for Afghanistan to achieve even a semblance of such equality. Andrews accepts the notion of “gender apartheid” as an apt description of Afghanistan, even as the constitution contains more than a few explicit references to women’s rights. Unquestionably, the lived reality of women—across class and ethnicities—is brutal. Andrews argues that these women can maneuver to create a focus on gender equality similar to that achieved by women in South Africa during the transition to constitutional democracy. The key, Andrews believes, is making clear that national needs are intertwined and interdependent with women’s needs and rights. Men, she contends, need to stand with women. Such a possibility may seem exceedingly slight for Afghanistan, but of course it also once seemed inconceivable in South Africa.

Although Andrews’ polestars are Kabul and Cape Town, she is exceedingly mindful of the lives of rural women throughout the respective nations. Further, her examination of two nations is situated within the global struggle for women’s equality, including the international human rights context. She values culture without valorizing it, subjecting the gendered practices of developed nations (e.g., cosmetic surgery) to incisive scrutiny as part of her comparative analysis.

From Cape Town to Kabul is a book for wherever you may be—whether first world or third world or, as is true so often, straddling the usual borders—because that’s where the gender equality project is incomplete.