March 8th was International Women’s Day. As celebrated in the United States, it’s a feel-good pseudo-holiday that promises a conscience soothing reprieve from focusing on the status of women around the world for the next 364 days. It’s also an occasion when presidents and first ladies are expected to weigh in on issues impacting women’s equality.
President Obama’s International Women’s Day speech at the White House exemplified the public appearances we’ve come to expect from the 44th president. It began with a preview of The Barack and Michelle Comedy Hour (coming in 2013), segued into a series of celebrity shout-outs, and included a few kind words for a Communist activist.
After giving props to Betty Friedan and Katharine McPhee and rubbing salt in Hillary Clinton’s 18 million cracks, President Obama offered an audience of adoring female fans a guided tour of the inequalities still endured by American women, starting with the debunked myth of a significant gender-based wage gap. But not surprisingly, he neglected an opportunity to highlight the most egregious oppression taking place in the world today: the subjugation of women under Islam.
Nearly 1,300 words passed Obama’s lips before he mentioned the struggles faced by women outside the United States. Perhaps someone forgot to brief White House speechwriters on the international aspect of International Women’s Day? The president’s lackluster support for women suffering oppression beyond America’s borders appeared to be an afterthought:
And since today happens to be International Women’s Day, it’s also worth mentioning what Secretary Clinton, and Ambassador Rice, and this administration are doing on behalf of women around the globe. We lifted what’s called the global gag rule that restricted women’s access to family planning services abroad.
We’re pursuing a global health strategy that makes important investments in child and maternal health. We sponsored a U.N. resolution to increase protection for women and girls in conflict-torn countries –- to help make it possible for more women like Mozhdah, who traveled from Afghanistan to join us here today — to reach for their dreams. We created the first Office of Global Women’s Issues at the State Department, and appointed Ambassador Melanne Verveer to run it. (Applause.) We’re investing $18 million — we’re investing $18 million to combat the unconscionable cruelties being committed against girls and women in the Democratic Republic of Congo. And next month, I’ll host an entrepreneurship summit to help fulfill a commitment I made in Cairo; a summit that will focus, in part, on the challenges facing women entrepreneurs in Muslim communities around the world.
At least these remarks were a slight improvement over Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech. This time he didn’t offer a defense of the hijab while ignoring that women were being slaughtered and mutilated as he spoke. He simply ignored them.
2,000 words and not one mention of honor killings, female genital cutting, rape, acid burning, sex slavery, and other forms of barbarism. A vague reference to “unconscionable cruelties” is not enough from the leader of the free world. As Phyllis Chesler wrote this week, “America can do better than this. At least in our speeches. At least in our understanding.”
In 2004, George W. Bush used his International Women’s Day statement to remind the world that “the best guarantor of the rights of women is freedom and democracy.” Other years Bush spoke of the evils of sexual exploitation and the use of rape to terrorize female prisoners. Was it enough? No. But it was a start.
Instead of seizing an opportunity to express solidarity with women fighting against gender apartheid in the Muslim world, instead of honoring the Iranian activists who risk life and limb for women’s equality, President Obama told a few jokes and listened raptly to the performance of a former American Idol contestant. Such is life for a celebrity in the White House.
No matter what Ms. Magazine claims, this is not what a feminist looks like.