Sunday, December 13, 2009

Of Womanhood, Strengths and Challenges

This past week I was invited to speak at the Hague about my proposal for a new international finance court as a response to the enormous changes in the global financial system. The resulting complexity for transnational claimants has made litigating within national parameters increasingly difficult and limited. More than once other speakers remarked to me that the debate over the making of international law in this domain of finance would shift simply because the person making the contribution, namely myself, was different from the others. One fellow participant at the conference said, "You are a woman of diversity... India, Canada, the U.S. from a very different background. This will alter the discourse." I think there is some truth to this.

The definition of gender roles at this critical point in human history is important for law and human relationships and culture. There are cultures that are reactively calling us back to strict adherence to such roles, as in Islam. There are more secular cultures that assert the equal right of women to all experience and authority, and also accept gay and lesbian relationships at par with heterosexual ones although the members of such unions may be avidly religious. In most part, there exists some increased understanding and acceptance of women as different in their own right. I will come back to what I mean by this last statement.

Differences between men and women have been debated throughout time, as various agendas for labor distribution, location of power, misunderstandings and scholarly curiousity have played out. Carol Gilligan's and others' ground-breaking work on the difference in thinking between little boys and girls, has spilled out into a recognition perhaps that women contribute differently in both form and content. Little boys it was claimed in that small study are more outwardly focused and aggressive, where little girls are more empathic approaching each problem set from a place of understanding and inclusion as opposed to adversarial attack and separation. Clearly much can be gained by allowing both men and women to approach each problem to devolve a more holistic solution. Although to the contrary, segregating the sexes based on what are already seen as strengths and weaknesses of each gender may dampen competition between the sexes, given that predominantly men and women mate and make homes together. It makes things easier to have different roles, no?

However, if women approach problems differently, they change the dynamic of the subject, and the manner in which the subject itself may be handled. That is the problems that we have to solve themselves may be different if women contributed to their formation. Do we really need more problems? Some formed by women and some formed by men? No. The point is men have determined the parameters of content and form of problems todate. The combined effort may make for fewer and different problems, maybe easier problems?

This also directly impacts women's self-definition. I want to say that women themselves have a difficult time with self-definition. If the only way they have known themselves is by mainstream definitions provided from a male point of view, then all they can be is different from men. A quick example from my children's early life. They used to share a room, two bunk beds, between the ages of 2 and 4 and 7 and 9. We had to move because they were driving me crazy; they wouldn't stop fighting. (We lived in a 2 bedroom apartment.) Mostly they were fighting about self-definition because they shared this room for too long. They had adopted roles, only one of them could be good at any particular thing. If my son was smart in school, my daughter had decided she had to be stupid. If my son was good at the piano, then she could not be and so on. Now none of this made any sense... she was brilliant in math, and she had an avid interest in music, and got a rousing ovation playing the piano at 3 years of age... so clearly something she could have kept doing but she would not. Within a semester of our move, I was able to see the difference. Not only did the fighting abate, but they could inhabit the same interests again. Not all would overlap, but now I could be reassured that it had more to do with their own strengths and interests and less with asserting difference from the sibling.

There is danger then in heeding too strongly Gilligan's thesis of difference. One wonders if it is not overly deterministic by and of difference between the sexes. Certainly, there are ways in which men and women are similar in their thinking too. We are human after all. We have occupied different roles through much of history because of convenience and culture perhaps? Misogyny or misunderstanding? The physical power differential? The occupation of different roles in the distribution of labor for so long that it forms us as different? The biological differences etching a different emotional and empathic sensibility? All these are possible origins.

But a different viewpoint from the mainstream can originate from other minorities also. Of course, women are not a minority. They mostly form a majority of the population in most nation-states and globally. Yet they are construed as minority because they do not determine the mainstream. This brings us to the other question: which men, if it is men, get to determine the mainstream viewpoint? Those that own the educational system, media, money (we are back to that), governing bodies, financial institutions? Does it stand to reason that the longer you have held power over governing bodies and finance, and the economic system (sustenance for the world's people) the more power you may have over how that power should be relegated between men and women, or between men of a certain race, creed, religion, or class over other men and women of other races, creeds, classes, religions?

Maybe. I can only ask the questions. The answers as someone else has said more eloquently 'are blowing in the wind.' Maybe the answers don't really matter. Maybe the making of harmony from difference is more important. Being a second child, I would opt for the latter. A firm believer in the integrative thesis (no surprise to anyone) let's go back to what difference I or other women can make to international legal discourse. First, we do tend to see the problem differently from men. For instance, whereas my colleagues see the need for international arbitration for the financial services industry specifically and only from the viewpoint of standardized master agreements crafted by ISDA that will require interpretation in a transnational setting, they miss completely the extent to which global finance has transcended borders and affected people, not just the institutional parties to ISDA agreements, but the world at large that has been invoked as investor, backer, client in multiple jurisdictions by legitimate and scamming financial institutions alike. Maybe it is not about building a tower, but about seeing the interweaving web created by the global financial system. We live on a globe, a sphere, and money like a neural synaptic connector has come to affect us all, a spark that is lighting a contagion of branches through the net. I cannot see the response as an assembly line tower, but view it as a comprehensive, culturally adjusted and systemically integrative institution.

I am also responding from my point of view as lawyer for investors in various international financial frauds, in international transactions at large, and of course, fraud investigators. So both the problems I define from my observations, and the responses to them, are apt to be contextually based. And most significantly, they will be contextualized within the experience set of my own herstory of life as an Indian, Canadian and new American immigrant.

There are deeper issues about constructions of property as determinative of gender hierarchy which I will not go into here. These issues are directly related to the ways in which legal systems may have perpetrated the subjugation of women and minorities generally. The main point I want to make is not so much that there is a purpose in what I am doing and contributing but that we are at a critical time in our history that enables more participation in legal discourse generally, from lawyers, scholars, and lay people alike. Diversity of all kinds is necessary to achieve solutions going forward that will assist humanity deal with the kinds of social, biological, and financial strife that are bound to increase with the burden of sustaining billions on the planet for the first time, the ravages of global warming (whether it is of our creation or natural), and increased health risks.

Since I am a woman, I can say that it is an unprecedented time after a long silence for women in my family to contribute 'publicly.' However, it is also a time of some challenge. There is stigma attached to divorce in the Hindu family, especially in a Kashmiri Brahmin family. Single parenting by women and men,is known of course, even in situations where the parents are together formally. The leap from married to officially single, however, has been lived with difficulty by others in the west and fewer in the east, unless forced by circumstances. Yet I note that there is bias in favor of seeing couples even here in the west, whether the couple is talking to each other or not, or whether the couple is married or not. So stigma prevails even in the west.

Both men and women appear to have difficulty determining their roles in this transitional space in which new culture is being written and the synchretism of such different cultural underpinnings takes place in the global flow. Just as we see bowls of curry apple squash soup, we see Caribbean, Indian, Finnish American families at the table for Diwali, Christmas, and Hunnukah. We are melding into each other like a thousand tributaries of the same vibrant river heading into the large ocean that created us. Whether the 'wisdom' uttered comes of woman, man, child, dark, light, freckled, rich, poor, middle class,of whatever cultural affiliation, let's hope we make it possible to hear it, recognize it, and heed it!

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