10/02/2012 11:28 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Bursting the Bubble: When 'Half the Sky' Abuses Itself

I have a dream -- shared by many -- where the sexes are equal, pay inequity is a thing of the past, and both men and women help each other to succeed and thrive. Everyone wins, including and especially children, whose welfare is unquestionably tied to that of women.

In this dream, women are given ample opportunities to lead corporations and countries. The last time I looked, there were a total of 20 women (elected, appointed or succeeded) heads of state (not including royalty). Our world can do better than that.

In this dream, women are immune to the corruption that often accompanies power. Instead of wielding it, they share it. Instead of abusing it, they use it for the greater good. If something is clearly working and is helping pull women and children out of the throes of poverty, they don't thwart it. They support it.

My bubble popped loudly after reading Nicholas Kristof's article in the New York Times, "Women Hurting Women" which delves into the international drama surrounding Grameen Bank (former secretaries of state Shultz and Albright have weighed in, as has Secretary of State Clinton and many others), and opens with this question:

ARE female leaders better for the world's women?

The article was disturbing on three key levels:

  1. it brings to light the belief held by many that women who rise to power are those who adopt the attitudes and beliefs of the men who promote them
  2. of course, women are not immune to the insecurities inherent in power nor the fear of losing that power
  3. the concept that the world could be a better place if more women were running it is being questioned
While it is still uncertain whether Nobel Peace Prize winner and founder of Grameen Bank, Muhammad Yunus, who was terminated and replaced as the head of the bank, will be reinstated, this much is clear: The prime minister of Bangladesh, Sheik Hasina Wajed, is determined to take control of Grameen, a leader in micro lending that has been instrumental in helping to eradicate poverty, especially among women, in her country. Right now, the majority owners of the bank are the borrowers, the millions of poor people who have benefitted from these micro loans. At issue is whether the chairman should be appointed by the owners (borrowers) or the government.

A post on the website states:

This is troubling. In the latest -- and boldest -- move in the campaign against Muhammad Yunus, the Bangladeshi government has issued an order removing him from his Nobel prize-winning Grameen Bank. The government is using a special regulatory law created just for Grameen, which, it says, includes the power to fire Yunus as managing director of the pioneering microlending organization he founded in 1983.

The official reasoning for the order is that Yunus, at 70, is too old for the post, citing a provision of the law that sets a mandatory retirement age of 60. Yunus accepted the formal title of managing director in 2000. The Grameen Bank, however, says Yunus is staying put.

The backstory here is what many are calling a vendetta by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who has accused microlending of "sucking blood from the poor." The quick version is that Yunus made a powerful enemy of Hasina when he announced he might start a political party shortly after a 2007 military coup. At the time, Grameen was still in the spotlight from the 2006 Nobel Prize. Yunus never did start the party, but the announcement was taken as direct threat to Hasina and other powers that be. Yunus is arguably Bangladesh's most famous man and sitting at the helm of an organization with more than 8 million loyal borrowers, they worried he could shake up Bangladeshi politics as he shook up microfinance.

The real danger with all of this stretches far beyond Grameen. In the process of eliminating an erstwhile political rival, Hasina is sidelining, and potentially permanently handicapping, the key spokesman for microfinance.

But this is complicated. It's not a case of a power-mad leader squashing a female rival. It's a situation where a woman who has risen to the very top of a Muslim country (which is astounding in and of itself) and appears to be terribly concerned about losing her footing if Prof. Yunus decides to seek political office in a country where he has demonstrated results and where he is immensely popular. But in her attempts to squash this rival, Prime Minister Wajed may very well end up squashing the countless women and children (and their communities) who have benefitted from the microfinance programs offered by Grameen Bank because, as Yunus told Kristof when they spoke recently during UN Week in NYC, if the government takes over Grameen Bank, "... it is finished."

Prof. Yunus has also been working on ways to deliver affordable healthcare options to those who need it the most: The poor and disenfranchised. The concern is if the Bangladeshi government swoops in and takes over Grameen Bank the healthcare divisions might suffer, as well.

To clip Prof. Yunus' wings now would be tragic, indeed, as he is probably the world's greatest spokesperson for the power of micro lending, and his vision has spread to other countries, including the U.S. Grameen America is working with tens of thousands of (mostly) women who are starting companies, employing others and giving back to their communities. Here's a snippet of the movie ("To Catch a Dollar") about how Prof. Yunus brought Grameen to America:

My dream of a world where women have a stronger voice and more power has not been diminished because one leader has chosen to use hers unwisely. Nor was it diminished after watching Half the Sky based on Kristof's best-selling book, which reveals how many women run brothels in Cambodia and are directly involved in horrendous crimes against other women and girls such as sex slavery. The situation with Grameen Bank, however, should not be characterized as 'Half the Sky' abusing itself, as the esteemed Nicholas Kristof suggests in his article, but as an attempt by one who wields the power to keep it at any cost (even if it means irrevocably harming other women) by diminishing the role of her perceived opponent. To view this as a simple women vs. women scenario is reductionism at its worst.

As with so many other scenarios where power is at stake, the poor -- especially women and children -- will be the victims. Let's shift the discourse away from 'women vs. women', which sounds like a tawdry Las Vegas boxing match, and move it towards a much deeper conversation about what we need to do to get more women in leadership positions in both the public and private sector and figure out how we can eradicate poverty . . . not just offer solutions, albeit good ones, to help people climb out of it.

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