What You Do To Women, You Do To Your Nation
One of the most crucial conversations Valerie Hudson has had as a gender and security researcher happened about a dozen years ago with a female member of the Afghan legislature.
Hudson, a Texas A&M University distinguished professor and the George H.W. Bush Chair at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, observed that the woman had a university education and career, and was now a member of parliament. She remarked on the strides Afghanistan had made.
The woman asked how liberated was she, really, if her husband could divorce her that day simply by saying “I divorce you,” leaving her without a place to live or custody of her children.
“I realized I had been looking in the wrong place to gauge the subordination of women,” Hudson said. “I was looking at things such as their level of education, whether they were in the workforce, whether they were represented in government, and it turns out women can be literate and in the workforce and in the parliament, and still be subordinated. So you have to look at things closer to home.”
In order to understand how a nation treats its women, Hudson said to look to how they are treated within the four walls of their homes. Things like marriage and divorce laws, bride prices, dowries, polygyny and more are all indicators of the subjugation of women.
Through research funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, Hudson developed a theoretical framework that suggests the first political order in any society is the one developed between men and women. Societies that are highly subordinative of women end up with far worse governments, demographics, economic performance, environmental preservation and health outcomes, she said.
Hudson, who directs the Bush School’s Program on Women, Peace and Security, started a research program called the WomanStats Project almost 20 years ago. That project was designed to investigate the proposition that when a society chooses to subordinate women, it creates a variety of national security issues for a nation.
Along with researchers Donna Lee Bowen and Perpetua Lynne Nielsen from Brigham Young University, the research conducted from 2014-2018 funded by the Department of Defense found that countries that exploit women within the household have governments that are far more unstable.
“What you do to women is what you end up doing to the nation-state,” Hudson said. “If you curse women, you end up cursing your nation-state across many outcome measures.”
Those countries – the researchers focused on 176, all with a population greater than 200,000 – were also shown to have higher levels of civil conflict and terror, Hudson said. This information is of critical importance to the Department of Defense, she said. Things like swiftly rising bride price levels, for example, could be an indication of greater instability to come.
“If you normalize domestic terror, which is domestic abuse, don’t be surprised if men believe that it is completely appropriate to use political violence to achieve their aims within society,” Hudson said.
This research into the link between the treatment of women and poor governance points to a need for the participation of women in post-conflict scenarios, she said.
“While the U.S. military is not in the position to enforce that, they can of course say, ‘We want to meet with our counterparts, and we want to meet with women as well,'” Hudson said. “I think that there’s a whole variety of things that the Defense Department, State Department and USAID can do to further efforts to lessen the subordination of women by intelligently targeting and focusing on particular voices in society that may bring stability to a country.”
Hudson said leaders and policy makers must focus on what elements of society can be most influential in making a difference if progress is to be made. For example, religious leaders need to put forward the notion that God did not intend for men use force against their wives or treat them as inferiors.
She said there’s also a need for education – especially in early adolescents – that instills notions of fairness and ideas that women are best treated with respect and as equals. But it’s also incumbent upon governments to punish behaviors out of step with those ideas.
Outlawing bride prices, raising the age of marriage for girls and allowing women to divorce are important factors toward progress, Hudson said.
The research Hudson conducted with her co-principal investigators, Bowen and Lynne Nielsen, culminated in their book “The First Political Order: How Sex Shapes Governance and National Security Worldwide,” published this month.
Hudson said there’s certain indicators of political instability, like rising bride prices, that the Department of Defense wouldn’t have known about without this research. To date, the field of national security studies has been lacking in women, she said, both in the number of scholars and in terms of the definition of security as being something that has to do with women.
“I think the publication of our book signals that we can’t continue to study national security the way that we have done in the past,” Hudson said. “It really is time that we brought in the other half of the population.”