Monday, 13 April 2009

Women in Public Life: Cases from Quebec and Kandahar

What happens when a newspaper in North America wants to criticize a female politician? It publishes an unattractive photo of her. La Presse (photo on right) and Le Devoir in Montreal seem almost to have gone out of their way to print photos of Quebec’s Finance Minister Monique Jérôme-Forget, showing her with her wrinkles around the edges and her smooth cheeks which make one think she might have undergone a little nip-and-tuck. The woman is 68, and whatever you may think of her ideas, she has obviously been a strong player on the government scene for years.

And what happens when she withdraws from political life? Well, you show her in her best light. The portrait that Le Devoir (photo on left) had of her last week when she announced that she was stepping down is about as flattering as you could imagine for woman of her age.

Sounds frivolous, and commenting on the appearance of female politicians is, but there is a serious lesson to be drawn. While we still treat them differently from men (and when’s the last time you saw a jowly picture of a 60-something male politician?) women are finally a force to be reckoned with. We’ve come a long way, baby, even if looking older is still more of a no-no for women in public life than it is for men.

Compare that with the tragic death of Sitara Achikzai, the Afghan politician who was gunned down by Taliban outside her home in Kandahar a few days ago. Her offense seems to be merely the fact that she was on the Kandahar provincial council, after returning to Afghanistan from exile in Germany in order to help rebuild her country. It was a case of too much visibility for a woman who was too progressive for the forces of reaction. Add this to the sad memory of those school girls whose faces were sprayed with acid by Taliban last November, and you have a picture that shows the long way some societies have to go to accept the talents and contributions of women.

For an eloquent comparison of the importance of giving women freedom to move and earn, see Stephanie Nolen’s story in The Globe and Mail, in which she compares the health of children in Sub-Sahara Africa to those in parts of India. Despite great poverty the African children come out better because their mothers have the responsibility for feeding them, and can go to market and till the soil.


Jack Ruttan said...

I don't think the flattering/unflattering choice of pics for politicians applies to women only. Think of pics of Jean Chretien, or even George Bush, for that matter. A large part of politics is image.

Mary Soderstrom said...

A large part of politics is indeed image, but I think making women politicians look ugly (and the response that brings chez les dames) is more pronounced.

Or maybe more noticaeable. Can't say I've noticed many Botox and plastic-surgeried men's faces, but there sure are a lot of women in the public eye who have had more than a little nip and tuck.

Mary, who figures she's not getting older, she's getting better.