Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Hillary Clinton in Congo

On her visit to Congo a couple weeks ago, Hillary Clinton snapped. Ok, so she didn't really snap, though she perhaps got slightly bent out of shape. And for a woman as cool as Hillary, apparently this is big news. I snap on a daily basis in Congo, but of course, I am not the Secretary of State.

In case you didn't read about the incident, it involved a town hall event in Kinshasa where a university student asked a rather inappropriate question. Again, this is hardly a shock. People asked me what I considered to be inappropriate questions on a daily basis in Congo. The questions aimed at me usually revolved around the fact that I have been married 8 years and do not have children. You can take it from there. But in this case, the student asked Mrs. Clinton what Mr. Clinton thought about a trade deal with China. Hillary was rather put out that the student wanted to know about her husband's opinion, rather than her own. I suppose that if I were Secretary of State I would have reacted similarly.

Afterwards, the student approached Clinton (Hillary, that is) and explained that he had meant to ask President Obama's opinion, not Bill Clinton's. Perhaps. Or perhaps that is simply the easiest thing to say when you offend the US Secretary of State.

For a while the incident was also reported as a translation error. But that does not appear to have been the case.

So what do I have to say about this incident? I feel that I should weigh in somehow. Surely the world is waiting for my voice...

I get it. I totally understand why Hillary Clinton would be quick to feel that she was being overshadowed by her husband. I would feel the same way.

But I also find it totally believable that this student did not make a mistake. That he intended to ask her husband's opinion. And I think very few Congolese, men or women, would find this question offensive. Why shouldn't a wife be asked about her husband's opinion?

Hillary answered the question saying...
Wait, you want me to tell you what my husband thinks? My husband is not the secretary of state, I am. So you ask my opinion, I will tell you my opinion.
Diplomatic or not, I like her answer.

Perhaps that student really did make a mistake. But, in a country where physically handicapped women are not considered "marriage material", where wives are routinely deserted if they don't bear children, and where sexual violence has risen to horrific levels perhaps an indignant response was not the worst thing in the world. Hillary came to Goma to address (or at least learn about ) the problem of sexual violence in Eastern Congo. She made the usual remarks and speeches, and showed the appropriate level of concern. But pretty speeches can only carry us so far. The solution to the plight of women in Congo must come from many directions. Yes, laws must be written and enforced, and a culture of impunity must be changed; but women themselves must also demand better.

The media spun this minor incident into a hot debate on whether Hillary feels threatened by Bill's reputation. But I would argue that we are looking in the wrong direction. This "minor incident" may be the most valuable thing Hillary did on her trip to Congo. Speeches and conferences about respecting women's rights are all well and good, but that one minute exchange where Hillary Clinton arches her eyebrows and demands better from that young man, may be worth a thousand words.

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