First published in Canadian
Woman studies/les cahiers de la femme, Volume 22, Number 2, A York University
Publication, Fall 2002/Winter 2003. Download a PDF
As the U.S. bombs are falling on Afghanistan in reprisal against the terrorist attacks we need to
understand what is happening to us and what is being done about it in our name. These acute
problems of terrorism and reprisal come from a tangled web of distorted interactions that are
usually hidden from the public eye or subjected to the misinterpretations of business or government
propaganda. We need to bring this web to light if we want to understand the causes of the attack
upon us and the probable results of our reprisals. What could cause a desperation great enough to
seem to justify the terrorist attacks against the twin towers? Why did such an attack seem to the
terrorists to be a solution?
The web of the world in which we live is made of multiple interconnections. Everything, people say,
is connected to everything else. We can turn the present negative situation to positive if we can
begin to understand the hidden connections. We need to know "how is what is happening connected to
me?" As a beneficiary of the free market society, what have U.S. and corporate policies done
towards other countries that has benefited me and hurt them? How is what is happening now connected
with the global market and in turn with such issues as intellectual property rights, life form
patenting, bio piracy and genetic engineering?
It seems to us that in the U.S. that as a country we have such a high level of life because we
deserve it. Perhaps, though, this is just a surface perception that hides something we would rather
not see. Beneath the surface there is a transfer of wealth going on from the poor countries to the
rich countries, in accord with the transfers of wealth that have always taken place from the poor
to the rich. In order to understand this statement and not just reject it out of hand we need a
perspective which does not arouse the same defenses that have kept us blind until now. The
following is an attempt to provide that perspective.
The problems we are now facing are due to a psychosis that infects not only our enemies but also
ourselves. It is a disease by which some human beings are driven toward dominance as a part of
their socialization and away from the care giving nurturing basis of our/ their humanity. We
socialize people in this way and base many of our institutions on these patterns.
This disease is not a necessary evil but is due to the misconception about human nature and gender.
That name of this disease is "patriarchy." The dominance of the Taliban upon women is analogous to
the dominance of Northern countries and corporations upon people and nations of the South. Though
the faces of the Afghan women are covered, and we cannot see them, all of Afghanistan has been
covered to us until now by our own veil, by our government's secrecy, by lack of media coverage, by
distance, or simply because it was beneath our interest given that our attention has been occupied
with ads for the next consumer item. Whatever the reason, Afghanistan has been veiled to us until
now. The continued bombing attacks of the U.S. against Iraq have also been behind the veil. Much of
the damage done by the globalization of the economy has also been hidden, though activists have
tried to educate people of the North.
There is a veil caused by belief in the reality and justice of our system which we wear, a veil
which does not allow us to see the horrible effects of our political and economic policies. As we
hope that the women of Afghanistan may be freed from their veils, we must also be willing to be
freed from our own. There are none so blind as those who will not see and we have learned to will
not to see. It is patriarchy that imposes the veils in both cases so that the power of domination
over an individual woman or over the minds of a nation will not be threatened.
In order to understand this analogy let us look at patriarchy as a social pattern not coming from
biology but from a social interpretation of biological differences. When the boy child is born he
spends his early days in close contact with his nurturing mother. However, at a certain point, he
recognizes that his gender assignment places him in another category that actually has no
pre-established characteristics except that it is opposite to hers, and therefore appears to be the
opposite of nurturing. The traditional mother then takes care of her male children preferentially,
treating them as superior because they are different from her and non-nurturing. The message that
is sent to males in this way creates a pattern of drive towards non-nurturing dominance which is
later extended to institutions and whole societies. These patterns remain in the big picture even
when they are practiced by women or when individual men try to put themselves back in contact with
their original nurturing identities.
Pre-market and indigenous economies relied on giftgiving, the direct satisfaction of needs, which
is an extension of the mothering way. Gift-giving creates community and communication while we
exchange, which is giving-in-order-to-receive an equivalent, is ego-oriented, using the
satisfaction of others' needs only as a means to satisfy one's own needs.
Exchange has the advantage for the patriarchal identity that it is not nurturing, not like the
mother. Indeed the values of capitalism are those of the drive towards accumulation and domination
that are similar to the values of the patriarchal non-nurturing gender model. The market economy is
based on exchange, but there are many (veiled) gifts that are given to it. Women's free labour in
the home is a gift to the market that would add some 40 percent to the GNP in the U.S., more in
some other countries if it were calculated in money. Profit itself is a gift given by the worker to
the capitalist, a gift of all the added value her/his work produces beyond the value of the salary.
Nature and cultures of the past also provide many gifts to people in the present whose needs have
been until now freely satisfied by their use. Air and water, public spaces, the stories of their
grandmothers, kind words, love and knowledge of all kinds has been passed down through the
generations to nurture the people of the past and future.
Now, however, the patterns of patriarchal dominance have created a situation in which the many are
made to give their gifts to the few. Differences in levels of life caused by the artificial
creation of scarcity make giftgiving difficult and impose the power of the few over the many,
whether this is within countries or between countries or between hemispheres. Like terrorist cells,
the global market is multi-centric and difficult to pin down. It creates a situation in which poor
people are made to nurture it to their detriment and to the depletion of the human and natural
resources of their countries-behind the veil of beneficence created by the minimal betterment of
the lives of a few workers within a context that has been drastically depleted due to previous
With the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the patriarchy of the Middle East has
challenged the patriarchy of the U.S. and its allies. The U.S. has retaliated in kind. Both
patriarchies seek dominance and consider themselves defenders of humanity. All of this is madness.
The majority of people are not patriarchal. At least one half of humanity, the female half, does
not deeply share the values of dominance because we are still brought up as gift givers. Moreover,
many men have been able to disentangle themselves from the false agenda of their non-nurturing
identity. Even though women are adaptable and can carry out any agenda, we are usually able to
maintain the gift-based perspective and the values that go with it at the same time that we are
doing market exchange.
The challenge is to put the gift values ahead of the exchange values. Many things people do in our
lives are made in the image of exchange. Dialogue is seen as an exchange, justice is seen as an
equation of crime and punishment and the payment of crime through punishment. Retaliation against a
wrong done is seen as a "just" exchange, appropriate to the market economy and validated by the
market paradigm. Thus it is not strange that the strike-and-retaliation exchange mode is the way
our U.S. patriarchy's dealing with the terrorist crisis. If we do not find another way based on the
acknowledgement of needs and their direct satisfaction through free giving, which includes an
ending of the exploitation and of military atrocities unseen behind the veil of misinformation and
ignorance, and we will not be able to solve these problems.
The global market itself is famished for ever-new commodities that provide a large profit (gift)
margin because they are new. The extension of commodification to species, which turns them into the
property of Northern companies and is backed by the laws of the North, allows the domination of the
exchange mode of the North upon gift modes of the South. Species of plants, traditional knowledge
which grew up from cultures' farming husbandry over the centuries, and even the free genetic
inheritance of humans, animals, and plants, passed down from millions of generations, are being
turned in the property of the few, made into market commodities, no longer available for the free
nurturing of human life.
It is this patriarchal capitalist market we must see at last for what it is, liberating ourselves
as citizens of the North from the veils that have covered our eyes. The values of the gift economy,
the caring ways of women, are what can save us from the threat of new holocausts and genocides
committed against us or by us, by our governments and businesses in our names. We in the U. S. are
a giving people as demonstrated by the outpouring of help and compassion that was tendered toward
the victims of the World Trade Center attacks.
Now we need to turn our gaze outside our country, liberate our compassion and its values by turning
towards the people who are on the other side of our veils. Let women and men dismantle patriarchy
now! Let a woman-led gift economy and culture begin!
Genevieve Vaughan was born in Texas in 1939. She
lived in Italy from 1963 to 1983 where she developed a theory of gift giving
as the fundamental human theme, 6ased on women, as opposed to economies based
on exchange and the market. She returned to Texas in 1983 and started an
all-woman activist foundation, the Foundation for a Compassionate Society,
which had a life of 11 y ears, closing in 1998 though some of the projects
still exist: Stonehaven Ranch, a woman run retreat center near San Marcos,
Texas, FIRE: Feminist International Radio Endeavor (www.fire. co. cr), and
a temple to the goddess Sekhmet near the nuclear test site in Nevada. Her book, "For-Giving: A
Feminist Criticism of Exchange," can be read online at www.for-giving.com, and
hard copies can also ordered there.