When I was a young girl in Somalia, I would listen to the grown-ups around me ask my brother: “What would you like to be when you grow up?” No one ever asked me this.
But I always interrupted. I shouted over him to say things like “When I grow up, I will be a doctor”, or “Maybe I’ll go into engineering”, or “I will be President!”. I fantasised about becoming an army general so I could set my father free from prison, where he was being held as a political prisoner. Every time I saw a plane fly overhead (which was not as frequent back in those days), I would declare that I would grow up to be a pilot. I thought I had limitless options. I was a dreamer.
The response from most adults, both men and women, was always the same: “If God wanted you to be anything other than a wife and mother, he would have created you a man.” My kinder relatives would at least attempt to base their prejudice against women on something more than “God’s will”. They would say that women were not designed to do certain jobs, that it went against the natural order. My uncles and cousins would explain that every woman they knew who attempted to take a man’s job had failed. They insisted that it was actually a blessing to be a female and I should be happy since they had to work, while I got to enjoy the fruits of their labour and protection.
For many women around the world, a similar, deeply ingrained misogyny remains a part of everyday life. Yet there are also countless examples of women who prove this persistent myth to be wrong. Today, especially in the West, there are women who do — and excel at — all the things I dreamed of as a child and much more.
Nevertheless, there is now a ridiculous campaign in America (which is fast spreading to other countries), that seeks to fast-track the closing of the inequality gap and eliminate all prejudice against women in one fell swoop. The result is a caricaturing of a very complex situation: it is one thing to develop animation characters for Disney that feature girls and women as superheroes or to swap a woman for James Bond, but it is quite another to place women in high-profile positions when they are clearly unqualified for the job. As we are starting to discover, doing so only affirms prejudices.
Enter Kamala Harris. When Joe Biden was searching for a running mate, it seems he had just two requirements: black and female. The Democratic Party agreed, pressuring Biden to select a “diverse” candidate for vice president; at one point, he boasted of having to choose between four black women. Biden plucked out Harris from his narrow search field and what did he get? A vice president who is unhelpful in advancing his agenda and unable to connect with the American people.
This week marked the second time Biden slipped up and referred to his deputy as “President Harris”. But don’t be fooled. His mistake says more about his own level of competence than Harris’s. As we approach the one-year mark of Biden’s presidency, it is obvious that Harris was set up for failure from the start. She had neither the experience nor the demeanour to be a successful vice president. Biden’s approval ratings may have slumped, but they have nothing on his Veep’s.
Her failure is so embarrassing that even traditional allies are starting to flee. CNN, which traditionally fawns over black female Democrats, published a blistering hit on her late last year, painting her office as dysfunctional. A former employee described her management style as having destructive patterns. Since her disastrous trip to the southern border last June, at least seven of her close aides have resigned.
While I have never been a fan of Kamala Harris, it does sadden me to see her fail so miserably. I had hoped the first female vice president would prove a success. After all, her failures affect more than just the White House and the Democratic Party; they affect women everywhere. On one level, Harris’s failures affirm the beliefs of misogynists who incorrectly believe that women are not capable of holding such weighty positions. It provides fodder to those men like my uncles and cousins, validating their prejudices against women.
More depressing, however, is the impact it could have on women: it’s not too difficult to see how Harris becoming the target of ridicule could dissuade young girls from taking such positions in the future. For them to see a woman finally make it to the position of Vice President and then fail so ignominiously is a massive discouragement to every girl dreaming of a big future.
But this is also the problem with quotas more broadly. Equality and empowerment can’t be achieved through bureaucratic box-ticking. It has to be fought for and earned. Harris, however, is a clear example of someone who has acquired her position due to her immutable characteristics, rather than her own abilities and achievements. The consequence of this isn’t hard to discern: any successful woman will wonder if she, too, were hired to fulfil a quota requirement, asking if she earned her position or were handed it.
What today’s activists fail to understand is that the key for any woman to succeed remains the same as it has always been: to prove that she is capable. Simply ticking the boxes of “female” or “minority” and expecting a good outcome might make you feel good about yourself in the short term. But in the real world, it is never enough. In the case of Harris, it is a recipe for incompetence.
I wasn’t wrong to dream of something better when I was a little girl, despite my family’s disbelief. Girls today deserve to do the same, with strong and successful female leaders setting an example. How sad, then, that arguably the most powerful female politician in the world embodies neither of these qualities. All America is left with is a failed black woman. And there’s nothing progressive about that.