On the 101st International Women's Day – like many women, I’m faced with a mixed bag of emotions. I want to celebrate our achievements, our gains, our pioneers – but I’ve also just returned from a trip to Bangladesh which was a timely reminder of why we ought to be marking, rather than celebrating, international women’s day.
In Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, on a busy road in a downtrodden suburb, I met Moshina, aged nine, living on the streets. Her mother, who’d been forced into prostitution due to poverty, could no longer care for her and so little Moshina sleeps where she can, on a pavement, on some palm leaves, exposed to the elements and to the worst of human depravity. Just a week ago, a man snatched her from the street she calls home, dragged her to a derelict building and attempted to rape her. She escaped only because her screams drew the attention of some locals. A volunteer from the street school where she comes to gain a semblance of education, and some human warmth, tells me girls disappear all the time – many never to be seen again.
Bangladesh has a lot of problems, child poverty being just one. But the advances of women in the West are concomitant to the advancement of women worldwide – our gains can’t be at their expense – our indulgence in cheap clothes to keep up with the never ending fads, has a price – women in the West may think "fashion is freedom," but to those making our jumpsuits in Bangladesh and elsewhere, our freedom is their slavery. Earlier this year, around 150 Chinese workers at an Apple manufacturer Foxconn factory threatened to commit suicide by leaping from their factory roof in protest at their working conditions. When the real cost of our freedom to consume is other people’s welfare and dignity, that’s not progress, that’s exploitation.
Of course I want to celebrate the three women recipients of the Nobel peace prize this year – three women from developing nations struggling for, in the words of Norwegian Nobel Committee president Thorbjoern Jagland “human rights in general and the struggle of women for equality and peace in particular."
As a Muslim woman, I was particularly pleased to see Yemeni "Arab Spring" activist Tawakkol Karman, who draws inspiration from her faith in her activism, being recognised for her "non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work." I see significant and positive advances in the collaboration between feminists globally and a greater recognition of the different manifestations of the ideal of female emancipation in diverse contexts.
The Arab spring has seen Arab women come to the fore in the struggle for their social and political rights. Who doesn’t recall the bravery of Iman al-Obeidi, the young women repeatedly raped by Gaddafi’s forces and who dared to speak out. Or the now infamous "blue bra woman" in Egypt, being dragged and beaten by the Egyptian security forces. These women have become symbols of the revolution and one can only hope that the savagery they experienced will be engraved as a testimony to their full and equal participation in the national liberation struggles.
But it is worth caveating my optimism with concerns over the nature of the post-revolutionary regimes and the place they will afford the women who fought so valiantly for them. Stories are already emerging of the horrific and profoundly unislamic practise of honour killings of women and girls raped by the Gadhafi regime in Libya. In Egypt, sexual harassment is one of the issues being raised in a march on parliament today, alongside fair representation and the issues of women's equality in the writing of the new constitution. Despite their activism, women won just 2 percent of Parliament's elected seats, down from 12 percent. That said, the number of women actively involved in politics is growing and it’s a tide which can’t be stopped.
In some countries where the authorities have succeeded in stifling protests, like Saudi Arabia, women are still struggling for basic autonomy, despite the brave efforts of activists flouting the regime’s bizarre and infantilising laws. In other countries, like Afghanistan, a woman is at least 200 times more likely to die during childbirth than from bombs or bullets. In India and China, female infanticide and sex-selective abortion remains all too common. (In one city in China, the ratio of males to females has gone from the natural average of 105-106 to 163 boys per 100 girls under the age of 5.) Sexual slavery is now prevalent in many countries. In Europe alone, officials estimate that more than 200,000 women and girls are smuggled out of Central and Eastern Europe each year, the bulk of whom end up working as enslaved prostitutes.
In the UK, women are hardest hit by austerity measures which often impact on their freedom to make choices about themselves and their family, against a backdrop of unequal pay whereby women are still paid 16.4 per cent less for full time work and 35 per cent less for part time work than men. In the words of Polly Toynbee writing in the Guardian yesterday, “women earn less, own less, have less secure jobs, with three times more men than women earning in the top 10%.”
The loss of legal aid will affect women suffering from domestic violence and make divorce harder for women, setting us back decades. On the issue of female political representation, 2011 data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union on female parliamentary representation indicated that Britain ranks 49, above Uzbekistan at 50 and below Eritrea and according to the Fawcettt society, at the current rate of progress it will take 200 years – another 40 elections – to achieve an equal number of women in parliament.
Much has been written about the appointment of Christine Laguarde to the head of the IMF ( independently of the merits of the IMF itself!) – the woman who famously said things might have been different had it been Lehman sisters – which is arguably a significant, if a somewhat symbolic appointment. It certainly makes a change from the all male line up usually seen at Davos. The 17% female turnout this year was the highest so far and may well reflect the quotas imposed on big companies to encourage female presence. Those cynical about quotas might note that various studies suggest greater involvement by women could help the global economy. The World Food Programme found that girls and women reinvest 90% of each dollar in their families by buying food, books and medicine, while the figure for men was more like 30% to 40%.
Women are still poorly represented in boardrooms and on our screens and when they do appear there, they must be youthful and beautiful over and above their skills, experience and expertise. There is still too much tokenism, too few older women on our screens and too much importance attributed to women based on their physical attributes rather than their professional ones. That said, this year has seen many articles discussing these very issues, raising the awareness of them in public consciousness – BBC Question Time even alluded to a critique made of the show’s largely white, male panellists, suggesting the media is listening and to some extent responding. Whether an all female panel discussing breast augmentation surgery or the merits of clown porn was what feminists had in mind, is perhaps another question – but slowly, slowly, things are moving.
Many of us will experience some form of sex related discrimination or violence in our lives. It ranges from the cultural acceptability of misogynistic jokes, such as the writer Helen Lewis-Hasteley being told in response to an article she’d written “nice article love, now make me a sandwich,” through to struggles women face over maternity leave, either in the pressure to return to work faster than we might wish, through to being overlooked for promotion due to pregnancy or the need for flexible working hours – through to actual physical violence, so that 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence over their lifetimes.
The normalization of violence against women, through popular culture – film, music, etc – should concern us – when many teens blame Rihanna, not Chris Brown, for the attack which left the singer battered, we have a problem. When rape is trivialised through jokes, such as Russell Brand joking at the MTV awards about raping Meghan Fox, or when Unilad prints t-shirts which read “85 of rape cases go unresolved” going on to say “we like those odds,” we should be deeply concerned.
When billions of dollars are spent on cosmetic surgery—up to 90% of it by women—when millions of women around the world lack basic health care – when over half of young women say they would prefer to be hit by a truck than be fat whilst in developing nations almost thirty percent of all children are estimated to be underweight or stunted – I’m uneasy in speaking of a celebration.
I’ll sum up by saying that although the struggles ahead remain, it seems to me the issue of gender has found its place in our national dialogue – it is increasingly taken seriously as a factor in improving company performance, in the knowledge that women bring their own reservoir of potential to the table, is taken into account by broadcasters who, despite resisting change, are aware of feminist critiques, and feminist arguments are gaining visibility in the mainstream. Caitlin Moran, Germaine Greer, and Naomi Wolf are regular fixtures on our screens and in our publications. Arguably not in all – comedy and political shows tend to be more resistant, but the progress in the visibility of strong female figures is undeniable. There are also a growing number of men happy to define themselves as feminist and undoubtedly, that is a sign of progress!
The struggle as I see it now is to not allow ourselves to be satisfied with tokenism, to be open to the diversity of shapes feminist struggles take and to support women’s struggle for self-determination globally without losing sight of the broader struggles for peace, and for political and economic justice from which this struggle cannot be disentangled. In the Middle East and North Africa, these struggles must be understood within the context of authoritarianism and often of war, in which this issue is mired. Finally, we mustn’t allow our progress as women in the west to come at the expense of others worldwide. International women’s day is about all women – and many have sadly, very little to celebrate.