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Changing the World – IWD

8 Mar

It’s International Women’s Day today (and World Book Day yesterday, but you already hear quite a lot from me about books so I thought I’d spare you on this occasion). This year is also the 100th anniversary of Emily Davison throwing herself in front of the king’s horse at Epsom in order to make a point.

There was an article on the BBC yesterday about the graduate pay gap (see here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-21698522) and an article on HuffPo about the need for women’s education (see here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/gordon-brown/the-future-is-hers_b_2819909.html?utm_hp_ref=uk ). Add that to the ongoing debate occasioned by Lord Rennard and his creeping hands, the continued fallout from the Savile situation, the recently-remarked-upon fall of female MPs and the general interest amongst journalists in talking about feminism, women and equality – and the utterly ridiculous crap that some people come out with in response – and you might wonder just how much we’ve actually achieved in that time.

It seems to me (from my well educated, employed and thus really rather privileged position) that one of the big problems we face in the fight against inequality is that there is almost always something that seems more important. The website www.everydaysexism.com lists incidents submitted by women – mostly Western, not unprivileged, literate women – of harassment and abuse that range from the sad and pathetic attempts of drunken boys at parties to the truly depraved actions of rapists. It lists inappropriate marketing, assumptions by university professors, leery behaviour of colleagues and lewd suggestions on public transport. It covers the whole gamut. Awful as it all is, and devastating as some of them truly are, the problems could be said to pale in comparison to what women in the rest of the world face on a daily basis.

No education, no rights, no freedom. FGM, rape, sex-trafficking, forced marriages. We Westerners can barely complain in the face of all this, surely? Should our priorities lie at home, dealing with the evils we know and face every day, or should we be working to improve the situation of women on a global scale, and quit whining about the occasional cheeky feel? Maybe we should just be grateful we ‘only’ have to deal with salaries on average 2k lower than our male compatriots. After all, we got into university, right? Only one in seven hundred Nigerian girls could say that!

I don’t know how we begin to answer these questions. On the one hand, it is absurd that cards like this are being sold in the supposedly-advanced West:

http://www.vagendamag.blogspot.co.uk/#!http://vagendamag.blogspot.com/2012/12/worst-birthday-ever.html

On the other, it is absurd that this is something people have to spend so much time getting angry about when there is some serious shit going down in places like Somalia, the Yemen and even right here in the UK (see here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/jan/22/female-genital-mutilation-help-girls). What seems clear is that there is a long, long way to go, and that even if we can bring the less-developed world in line with what we in the more-developed world enjoy, we’re still not going to be all the way there.

I suppose the battle has to be fought on two fronts, because if we only fight it on one, then what are we really fighting for? Concentrate on our Western society and we abandon those least capable of helping themselves. Ignore our sisters at home and we risk the situation festering. If we can’t fix what’s not working here, how can we solve all the problems of others? Of course, men honking their car horns as they drive past innocuously dressed girls hasn’t prevented the UN resolution banning FGM, nor should such backwards attitudes in our own communities prevent a single North African girl from going to school for at least five years. But if we can’t put our own houses in order, how on earth are we going to clean up the mess in the others?

Part of the deal with the fourth wave of feminism, as it seems to have become, is that one does not judge other women for their choices; having the choice is the feminist bit. As this excellent article by Hadley Freeman points out: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/mar/05/milf-diet-put-you-off-lunch . This is an enormously popular subject for skewing and wilfully misunderstanding with many commentators (and commenters), usually (but not exclusively) male, who use this ‘thou shalt not judge’ rule (which it is scarily easy to break) to show that ALL women are catty, bitchy crazyladies who have no ‘solidarity’ and therefore cannot be trusted to do anything at all, ever. *takes deep breath*.

Witness the Hilary Mantel/Duchess of Cambridge row. You see what I mean? Yeah. Imagine if Will Self had said that piece about William. There would probably have been nothing more than a sage nodding-of-heads. Maybe someone would have remarked that it contained a fair bit of possibly undue criticism, alongside the very interesting analysis of the way we perceive royalty. Self wouldn’t have been jeopardising the notion that a man can be trusted to think and act sensibly. But one bitchy comment about one girl from another and the klaxons go off.

Unfortunately, laying ourselves open to criticism about our lack of solidarity as a gender in these sorts of ways can make it easier for others to criticise us about our lack of solidarity with those in worse situations than we are.

Why is this relevant? Well, partly it’s because feminism is relevant basically all of the time, but mostly it’s relevant because we need to bring to the attention of those who would seek to undermine us that chipping away at our rights to express ourselves as women of all shapes, sizes, colours and opinions also damages the already-crippled rights of others less fortunate. If you’ll just let us get on with being equal citizens of the free world, as we supposedly are, then maybe we can concentrate on helping other people who are still fighting to have those rights recognised.

Basically, what I’m saying is, maybe you guys need to just back off and stop jumping down our throats when we have a slip-up. We’re never going to achieve anything useful, otherwise. And maybe, just maybe, once we realise that we’re not going to be criticised for saying we want careers before kids, or that we want to be stay-at-home mums forever, or that we want to be the next big thing in the Cabinet or the West End or the MoD, we’ll actually get somewhere in Africa, in the Middle East, and in Southern America.

I am lucky to have had a great education at a series of excellent establishments. I am lucky to have a job, a roof over my head, a car. I am lucky because there’s never been a better time to be a woman. But – just because things have never been so good, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be better. Did women stop campaigning after achieving the vote in 1918? Of course they didn’t. And we shouldn’t stop fighting for our rights here just because there is further to go, somewhere else.

I suppose I could be criticised for apparently doing nothing more than justifying my right to feel angry or awkward or embarrassed when I encounter behaviour that belongs to a bygone era. Well, I do have that right. As do you. Exercise it! If we do it globally, we can change the world.

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