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Saturday, 10 March 2012

Misconceptions Debunked: On International Women’s Day, and Why Feminism Is as Relevant as It Has Always Been

by Anoosh Gasparian

The world has come a long way since the decision to have a Women’s Day was made by the Socialist International Congress in 1910. Not only do we have equal legal standing but women are breaking glass ceilings and boxes every day and changing social perceptions of women’s capabilities in the arts, sciences, politics and many other fields.  By liberal feminist standards the majority of western societies and an increasing number of ‘southern’ or ‘eastern’ ones have achieved gender equality, which is why this particular misconception is completely understandable:  

“Feminism is irrelevant/ redundant in Western societies”[i]

Hm. Granted, we’ve come a long way in the last 100 years, but don’t you think we’ve still got a long way to go?

Domestic violence, rape and other forms of sexual assault still disproportionately affect women, and the culture of blaming women for this exacerbates the problem (“was she dressed provocatively? Was she drunk?”), not to mention the amount of “banter” about rape that is exchanged casually in conversation (“she was asking for it/ she enjoyed it really/ yes means yes, no means yes”) which normalises the culture of violence against women.  In Britain today, 1 in every 4 women will be a victim of domestic violence within her lifetime, and two women a week die at the hands of their abusers.

Homophobia, much of which is a result of entrenched views on gender norms and roles (men as strong breadwinners and patriarchs, women as meek housewives and mothers) is still prevalent in western societies, with “gay” and “faggot” still common playground insults. Gender norms still dictate social expectations of men’s and women’s behaviour and anyone who steps outside this social code, let alone doesn’t fit neatly into the binary, is likely to be ridiculed or even ostracised.

In most of Europe a woman’s right to birth control is rarely questioned but in the USA laws are written almost every day that seek to limit this and impose state control over women’s bodies and choices in the name of ‘morality’, or worse, religion. Even in Britain figures like Nadine Dorries surface every now and again to remind us that a woman’s right to choose could still easily be threatened.

In the European Union women are paid 17% less than their male counterparts on average, even in the same professions and job positions. Women still face discrimination in the workplace, have a much higher risk of losing their jobs should they choose to have a child and men are still denied adequate parental leave in many states. Women are still a deplorable minority in politics in Britain and many other western states, and barely any women are to be seen in high positions in the financial sector. Though women around the world do almost two thirds of the labour, they earn around 10% of the money and own almost none of the property.

The norms we instil in our children through the way we behave towards them, what we tell them is the behaviour we expect of them, and the toys we give them are very much a part of this culture which trivialises women’s achievements and men’s emotional capacities, which encourages women to accept their lot and men to express themselves violently. When we give a girl a Barbie or a kitchenette, and we give a boy a toy gun or a Meccano set, we are telling them that we expect certain behavioural traits and values from them: materialism, violence, nurturing, constructiveness. We codify these in pink or blue, call it gender, and teach our children to build their identities around them.

Though men and women face injustices every day, we have one day a year during which we can all reflect on these things and ask ourselves some crucial questions. What does equality mean? Are we equal? Why are we not equal? What is stopping us from being equal? How do we, as individuals and as members of society, take part in perpetuating these inequalities? I know it’s called Women’s Day, but ultimately it’s about equality for all.

Until we can safely say we are all equal regardless of sex, gender or sexuality, until all people have equal access to educational and economic opportunities, until we stop teaching our children that their gender dictates their behaviour, until we have eradicated gender-based violence and gender pay gaps, until we start judging female politicians on their competence and not on their dress sense, we need Women’s Day. Until we are all equals feminism is relevant, and we need an International Women’s Day to remind all of us that the fight is far from over.

I’ll end this with what I think is a great TED talk which illustrates how gender-based stereotypes are just as damaging for men as they are for women, how the culture of violence is normalised and instilled in young boys, but above all that is it socially constructed and just as it was created it can be undone:

[i] for the moment, we’ll leave aside the massive generalisations about western and non-western societies implicit here and save that discussion for another post

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