Is it just me, my imaginary friend, or do others weary of the rhetoric surrounding International Women’s Day? “Make it happen” is one slogan I encountered, along with “Empowering Women – Empowering humanity”. I am quite sure that millions of words have been written in support of the idea that women’s equality is oh so close…More women in business. In government. In the highest positions of power. Opportunity for education and training. Equal pay. Freedom from fear of violence. More attention to women in sport. Yes, yes, we need merely fix these things (ahem, there are a few more items) – and half the world’s population will be equal to the other half.
If I sound a little cynical, friend, I remember International Women’s Year; yes, an entire year devoted to raising awareness of such gross inequalities as the lower rate of pay for women, stunning domestic abuse and sexual violence statistics, the lack of equal opportunity in an array of professions. That year was 1975, and these basic inequalities are still with us …even in the most progressive countries. And in many ‘developing’ nations, the lives of women are nasty and brutish. Four decades on, and oh so little progress is an anguish for half the world.
Of all the images of the day, this one stands out for me – this picture of Kubra Khademi armouring herself against unwanted touching, in a truly magnificent piece of performance art. Magnificent or not, I’ve read that Kubra Khademi has now gone into hiding, for fear of her life.
The banality of slogans in the face of such reaction is outrageous, frankly.
Kubra’s performance of wearing body armour is uniquely personal to her and her story. But it is also much larger than that, for it is the metaphor that half the world’s population understands in the most intimate way, for women carry out the act of armouring every day. It may be as physical as wearing a burqa, or as routine as applying make up to conform to some cultural notion of beauty. Perhaps slipping a gun or a can of mace into a purse for ‘protection’. Maybe it is the girl desperately trying not to provoke the rage of a father and his bruising blows. The women walking quickly and purposefully down dark streets – because you must have a good reason for being out after dark, or appear to have one. It is, of course, of all these things, and far too many more to recite, but mostly, it is the daily armouring against simply being ‘woman’ and not ‘man’.
There are obvious differences between men and women, and then there is the accumulated cultural conditioning, the stereotypes that resist being laid to rest, the persistent notion of otherness. (Men are from Mars, women are from Venus. Apologies to John Gray.) “Other’ is a forceful cultural construct, and it seems women are other. Well anyway, dear men, we’d like nothing better than to take off that armour, to immerse ourselves in that delicious sense of freedom that comes from knowing yourself, being yourself, and having that self valued for its uniqueness. And I say, dear men – I really do love you – because let us be clear, you are the gender that holds almost all of the positions of power, whether in government, or business, or many other spheres. Kindly stop blathering slogans at us and make it happen, would you?
I think Gloria Steinem’s words say it best:
“The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organization but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.”
Mark that very important phrase, “human rights”, for it is the crux of the matter. We are all human, first and last, and we must find the humanity that insists that half the world’s population must not be compelled to armour themselves. Happy International Women’s Day.