Tuesday, March 08, 2011

100 Years of International Women's Day – What's the Big Deal?

For 100 years women have been celebrating International Women's Day, a day that started before women had the right to vote in most countries, or the right of personhood.

A line from the song “Bread & Roses”, with words by James Oppenheim, which was sung at the now famous 1912 strike against the American Woolen Company in Lawrence Massachusetts sums up the struggle of the entire “woman's movement” and all that it stands for: “The rising of the women means the rising of the race”. The line speaks an ultimate truth about humanity that is impossible to deny: when a portion of society has their rights oppressed all of society suffers, making it impossible for it to blossom into its full potential. We cannot claim to be free unless each and every one of us enjoys the same freedoms enjoyed by all, which is why the pursuit of women's rights seems so inexorably tied to the battle for all civil rights.

The rights of women are fundamental and must be guaranteed for a very simple reason: if we live in a society that is unwilling to recognize the absolute unquestionable equality of women how can we expect that same society to extend those rights and freedoms to the rest of society, to those members who have been traditionally excluded as a result of their sexuality, or even because of what they believe? A simple example of how this is glaringly true can be found in present day Uganda, where their parliament is considering a “kill the gays bill” which would make homosexuality an act punishable by death. They contend that gays are gay by choice – that someone who is living a “gay lifestyle” can simply choose to live a “straight lifestyle”. Of course, that assertion has been debunked on numerous occasions, one of which can be found in a compelling interview that Rachel Maddow conducted on her show last year. The debate over the bill has been getting coverage around the world, which has helped reveal some of the thinly repressed feelings that some people harbour about homosexuality in their community.

If homosexuality is treated as something that will send people to their deaths in Uganda, how are women treated? Is this a nation that values their mothers, their sisters, their daughters, and their grandmothers, or is it a paternalistic society that wants to have absolute control over every aspect of production, including procreation? Well, the facts speak for themselves: while there are women in positions of authority, and working in professions, just as in the West, in Uganda the “tradition” is for women to be subordinate to men. A tradition of subordination prevents the existence of equality for the simple reason that it is diametrically opposed to it by its very nature.

In the 1990's many Ugandans recognized and followed several female religious leaders who led revolts, overthrowing the paternalistic political system, and in some areas women were able to own land and fully participate in the political process, but on the whole, there was still a well defined role that women in Uganda were expected to live by, including being subordinate to their husbands. If you consider the state of women's rights in a nation like Uganda it is not difficult to imagine how or why their lawmakers could be so moved to craft legislation with the ultimate end being the execution of homosexuals. The legislation of hatred, the attempted codification of morality through the abuse of the legislative process, is merely a reflection of how that society feels about the issue of rights for anyone other than the dominant class in that society: that being the heterosexual (married) male in Uganda.

Oddly enough we seem to encounter a similar phenomenon here in North America, minus the “kill the gays bill”, yet replete with all of the institutionally entrenched denials of rights – all of the things that serve to, in one way or another, prevent the largest portion of the population from having the same opportunities as the rest of the population. It is repression, be it passive or active, it is a form of repression, and it must be ended: when women battle inequality they are fighting for all of us, be they, women, children, gays or men – or rights as individuals and our status as humans can only be fully realized when each and every one of us is treated with the equality and dignity that they deserve, regardless of their sex, age, colour. The use of contrived excuses to demarcate where one person has every right under the law while others are denied only serves to prove the desperate state that these individuals are in as they attempt to rationalize the oppression of any selected group.

The celebration of International Women's Day is an opportunity to remind the world that the struggle for equality has not yet been realized. In 1995 the International Labour Organization, an agency administered by the United Nations, estimated that women would make up at least half of the global workforce by the turn of the century. In 2008 the number of women in the workforce was estimated at 40.5%, but that does not include the number of women who work long, unpaid hours, in their homes. With around 1.2 billion women in the workforce women are responsible for upwards of 80% of the food production in Sub-Saharan Africa, as well as more than half of the world's total food production.

At the same time, the issue of pay equity continues to be a topic that serves to actively repress women: by forcing women to work for less than the men who work beside them, or at equivalent jobs, women are forced into poverty. Poverty causes women to do desperate things in order to survive, including remaining in abusive relationships in order to maintain their means of support. Poverty also leads women into degrading situations where they are forced to sell the one commodity that they should have complete power over: their own bodies, though this is another thing that is often taken from them through the acts of violent men, seeking to subjugate women both sexually and emotionally. When someone is unable to control what happens to their own body how can they claim to be free?

On this International Women's Day let us not forget that there are still places in the world where the sexual mutilation of young girls is accepted as a routine part of daily life. Female genital mutilation, or FGM as it is referred to by the World Health Organization, is practised in many western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa, as well as in some countries in Asia and the Middle East. Female genital mutilation is also practised among various immigrant communities in North America and Europe, making it something that potentially threatens a young girl that you or one of your children know. Between 100 and 140 million girls and women are estimated to have endured these barbaric procedures that have absolutely no health benefits: their only purpose is to prevent a woman from feeling pleasure during the sexual act in the warped belief that this will keep a young woman from seeking out a sexual partner before she is married. The fact that the spread of HIV/Aids amongst heterosexual couples in Africa demonstrates that it is spreading as a result of the promiscuity of married men. The “purity” of the young girls isn't the problem, the fact that there are so many men who seem incapable of thinking about anything beyond their gonads – that's a problem.

Another form of mutilation that women are enduring is called “breast ironing”, and is meant do serve a similar purpose as FGM, though not quite in the same manner. Rather than having the women mutilated to the point where she is unable to feel pleasure from having sex, breast ironing destroys the breast tissue as it is developing, scaring and disfiguring the child. The desired outcome being that the girl will not want to pursue men and, as a result, stay “pure” until marriage. The practise of this form of mutilation is mostly carried out in the nation of Cameroon, but is practised in other nations as well.

It is time for society to come to grips with the fact that women are far more than the traditional roles they have been groomed for since birth. The idea that a young girl must have a portion of her anatomy mutilated because of how a man might react to her shifts the responsibility of our actions away from the perpetrator of the aggressive act onto the individuals being victimized. As long as we continue to view women as the “weaker” or “fairer” sex we continue to subjugate them in our minds, weakening them before even engaging them in a dialogue. How can we advance as a society if our very mode of thought prevents us from viewing women as equals to men? Is that equality possible when our language serves to weaken them, implying that they need the strong hand of a man to aid them in their times of trouble?

After the mutilation of women's bodies in order to control their sexual lives and sexuality comes the recent attempts in the United States by the GOP at completely controlling every aspect of women's reproductive rights, down to their ability to control whether or not they will be able to receive counselling for family planning through one of the most trusted organizations in existence. Planned Parenthood has come under the same type of attack in the Congress of the United States that resulted in the defunding of ACORN, an organization that was wrongfully accused of wrongdoing through a “sting operation” that turned out to be less of a “sting” and more of an “operation”, being sponsored by a neo-conservative entity on the Blogesphere who likens himself to a journalist (no link is provided to the ACORN videos for the simple reason that I refuse to direct attention to that individual; it is easy enough to find if you are interested).

The GOP attacks on women and their essential rights, unlike the attacks on ACORN, seem to be driven by their desperate attempt at discrediting anything and everything that President Obama stands for and what his administration represents. The 112th Congress of the United States consists of a total of 541 elected officials from 50 states, five territories and the District of Columbia, divided into the 100 member Senate and the 435 member House of Representatives, which has 6 non-voting delegates. Of these 541 elected officials only 88 are women. With this disparity of representation it is hardly a surprise that the agenda of the GOP has been allowed to become one aimed at overtly oppressing the rights of women, by denying them access to health care and services that are uniquely designed for their particular health issues.

Contrary to the myths being perpetuated by the noise machine of the right wing, Planned Parenthood does much more than merely providing for women's preventative health care than anything else, providing a wide variety of services, including mammograms and screenings for cervical cancer as well as numerous other services making it one of the most trusted health care providers in America. At least one in five women has used Planned Parenthood once in their lives as a means of maintaining their health, and the majority of the work done by Planned Parenthood is aimed at preventative health care, working towards the prevention of unwanted pregnancies. If the GOP, which claims to be “pro-life” is really as anti-abortion as they say they are, what they should be doing is increasing the funding to an organization like Planned Parenthood for the simple reason that they actually prevent the overall number of abortions by providing women with choices before they become pregnant.

The myth is that Planned Parenthood uses abortion as a form of birth control. This is an ugly, obscene fallacy that is being used by those on the right to hack away at the funding of women's health. This is nothing but a thinly veiled attempt at placing another element of control over the reproductive cycle, from conception through to the end. It goes hand in hand with the attempts, by some legislators, to redefine the access that women have to abortions in certain instances so that victims of incest or date-rape would not be forced to carry any children resulting from these brutal acts to term.

No woman should be forced to make that terrible choice, but it is their choice to make, guaranteed under the law. The Republicans have no right to act as the “moral guardians” when they were not given a mandate for this act. The 2010 election were about jobs, not reproductive rights; it's time to get the agenda back on course and stop trying to oppress women just because that's the traditional role of the GOP.

There can be no denial, not then, nor now: “The rising of the women means the rising of the race”. One hundred years after it began International Women's Day is as important a symbol for women across this planet as it was when it was first started. For women living in risk of mutilation, at risk of contracting HIV/Aids from husbands or boyfriends who view them as sexually inferior, believing that promiscuity is acceptable for males, for women who work for less than men: International Women's Day is a symbol of hope that must never be forgotten until every right has been won. It is true that after 100 years much has changed, for the better, but there is so much more that needs to be done; regardless of the gains that may have been made, the struggle has not ended ... and the battle has been joined.

1 comment:

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