Have we confused International Women’s Day with Valentine’s Day?

8 Mar

Let us celebrate! For IWD has come and we have the opportunity to shop, get treated to gifts and get “pampered” by men. This is exactly what the women’s rights movement needs, after all.

Wouldn’t it be preferable to enjoy equality in pay, less violence, less discrimination, more opportunities rather than the opportunity to be pampered and spoilt for one day a year? You see, mathematically speaking – even if you put justice aside – if we had equal pay, we could treat ourselves a whole lot more often than just the once per year.

In my hotel in Hanoi this morning I was given a red rose. I was again given a red rose by my gym. And when I was having lunch, sitting at a low table in a bustling restaurant, I asked the couple opposite me what they did on this important day. The man tells me he will take his girlfriend for a nice lunch and dinner and get her a gift.

That is all well and good, and by all means do it on any other day of the year. But not on the day which should be reserved for a cause, a fight for a better world for women. Today is a day to stand up to inequality. Yet I’ve only really seen shops take on the challenge of IWD. The shops have all been proudly brandishing the IWD words and it pains me to see the cause be co-opted in such a calculated way, hijacking what once held such deep meaning and twisting it into just another profit-making mechanism.

Shops, go ahead and take our Valentine’s Day. Love will continue no matter what you do. Even take our Christmas. But not International Women’s Day. Save something for humanity to still have some hope.

Or are the shops just doing what we want them to do? In so many countries women and men labour under the impression that the fight is won and nothing is left to be done, so why not just shop? Sadly, this is simply incorrect, and maybe if we (myself included) stopped being distracted with the latest fashion, with taking selfies and with trawling for hours through Facebook we could instead look up at the world and recognise just how tragically unequal it really is.

Throughout lunch, the partner of the woman who I tried to converse with was speaking on behalf of his girlfriend. With every mouthful of the lunch which he would be paying for, in a small yet certain way he was denying her a voice. Whilst his romancing might seem innocent and thoughtful, I would still rather it remained in another century. Because this century needs change and women to speak for themselves, not to be spoken on behalf of.

Thanks but I don’t want another flower. I want equality.


When some lives get more attention than others

10 Jan

When a man rape a woman it tends not to result in a police-led man-hunt. When a man hits a woman, we do not ask for and demand all men globally to apologise on behalf of that man. When a man kills his spouse we do not hold protests across countries.

But when men attack people who purport to uphold our freedom of speech – as is the case with the attack on Charlie Hebdo, we have all of the above. We have police on the hunt, we have every media outlet decrying the action and we have the leader of France’s rightwing Front National (FN), Marine Le Pen, threatening to bring back the death penalty. We even have the French authorities deploying a staggering 88,000 police and troops around the country to strengthen security.

It is, of course, tragic that 12 people were killed. But every day, approximately 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, and in terms of Violence against Women, take a look at these stats:

  • between 15% of women in Japan and 71% of women in Ethiopia reported physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime;
  • between 0.3–11.5% of women reported experiencing sexual violence by someone other than a partner since the age of 15 years;
  • the first sexual experience for many women was reported as forced – 17% of women in rural Tanzania, 24% in rural Peru, and 30% in rural Bangladesh reported that their first sexual experience was forced.

I am not making light of what has happened in Paris this week with the attack on Charlie Hebdo. But why is it more important to protect freedom of speech than it is to protect women? Are some lives just more valuable than others? Or have we become so accustomed to the discrimination and brutality which is globally inflicted on women that we’ve stopped even noticing, let alone responding?

The one equaliser in our world – sexual harassment

30 Nov

Driving through the streets of Dushanbe I go past a market and see a young woman walking along the street and a young man pinches her arse. In Public.

If you sit in the blame-the-victim camp then you would at this point be thinking, ah, she shouldn’t have been wearing what she was wearing. “That miniskirt was just asking for it.” Right?

The question I ask of people from that school of thought is – how do you justify blaming the victim and using her clothing as an excuse for the man’s behaviour when in this case the victim is Muslim and covered up, quite literally from head to toe? Hijab and all?

Women of all cultures, wearing all manner of clothing are exposed to sexual harassment. Look at Egypt, where by no stretch of the imagination do women dress in a provocative manner and yet, according to a survey conducted by the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in 2013, more than 99 percent of Egyptian women are harassed on a daily basis, ranging from catcalling in the streets to gang rapes.

I was recently at a training in Jordan with colleagues from the Middle East and we had an exercise to do with sexual harassment in the workplace. The case study for discussion related to a flirtatious woman who wore tight clothing at work and whose male colleague sexually harassed her. During discussions about this case study, the majority of both women and men at the training concluded that she was asking for it.

The fact that whether a woman is wearing Hijab and gets harassed or whether she is flirtatious and gets harassed shows one common denominator – men who harass. And this will not change, men will not change until we stop blaming the victim.

We live in a culture which expects different standards from women and men: where it is still believed that women should always monitor, control and adjust their behaviour whilst men reign free and wild and do as they like.

Society won’t function effectively unless we put blame squarely where it lies – with the rapist, the harasser, the man who pinches your arse whether you’re in a Bikini or Burqa.

A rebellion a day keeps the inequality at bay

5 Oct

I feel like I have taken a small but significant step towards a little airport-based rebellion. Afghanistan has in many ways, a gender apartheid. Women and men are at all times kept separate from one another. As if some brushing of shoulders would contaminate either sex. So I have decided to briefly break the great divide and sit in what looks like an unofficial male waiting area, to infiltrate the men’s club. I get some very odd looks. Most assume I’m just a silly foreigner who doesn’t know what is and isn’t acceptable. But unless we take small actions to challenge things we won’t change them. Soon other women start sitting in the seats around me and within 30 minutes we have a fairer distribution of women and men filling the waiting area seats as opposed to women loitering around the edges of the waiting area wishing God had granted them a penis so that they could sit before their flight.

I recently made a speech to young Afghans who are working on increased female political participation. The crux of my argument was this: rights are not given, they are fought for. If you look at the history of women’s rights then every single improvement has required a fight, a battle, whether by the individual or by the collective.

It is when we start to accept inequalities, slight encroachments on our choices and liberties that our rights will diminish, our power will diminish, and ultimately, we will diminish. Whether it’s agreeing to stop working because our husband asks us to; unquestioningly accepting that the men around us get promoted whilst we don’t; ignoring that in meetings there are more men than women; or doing all the house chores without a fair 50% input from our partner. In order to progress and be who we can be, we need to take a stand whenever and wherever we can, in whatever form we can.

Men living in women’s bodies

9 Jun

Despite women being fully capable of running countries, organisations or/and homes, in many countries there is a plague of men speaking on women’s behalf and making decisions on women’s behalf. The plague has spread from the marriage into the family, community and the workplace.

In a small village in the South of Sri Lanka I went into a family’s lovely home. The home was full of women – women from across three generations. The women of working age were bored and wanted to work. They also wanted to bring in more money. However, they told me that their husbands did not want them to work. And in many countries that’s where it all stops. Where women’s decisions are being controlled or made by men, their voices, needs, desires and aspirations become redundant.  Once a husband deems any number of things unnecessary/unwise/against the religious or culture then it’s seemingly a non negotiable, the dye has been cast and women become trapped in what becomes the man’s sphere of influence.  

However, to these men I would like to posit a suggestion. Unless that man is living in that woman’s body, what she does with her time and what activities she undertakes is absolutely and entirely up to her. Whether the man is a husband, a brother, a father or whatever relation, he is entitled to making decisions solely on behalf of himself and noone else.

Living in Afghanistan I see countless cases of men having ultimate control over all decisions. Whether it be how many children they will have, whether the woman can or cannot work or whether it be whether the women can leave the house to even go shopping or go to school. All things which she is entitled to under Afghan law and also under International law. Yet a man’s opinion, a man’s voice apparently holds more sway, is more important and more valuable even than law or religious. What entitles him to this?

I would very much appreciate it if men would control themselves and only themselves. Perhaps rather than burdening themselves with controlling women they could free themselves up to controlling themselves and then violence against women would reduce. Perhaps rather than having women subjected to violence in their homes, we can have greater equality in schools, in the workplace and in the world.

Women have their own voices, opinions, desires and we are in no need for others’.  Freedom of choice is not caveated with “for men only”. 

It’s not the dress that we should be worrying about

18 Dec

I love weddings, the opportunity to catch up with old friends, put on something that is not your hiking boots and hoodie and swap the backpack for something slightly sleeker. Yet the more weddings I go to, the more I notice how stuck in the stone age we are. How unable and unwilling we are to challenge the status quo and question the tradition a little. You know, to shake it up.

I have just returned from Afghanistan which is simply heaving with the weight of expectation that was placed on it and the subsequent disappointment felt by the international community that not a huge amount has changed there. In ten years, yes, ten years, the international community wanted to see an entire overhaul of the cultures and traditions that have kept the country one of the poorest and least equal in the world. Unsurprisingly however, culture and tradition which is very deeply rooted and a part of everyone’s daily lives has, in most part, trumped intervention and development efforts.

Yet, why do we expect Afghanistan to throw off the shackles of tradition and culture when we do not do it ourselves? Some of you might not think it’s comparable because a woman abiding by tradition by taking her husband’s name or there not being a single woman given a voice during the speeches or indeed there being one man handing his daughter onto another man, is not immediately and directly hurtful, whilst keeping a woman from school is. Yet, both in the UK and in Afghanistan, the explanations for this behaviour would make some reference to honour and the fact that if everyone else is doing it, it would be foolish to do it differently, as it’s tradition, don’t you know.

For many Afghan women, to question and challenge tradition can endanger their lives. Whilst, if women here were to question and challenge tradition and actually speak at the speeches instead of being spoken on behalf of, and would suggest their husband take their surname to symbolise their new life together, the repercussions would not be quite as severe. At the very worst it would mean making some guests a little uncomfortable, but more likely, it would help us to start addressing the insidious parts of our traditions that tell us to stay quiet, lose our identity and just look pretty.

Wallpaper women

26 Jun

When I was at school my male friend had pictures from porn magazines on his bedroom walls. I went to the housemaster about this, wondering why he hadn’t been told to take these pictures down. The school was very strict on things like eating in public or showing affection in public, so I assumed they would have some rules about pornography. Yet, I was told that as long as the nipples and private bits were covered up, it was absolutely acceptable. Which is why it wasn’t just my friend who used these women as wallpaper, but every boy in our school had a room ‘decorated’ in exactly the same fashion.

Girlfriends didn’t seem to mind visiting boyfriends with almost-naked strangers on their walls. In fact, it was nothing to be ashamed of, nothing to feel awkward about. So comfortable were the boys and their teachers about this nude presence that when parents came to visit (it was a boarding school) the pictures didn’t even get taken down.

Boys as young as 13 were accessing porn too. Whilst I was a prefect of 13 year old students, I went in to take the register one morning and found that the boys had put porn up on the walls of the room. I tore these down and took them to the housemaster. Different housemaster, same response. He laughed it off and never dealt with it. The following day there was a message on the same wall – that had previously shown semi-clad, sexually available women – saying that I was jealous of how the women were more attractive than me, which is why I’d taken them down.

Nobody, from 13 year old boys to middle aged housemasters were recognising that porn is a problem. They were failing to notice how deeply pathological it is to use women’s bodies as wallpaper.

It’s pathological because these women who decorate the bedroom walls of my former school, they will get looked at when the guy wants a pleasant distraction and ignored when the guy is too busy to recognise that there is a human being up there.

For a woman to be an object of sexual desire – part of the decoration, a piece of paper, something to masturbate to – and nothing more, that won’t help us create more healthy and equal relations between the two sexes.  A woman is more than a piece of paper, and yet the porn industry reduces her to just that, a voiceless object without character or intellect.