Why do we need International Women’s Day?

 

So what’s the deal with International Women’s Day? Isn’t it just angry women ranting about not getting a pay rise or whatever? A bunch of feminist bloggers?

Hmm, the F word.

Feminism is such a tricky term; one that is often treated with as much contempt as the other F word.

The Huffington Post’s Poorna Bell claims that:

“We have moved beyond the procrastination of 2013, when women were deciding whether or not they were feminists,” to this year where “the voice of women grew from a murmur to a roar.”

Well that maybe true in certain sections of the press, and perhaps on Twitter. But in real life, do people really care about inequality and gender issues? Do you?

 

What was it that broke the internet?

According to one editor of a prominent women’s magazine, the articles that get the most click-throughs on their site are chicken recipes and Mary Berry’s cupcake recipe. It seems we care more about fluffy lifestyle topics such as baking or how to contour our cheekbones to cut glass than we do about FGM, the gender pay gap or domestic violence.

Think about it. It wasn’t the picture of Malala receiving her Nobel Prize that broke the internet was it?

It’s great to celebrate some of the steps forward that we have taken as a society. Like the changes to paternity leave that mean the responsibility of childcare no longer falls solely on women. Or the growing openness around breastfeeding.

But let’s not overstate the case. What about the issues that don’t gain a hashtag or social media attention? What about marginalised women who don’t have a voice at all?

If you need further convincing on this, then consider the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, #PledgeForParity. Not #LetsCelebrateHowFarWe’veCome. According to the official website, “progress towards gender equality has slowed in many places.”

#PledgeforParity is about the continued fight to see women gain equal status all over the world. Not just here in the West. It’s the fight to see women in India have access to indoor toilets. It’s the fight to end FGM, the practice that is said to maintain a woman’s sexual purity. It’s the fight to stop girls being married off as young as 12. And so much more….

But I fear that before we take on that fight, we have to move past our own apathy.

Because let’s face it, most people would rather watch the video of the baby panda sneezing or anything to do with cats before they engage with gender issues.

 

Some unlikely home truths

So how do we get people to care? It seems that once a year, the stats and figures on the plight of women across the world get rolled out; only to be put away again until March 8th the following year. Instead of shocking people once a year with “what’s happening out there”, how do we really bring it home?

Well how about asking a few home truths that may seem unlikely. Like:

Do you have a vagina?

Do you have children?

Do you have a non- English name?

Do you have coloured skin?

Are you gay?

Are you on the minimum wage?

Are you an immigrant or the child of one?

Are you disabled or suffer from a long term illness?

Answering yes to any one of these questions means you WILL face discrimination at one point in your life. Simply because there are power structures in place which mean that most of us will experience discrimination and disadvantage.

That’s why we should all care about International Women’s Day. Because its a day for the disadvantaged, and yes that includes women. Because, as Hilary Clinton so famously said in her iconic 1995 speech to the UN, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

And one more thing. Why should it be me, you, us that roll up our sleeves and do this? Because:

“I am resourced. I am educated, I have the right to vote, I have access to medical healthcare. WE must open doors for others who don’t have the rights that we take for granted.”

Annie Lennox, speaking at Women of the World 2015, London.

 

 

 

If you want to read more on this topic, you might like these posts:

A letter to my daughter on International Women’s Day

Can Twitter really change the lives of women?

Why we don’t care about other women

What is Desi Feminism?

Do you have life envy?

facebook thumbs downThey tell you as a blogger, that you need to be authentic- or your readers will see straight through you. That’s true in life too, don’t you think?

There are so many voices vying for our attention everyday- social media, blogs, 24 hours news; that it can be really hard to hear your own still, small voice. The voice that tells you who are you, encourages you to keep going, tells you you’re doing a good job even when you feel insignificant.

I think that’s why so many of us fall short of being true to ourselves and try and take bits of other people’s identity.

It’s easily done. Sign posts that make us feel life-envy are all around, and are heightened by the likes of Facebook and Instagram. As if we didn’t already know this, new research has found that Facebook can increase feelings of depression, stemming from envy. We see the amazing holidays, outfits, relationship success and instantly feel challenged: why doesn’t my life look that good?

Cue feelings of inadequacy and insignificance.

Here’s a newsflash: their life doesn’t look that good either. It’s simply self-presentation of the best bits of their lives.

And yet we all compare ourselves to our friends and many of us, in some inadvertent way, end up modelling ourselves on those we deem the most successful. Certainly Facebook and Instagram have fuelled that, but it’s an age-old practice.

Some peer support can be useful at times- we all need support and guidance. Role models are crucial in my opinion and not just for young people. I think we are constantly redefining ourselves as we enter different lifestages. What does it mean to be a newlywed? Or a new mum? Or recently divorced or recently bereaved? How about redundancy and a change of career, or moving to a new town or country? These are life events that many of us face and tackling our own identity in the midst of that can be bewildering and confusing.

But I’ll tell you what’s not cool, and that’s simply copying someone else. Sounds childish right? No one does past primary school.  Well actually, everyone does it- to varying degrees anyway. We often aspire to others and that makes us want to imitate them- because we see something in them that we want for ourselves.

Let me tell you that that is unhealthy and it cannot be sustained. Sooner or later you’ll tire of trying to be someone or something that you’re not. You cannot be someone else because you are unique. However appealing the mum at the school gates is, with her hair and makeup intact and the perfect job and happy kids, you won’t be her. What’s more, there are struggles going on in her life that are not meant for you.

I think as women we are wired to compete with each other. From the earliest age we look to other girls and envy them. And do you know why we do that? Because ultimately we’re all trying to work out that big question “who am I?”

Identity is a difficult thing. What’s more, its ongoing. It’s never a question that is settled. Your identity is constantly going to change because you are constantly changing. And that’s ok. Just please don’t rip off someone else’s style. Be YOU. Be authentic. Only you can do that with style.

Can Twitter really change the lives of women?

hashtag

It’s been a year since 200 Nigerian school girls went missing, kidnapped by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. Some reports claim that many of the girls have been trafficked or forced into marriage.

Michelle Obama added her voice to the campaign to free the kidnapped school girls

Michelle Obama added her voice to the campaign to free the kidnapped school girls

Public response on the social networks at the time they went missing was overwhelming. Celebrities including Michelle Obama joined the campaign for their safe return, pictured holding placards bearing the slogan #bringbackourgirls.

At the time, a Fox News panel were criticised for mocking the #BringBackOurGirls campaign by saying:

“Are these barbarians in the wilds of Nigeria supposed to check their Twitter accounts and say, ‘Uh oh, Michelle Obama is very cross with us, we better change our behaviour’?”

I hate to agree with them, but they have a point.

Armchair Justice

Perhaps hashtag activisim simply makes us feel like we are doing something about social injustice- but it’s nothing more than armchair activism. And what about the so-called smaller issues that don’t make the news or gain hashtag attention- but oppress us and destroy our souls nonetheless?

The thing is, the Suffragettes of the early 20th century chained themselves to railings; women of the 60’s took to the streets and burnt their bras, while we…. what, stay at home and silently tap away on our keyboards? Is that what our generation will be known for? All the while, how much is really changing?

We tweeted to #bringbackourgirls, then we said #yesallwomen, we’re reclaiming #likeagirl to be a positive statement.

But for all our tweeting and campaigning, are the lives of women really changing for the better?

The Internet gives us a voice

I grew up in a male dominated household. As you can imagine, I had lots of opinions on social issues- but they were rarely taken seriously.

Fast forward twenty or so years and I have written about some difficult topics including child sex abuse and rape. The internet has allowed me the opportunity to carve out a credible space for my voice and opinions.

For all the criticism that the likes of Facebook receive, the one thing the social networks have done well is to socially and politically engage us. What is more, (ok two things then) they have given us a voice.

Yes it will take a lot more than blogging and tweeting alone to stamp misogyny. It will take a lot more than that to ever see those lost Nigerian girls.

But speaking out against these crimes against women IS the starting point. The collective voices of women- on Twitter and on social networks everywhere will eventually change the dominant male narrative that silences us.

Instead of feeling frustrated that all I can do is sit here and type, I remind myself of this: twenty years ago I didn’t know it was ok to have these views and opinions, let alone have a space to voice them. Where once no one listened to me or women like me, we now have a platform and that’s vital. What is more, I can spread the word, and get others to engage. And for those victims who aren’t able to speak up- those lost victims, perhaps some of this will help empower them in knowing that someone else is speaking on their behalf.

Perhaps the hashtag is our friend after all.

Why we don’t care about other women

Women's rights

Trigger Warning: Contains some disturbing material

“It doesn’t really affect me.”

“I’m too tired from work to think about those issues”.

“I’ve got problems of my own”.

These are just some of the excuses I hear from people I talk to as to why gender inequality- actually any inequality, is not a priority to them.

We hear about rape in India; female genital mutilation; human trafficking and the sex trade. We are all horrified for a moment, but then the moment is gone. We go back to our daily lives in which we are not affected by these issues, are too tired for them, or are bogged down by our own problems.

I get it. Life is hard. You’re worried about your job. Your mum was diagnosed with cancer. You have ongoing sickness. Your partner left you. We all face our own battles every day. Trust me, I certainly do.

But you know the best way to get your mind off your own problems? Go out and help someone with theirs. Believe me it will really put things in perspective because there is always someone who is worse off than you are.

Baby girls are being denied food, suffocated or have their spines broken- just because they are girls.

Young girls and women are having their vaginas cut and mutilated for the sake of their sexual purity and so-called “honour”.

A leading cause of death amongst women aged 14-44 is violence from relatives in their own homes.

(Adapted from “Remarks to the U.N. 4th World Conference on Women Plenary Session” by Hillary Clinton)

Still think you have problems?

Listen, I’m not belittling your life. But here’s another way to put it. Speaking at the Women of the World festival in London this month, that I had the privilege of attending, Annie Lennox said this:

“I am resourced. I am educated, I have the right to vote, I have access to medical healthcare. WE must open doors for others who don’t have the rights that we take for granted.”

It is up to us. And it is your, my, our, problem.

Because the truth is that inequality is everywhere- it would be naiive to think it doesn’t affect you.

Do you have non-English name, or coloured skin? Are you an immigrant or the child of one? Do you have a vagina? Do you have children? Are you gay? Are you disabled or long-term sick? Are you on the minimum wage? Are you a blue-collar worker? Any one of these means you will face discrimination in your lifetime at some point- and yes, more than one means you face twice the discrimination. There are power structures in place which mean that most of us will experience discrimination and disadvantage. And that should make you angry. It makes me so angry!

But what makes me the angriest is gender-based discrimination. Because I am a woman, I get treated like a second-class citizen? Really? Sadly misogyny and violence against women is worse than ever before in some parts of the world. Sexism is rampant in public and private life.  And don’t even get me started on how South Asian women- women like me, both in the UK and abroad are some of the most oppressed, most beaten, most raped, most tortured women in world; denied access to any of the freedoms we take for granted like healthcare and education, or just the simple freedom to make their own choices.

Ten years ago at the UN World Conference for Women in Beijing, Hilary Clinton gave a now famous speech in which she said “human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights”.

So much of what she said was ahead of its time. It’s only now that we are really waking up to the truth of what women face globally. Technology and the instant spread of information have aided that.

So what can we do? Well start by reading up on“India’s Daughter” (you can no longer download it). But you can download Wednesday night’s “Hilary Clinton: The Power of Women”, and listen to Hilary’s original speech in the clip above. Get on Twitter and see what’s trending. Listen to a TED talk. Just get in the conversation and for God’s sake get a conscience.

Social justice isn’t just for angry bloggers like me, it’s everyone’s responsibility. We need to actually give a damn about someone other than ourselves.

A letter to my daughter on International Women’s Day

Int Wms Day

Someone recently said “you have to look very hard to find good news stories about women”.

Well that’s true. But some good news stories do exist. You are one of those stories. You represent hope. In your youth and your innocence you are a new beginning, and an end to the unfairness that exists against women and girls today.

You don’t yet understand the world that you are growing up in. There are so many things about the world that I want to shelter you from.

Today, on International Women’s Day, people everywhere are campaigning to make the world a better place for you to live: a fairer and more equal society for you to grow up in.

Closing the gender pay gap

At the moment you read and write better than most of the boys in your class. But at some point, those same boys who right now can barely dress themselves, will overtake you and have a better job that pays more money than yours does. But you my darling are as smart as any boy- don’t let anyone tell you differently. You can work just as hard. We are working to close that gap for you.  So that when you grow up, you can go for the senior jobs that weren’t available to me- that someone behind closed doors decided I shouldn’t have because I’m a woman.

 An end to racial inequality

You have beautiful brown skin. Don’t let ANYONE tell you that you are not beautiful because of the colour of your skin or the sound of your name. People have been telling me that all my life.  They treat me differently. There are fewer opportunities available to me just because of my skin colour- I know that seems strange right? But I have to work harder just to prove I’m the same as they are. We ARE all equal in society and we are fighting to make our voices heard.

That’s why we celebrate International’s Women’s Day. It’s not just a PR exercise as one cynical commentator said. It is a day to shed light on what women can be- and we must carry that forward for the other 364 days of the year. You must carry that forward, and one day you can be an agent of change too. You know why? Because not everyone is as lucky as we are.

Women are not safe

Do you know, there are some women who have to go outside to use the toilet– and in doing so face danger from bad people? Those same women cannot go out at night– like mummy sometimes does when you’re asleep- because those bad people tell them they’re not allowed. We have to tell the bad people that it’s NOT ok to make women and girls feel unsafe. We all have the right to feel safe!

Do you know there are women who are forced to marry someone they don’t want to? I know that sounds really scary. And after they’re married, sometimes that person treats them really badly– they’re not kind like your daddy. I know- we need to do something to help those women. Trust me, I know.

We are activists 

Int Wms Day2So let’s you and I be brave. I often tell you to stand up for yourself- I hope I give you the courage to do that. It’s NOT being unkind! It’s ok to say “no, that’s not right for me.” I’ve been doing it through gritted teeth all my life because I’ve been too afraid. Until a friend of mine pointed out to me that being brave and speaking up is the example I set FOR YOU.

That you will see a mummy that is trying to make things better- for herself, for you.

And hopefully a few others who will join us along the way.

 ***

1 in 3 women across the world experience violence. (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine 2013)

 

The abuser is usually someone the woman knows: 38% of all murdered women are killed by their intimate partners. (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine 2013)

 

In the developing world, 1 in 9 girls will be forced into a marriage before the age of 15 (www.plan-uk.org)

 

More than 130 million girls and women today have had female genital mutilation (FGM) in Africa and the Middle East where FGM is concentrated (UNICEF)

 

It is estimated that for each year a mother is absent from the workplace her future wages will reduce by 5%. (‘Motherhood ‘devastates’ women’s pay, research finds’, The Guardian)

 

Approximately 70% of people in national minimum wage jobs are women.  (Low Pay Commission (2007) National Minimum Wage Low Pay Commission Report 2007, Figure 2.8, p32.)

 

Women make up only 17% board directors of FTSE 100 companies. (Women on boards, p3, 2011)

 

Let’s talk about our periods

Tampon1

Last month, British tennis player Heather Watson attributed her defeat at the Australian Open to her period. She claimed PMS-related dizziness, nausea and tiredness affected her performance.

According to the Telegraph she had broken sports’ last taboo, by talking openly about periods.
I’m glad it’s not just Asians that have a problem talking about periods. Dr Miranda A Farage, a research fellow at Procter & Gamble (a massive global producer of sanitary products), remarked that it is “a topic that virtually all cultures are uncomfortable discussing at some level”.

My mum never told me about periods or puberty. I was only ten when I got my first period so perhaps it took her by surprise and she wasn’t yet ‘ready’ to tell me. Prior to this, I had heard various playground rumours around periods, sex and pregnancy, none of which were correct of course. In the meantime I learnt the truth by reading a book my mum had stashed away for me- which she later gave me. It would’ve been nice to have some advance warning instead of being taken by surprise by this brown stain one morning. Why was it brown not bright red? Why did my back hurt? If I ran in the playground would blood stream down my legs? Come on mum, my ten-year-old self needs a little information here.

Why is it that periods remain so shrouded in silence even today? Half the population experience them and yet it is still such a taboo subject even in the West. Thankfully, and for once it’s not just us Asians being backwards about a totally everyday subject.

One theory I have is that it’s because periods are so intrinsically linked to sexuality. It’s the stuff of so many playground rumours: “ooh you’re gonna get pregnant if you kiss a boy now!” and all the other ridiculous and worrying things young girls (and boys) tell each other.

In some sections of the Asian community, starting your period is called “attending age”. I was thinking about the meaning of that phrase. What age? Childbearing age? Marriageable age? My maternal grandmother was married at the age of 13 and had her first child at 14. I’d be willing to put money on the notion that had been matched to my granddad when she was very young, and as soon as she hit puberty and was able to bear children she was married. Is that what a woman’s value is to a man- that she can give him children? Is that a woman’s value in the Asian culture- that she can give her mother-in-law a grandson now? It sounds almost medieval but it’s not a million miles away from the truth is it?

Starting your periods isn’t just about having babies. It is a huge rite of passage for a girl, I’d argue one of the most significant. And there are so many more elements involved in “becoming a woman.” Yes the onset of menstruation is the biological marker but it’s not the only determinant of being a woman. The fact that she can now bear children is one (no less significant) by- product. The emotional and psychological ramifications are huge- too many to even list here. And yet society- all of society, not just Asian culture, equates menstruation and womanhood with the ability to bear children. This just reduces us to nothing more than breeding machines! What if a woman chooses not to have children- does that make her less of a woman by this definition? Or worse still, what if she cannot get pregnant at all, what then?

And let’s just deal with the idea that a menstruating woman is unclean, because a lot of the stigma, certainly in Eastern cultures comes from this. In Islam, a woman on her period cannot touch a Quran and she is not allowed to worship. Hello? Having a period is a natural as urinating- it’s a normal bodily function. So why is a woman labelled unclean and somehow unworthy- too unworthy to come before the God who made her?

It seems that it’s not just girls and boys in the playground that need to grow up when it comes to talking about periods.

(Fact: my back hurts and I have a terrible headache. I am actually getting my period.)

Is skin whitening any different to hair straightening?

Is skin whitening any different to hair straightening?

What would you say if I challenged you not to wear any make up to work tomorrow? Or to skip your next visit to the beauticians to get your eyebrows threaded? Would you be able to go completely au natural with your looks and be comfortable with it?

I’m guessing for the majority of women the answer would be no. For most of us, attending to beauty routines are as normal as changing clothes in the morning- you’d obviously not leave the house in your pyjamas so it makes sense that you’d put on makeup, style your hair, have your eyebrows threaded; whatever it might be for you and however simple or extensive your routine might be.

Personally I could probably skip wearing makeup for a day or too, but I couldn’t live without my hair dryer and various hair straightening products. I’ve been straightening my hair for more than 15 years. Over this time, I’ve probably spent hundreds of pounds investing in products and haircuts, and countless hours trying to get the frizz out of my hair. My straight, flattened hair is not my natural hair type believe me! On one very rare occasion that I did let my hair dry naturally- no products, no straightening, someone commented that it made me look ‘more ethnic’.

And that’s the thing isn’t it: I’ve spent all these years getting rid of that ‘ethnic look’ and conforming to a model of beauty that says straight, flat hair is the acceptable image of beauty. Even beach curls have to be silky smooth and styled, rather than the random mop of frizz/waves/curls that my natural hair type displays.

Researcher and policy advisor Debbie Weekes-Barnard identified a “hierarchy of beauty” that women of different ethnicities conform to:

“…..there (are) things at work societally which place all women, but certainly black women, on a hierarchy of beauty.

…..the hierarchy of beauty for black women is different from the hierarchy for white women. For white women, it’s about size and shape [thinness] but for black women it’s all of those things, but also the shape of one’s nose and lips, the texture of your hair and all those other things which are bound up within how ‘womanly’ or not you look.”

I’d love to say that that hierarchy doesn’t apply to me, and that I don’t conform to it. But as women we are constantly being judged by the way we look, and because of that we end up conforming to these frankly, Western standards of beauty.

We applaud Bollywood actresses like Aishwaraya Rai Buchchan and Frieda Pinto who have crossed over to mainstream appeal and appeared in Western films and ad campaigns, because we finally see a brown face in the media. But the fact is, they too have been modified to fit a Western mould of beauty before they could get there. Their appearances are very similar to any other white Western celebrity- only they’re a few shades darker.

Colourism in particular- judging others for how dark skinned they are, is ingrained in the Asian culture. We all know an auntiji or two who comments on how dark so and so is and how they will never get married because of it. In India it’s even said to affect your job prospects. Skin whitening and bleaching products are big business globally. Did you know there’s even a vaginal whitening product now available? Last July, Vaseline launched a Facebook app in India that enabled users to make their skin whiter in their profile pictures. The app was to promote their new range of skin-lightening creams for men.

Colourism is abhorrent. The fact that manufacturers promote their products by perpetuating the whole ‘fair is beautiful’ myth is just infuriating. But somewhere along the line, our culture bought into it, too. Whilst some argue that colourism is different to racism- racism being bound up with other factors such as ethnicity as well as skin colour, doesn’t make colourism any better or less damaging. And what’s more, users of skin-lightening products are judged for conforming to the ideal that fair is beautiful and they’re shamed for not accepting their God-given looks.

But then I’ve never accepted my frizzy, wavy hair. I conform to the model that says silky straight hair is beautiful. I also thread my eyebrows, bleach excess facial hair, shave my legs, wear foundation to even out my skin tone, a lightening concealer to eliminate dark circles under my eyes, blusher to contour my cheeks, mascara to thicken my lashes, lipstick to plump my lips…what else….? I do all of these things to alter my appearance and appear more womanly, ultimately trying to rank higher on that hierarchy of beauty. And yet I judge women who want to move themselves up this hierarchy simply because they were born with dark skin and resort to skin-whitening.

I couldn’t put it more simply than this: in 2010 Jamaican dancehall star Vybz Kartel came under fire after apparently lightening his skin. He defended his use of “cake soap”-a skin whitening product, saying:

“I feel comfortable with black people lightening their skin. It’s tantamount to white people getting a suntan. When black women stop straightening their hair and wearing wigs and weaves, when white women stop getting lip and butt injections and implants … then I’ll stop using the ‘cake soap’ and we’ll all live naturally ever after.”