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Do we still need an International Women’s Day?

Yes, says Fiona Osler, as long as women's oppression is still alive and kicking

March 8, 2009
8 min read

This week I’ve been comparing the first edition of The Atlas of Women in the World, written in 1986, with the 2009 edition, which states that since the first edition, ‘there has been some remarkable improvements in the state of women …’ But even a superficial glance reveals that there are also new and rising threats to women, namely ‘religious fundamentalism and a resurgent conservative intolerance’. The former seemed inconceivable – at least to me – in the 1980s.

I recently attended the feminism debate at the ‘6 Billion Ways’ event in London, where these threats also alarmed at least one speaker. Pragna Patel, from Southall Black Sisters, who as a secular feminist condemns religious fundamentalism (of any description) and the ‘war on terror’ equally as the two main threats to women’s rights today. I’d add a third: the collusion of those on the left who seek to make allies of fundamentalists. What fundamentalists – of any persuasion – hold in common is a hatred (and fear) of women and on the basis of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ we are seeing an alarming convergence that also threatens women’s rights.

Perhaps of even more concern are the words of Joni Seager, the 2009 atlas editor, who asks, ‘Where is the outrage?’ Not only outrage at these major threats but at the thousands of ‘smaller’ everyday ways in which women’s rights, identity and equality are threatened.

Put them in their place

Do we still need an International Women’s Day? Many years ago, I’d have said ‘no’, at least not for women in the west – the educated, working women. Why did we need an international day, we’d smash through the glass ceilings on our own, thank you. Perhaps, we only needed an international day for the sake of solidarity.

These days I’m not so sure. For middle class western women, open sexism and misogyny, though still around, has largely been replaced with something far more insidious and difficult to confront (though any feminist blog with ‘open comment’ is soon flooded with the bitter bile of misogyny). I also realise that I’ve played a part too, in keeping my own ‘mind-forg’d manacles’, in Blake’s words, intact.

‘Meanwhile, gorgeous, pouting Gail Trimble, Corpus Christi’s famous know-all team captain, is inconsolable at losing the University Challenge trophy. “Too upset to comment,” say friends.

There, there, luv. It’s only a game.

Try imagining you’re Jade Goody, still talking to the media on the brink of death. That’ll restore your sense of reality.’

Paul Routledge, Daily Mirror

The hoo-hah over Gail Trimble seems trivial compared to the struggles faced by women in Iran or the fact that here in the UK an incident of domestic violence is reported every minute and that for women, aged 19-44, domestic violence is the leading cause of death. That in South Africa it is estimated a woman is raped every 83 seconds. Or that ‘domestic violence is the most ubiquitous constant in women’s lives around the world’.

But for me the headline ‘Why University Challenge star Gail Trimble has a lot to learn from Jade Goody’ sums it up – in one all encompassing soundbite. All of a sudden Trimble is compared to the red tops’ new tragic heroine Jade Goody and found wanting. If the patriarchy can’t get you one way, they’ll find another.

Routledge’s words prove the rule – what women have always known – that we just can’t win or more importantly come in equal. Criticised for our looks and our brains, the only escape is a terminal illness. What could diminish us more than imminent death, except perhaps death itself, the final extinguisher of who we are.

Speaking to a woman friend yesterday about the hypocrisy in the Routledge article, we both admitted we’ve always pretended to some extent that we’re not as clever or as capable as we really are. ‘Pretended’ is perhaps not the right word, it’s been more a slow and subconscious process – one of conditioning and erosion. By the time we’d reached our early teens, we’d worked out that most men (in our experience) are threatened by women, especially clever and capable women. If you’re clever, capable and fit the western formula for ‘beauty’ then there’s no hope for you.

This is not a new phenomenon. Has there ever been a time when women have not had to play the game, toe the line, act in certain ways that please, entertain, placate or favour men? If we don’t go along with the facade, we’re ‘ugly’ and ‘bitter’ shrews and harridans; if we do then we’re equally as damned – dismissed as ‘little girls’, ‘sluts’ and ‘bimbos’. That’s how it is in the west. We are not going to be put to death for being raped, forced to leave school at 13, or married off at 12. But I don’t think the west should be congratulating itself for these achievements, when all it’s done is find slyer ways to control women and their bodies.

The tyranny of beauty

‘There are few places in the world untouched by the commerce of beauty’

‘In the US 42 per cent of girls in grades 1-3 want to be thinner’

The Atlas of Women in the World, 2009

Khaled Diab wrote recently of the Trimble affair in the Guardian: ‘Some men define themselves by which part of the female anatomy they prefer: breasts, legs, arse, etc. Personally, I’m more a brains and face kind of guy. I’ve always been attracted to intelligent women with beautiful facial features, and my wife ticks those boxes for me.’

So it’s okay to be brainy as long as you are beautiful? Does Diab really believe this is any less prejudiced than what The Sun or the Daily Mail write? What if his partner was in a car accident tomorrow and permanently disfigured? Brainy but no longer beautiful? Would this somehow diminish her ‘value’? I’m also sad for men, if they truly do ‘define themselves by which part of the female anatomy they prefer’.

That, as I write this, my fingers briefly twitch to type that I’m not ugly, tells me something about the insecurity that this kind of statement by Diab creates. But I’m not going to do this – you can believe I’m a bespectacled, greasy-haired slob or a supermodel with Barbie-like proportions, it’s no concern of mine.

Smoke and mirrors

‘Girls are still held back by presumptions that educating them will be a ‘waste’ … that girls are less capable than boys.’

The Atlas of Women in the World, 2009

A recent Times article about Trimble said: ‘Britain has a problem: we are overproducing something that we have little idea what to do with. We can’t get rid of it, and many loathe it unless it’s disguised as something else. The product? Clever women.’

And there’s the rub, the need to disguise cleverness as something else. ‘Although Miss Trimble rarely makes mistakes, she had, in fact, made two: first, she was clever, and second, she was not clever enough to hide it behind a makeover. “I very much think this would not be happening if I were a man. People would not feel it necessary to comment on my looks so much,” she said.’ (The Times)

So clever women have always kept up this pretence because as The Times also reports, ‘A study from the University of Chicago examined thousands of people’s online dating preferences: it showed that men had an overwhelming bias against women who were more educated than them.’

Gail Trimble has refused to play along – I hope she never will. Her ‘mistake’, is only a mistake if you believe that we should sacrifice ourselves for the sake of the male ego. What good is any relationship – with a friend or lover – based on such pretence; eventually you become weary and bored. And contemptuous of the need that drives such a folie à deux.

Over the years, I’ve learned that the patriarchy and – through this – women themselves conspire to place limitations on the way we should act or even think. That the need for approval determines the appropriateness of how we dress, sit, walk, talk, behave. At the 6 Billion Ways feminism session, one of the handful of men in the audience intimated that perhaps it was how women dress that plays a part in how we are treated. Tell that to the women in parts of Africa, which still has the lowest standards of education for women across the world. I doubt very much it’s how they dress that plays a part in this.

His comment was met with laughter by the rest of the audience; he’d entirely missed the point. The laughter also showed that here were women – of all ages, all races, and all classes – who will no longer give in to the constant pressure to be approved or to seek approval.

Long may this continue and until such a time when there is no oppression, no rape, no female genital mutilation, no glass ceiling, no poisonous anti-abortion lobby, no religious tyranny, so too must International Women’s Day.

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