So, it is the 8th of March 2021. All over social media and in the news, I have been reading about the amazing progress of women’s rights. People I hadn’t heard of before turn out to be ardent activists and strong defenders of our rights. The man who beat his sister for going out of the house without his permission is making a beautiful statement. I am moved to tears. I am suddenly learning about women film makers, the feats of female athletes, groundbreaking scientists and the significance of women’s “voices.”
More than a hundred years ago, when women’s day was launched in 1911, cars were just starting to be mass produced. Today, in 2021, one of the major steps in human rights that we are supposed to be celebrating is that a woman was released from jail, where she spent time because she drove a car. And no, the issue was not a matter of greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. In another advanced part of the world, women are finally allowed to work as train drivers in the underground - obviously much more challenging to women than simply working as a pilot. After all, women have been licensed airplane pilots since Raymonde de Laroche in 1910.
Thanks to Covid, there is now also some talk about violence against women in the home. It appears that the number of women who were thrown from windows sharply increased, when they were forced to spend more hours with their husbands and could no longer escape from home. For far too many, home is not the idyllic place of protection, fun and interior decorating we see in Bollywood happy endings. As a result of the virus, governments have been obliged to consider that women depend on childcare and access to informal networks to manage their work-life puzzle, while all sorts of informal care and support across society is also largely provided by women. On zoom screens in virtual classrooms, children are hungry, and politicians are forced to admit that school lunches are a topic of national concern, not just the heartache of desperate mothers. The pandemic has thrown a spotlight into the dark corners of our homes, revealing all these things we should have known about, but which (as always), are pushed out beyond the fringes of political attention.
It is 2021, and while it is difficult to find a public document that does not make at least some cosmetic mention of “gender equality”, “women’s issues” are still understood to be private matters. Mentioning them in public therefore leaves an after-taste of shame and embarrassment. At the very best, we are looking at some kind of charity, where any improvement, however insignificant, should be received with deep gratitude. And is it not immoral to be raising these secondary issues, at a time when the planet is in a state of crisis, when we should be focusing on unity and “serious” questions? After all, women are just half of the world.
As part of the secondary half of the world, my role is to applaud and commend all the serious action our important men have achieved. Wars have reached a whole new level, and weapons are getting more sophisticated by the day. Farmers in so many countries can enjoy land mines, cluster bombs and the most modern cocktails of chemicals. If we do not have the luck of being farmers, we can at least look forward to forest fires, blizzards, hurricanes, locust swarms and floods, as a result of decades of hard work developing our economies. Smoke and smog are making our sunsets ever redder and rosier.
We are of course appreciated as wives, mothers and sisters, cooks, maids and nurses, but freedom is still for the neighbour’s daughter. Our open-minded husbands, fathers and brothers, protectors and custodians, are congratulated if they refrain from hitting or killing us, allow us to go to school, and bring us a box of chocolates wrapped in red silk ribbon for St Valentine. Today, on the 8th of March, some might even prepare our morning coffee. But sitting on courts around the world, they will decide that the woman who was raped was probably asking for it, or else recommend the perpetrator to marry his victim (poor man, now he is now “trapped” by some slut who just wanted to set him up). Life as a man is surely difficult, since “hormones” and nature apparently make it impossible to resist the mere sight of a woman. It is only understandable that a man who has been rejected will kill the woman who tried to divorce him. But if men are really so impulsive, slave to their passions, is it fair to burden them with any responsibility for their actions? Should they even be sitting on these courts, or in parliaments and committees that draft the laws in the first place?
Molecular science is progressing astronomically. We are starting to understand the complexities of structures within the proton better than any of our own emotions, and there will soon be traffic jams on Mars. Bitcoins use more electricity than entire countries, and satellites take lovely, detailed pictures of families having a barbecue in their back garden. When it comes to human relations, however - and specifically those between men and women – the logic is still that of hefty fists, the power of facial hair and the family life of the Flintstones. If human rights for women are lagging behind five thousand years, what shall I say of the rights for women with disability? Which parts of humanity can we claim, which parts of womanhood? Is the “normal” life of a woman in 2021 even worth fighting for?
As a human rights activist I believe that human rights represent the minimum standard of decency that humans could agree on some seventy years ago. Certainly not perfect, but without them the planet is condemned to continue on a path of senseless war and suffering. Human rights are no buffet lunch from which you can pick and choose what to respect, and what to neglect, depending on your mood or the fashion of the day.
As a human rights activist, I am also pragmatic. I know that in the long run, any step to promote human rights is a good thing. I know that the process will be protracted and complicated. Citizens, governments or civil society organisations may be supporting a particular point for all the wrong reasons (more often than not, to blame others and applaud themselves). Still, for all those who benefit from the tiny steps we do take for improvement and protection of rights, the results are far from rhetoric. Rights save lives. Rights make lives worth living. We may not have come as far as we would like to think in the more than hundred years since women’s day started, but we owe it to ourselves and to our children to keep on fighting, for both halves of the world and for the future.
Today is the 8th of March 2021. We’ve had enough. Women should not still be losing their children, their health, dignity, hope or aspirations. They should not be living under slavery, abuse, exploitation, incarceration, starvation, and debasement. Women cannot continue to be collateral damage for some “higher goal”. You can’t wash the sand. All the beautiful words in the world will not wash away the consequences of your deeds. At the end of the day, what matters is action.