International Women’s Day comes around every year to remind us that women still face many oppressive and discriminatory acts simply because they are female. And so, once a year, we all get together online and in the streets and in special high level meetings and we talk about violence against women, and maternal mortality and lack of political representation. But there seems to me to be something missing.
A quick scan of articles, blogs and events reveals an uncomfortable truth – International Women’s Day is a women’s issue. Even the new ‘politics of gender’ edition of the Guardian is misleading as it’s not offering views on gender it’s offering views on women. And that is not the same thing! The issues women face, even those that don’t get on the agenda, like working double and triple shifts at the office and then at home, are the business of our partners and fathers and brothers. Of the men who raise us, and love us and stand beside us during good times and bad.
International women’s day should be a platform for solidarity. Instead, it has become a platform of exclusion.
Yes, women and girls are oppressed and discriminated against in every sphere of life, both public and private due to their sex and their age. This is a critical issue to tackle, and I make my living talking about this intersection of discrimination and vulnerability. However, I get the distinct sense that instead of offering people a chance to come together, an opening of a space that encourages a multiplicity of voices and opinions, we hear the same women saying the same thing every year. It’s this ‘women’s issues’ focus that is excluding half of the population from taking a stand.
I know, it’s called International Women’s Day, not international gender day. However, I’m pretty sure that there are many men out there who are outraged by violence against women – so where are they? Where are the voices and participation of those who should stand with us? Have we excluded the people we need the most?
Women and girl’s empowerment cannot be their responsibility alone. There’s little point in trying to eradicate harmful practices such as Female Genital Mutilation without the participation and support of men, both as future spouses who can insist their wife not be cut, as well as those in positions of power, especially in traditional communities where this practice is most prevalent. After all, girls are not cutting themselves.
So why is the conversation on International Women’s Day limited to women? And why are we having this conversation amongst ourselves?
I for one believe the discourse on Women’s Day would do well to shift away from a ‘women’s issues’ focus, to a social justice approach which would open up room for discussing oppression as a harmful force in the relations between men and women, and within our societies as a whole. Such a focus would provide men with a chance to stand together with the women they love and call for a fairer social order that doesn’t raise men to believe they gain from women’s oppression. Social justice means men would get a chance to benefit from better working hours, no longer expected to be the main breadwinner, and more time with their children, no longer excluded from being part of their upbringing and care. Such an approach would allow men to renounce violence as a foreign concept in the construction of healthy masculine behavior. Taking a holistic approach would allow us to see that much of the discrimination women face in society is intrinsically related to injustices that require working together with men – both as victims of injustice and as perpetrators of negative behavior.
International Women’s Day should be about what really matters – it should be about power. Who has it, who doesn’t and how do we redistribute it to make everyone’s life better?