International Women’s Day

The end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018 have undeniably heralded a pivotal moment for the international women’s movement. What with the recent sexual harassment scandals involving key figures such as the American film producer Harvey Weinstein and sports coach to the stars Larry Nassar, the world is gradually waking up to the everyday injustices faced by women. What these high-profile cases demonstrate is that even women in positions where we might consider them to be, to a certain degree, untouchable are affected by the suffocating embrace of a society based on patriarchal values.

In recent months, the world has borne witness to the emergence of popular social media hashtags such as #TimesUp and #MeToo that aim to promote female solidarity in the face of aggressive misogyny, particularly in the workplace where men in positions of power are able to take advantage of their more vulnerable female colleagues. In 2017, hundreds of accusations of sexual harassment and assault were leveled against the film production giant Harvey Weinstein, sending shock waves throughout the Hollywood industry. In sport, Larry Nassar has been accused of sexually assaulting hundreds of female athletes, many of them underage, with more than 265 women testifying to that effect. Even the U.S. president Donald Trump has been branded a misogynist due to his consistently offensive and inflammatory comments about women dating back to the 1980s. Some have compiled them to exhibit them in a way that demonstrates just how alarming his attitude towards the Second Sex actually is and how his hostility towards women goes far beyond his “grab ’em by the pussy” interview, most commonly undermining a woman’s political or professional capability and giving his unsolicited opinions on her appearance.

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The alleged victims of film producer Harvey Weinstein

Despite these scandals, however, the women’s movement has undeniably made significant progress, noticeably in the UK and the US among other countries that should not be overlooked. We have reached a key turning point where women’s voices are increasingly being made to matter as the Weinstein case only serves to demonstrate. Where these same victimized women would previously advised to remain silent, they are encouraged to speak up, slowly challenging and dismantling the crippling attitude of the past. Nowadays, there is more of a zero-tolerance policy to unacceptable behavior, crucially manifesting itself in the way that women are able to identify and challenge discriminatory behavior. What once might have been dismissed as par for the course, in line with the philosophy of ‘boys will be boys’, is being treated with the urgency and severity it truly merits, which indicates a profound cultural shift in our perception of what is means to be female. We, as women, have intrinsic value and agency which should be reflected in all areas of our personal and professional lives, many now prepared to publicly name and shame those who seem not to have got the memo. Since then, we have seen what has been termed the ‘Weinstein Effect’, with many more cases of similar misconduct coming to light after the landmark case opened the jar to a giant can of worms.

While this loosening of tongues is clearly a step in the right direction, it has some unpleasant side-effects, the principal one being that it shatters the comfortable illusion that feminism is becoming unnecessary, even obsolete in a society that pays lip-service to equality. All of these horrific and disturbing cases shine the spotlight on what we’d rather not see or acknowledge, that being the unsolved problem of gender inequality. In January, it emerged that a men-only event took place in London hosted at the President’s Club, dubbed “the most un-PC night of the year”. Hostesses were required to wear tight-fitting black dresses and heels to cater to powerful male businessmen, many of whom were accused of inappropriate behavior towards the women present. The flurry of news stories that came afterwards were shocking, many incredulous that this type of behavior and culture are still around in 2018, though should we really be so surprised? To look on the bright side, however, while the event itself shows how long the journey ahead still is, the public outcry that succeeded it shows just how far we have come.

Now, the conversation needs to translate into the lives of everyday women. So far, the debate has arguably been dominated by a select group, namely wealthy white Western women who, while they may be doing great work, are not representative in any way of all women and the huge variety of difficulties that they face. It will take much more than a privileged few who have little to lose donning expensive and glamorous black gowns and tweeting a few hashtags to really change things. We need to recognize the vital importance of intersectional feminism as it is the only way to truly support and further the interests of all women, particularly across racial and gender divides. The actress Rose McGowan, for example, has recently been criticized for failing to acknowledge this diversity of experience, a classic case of denying the problem exists if it doesn’t exist for her, though it most certainly does. White women, for instance, have benefited most from affirmative action, the playing field far from level for women of color. Liv Little, the founder and editor in chief of gal-dem magazine puts it well in a Guardian article, asserting that:

“We need to start by trying to empower the women with the biggest number of intersections, rather than white, middle-class women, who probably have the fewest gaps when it comes to their opportunities versus those of white men. We need to do better when it comes to the inclusion of trans women’s experiences and those of women who are not cis and able-bodied.”

 So far, the spotlight has been on a select number taking to social media and other campaigning platforms, though this is only the tip of the iceberg. The Guardian shines light on standout cases around the world, with Spanish women going on strike for the day to mark International Women’s Day. Hundreds of South Korean women are taking to the streets wearing black to support the #MeToo movement in Seoul. Thousands of female aid workers across the world have composed an open letter to push for reform in the sector.

So, this International Women’s day, while we should recognize and be proud of the progress that has and is being made, we must also acknowledge that there is still a long way to go. It would be utterly premature to pat ourselves on the back as there are still still formidable obstacles for ordinary women to overcome across intersections such as race, class, sexual orientation and gender identity. While things might have improved for a portion of the population, there are still many for whom this apparent progress is still not being felt. Today should be a celebration of all women and of how far we’ve come, but also a reminder that there is still a hell of a lot to push on with.

pink is a powerful colour

It was only after a friend pointed out that my wardrobe was slowly beginning to look like a collection of cast-offs from from Clueless that I really considered how much I love the colour pink. Dusky, pale and delicate, I can safely say that I am going through my pink phase now as an adult, having missed out on one as a so-called ‘tomboy’ child. Though it is arguably a much misunderstood colour, I would like to come to its defence against popular opinion to maintain that the colour pink is an empowering symbol of the feminine that I, as a female, am proud to show off. IMG_3225 (2)In abstract, pink has far more positive connotations than one might originally think; psychologically speaking, for instance, it is associated with tenderness, love and compassion, hugely important and valuable characteristics for anyone to possess. We are doing ourselves a disservice by disassociating these qualities with masculinity, carelessly conceiving of gender in binary categories with little thought to the effect on the mental health of those exposed, young children being particularly vulnerable to such black-and-white thinking.

Admittedly, pink can indeed be representative of an unhealthy version of femininity, particularly in regards to the way that products and lifestyles are marketed to young people. It is no coincidence that pink gender-oriented products are intended for girls and often endorse a problematic interpretation of what it means to be feminine, the emphasis placed on passivity and unassertiveness, even fragility by implication. The industry is dominated by of princesses, unicorns and plastic babies, only furthering the promotion of the values listed above. In recent years, there has been much coverage of the issue of prescribing lifestyles and behaviours on the basis of biological sex, often to the detriment of mental health and self-image. Arguably, however, it is not pink that is the problem, but society’s perception of the nature of femininity, it being entirely possible to reclaim this misunderstood colour to be a symbol of empowerment and strength rather than humility and submissiveness.

Pink is the colour of Japan’s world famous cherry blossom or ‘sakura’ which draws visitors from all over the world to admire its beauty and transience. Pink is the colour that flooded my cheeks after my recovery from life-threatening anorexia, a signifier of my regained strength and health. Indeed, pink is the colour that the thousands of women chose to wear as hats at the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, the largest single day rally in the history of the US that united women across boundaries of gender, race, sexuality and religion. In the past, even, pink was a colour intended for boys as it was the more ‘vibrant’ shade said to denote strength and vigour.

womens march 2017

What symbols represent is relative and often determined by one’s cultural reference point, hence there a flexibility to them that allows for diversity of meaning. Contrary to Western ideas about the benevolent sun and the “jealous” moon, for example, the Bacongo of Angola believe, according to Jogn S. Mbiti, ”the moon is the place of coolness and happiness where good men go after death; and the sun is the place of punishment for the wicked”.  Naturally, symbols often have a flipside, much like the colour pink as a symbol of femininity; yes, as a female I can be empathetic, I can be tender, I can be caring but I can also be vibrant, full of strength, love and self-belief.

It’s possible, then, that pink is so divisive a colour because it is a symbol of the conflicted and complex way women are viewed in society. Socially, pink has become representative of the feminine whether you like it or not, making the issue about how this symbol is to be interpreted. Yes, it can have a crippling and detrimental impact on the way women see themselves and their purpose in life when it is aligned with crippling and detrimental views about the role of women. In like manner, it becomes empowering then it is interpreted as encompassing all of the positive aspects of femininity.

ladies, stand up

“If you have unshakable faith in yourself, in your sisters and in the possibility of change, you can do almost anything” so said the said the Liberian social activist Leymah Gbowee in her book Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation at War. After listening to an inspiring interview of Liberia’s outgoing president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, I felt compelled to do a little digging into the country’s history to observe her path to becoming Africa’s first woman in the presidential office, a journey made possible by the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, led by the single mother Leymah Gbowee. I am ashamed that I was ignorant of so monumental a peace movement, run by ordinary women, what would have such far-reaching, lasting consequences not only for Africa, but for the international political community as a whole.

It is worth here giving a brief outline of Liberia’s history, the West African country emerging from a colony of American ex-slaves in the 19th century, only to gain its independence as the Republic of Liberia thirty years later. For decades, the political sphere was dominated by Americo-Liberians, the descendants of the freed slaves that migrated there decades before, leading to growing tensions among the indigenous community who felt they were being neglected and cheated by the ruling class. This state of affairs continued until the president William Tolbert was killed in a military coup led by Samuel Doe, an indigenous Liberian, whose leadership – the result of a fraudulent election – was violent and bloody, swiftly publicly executing members of Tolbert’s cabinet after his rise to power. During his rule, another uprising occurred, led by Charles Taylor sparking a long and bloody civil war, after which he was elected president. Throughout his leadership, he was accused of supporting the perpetration of the torture, rape, mutilation and murder of thousands of innocent citizens, many of whom were displaced from their homes, the principal victims being women and children.

It was this 14 year long civil war that compelled Leymah Gbowee to action, herself a single mother and social worker working with UNICEF to counsel those who had been traumatized by war, putting her into contact with some of the most vulnerable members of Liberian society, some of whom were ex-child soldiers. In 2002, she reported having a dream in which God spoke directly to her, telling her to gather the women of Liberia together to lobby for peace and an end to the fighting and hostilities that had caused untold suffering and devastation to thousands or innocent, ordinary people like herself. She begun at her Church, forming the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace whose supporters demonstrated continually at a local fish market with signs and placards, all dressed in white as a symbol of peace, strategically choosing the route they knew the president to take everyday on his way to and from work. Significantly, Muslim women made up a large part of the assembly, Gbowe credited with uniting women across cultural divides in the name of peace and prosperity for Liberia and the future of their children.

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Leymah Gbowee

Suffice it to say, the movement grew to encompass thousands of women, eventually succeeding in making direct contact with the president when Gbowee issued a speech to Taylor, refusing to turn her back to him, where she declared “We [the women of Liberia] are tired of war. We are tired of running…We are now taking this stand to secure the future of our children”. Later, peace talks would be held in Ghana following pressure from the international community as well as the women’s movement, an event attended by many supporters of Gbowee’s cause. After weeks of seeing little change, the women staged a sit-in at the presidential palace where they prevented anyone in attendance from leaving until a satisfactory outcome had been reached, Gbowee resisting arrest by threatening to strip naked as, in her words, “You [they] have taken all of this from me, I’m giving you [them] the last bit of my pride”, whereupon they released her. Not long afterwards, a peace deal was reached and Charles Taylor was exiled and imprisoned in Nigeria charged with crimes against humanity throughout his six year presidency.

Many argue that is was largely the work of these brave, inspiring women that facilitated the election of Africa’s first woman president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, often credited with stabilizing a country that had for years been in the grip of violence and corruption.

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Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace

Sirleaf is herself another inspiring woman in Liberia’s political history; a victim of an abusive relationship and imprisoned twice for opposing the government Johnson Sirleaf still managed to ascend to the presidency through democratic election, going on to implement free primary education for Liberia’s children, attract valuable foreign investment, promote equal rights for women and stabilize a country long at war, though she has been the recipient of fierce criticism for tolerating corruption within the presidential circle as well as nepotism. It is unsurprising, then, that both Sirleaf and Gbowee are recipients of the Nobel Peace prize for their work in fighting for social justice and peace for their country despite all of the odds that seemed to work against their favour.

These women provide us with clear proof of the strength and grace of ordinary women, show us that women wield extraordinary power both as individuals but, more importantly, as a unit. When women put on a united front, there is little they cannot achieve, as Liberia’s Women’s movement demonstrates. Ladies, stand up.