It’s about freedom. Basically that’s what it’s all about. The right to your own life. The right to dream your own dreams. The right to decide over your own actions. The right to decide over your own body and what happens to it. That’s what we mean when we talk about human rights. And how ever we twist and turn this issue there’s no getting away from the fact that if you want to have the full right to decide over your own life you should avoid being born a woman. Regardless of where you look on this planet men have greater freedom that women. Of course there are lot of other things you should avoid if you want freedom; for instance being non-white, non-heterosexual, disabled or poor. But above all you should avoid being a woman. Of all the poor people in this world 70% are women. 99% of the worlds assets are owned by men. Women do 60% of the labour in this world but earn 10% of the money. There’s just no way to shrug those statistics off.
We can talk about injustice, unfair distribution, power abuse, corruption, we can all agree that our world isn’t fair. It’s true. And we do talk about it, but in those conversations we very rarely state that it’s actually also a gender issue. The world isn’t fair, but it’s even less fair if you’re a woman. No matter how bad the situation is in a country, be it war, famine or poverty, there’s one thing you can be sure of, and that’s that the situation for women and girls will be worse. Regardless of where we are in the world it’s always worse to be a woman. Why is that?
The oppression of women is never the highest item on the political agenda, it’s always one of the “minor issues”, one of those issues that aren’t as important. In all the debates on global poverty the blatant connection to gender is never mentioned, it becomes a sub-issue. Women are made into a “special interest” group whose interests can be pretty much be disregarded. Oppression of women becomes an issue that’s not really important. It’s not one of the big issues on the global political agenda. But 51% of the world’s population are women. How can something that concerns more than half of the world’s population be considered a “special interest”? And when looking at aid initiatives targeting poverty the results are unanimous: if you give the aid directly to women it will reach more people, children, old people, even men, the distribution will be wider and the success sustainable. It actually works. It’s been proven time and time again that if you really want increased living quality, disease and hunger reduction, financial stability and sustainable change for everyone, women should be the target for aid. And yet, this is not the rule, it’s the exception. Even though the evidence couldn’t be clearer, from an economic standpoint, anything else is even irrational, but it’s still not the rule. Why is that?
When we say “human”, what do we actually mean? What’s the norm for a human? What archetype are we referring to? Is it a woman in Rwanda? A girl in Bangladesh? Or even a lady in Brighton? No, when we speak of a human we are referring to a man. A white, heterosexual middle-class man in the western world. That’s a human. Strange isn’t it? How did we end up having a an absolute minority be the norm? And even if we extend it to include non-white people it still doesn’t include women. Women are an exception. We speak of freedom of speech, democracy and human rights. We criticize governments who hold political prisoners, we condemn acts of terrorism. It’s all on the public agenda. And at times, as a parenthesis, we can even go as far as to state that it’s important that women’s rights are taken into consideration. That they get access to education, that they have the right to vote. But in the subtext one burning fact stands out: Human rights and women’s rights are not synonymous. Human rights equal men’s rights. The UN even saw it necessary to formulate separate documents about women’s rights:
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women
Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women
Human rights weren’t enough, a special document explaining that these actually applied to women too, was needed. That women have rights too. That women are also humans. Can a country really claim to be democratic without full gender equality? Of course not. Not if we by democracy mean the right and representation of all citizens. Less than 20% of the members of the worlds parliaments are women, but 51% of the worlds people are women. Is that democracy?
We are waging war against terror but not against sexism, even though sexism causes more death, harm, financial loss and suffering in society than terrorism will ever do, regardless of nation or part of the world. We spend billions on the prevention of acts of terrorism, but how much do we spend on preventing violence against women? In the western world men’s violence is one of the absolute biggest health threats to women of fertile age. In England more women in this age group die from violence perpetrated by a man close to them than from traffic accidents and cancer combined. In England. Not Rwanda or Afghanistan. England. And the women are not being murdered by strangers, but by men who are close to them, the men they live with. In Sweden, a country known for it’s work on gender equality work, a woman is beaten by a man she has a close relationship with every 20 minutes. And those are just the reported cases. The cases where a report is filed with the police. How often does it actually happen? No one knows. All we know is that the closer the victim and the perpetrator are, the less likely it is that a police report will ever be filed. So how many women are being beaten right now? How many are being raped? No one knows. But we do know that the most dangerous place a woman can be, statistically, is in her own home with her own husband. And we do know that the injuries, the sick leave, the emotional stress and the legal actions, costs millions. Form a pure financial perspective it would make more sense to invest in the battle against men’s violence against women than to build safer roads or prevent acts of terrorism. It would probably save more lives and financial resources than both combined. So why aren’t we doing anything?
We like to claim that we here in the west have come further, that it’s not as bad here as it is in Pakistan or Sudan. And it’s true. But it’s also true that even here in the western world a woman is more likely to get the blame for her rape on her self than to have it cast on the perpetrator. And if she was drunk when it happened the likelihood of being seen as what she is, the victim of a horrendous crime, is pretty much non existing. Even if the rapists are her friends. She should have known better. Should have behaved like a good girl. In the majority of rapes the victim and the perpetrator know each other. It may be dangerous to walk home alone at night, but for a woman it’s statistically a lot more dangerous to hang out with her male friends. Or her boyfriend. Or her husband. But strangely enough this is very rarely mentioned. As women we are warned about smoking, taught about healthy eating and the importance of exercise, but we are never warned about the danger of men. “Don’t walk home alone in the dark.” But that’s not where the greatest danger lurks. It’s actually at home. That’s where a woman will be beaten, raped and murdered. By someone she knows and trusts. Sure, it’s dangerous for women to smoke, but statistically, hanging out with men poses a much greater threat. Why aren’t we warned about that?
War, conflicts and terror are visible forms of violence. Violence that happens in public, out on the streets. But violence against women is not public. We are not shown scenes of men beating and raping their women on the TV-news. And yet we know there’s a connection. We know that away from the eye of the TV-cameras there are numerous of atrocities that are never seen and never reported. In war-zones the violence against women always increases. Always. The frequency may vary, but the connection is always there. Remember the war on the Balkans? The reports of systematical mass rape? There was nothing unique about that, no isolated anomaly. Soldiers die in public, become heroes and martyrs, but women’s suffering is never even mentioned. It’s invisible. And a woman is usually given the blame for her own suffering. It doesn’t matter that it was a rape, she’s still dirty and used. Her life has been stolen. But we don’t talk about it. It’s not on the political agenda. It doesn’t even constitute a ground for asylum.
If you are invisible, if your problems and suffering are not seen, do you exist? Does the reality you live in exist? How are you ever going to be able to take your experiences seriously if you are constantly told they don’t count? The oppression of women is turned into a private and personal matter. Something that doesn’t belong in the “real” discourse, on the public agenda. Is that reasonable? When we know that poverty and illiteracy have a gender? When we know that women only earn 50% of what men early globally? All we have to do to realize that this is not a private or personal matter but a political one, is to look at the numbers. It’s a structure, a system. A global structure. One of the clearest and most general we have. A structure that runs through all of society and penetrates deep into the private sphere of every culture on this planet. A structure that cuts into our consciousness, our very souls. It’s like racism, only much worse. Sexism is just as blatant, but goes even deeper, and it’s just as tangible in the public sphere as in the private. There’s no escaping. And that’s why we don’t talk about it. Because if we start talking about it we are forced to look at ourselves, at our own lives. To question ourselves, to question our lives, our values. And maybe we are afraid of the answers, of what we would see.
It’s all about structures and degrees. When does a friendly pat on the back turn into sexual harassment? At what point? And who decides? The right to your own body and the right to decided who gets access, we can all agree on that. But what happens when the guy who gropes you is your boss? If you risk losing your job if you speak up? And what happens when you get told that it’s just “appreciation”? That you should be thankful? And how many times does it have to happen before you stop even reacting to it? Before it just becomes reality, normality. Before you get used to it and just endure. How much does it take to distort your own inner boundaries? How many times do you have to be told that what you’re feeling is wrong before you adjust, succumb, give up? It’s a blurred line, a sliding scale, impossible to get a grip on, just like all oppression. A scale. The lynchings of black people in America, the holocaust, it’s just the most extreme examples, the most visible ones. And that’s usually when we spot it, when it reaches an extreme. There’s a difference between a push and a slap, but both are a manifestation of violence. There are no fixed boundaries. And if you turn equal pay, sexual harassment and violence into private issues it becomes even more difficult. It’s like a throwing a pebble in a pond; you see the impact when the object hits the surface, you hear the sound, but the collision is just part of the turn of events. Women earn less than men, hence they will have smaller pensions. Poverty becomes a continuum, reproduced throughout life. And a woman who’s forced to put up with sexual harassment in order to not be seen as impossible or to keep her job will not file a report. What happens to a girl when she gets told it’s her own fault her friends raped her? That she was too drunk or too provocative to be a credible victim? Where does that lead? On a personal level. On a societal level. What’s the full impact of that?
We have to stop thinking that sexism and oppression of women is a private issue. It’s a political and global issue. Systematized oppression and violence can never be a private issue. Its structures constantly being reproduced on all levels. These are not isolated or individual events. It’s no coincidence that men own 99% of the assets in the world. It’s no coincidence that 70% of the world’s poor are women. And it’s no coincidence that less 20% of the world’s parliament members are women. It’s no coincidence and there are no valid excuses.
Initially I said that it’s all about freedom, and I know that being a woman in western Europe means I have more freedom than a woman in Pakistan, but do I have the same freedom as a man in western Europe? Does a woman in Pakistan have the same freedom as a man in Pakistan? That’s how the comparison has to be made, otherwise we’re talking apples and pears. It’s about structures and that’s why we have to look at the whole picture. We know that the world isn’t just, that the distribution of resources and finances is unfair, but the difference is that gender inequality cuts right through all the layers, through all groups, with no exception. It’s omnipresent in all areas of our lives and everywhere on the planet. And that’s why it’s an issue about basic human rights. So are women human?
The International Women’s day is more than a hundred years old and a lot has happened in those hundred years, but I’m still not sure we can answer the question with a “yes”. We still live in a world where women are oppressed for no other reason than their gender, where women aren’t considered to actually be humans. And the only way to change this is to open our eyes and see. Really see what’s going on. We’re obliged to see. And once we do there’s no going back. You see even more. And when you do, how can you refrain from screaming? From despairing. From exploding with pure rage.
I want to live in a world where my chances for freedom aren’t dependent on having a penis. It’s not fair and it’s not reasonable. Why shouldn’t I be allowed to live the life I want, to make my own choices, just because I happen to be born a woman? Do we really want a world like that? A world were women aren’t humans. And if we don’t, we have to dare to see. We have to admit that this is a structural problem and we have to act. It’s our duty. Women are humans and we have to protest when we are not treated as such. Every time. Only if we do this can we ever change the world. Only if we all start seeing and protesting can we create a world where gender isn’t part of the definition of a human. A world were women are humans too.