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Words In the Bucket

Feminism is often branded in the wrong way: many think of women who grow their armpit hairs really long, have loads of meaningless sex (what is that anyways?) and are extremely angry with men. They are misled.

In the last few days I have been hearing the word feminism more often than usual. Just yesterday on ‘The Guardian’ there was an article on the words, such as nag and whine, which have stigmatized girls for decades and “that we do not want to hear no more”. Or in the past few days, when the ‘celebrity nude scandal’ that has sparked discussions on how women’s bodies are objectified, and that woman are never going to be left alone.

When I hear all this talk about feminism, I always wonder whether people really understand what it means. I think every once in a while, we need to remind ourselves what it is we are fighting for to avoid other ideals and emotions from getting in the way and take us away from the main aim.

Usually, people that fight for too long end up often saying they forgot what it is they started fighting for. This should be avoided at all costs.

The meaning of feminism is extremely confused. Doing a simple Google research, one can find hundreds of different interpretations of what feminism is, has been and will be. It is a hot topic.
I decided to stick with this one definition: “Feminism: the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes”. I would like to highlight the word EQUALITY, as I think it is the main point of feminism.

During my university years we had a “Feminism” module in one of our international politics courses. I had to read about all the different facets of feminism, from the extremists to the moderate and that is when I started building a stronger and more conscious opinion of the subject. I admit it, I found most literature on feminism very boring. I was often annoyed, and thought that some of the actions done in the name of feminism are an exhibitionist exaggeration and simply shift the point away from what it really stands for.

Take FEMEN for example, a Ukrainian- founded feminist group which has made topless protests and drastic actions the “new thing” in the feminist wave. There is no denying that these women have courage and that their protests definitely stir things up. I never understood, however, why they had to get topless and write things like “ Pope no more” or “F**k your morals” on their breasts in public places. It seems to me that this derails the attention away from what feminism stands for and actually gives bigots and opponents of feminism more justifications .
Undoubtedly, it creates chaos and media upheaval, but just like every extreme act, they create a hurricane that dies very quickly. I do not think it is the most effective way of bringing the message of equality of the sexes. I believe everyone should express their views in whichever way they believe, but I choose to stick with another representation of feminism.

Chimamanda Adichie, whose books I love and whose person I respect, gave a speech on TedEx in 2013: “We should all be feminists”. With unprecedented elegance she manages to explain what living as a woman in this world is, focusing on African (Nigerian in this case) society. Other than describing the discrimination that women receive, she makes the very intelligent argument that women are often taught by their mothers and fathers not to “intimidate the man”,  to shrink themselves, make themselves smaller so as to protect the man (from what?) and make him think that he is ‘stronger’ and ‘better’. How we are educated and how we educate is something that we must consider in the gender discourse.

This is to say that, as many other social attitudes, this can be also considered a cultural problem, and we can do something to change that. I do not want to get into the religious discourse, as this would shift you from the point of this article. Adichie intelligently quotes:

“Culture does not make people, people make culture”

This is a phrase that points out something we tend to forget. We have the power to modify the way we live, and the way other people live.

By changing the way we educate the next generations, and by behaving differently in our daily lives (at the store, at the gym, in school), we can change the way of living of future generations and feminism will be a word we do not even have to look for, as it will be defined in our daily lives.


Words In the Bucket

Gender is at the top of the agenda in International Development.

“ Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women” is the third Millennium Development Goal (MDG)[1], announced in 2000 by the Secretary General of the UN. The promoting part of the goal has been tackled, now it is time to act.

International news and press releases from pressure groups like Amnesty International constantly share news of women suffering abuse, of different kinds. In India, there has been a  case on the link between lack of access to hygiene and rape; women and girls are raped on the way to find a clean place to use the toilet.  Another story is the one of Meriam Ibrahim, who was sentenced to death for apostasy because she married a Christian man in Sudan. She was arrested and forced to give birth in a dirty prison, in chains. Not to mention the 200 million children that are estimated to be victims of sexual abuse every year. The situation worsens when there is an ongoing conflict, as protective networks usually collapse during this time. This was one of the biggest topics at the world summit to end sexual violence during conflict a few weeks ago in London. Most of the victims of rape during war are women, so gender-based violence was big on the agenda too.

As we approach the New Year many international organisations are pushing for women and girls to be at the top of the post 2015 MDG agenda. The Nike funded “girl effect” has for example released a Girls Declaration which is a call for action linking women empowerment to poverty alleviation.

The Guardian Global Development recently featured an interactive graph showing Women’s rights by country (please see below- it’s worth a watch). It gives a great overview the legal side of the topic (which often is what actually changes things) showing country by country, what laws and legislations prevent or allow women’s rights.

Gender is everywhere.

A few weeks ago I received a notification from a discussion group on LinkedIn that discusses gender issues. The discussion started with the question:

“How do you define empowering women in few words? All women want to be empowered but a few women seek power”

I was baffled. I did not, and still do not, think that there is a way of defining “women empowerment” in a few words. I also don’t agree with the second statement on women not seeking power -what does seeking power mean anyways?

As I expected, a series of clichéd explanations started coming up in the comments to this question. Some suggested that empowering women was giving them self-confidence, others mentioned equal treatment within the law, others suggested economic independence, and some spoke of access to health care and quality education, the list goes on. All valid points, but they still were not a holistic explanation of what women empowerment really means.

As I read on, it became clear that finding one sentence was probably not possible, the definitions – or indicators-  that define women empowerment are too many.

Ruth Alsop and Nina Heinsohn describe empowerment as the ‘capacity to make effective decisions and convert them into desired outcomes”.  This made me think that perhaps though it was not possible to use one sentence to describe women empowerment, ironically it would have been possible to use one word: CHOICE.

When an individual is able to choose – socially, politically and economically- they are free and therefore become empowered. Having the possibility to express your religious or political views, to be able to wear what you want, and to choose your own path is what we should aspire for every human being to have.

Just yesterday the European court for Human Rights ruled the French ban on veil as not being a violation of human rights.  Yet another example of taking away women’s choice.

With the deadline of Beijing +20 and many women around the world still not enjoying basic human rights, now is the moment to spur recommitment on women rights.

Although I don’t undermine the importance of definitions, having worked in the development sector and in an emergency context, I think the time has come – after years of promoting and defining gender-related words –  to stop trying to give words a meaning and Give Women a Choice.