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"The rising of the women means the rising of us all"

In the 1970s, the women’s liberation movement had a badge that proclaimed: women who seek equality with men lack ambition. We don’t want to participate as equals in the violence, oppression and greed of patriarchal power, says Rebecca Johnson.

Yesterday, women crossed bridges all over the world to celebrate International Women’s Day. I joined them too, but to demonstrate more than celebrate. Despite significant gains in the hundred years since Clara Zetkin proposed International Working Women’s Day to focus on our rights and needs, we still have a long way to go.

Economic improvements over the century have not done as much for women as for men. In far too many countries and societies women’s security and economic conditions have been sliding backwards in the past 25 years. Education opportunities for girls lag behind the provisions for boys in many countries, while jobs and pay remain far from equal.

This year also marks the anniversary of the demand for ‘bread and roses’, which was reproduced on many banners and turned into a stirring song. Speaking in 1911 to New York immigrant textile workers, Rose Schneiderman declared, “The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too. Help, you women of privilege, give her the ballot to fight with.”

A hundred years later, women have the vote in all but a handful of backward states, but we continue to be woefully under-represented in the majority of governments and parliaments around the world. In Britain, only the Green Party is led by a woman. As the sole Green MP in the Westminster Parliament, Caroline Lucas’s astute and pertinent interventions are a beacon of intelligence and integrity; but there are limits to what one or just a handful of women can do to bring about political change if male-dominated majorities cling to long-standing political cultures that are abusive and dysfunctional.

On May 5 we will have a chance to change the antidemocratic first past the post voting system in a UK-wide referendum. Bringing in the Alternative Vote (AV) system isn’t as radical as proportional representation and it won’t be a panacea, but it will make a positive difference. Vote against AV and keep the devil you know, say the Tories. Well they would, wouldn’t they? By enabling people to register their vote for the person, party and policies they really want and have that preference -- and second and even third choices – count, AV will increase accountability, reduce tactical voting and make it more possible for the voices of feminists, environmentalists and other challengers of the status quo to be heard. We owe it to the suffragettes who were imprisoned and force fed to exercise our right to vote at every election, but in some constituencies the first past the post system made us feel disenfranchised all over again. The suffragettes won us the vote, so let’s get out and use it to make our electoral system a bit fairer and more democratically accountable.

Like masculine political culture, international banking and financial services have turned out to be incapable of sensible self management. Chasing ever inflated phantom profits, they turned into crazy betting shops, but when their casinos of cards all came crashing down, men at the top pocketed undeserved winnings, while hard-working taxpayers were forced to pay the bills. Struggling families lost jobs and homes. And now, in Britain, students, pensioners and mothers (whether working inside or outside the home) stand to suffer most from the swingeing Conservative-LibDem Coalition budget cuts and unfair implementation by government departments and local councils. As always, such cuts disproportionately punish women, especially part-time workers, the women we rely on most to care for the sick and disabled, and the women and children who need refuges and support centres to help them escape and survive domestic violence. So yesterday we were also protesting the cuts, including the closure of libraries that open up a lifetime of reading and bring so much pleasure and stimulation, especially for children and disadvantaged families.

Another demand long associated with International Women’s Day has been a Woman’s Right to Choose. Yet organised religions around the world have mounted a backlash, so that millions of girls and women are routinely prevented from controlling their own sexuality and fertility. Campaigns to phase out genital mutilation may be slowly gaining ground, but rape is still regarded as a cure (or punishment) to intimidate and undermine lesbians, political protesters and other uppity women that refuse to conform. Rape has long been a weapon used by men to terrorise, subjugate, control and destroy, but it seems as if our globalised, multimedia world has found ways to normalise and commodify sexual violence. Rape doesn’t just happen in war, it is war. From girls raped by gangs or family members to the trafficked women kept terrified in brothels and locked rooms, where they are forced to provide services for thousands of men (and some women) who seem to think there’s nothing wrong with prostitution and pornography. Unsurprising then that a new generation of feminists have come together to organise Million Women Rise events at this time of year. As we joined them or crossed the bridges yesterday, it was a time to reflect on what we are going to do in the next years and decades to halt violence against women?

Security is the missing link. While cutting education, local services and housing, the British government still plans to find billions of pounds for another generation of Trident nuclear weapons. What for? Will this deter the violent attackers that prey on women? Will it remove guns and knives from the hands of badly educated young men, train peace-keepers or build the necessary alliances of peoples and nations to tackle global heating, climate chaos, terrorism and traffickers? Nuclear weapons do nothing to solve or protect against the actual threats that most people fear. On the contrary, they exacerbate and perpetuate the power structures and military mindsets that feed proliferation and insecurity.

When UN Security Council resolution 1325 was unanimously adopted in 2000 it was intended that women would be recognised not only as the primary victims of militarism and insecurity, but as agents of change. It was recognised that if women were equal participants in decisions on disarmament, peace and security, then much more would be achieved. For women to participate fully in peace-building, peace-keeping and security decision-making does not necessarily require our integration into the current militarised systems. On the contrary, the purpose of calling for women’s participation in all decision-making on peace and security issues was to create the conditions for disarming, transforming and demilitarising relations between peoples and nations. These are the fundamental objectives for which Women in Black stand in silent vigils every week at the foot of the statue of Edith Cavell in London, joining similar demonstrations around the world, from Jerusalem to Belgrade, Bogotá to Bangalore. Women’s lives are daily testimony to the fact that peace cannot be delivered by force or violence. We are reframing what security means and rejecting patriarchal myths of deterrence based on nuclear weapons or, at street level, on gangs and guns.

Women have been at the heart of recent protests that have toppled despots across the Middle East. Egyptian women were leaders, campaigners and powerful spokespeople alongside the men, also helping to defuse violence and aggression during the long days in Tahrir Square last month. In one inspiring demonstration that was ignored by the mainstream press, Code Pink and Egyptian women’s groups brought thousands of flowers and distributed to the protesters, army and passers by. Yet now Hosni Mubarak is gone, the army-led transitional government has been constituted as a men-only enterprise, shutting women out of decision-making once again.

In the 1970s, the women’s liberation movement had a badge that proclaimed: women who seek equality with men lack ambition. We don’t want to participate as equals in the violence, oppression and greedy stupidity of patriarchal power. We want shared power, rights and resources to change all that and build peace and security in a much safer, better world. After a hundred years, what will it take to cross over the chasm that separates women’s needs, rights and hopes from the reality of insecurity, violence and impoverishment suffered by so many?

As I’ve been writing this, lines from the song ‘Bread and Roses’ keep going round in my head: “For the rising of the women means the rising of us all” and “Hearts starve as well as bodies, give us bread but give us roses!”


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