Friday, 8 March 2013

International Women's Day: The good, the bad and the smug...

It's International Women's Day. Should we celebrate? Be really angry about stuff? Argue about shit that doesn't actually matter? Ignore the whole damn thing and take a nap?

Every year, someone always asks why there isn't an International Men's Day. There is one on November 19. You can read about it here. But what about today? What are we meant to do about it?

Today, there has been an outbreak of women arguing over whether we should take our husbands' surnames if we get married. This was largely in response to this Jill Filopovic column in the Guardian - the insane thing is that I kept my name when I got married but I still think Filopovic wrote a smug and sneering piece that ends on an asinine note about Facebook.

Seriously, this nonsense has to stop - it is a debate for the privileged. Ironically, in many Middle Eastern countries, the kind of places often flagged up by western women as beacons of oppression, it is common for married women to not take their husbands' name. If you get married, take his name, don't take his name, go double-barrelled, blend the surnames, it's entirely your choice. And feminism is about respecting all women's choices, even ones you wouldn't make for yourself.

Moving swiftly along...

If International Women's Day makes people think about their attitude towards women, about how they treat women and how they can do better from this day forward, that is a good thing.

If International Women's Day raises awareness of serious issues and is the catalyst for people to actually do something about them rather than getting outraged for a day and then forgetting about it, that is a good thing.

If International Women's Day raises money for causes that help women, such as education and healthcare programmes in developing countries, that is a good thing.

If International Women's Day helps people realise that feminism is not about being perpetual victims and that feminists come in all shapes and sizes, that is a good thing.

But if the day is spent arguing over minutiae, when there are women who are truly suffering, and possibly even dying, because of truly oppressive conditions and because their rights have been eroded or never existed in the first place, we have a problem. When feminism is seen as smug women sniping at each other, trying to outdo each other and win some imaginary feminism trophy, we have a problem. That is when feminism starts to look stupid. That is when real issues fall by the wayside.

No matter what you do or don't do to mark International Women's Day, we will not wake up tomorrow to a world of gender equality, a world free of rape, a world where girls and boys have equal access to school education, a world where female genital mutilation has been consigned to the dustbin of history, a world where women are not trafficked into sexual slavery, a world where women everywhere have freedom of movement, a world where both sexes are treated equally before the law, a world of equal employment opportunities, a world where women and men will always earn equal pay for equal work, a world of reproductive freedom, a world where female politicians will be judged on merit rather than appearance, a world where girls and women are not forced into marriages against their will and so on and so forth...

Celebrate women's achievements today and reflect on how much progress has been made for many women in many places, by all means, but don't kid yourself that one day a year will make everything OK.   


  1. On FGM, obviously I think it's an abomination, but I read this article a few weeks ago that I couldn't completely dismiss out of hand. Is there anything to her argument?

    1. I'm dismissing! Yes, she chose to have her own genitals cut and it was done in a sterile environment but she is writing from a position of privilege. While she was lucky enough to not be cut in a filthy environment by an untrained "surgeon" and lucky enough to be able to make an educated choice, she is still complicit in continuing a sexist culture which kills and injures thousands of women every year.

      No matter how she tries to justify it and no matter how "minor" she claims her operation was, it is still a procedure that aims to put women in their place, to deny them sexual pleasure (regardless of how great she claims her post-op orgasm was...), to maintain sexual double standards between men and women and to catergorise women as either virgins or whores.

      Her parallel to women undergoing labioplasty for cosmetic reasons, just as she did something similar for cultural reasons, is an interesting comparison. Many women certainly do undergo such procedures for non-medical reasons, that is their choice and, as such, it should be done in sterile conditions. (I hasten to add that any genital surgery conducted for non-medical reasons should not be covered by Medicare/NHS/Obamacare etc but that is another debate entirely).

      But in the case of the writer and the case of women who have surgery in order to obtain a "designer vagina", there is a breathtaking lack of examination of the bigger picture. The culture that requires women and girls to submit to genital cutting, often with little choice in the matter, is as misogynistic as the culture that decries female genitalia as disgusting if it doesn't look like a neat, trim, hairless porn star "ideal".

      If women want to cut their own genitals for cultural or cosmetic reasons, that is their choice. But all choices should be informed choices. If you're submitting to any of these mutilations for non-medical reasons, you are part of an awful culture. It would behoove all women contemplating such procedures to pause and think about the bigger picture.

      Cultural change is hard and usually takes generations to achieve. But ending FGM for cultural reasons is a pretty good place to start.