Category Archives: Achieving equality

Guest post: International Women’s Day; though I have freedom, I don’t have equality

This (our first ever guest blog post) was written by @VivEgan41 to mark International Women’s Day

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and I did some marvelous things to mark the occasion.

I woke up next to my boyfriend with whom I have a respectful, loving relationship. I don’t have to worry about getting pregnant with any unwanted babies because I live in a country where contraception is easily accessible and affordable. If something ever goes wrong, I’ll have access to a safe abortion if that’s how I choose to handle it. I may get married one day or I may not, but it’s not something I have to think or worry about – neither my self-worth nor my financial standing will be affected by it. I don’t feel judged by society that I’m unmarried and sexually active.

I went to work in my job as editor of an online magazine. I’m lucky that, in a fraught market, I get paid a decent wage, the equal of what a man would be paid in my job. I’m extra lucky that I have the skills to do the job because my parents invested in my education, and encouraged my talents and extra-curricular activities. I’m respected by my colleagues in a workplace where there are more women than men, and they’re in roles of authority, and no-one thinks it’s weird. Harassment of any kind is about as likely as my boss doing cartwheels down the corridor (really unlikely).

After work, I bought two bottles of red wine. I don’t live in a time or a place where women drinking booze is frowned upon, or outlawed. I walked around alone, at night, without fearing for my safety, and without being judged for not being accompanied by a male relative.

I visited friends for dinner. A male friend, Jack, cooked, as he does pretty much every day. Sometimes I cook for him when we hang out. We both enjoy cooking. We usually share the washing up, or else Jack does it because he’s a bit of a neat freak, and I let him because I’m not a neat freak.

There was a game of two-a-side trivial pursuit, boys versus girls. The girls lost by a narrow margin, but no-one implied, even as a joke, that it was because women aren’t as intelligent as men (if anything it was because I’m Aussie and didn’t know the answers to questions about East Enders and the British Parliament, but who’s counting?).

OK, so I didn’t do anything particularly out of the ordinary yesterday, but everything I did on International Women’s Day was a small, but miraculous thing thing because I enjoy freedoms as a woman that are unprecedented, anywhere, ever. I will never forget – and I’ll always be grateful – that I’m benefiting from the struggle of the women who have gone before me. I call myself a feminist in honour of them, in honour of the women who still lack the freedoms I have, and in honour of the continuing struggle for the freedoms we’re all still striving for, because though I have freedom, I don’t have equality.

When every last woman in Saudi Arabia is allowed to drive, when no female foetus is aborted because of her sex, when no employer begrudges maternity or paternity leave, when no female politician’s worth is judged in tandem with what she is wearing, when images of women are no longer grossly misrepresented by the print media, when there is no genital mutilation, when every other day isn’t International Men’s Day, when we have equal political representation and boardroom presence, when there is no violence against women, when we have stamped out a thousand little instances of sexism and scared off a billion misogynists, then we’ll have equality.


The mini-skirt of the Internet?

I’m going to attempt to live blog from the Social Media Week London “Women In A Room” event. When I say live blog, I really only mean “write while it happens so my laziness and short-timedness don’t mean I never write at all”. I will then, should this go ito plan, upload it pretty much straight after the event. You will of course then be captivated and simultaneously feel like you’ve been here all the time, while wishing you had been.

Great huh?

Well let’s just see how we go…

A hush descends … (Too theatrical?)


And now I’m on my train home. I didn’t write a jot of this during the event (I posted a few tweets though). Reason was, the event was excellent and I was too busy being a Woman In A Room. Plus there was much more participation than I’d anticipated and very little sit-back-and-think-of-feminism.

So here are my post-event thoughts.

Format: excellent. A couple of panellists, no presentations, just some questions to get them talking and to get the room warmed up. The wine was good too, for making friends. We then had a few questions (actually really informed comments more than questions) from the floor, before swiftly breaking into discussion groups. Brilliant chat followed, then more informal continuation of discussion and (ironically?) the socially normal closure by twitter name exchange.

Discussion: while the Laurie Penny article ostensibly started us off, the evening centred more on social media than I had anticipated. I was expecting something more broadly looking at women commenting and receiving comment online. I was imagining a couple of recent bad experiences I’d had commenting on articles in right leaning online papers.

So at first I confess to thinking the evening would be more basic, topic-wise, than I’d hoped. Oh ego-laden me…

The group I was part of included a community manager/PR person, a UI specialist and a feminist YouTube channel owner. And the topics we covered ranged from:

– the threat of the anonymous commenter, and the opportunities when using anonymity yourself

– the responsibility of media and community managers around moderation

– the ‘genderisation’ of language, tone and approach in social media

– the usefulness of multiple, disparate and fragmented social media channels to attempt to represent the many faces of a modern human (& the journeys they may be on)

The memorable bit: a question asking for the panellists’ opinions on a social meme which saw women tweeting and calling out abusive and rude names they are called under the #thingsyoucallme hashtag. One of the panellists said she’d be cautious of bringing attention to negativity and negative persons (disclaimer: I’m massively paraphrasing), and that by using their language (e.g. The C word) it reflects on you. Memorable? Yes, coz I got a bit angry and shakily told the room it reminded me of women rape victims being told that public knowledge of the rape will reflect badly on them. I stand by my comment and essentially….

Conclusion: …. I loved the event because it *wasnt* a bunch of women agreeing. Noone had an air of feeling they needed to agree for solidarity. We disagreed (often the commenting audience disagreeing with the panel) without aggression or accusation. But in the spirit of discussion and thought.

Well done Women In A Room. I’ll be back!

I’ll edit to add links when on a computer. Just google Women in a room for now!

Early stage feminists: how to make your point

Over the last couple of months I’ve been getting back into feminist activism in a big way. OK, nothing like as a big as some of the amazing women and men I have been meeting (mainly through twitter), but comparatively, for me, a big way.

I’ve been reading books, blogs, enlightening tweets… I’ve even been to my first feminist conference (Go Feminist, last weekend).  And I’ve got to the point where (I think!) I have learnt a bit better how to pick my fights than when I first started out.  By that I don’t mean I have *stopped* picking fights, rather I am getting better at which proof points to use to justify the requirement for feminism in a 21st century westernised country (which, let’s face it, is the gatekeeper to any productive feminist conversation if the other party is not already a convert).

So I had a nasty reminder of what it was like for me a mere couple of months ago when talking to a friend of mine this week – one of my latest recruits to the church of feminism.  I feel a sense of responsibility for igniting her interest and engagement with feminism (though perhaps I flatter myself).

Since beginning to practice her feminist arguments she has come under quite aggressive attack from friends and family telling her that not only is feminism a big fuss over nothing, but often asserting that it’s the men we need to be worried about protecting as our society is now so heavily laden with privilege for women than the boys are being left behind.

It reminded me of very similar conversations I had with loved ones (often more likely to be female than male).  These confrontations hurt, especially when you are new to the arguments and don’t have a watertight defence against “facts” that they throw at you, even when you know how wrong they are.

So I thought, in case anyone stumbles upon this blog post in the early days of their own feminist journey, I would pass on the advice I gave her, to avoid others becoming disheartened.

  1. The first thing to remember is to use their push back as a reminder of how inherent a subconscious acceptance of the “order of things” is in everyone’s minds. You don’t have to be a chauvinist to accept the current order, it just means you haven’t thought about it. So these friends and family members aren’t the enemy, they just need to be awoken to the situation.
  2. Arm yourself before entering any situation where you find yourself the sole defender of the feminist movement (whether when talking to your partner, or a pub full of colleagues). I am still massively cautious about starting these sorts of discussions because I am not an expert, however every book and article I read gives me more confidence and, importantly, more examples and anecdotes to prove my beliefs. It’s important to get a basic grounding in what UK laws do and don’t cover, and some stats that show the current lie of the land.  This basic grounding doesn’t require a 3 year gender studies degree; a couple of months of interested reading and conversations in your spare time and you will notice how much more knowledgeable and confident you come across in a conversation.
  3. Find accessible ways in for others.  So you’ve made your point and someone is showing the vaguest bit of interest in your philosophy.  Don’t lose them now! Keep a couple of films or book titles up your sleeve (not literally… though that’s an idea…) to recommend as a bite-sized next step into feminism.  My personal favourites are:

Three easy tips to get you started.  Does anyone else have any others they would like to share?

Is it our mums’ fault?

A survey from Netmums was splashed all over the papers in the UK on Wednesday: mums are more critical of their daughters than their sons, it said.

There are some pretty interesting discussions that could be had around the research, drawing links to the one feminist tome I have actually read (Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch).  In TFE, Greer reckons it is mothers who unconsciously create “female” attributes in the next generation of women – being more protective of them which makes them averse to taking risks, and teaching them enjoyment in looking pretty etc.   These “female” attributes are then banded around and used to beat women into submission when they dare suggest that our biological make up does NOT predispose us to “female” (read: underpaid, undervalued) roles in society.

But, believe it or not, this wasn’t the thing that struck me the most. This was:

“The 2,500-strong survey by parenting website Netmums found that although almost one half of mothers say they know it is wrong to treat boys and girls differently, almost 90% admit they do exactly that” (quoted from The Guardian).

No it’s not the 90% figure… look again…

ALMOST A HALF of mothers say they know its wrong to treat boys and girls differently? Do more than half of UK mothers REALLY think it’s right and proper to treat their children differently depending on gender? That worries me.

The Magic Circle – a female-free zone

The Times newspaper reports today (from behind its paywall – sorry!) that Clifford Chance MAY become the UK’s first magic circle law firm to appoint a woman as senior partner.

Which means that Clifford Chance, along with Allen & Overy, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Linklaters and Slaughter and May – the 5 biggest law firms in the UK – have NO females currently at the upper echelon of their partnerships.

The Times says that:

“Only a handful of the City’s top law firms have been run by women despite recent efforts to increase their number in senior posts. Dame Janet Gaymer, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, was senior partner of Simmons & Simmons for five years until 2006 and Lesley MacDonagh was managing partner of Lovells for a decade until 2005. None of the top 20 firms has a woman as senior or managing partner.”

Recent efforts? How hard can it be to be fair? Or are these firms going to try to argue that the female candidates who doubtless have run for such lofty positions in the past are simply never as good as their male colleagues?

Poor form.

Saudi Women Can Drive. Just Let Them.

This post is taken directly from the Washington Post Opinion section.  It is so powerful that I don’t want to edit it in any way.

Saudi Women Can Drive. Just Let Them.

By Wajeha Al-Huwaider
Sunday, August 16, 2009 Washington Post Opinion Section
DHAHRAN, Saudi Arabia Who is that woman who returns day after day to the border crossing, seeking to pass from Saudi Arabia to Bahrain, only to be turned away? She is me.
Who am I? A native of the city of Hufuf in eastern Saudi Arabia, where the world’s best dates are grown, a 47-year-old divorced mother of two teenage sons, and an employee of the vast Saudi oil company, Saudi Aramco.
I am not a dangerous person, so why do they turn me away? Because I refuse to present a document signed by my male “guardian,” giving his permission for me to travel. And why do I do that?
I possess such a document, but it is humiliating to have to produce it, and I am tired of being humiliated solely because I am a woman. So I have decided to try to leave my country without following the rules. I have urged other Saudi women to do likewise, and in recent weeks several have.
Everyone knows that women are denied rights in Saudi Arabia. And you may think that our fate is the same one that women in some other developing countries face, only a little worse. In truth, we endure a status that most Americans can scarcely imagine.
The guardianship rules are only part of a bigger system of subjugating women. Even with the permission of a guardian, a woman may not drive a car (except in some isolated rural areas and within the compounds that are home to many workers from Western countries). Obviously, there is nothing in the Koran that forbids driving. No, the reason we are not allowed to drive is that the power to transport ourselves would give men much less control over us.
So, one of my other campaigns has been for the right to drive. Last year on International Women’s Day I posted a video on YouTube of myself driving a car. It was filmed by another woman sitting in the passenger’s seat. I explained that many Saudi women who have lived abroad have driver’s licenses from other countries and would be happy to volunteer to teach our sisters how to drive. (That way they would not have to be alone in a car with a male driving instructor, lest terrible things happen.) This video has received more than 181,000 hits.
Earlier this year, while visiting my two sons at boarding school in Virginia (I send them there because I do not want them to grow up to be typical Saudi men), I staged a demonstration in front of a car dealership in Woodbridge. I addressed a message to U.S. automakers: Saudi women want to buy your cars (and many can afford to). But first, you must support our fight for the right to drive.
Women in Saudi Arabia may not go out without an abaya, an ugly black cloak that we have to wear on top of our regular clothes. You can imagine how great that feels in 100-degree heat. Saudi men, on the other hand, always wear white. In 2006, I dressed in pink when I staged a one-person protest march. It was the anniversary of the ascent of King Abdullah to the throne. By Saudi standards, Abdullah is a liberal, but he has not done nearly enough to change our situation. So I made a simple sign: “Give women their rights.”
I started in Bahrain. I had a taxi drive me to the border. After crossing to the Saudi side I pulled out my sign and marched along the causeway from the island nation to the Saudi mainland. After 20 minutes, a police car pulled up and officers arrested me. After a day of interrogation in the police station, the cops were prepared to release me. But of course they couldn’t release me into my own custody. I had to phone my younger brother to come act as my guardian.
Women are not allowed to participate in sports. How could you in an abaya? When I was very young, I was a tomboy. I loved to ride a bike, which my mother allowed, although most girls are forbidden because this activity might cost them their “virginity” by rupturing the hymen. When I was 7, my teacher tied my legs and beat me with a stick when she learned that I had been playing soccer with boys. Then she made me sit at my desk all day, without going to the bathroom or getting a drink of water.
While women are forced to be entirely dependent on men, men are allowed to follow their whims. A woman can get a divorce, but only by going through a laborious legal procedure in religious court. However, a man can divorce his wife merely by saying “I divorce you” three times. Although this is an ancient practice, these days the clerical authorities are debating whether the man has to say this in person, or if a text message will suffice. Already a judge in Jiddah has approved the first case of text-message divorce. The man was in Iraq to participate in jihad.
It’s also legal for men to marry girls as young as 7 and 8 years old. I have campaigned on behalf of an 8-year-old girl who was married off to a 50-year-old man. I posted a video on YouTube against child marriages, showing little girls and teenagers voicing their refusal to be child brides. The video was covered by local female writers, then picked up by CNN. This campaign terminated that marriage, and the little girl is free.
Several months ago, the Saudi minister of justice announced plans to ban child marriages, but nothing has happened. A few days ago a 70-year-old man married a 9-year-old girl in Jiddah. Her father technically sold his daughter for $4,000. The day after the wedding night, the little girl was missing. She was found by her brother in a candy shop where she used to go to buy sweets.
Then there’s polygamy. Saudi men are allowed to marry as many as four wives. Polygamy has destroyed many families. In my campaigns, I often feel that I am fighting for my mom.
After she married my father, she was informed by his mother that he already had another wife. When my mother confronted him, he assured her that she was his favorite and promised to divorce the first woman. For a time my mom was happy. But after a few years, she learned that my father had taken another wife. Now, my mom was no longer the favorite.
I was luckier than many. I married for love, and my former husband still holds a place in my heart, but we are no longer together. After the attacks on America in 2001, the Saudi government was embarrassed by the role of its citizens in this violence. To try to improve our country’s image, the government liberalized slightly. I had been posting comments about women’s rights on various Web sites, and I was invited to write a weekly column in al Watan, the nation’s largest newspaper. Then, the English-language Arab News also wanted my work.
My husband chafed at my high profile, and he complained about the demands on my time. One day he announced that he was marrying a second wife. Although he swore that I was the most important one, I had watched my mother waste her life. I demanded a divorce.
My time in the limelight lasted only a year before the Saudi censors banned me. The authorities never communicated this to me directly, but one by one the editors of each publication rejected my pieces.
There are many Saudi women whose lives are marred far more than mine. Fatima Al-Azaz, for example, was lucky enough to marry for love, but her half-brothers decided that her husband’s social standing was too low, so they persuaded a religious court to divorce them. The couple cannot ignore the divorce order because here people can be whipped, imprisoned and even executed for contact with someone of the opposite sex who is not their spouse or a relative. Still, Al-Azaz tried to return to her husband. To prevent that, she was first imprisoned for nine months together with her infant, then released to a women’s shelter where her movements are restricted.
Or consider the story of Jamila, a wife of a relative. The eldest of 18 children by four wives of a poor date-farmer, Jamila completed high school with outstanding grades. Soon after graduation, her father agreed to marry her to a man from the city.
Jamila traveled with her mother to the city, where she met her husband for the first time on their wedding night. He turned out to be mentally disturbed. She pleaded with her mother to take her back home. Then Jamila was pushed into a room with her new “guardian,” who consummated their union forcefully, while she screamed and pled for mercy.
One of my protest-video campaigns that did not succeed was a plan to post filmed testimony by women like Jamila. We were able to make one or two videos, but I found that even with their faces hidden, most Saudi women who have suffered are afraid to speak about it publicly.
There are women who don’t support our cause — rich ones whose husbands benefit from the system, and religious ones who just don’t believe in change.
Why am I different? I am not sure. Perhaps because as a Shiite (who make up 10 percent of the Saudi population) I have always been somewhat marginalized. Perhaps because my mother, unlike most others, allowed me to play soccer with the boys, and I’ve always felt equal to them. Perhaps because I have the security of working for Aramco, the giant government oil company which depends on its largely Western workforce and therefore functions as an enclave of relative liberalism. Perhaps because I went to college in America and got to experience a life in which women are treated as people, not property.
Wajeha Al-Huwaider, a writer and an activist, is a co-founder of the Society for Defending Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia.

Jimmy Carter and The Elders

Former US president Jimmy Carter wrote an editorial a couple of weeks ago that rocked my world in a fabulous way.  I wanted to share it with you all.

I wonder whether some of the more regular readers here at AWW thought I had missed it.  I hadn’t, I was just trying to decide what to write about it that could appropriately introduce such a great sentiment. In the end I decided to keep it brief and let his article speak for itself.

Jimmy Carter has severed his ties with the Southern Baptist Convention due to its refusal to acknowledge equality of women.  He says that after six decades of involvement it was a difficult and painful decision;

“It was, however, an unavoidable decision when the convention’s leaders, quoting a few carefully selected Bible verses and claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.”

Who knows what he, and the other Elders (including Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, Desmond Tutu and Aung San Suu Kyi) actually plan to do to pursue their opinions through into tangiable actions.  For now, I am just over the moon to see such highly regarded individuals focusing on global equality for women. 

You can read Jimmy Carter’s feminist editorial here.  Highly recommended reading.