I wish that there did not have to be an International Women’s Day, because the very premise of equality should be that no one group is singled out for special treatment. I wish that a truth which should be self-evident – that we are all equal in our value, regardless of gender, nationality, sexual preference, political persuasion or who our favourite Beatle is – was manifest in the world we live in.
To me, equality is not about trying to make everyone the same – it is about respecting pluralism and giving people the right to have choice and agency in their own lives. And tragically, so many people around the world are still denied this. Why focus on empowering women above other marginalized groups?
Firstly because gender inequality is so pervasive. Women are subject to judgement, scrutiny and a lack of equal opportunities everywhere from the boardrooms of the wealthiest companies to the homes of the most poverty-stricken villages, from government offices around the world to the shops, restaurants and streets of every country.
Secondly because this gender inequality has a negative impact on every other crisis we are facing globally. Undermining the choices and rights of women is not only unethical – it is helping to compound and worsen every problem faced by humanity. Empowering women helps economic growth, improves the health of communities, reduces violence, helps to stabilize population growth and helps with resource allocation (feeding hungry mouths, etc).
Every person should be able to make choices about their own body, who they marry and when. Everyone should be given the chance to receive a good education and to choose what they want to do with it – whether this means working and generating an independent income, using the benefits of that education to raise a healthy, well educated family or both. Nobody should have to live in fear of violence or discrimination – especially not for wanting to live in a world where they have autonomy and agency in their own lives.
Too many people are not given these opportunities. Too many women especially.
So for as long as there needs to be an International Women’s Day – and a Women’s History Month – for us to draw attention to these issues and speak out about them, it makes me hopeful to see how many people have their eyes facing forward, on all the things we still have to work on, but also how many are taking the time to celebrate the strong women in their lives – and the strong men who are not threatened by strong women, but want to work together to build a world where every person has the ability to freely choose how they want to live.
I celebrate all the indomitable women I know and have known. My adventurous mother, who travelled to the UK from New Zealand in her twenties and made a life for herself in an unknown country, little knowing she would one day inspire a daughter to do the same. My beautiful and fierce sister, who has been scaring people who tried to give her crap since she was three years old (and has only got better at it with time). My two grandmothers, whose lives have been so different, but who have handed down to me directly and through my parents the values of hard work, treating people fairly, being part of a community, appreciating what you have and never, ever giving up. My boss, whose great passion in life is women’s empowerment and who earlier today held a conference room full of people completely attentive, rendering them virtually speechless, when talking about it. Um Abdallah: she can electrocute rats, undergo an operation, work nine hours, manage her family and still find time to joke around with me – all in a day’s work. The many smart, creative, unconventional, funny, irreverent, soulful, questioning, compassionate women I know – often deeply stressed and not sure if they’re getting it completely right (who is?) but still so full of inner power.
I also celebrate the many men I am lucky enough to know who support equality in all its forms by supporting the rights of women and being our advocates and partners. My father, who has always supported every (seemingly crazy) career decision I’ve ever made and the change of country it has entailed – even if he didn’t agree with them. An old and dear friend who was the first man I’d ever met to openly proclaim he was a feminist. The incredible guys of Dignity Without Borders, Tahrir Bodyguard, Shoft Ta7arosh, OpAntiSH and others who risked their safety to help ensure that Egyptian women had the same opportunities to have their voices heard as their male counterparts. Men who support the women in their lives to make their own decisions about their education and career prospects and who proudly celebrate their successes. Men who are not afraid to question established beliefs about gender roles and enter into discussions about equal opportunities – even when they know they might receive a tirade from frustrated feminists.
I can’t wait for the day when International Women’s Day isn’t needed because equality for all is enshrined in our institutions, our ideology and our behaviour – but until that day comes, happy International Women’s Day everyone.