Photo credit: Care International.
When I was younger I loved to swim. I was never a fast swimmer, my swimming teacher told me that I had stamina rather than speed. I remember there being an aggression, an impatience and an exclusion in swimming heats if you weren’t one of the main competitors. I remember feeling disappointed and frustrated every time I didn’t swim fast enough, despite hours of training. I was born with stamina over speed in a world where power and strength is perceived to be fast paced, aggressive, impatient and exclusive. Stamina seemed less ‘strong’ by comparison.
In reflecting on the Care International #March4Women event held in London on Sunday 5 March 2017, I am reminded of the strength of stamina when seeing Helen Pankhurst, who continues to hold the flame of her great-grandmother, who in turn had carried it for all the women before her. Protester banners and signs reading ‘Why do I we still need to protest this shit’ and ‘Same shit different century’ voice the frustration that is being felt even more by people living in the world today. For me this frustration and the events of Sunday marked a moment of solidarity, which Billy Brag aptly described as what happens when ‘we mix empathy with action’.
I am also reminded by my good friend Cara, an MBA student at the University of Oxford, that real change in society doesn’t happen in bursts, but in the moments connecting those bursts and through a persistence in shifting societal perceptions and norms. On Sunday 5 March, in London, there was a much-needed burst joining the message of activists including Bianca Jagger and Muzoon Almellehan with the status of celebrities from the UK and abroad. Emeli Sandé performed a new release for the first time to mark the occasion, while Annie Lennox spoke as an activist (re-enforcing the strange idea that a woman can be a feminist and a musician and an activist simultaneously!). There was a genuinely communal feel as the sound technology awkwardly failed VV Brown, Preeya Kalidas, Natasha Bedingfield, Kate Bush and Mel C, but they persisted in raising their voices to the rhythm of Aretha Franklin’s iconic Respect, in a unison call for gender equality. The singers then joined Bianca Jagger, Helen Pankhurst and Annie Lennox as they led thousands of people across Tower Bridge. I believe that in reflecting on these short, fast, prominent ‘bursts’ and carrying the messages heard at these events into every day discussions, we will continue to connect them to be the change that is needed.
During her interview with Gemma Cairney I was struck by Muzoon’s simple request for empathy. Muzoon, an eighteen-year-old activist who came to the UK in 2015 as a Syrian refugee and had begun advocating for refugees and their right to education at the age of fourteen, is wise beyond her years. During her interview, Muzoon answered the question I and many of my western friends ask ‘what can I do?’ with a simple ‘change your perception of who refugees are’. When we see refugees as people, we put the personal into the political and we can relate to them as our fellow-humans. In extending empathy to refugees we can begin to understand that their refugee status is a label masking the consequence of war that has forcibly taken them away from their homes, their livelihoods, their material securities and we can begin to imagine how that might feel and acknowledge that it could happen to anyone.
The energy on the day was positive and welcoming, so much so that when a man yelled ‘march for men’ someone yelled back ‘sure! How about you march for women now?’ I thus disappointed when I read some of the online responses to the event. Disappointed because of the lack of surprised I felt, but more because of the sheer ignorance of the posts. The common thread through most of the comments and tweets cage women into restricted identities where we can exist only as one or the other, but never more than one identity simultaneously. The tweet ‘When have women in Tooting ever been marginalised’ suggests that by living in London women cannot possibly be mistreated on the grounds of gender. If you, despite your gender, find yourself asking this question, I encourage you to discuss this with your female friends. I can assure you, you will be surprised to learn that simply being ‘an empowered woman living in London’ does not exclude you from gender-based harassment. From inappropriate commentary about her physical appearance, to a lower pay cheque in comparison to her male peers, to sexist views embedded in the unconscious bias of white men who remain at the top of the UK government and most commercial sectors, gender equality has yet to be achieved in this very ‘first world’ city.
Women who gather to march are sometimes criticised for being ’empowered and cosseted’ and told to ‘shut up’ or told to ‘march for girls in the Middle East being married off at ten…’, ignoring that many women marching across the bridge were in fact well-aware of the privilege we enjoy and the importance for us to use our empowerment to amplify the voices of those disempowered by gender-based inequality. The attacks on the intentions and physical appearance of the women taking part in the march are old and boring and shamefully uninformed and it makes the call for empathy all the more relevant.
I will therefore raise my educated, privileged, middle class, western English voice to echo the words of Annie Lennox, regardless of what you might say about my intentions, my class or my physical appearance, to amplify the voices of the women with less or without, in saying:
- Globally one in three women will be beaten or coerced into sex or otherwise abused in their life time.
- Every thirty seconds thirteen girls under the age of eighteen are entered into child marriage. This is a gross human rights violation that keeps girls out of school, endangering their health and sentencing them to a lifetime of poverty.
- Around the world seventeen million girls will never have the opportunity to enrol in primary education.
- Globally women are still paid less than men, earning on average only 60-75% of men’s wages.
- Out of an estimated 3.8 million young people aged 15-24 living with HIV, 60% are female.
- HIV is the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age in the continent of Africa.
To the women who will never read this blog post, I promise to use my stamina and my strength to keep marching and using my voice to amplify the voice you may not even know you have. To the people, regardless of your gender, who have taken time to read this, I implore you to keep marching and raising your voices until gender inequality is something future generations, globally, will struggle to comprehend while sitting in their history lessons. ‘Inequality because of reproductive organs?’ they’ll laugh, ‘weird’.
Peta Barrett has experience in the arts and in Data, Research, Events and Operations and is a member of The Circle.