International Women’s Day – is it relevant today?
“Fifteen years ago, you had to be a journalist, writer or member of some organisation before you could make your voice heard. Today, you can get your message out there through your blog,” tells American Jessica Valenti, founder of the site feministing.com. Standing at the podium on this March day inside Copenhagen’s Black Diamond building, she represents the generation of young feminists who are using new and global media in their work for gender equality.
Joining this American ‘super blogger’ on the panel are two international colleagues: German writer Mithu Sanyal, editor of Wir Frauen (“We Women”), and Swedish writer and activist Johanna Palmström, who, among other things, is active in Kvinna till Kvinna (“Woman to Woman”), which supports women in the world’s conflict zones. All three panelists work using the many new and direct forms of communication with the aim of engaging young women in dialogue.
From the start, the drive of these three women captivates the assembled audience in the hall – an audience that represents a broad spectrum of feministic viewpoints and agendas in both Denmark and the wider world. All are gathered here to celebrate the centenary of International Women’s Day, the idea for which was conceived in Copenhagen in 1910. Back then, 100 socialistically oriented women from 17 nations assembled in Folkets Hus (the People’s House) in the Nørrebro district of Copenhagen – most recently known as the controversial and recently demolished Ungdomshus.
Back in 1910, socialism and women’s emancipation were top of the agenda. A lot has happened since then. Today, the day is celebrated internationally and symbolises a vast and varying range of viewpoints. So is the idea of having an international day for a common cause still relevant in today’s world where conditions facing women differ dramatically around the world? Or do we live in such an internationalised world that we can simply use each other to enter into dialog?
Dialogue and networks spanning time and place
An answer to these questions already begins forming during the day’s first panel session with the three young feminists. Six years ago, Jessica Valenti googled the term ‘young feminist’. The result was poor – one page with links. Today, the same search results in 37,000 links. And Jessica herself can take a great deal of the credit for this explosive growth. Her first depressing net experience spurred her to create the site feministing.com.
Today, her site is a platform for young feminists and it is visited monthly by over 600,000 users from across the western world who are able to publish, debate and participate in a community which traverses geographical barriers.
“Our challenge is to create a place for all types of feminists, irrespective of age, ethnic background or lifestyle,” tells Sanyal, who admits that tackling such diversity can be difficult if you do not happen to agree with the opinions represented. “Nonetheless, women still share the same goal. They just express themselves differently. And we want to give a voice to all these expressions of opinion,” explains Mithu Sanyal, who first made a name for herself as a feminist through her critically acclaimed and controversial book about the cultural history of the vulva.
Mithu Sanyal’s description of broad feminist diversity is an image with which Johanna Palmström can identify in Sweden. “There is no uniform group of feminists spanning all generations. For the younger women, they may not perceive themselves as feminists, but are merely interested in individual issues such as women’s shelters or equality for ethnic minority women.”
Women – the overlooked gold
Next to take the stage is Denmark’s newly appointed Minister for Gender Equality, Lykke Friis. Wearing a pair of gold boots, Lykke Friis takes brings her own unique energy to the hall. Her boots clearly symbolise her conviction that women need to increase their presence in the corridors of power and on governing boards of companies, otherwise, as she puts it using a Danish saying, “you might as well chuck the gold out into the street”. It is no secret in Denmark that Lykke Friis is an avid fan of the football club FC Bayern and she tells the assembly the story of when she once asked the club’s ‘Kaiser’, footballing legend Franz Beckenbauer, if he could ever imagine a time where there were women sitting on the club’s executive board. “Not in a million years!” was his answer.
“This illustrates perfectly that there is still a long way to go,” continues Friis as the audience begins to settle down again. The point is that gender equality is also key to ensuring Denmark’s competitiveness in the future. The fact that so few women reach top positions is a downright waste of talent, believes Friis. In the EU as a whole, cold calculations show that the union’s overall economy could grow by 27% if gender equality became a reality.
A prodigious role model
The world’s first ever woman to hold the post of national president, Iceland’s Vigdís Finnbogadóttir – one of today’s great role models for women throughout the world – follows Lykke Friis, picking up on her gold metaphor:
“Women of the world are the gold mine of humanity,” and she points to the circumstances of risk taking and unchecked investments that lead to Iceland’s economic collapse, saying this would never have happened had women been involved in the decision-making processes.
Whether or not these turbulent events influenced the recent decision of the Icelandic parliament, the Alting, to introduce quotas in the executive boards of committees is not clear. Nevertheless, it is a fact, tells Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, that both sexes will be required to be represented on company boards by a minimum of 40% by September 2013.
One is an Egyptian writer and physician who is almost eighty years old – the other is an American author and opinion former with Jewish roots in the middle of her forties. The first was imprisoned for her opinions and the other celebrated as advisor to American president Bill Clinton. Nawal Al Saadawi and Naomi Wolf represent at this conference the diversity of opportunities and conditions afforded to women depending on where in the world they live. The broadened global perspective of the conference gives rise to both heated dialogue and common understanding of the universal feminist goals.
Nawal Al Saadawi views the oppression of women as a global phenomenon resulting from state terrorism and religious and political fanaticism. According to Al Saadawi, the religious identity imposed upon a population contributes significantly to the creation of conflict. And in this way, she believes, “we are all in the same boat,” whether the imposer be Al Qaeda or right-wing American Christians.
Naomi Wolf elaborates
“If we compare situations, then women in the Western world don’t really have any problems. The problems that exist are documented in the multitude of reports and analyses that have been compiled and we know the solutions required,” tells Wolf – even though she is the first to recognise that reaching these solutions requires women to “bring out the big guns.” As a contrast, she highlights the emergence of new feminist and analytical thinking from the developing world, and she stresses how we can heighten understanding of our own situations through cooperation with each other.
The issue that was not on the agenda
Al Saadawi’s political discourse gives sudden rise to the complex and controversial topic of headscarves being brought to the agenda. Like many others, her expectations for the USA’s new president, Barack Obama, were high. Today however, she is disappointed in him because, in a speech to the Egyptian parliament in June 2009, he said that it was the individual right of any Egyptian woman to choose whether or not to wear a headscarf. But Al Saadawi is fundamentally against both nudity and veils.
Based upon her talks with, among others, the Palestinians, Naomi Wolf endeavours to use women’s free right to choose in her defence. “For young women, this can be their way of protesting against Western oppression,” says Wolf. The heated dialogue is kept in check by the conference’s ever-present moderator, Annette K. Nielsen, who allows Nawal Al Saadawi to conclude:
“I don’t care for religious rhetoric, but I believe in a solidarity which is both global and local. And I dream of a secular world because a religious state, by its nature, has to be hostile towards women.”
Tribute in words and verse
Standing tall and statuesque on the stage, Suzanne Brøgger evokes images of the women depicted in sagas of old. But this Danish author has her focus firmly set on the present. Having eyed the world as it has changed since the fall of the Iron Curtain, Suzanne Brøgger highlights the fact that many of the heroes of our time who should be acclaimed are in fact women.
Among these is Simone Aaberg Kæm who, in a small aircraft, flew to Afghanistan to fulfil the dream of a young Afghan woman who dreamed of becoming pilot. Others include the Palestinian women who protested against the 700-kilometer-long Israeli security wall and Norwegian author Åsne Seierstad, who in her book about the Kabul bookshop owner tells about the women who, despite everything, try to maintain a semblance of daily life. For these, and the other women mentioned, Suzanne Brøgger recites and sings a poem of tribute.
Using art as a medium for change
The last part of the conference draws closer and focus progresses to art and culture as a medium for facilitating work with women’s rights. On the podium Swedish professor of literature, Ebba Witt-Brattström, joins the young Saudi Haifaa Al-Mansour, who, as both a woman and film producer, is breaking with the traditions and norms of her highly conservative homeland.
“Without literature about and written by women, our knowledge of women’s lives and living conditions through history would be very sparse,” tells Ebba Witt-Brattström, who has the honour of starting this session. Continuing with the gold metaphors of earlier, she proceeds:
“Having a strong women’s offensive front is worth its weight in gold for us, and has never been needed more than it is today. Conditions faced by women in the Nordic region are very different to those faced by women in Afghanistan, India and other countries. There, women face problems including dowries, genital mutilation and ethnic cleansing on a daily basis, but through reading we can share our experiences.”
A filmmaker from the land without cinemas
Haifa Al-Mansour, too, uses the medium of art to propagate her message.
“After my first film, I felt that people were listening to me for the very first time. Women are otherwise not taken seriously in Saudi Arabia. So you should never underestimate the power of art,” tells Al-Mansour as a prelude to a clip from her award-winning film Women without Shadows.
We find ourselves under a clear blue sky. The few plants dotted around suggest a dry and uncharitable landscape. In the foreground, two young women sit on the ground. They are dressed in, and completely enveloped by, their black abayas. They appear to be shy and constantly adjust and check their attire. Their fiddling soon gives way to chat and the girls express their disgust that some young women can actually choose to go shopping or to a café without being accompanied by a male family member.
Haifa Al-Mansour points out the positive aspect of the scene – the fact that these two women are prepared to stand up and speak and that both are interested in their opinions being heard by others. But for Al-Mansour, this is also a way to show that women who share these attitudes are actually imposing restrictions upon themselves and that younger women, in particular, are towing the line of their oppressors.
With the photography project Seven, cultural promoter Uzma Ahmed Andresen and photographer Tina Enghoff bring to the fore one of the most sensitive issues in Denmark’s current humanitarian debate – the so-called ‘Seven-year Rule’ covering foreigners. This law in Denmark’s current legislation means that women must have been married for seven years in order to retain the right to residency if divorcing a Danish spouse. This provides an opportunity for some men to abuse the law by keeping hold of women with the threat of deportation as their weapon. Some of these ‘trapped’ women fall victim to physical and psychological abuse or, as Uzma Ahmed Andresen tells in the story of one such women, are even forced into prostitution.
As the assembly listens to the story, a selection of photographs from the project are shown. These photographs form part of a large photographic exhibition held in Det Kongelige Bibliotek (Denmark’s Royal Library) from 10 May and will also be published in a book. They show images of amorphous women, isolated and distorted, set within the idealised landscapes recognisable from Danish painter Vilhelm Hammerhøi’s introspective artwork, but combined with horrific visions from the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia.
“Some of the women, upon whom the project is based, have become chronically ill from their anxiety about their uncertain destinies. Others have already been deported to their countries of origin, to which most have no connection any longer nor have any future in,” explains Uzma Ahmed Andresen.
With the images of martyred female forms and tragic destinies of these women still fresh in our minds, director of KVINFO, Elisabeth Møller Jensen, takes the stage to round off by collating the key points discussed throughout the day.
“From its very beginnings, the women’s movement has been international. And so it remains today,” affirms Elisabeth Møller Jensen. “Millions of women across the world are still oppressed. They don’t enjoy the same rights and living conditions as men. They are refused access to school education. They do not have control over their own existence. And they give life to children who never see their first birthday. But women here in Denmark are suffering, too, as Uzma Ahmed Andresen and Tina Enghoff’s project shows. Therefore, an international women’s day is as relevant as it has ever been. There’s still a great deal to be done – both in Denmark and throughout the rest of the world.”
With the conference over, there is widespread support for the conclusions reached. The women leave the hall to network or go on to other events – women from the frontline with masses of experience, high-profile women from the media, former ministers, and ,not least, young women on their way up… some of them wearing headscarves.
Photo: Tina Enghoff