Pressing for Progress: Women and Power

Safya Khan-Ruf - 08 03 18

“We have shattered so many glass ceilings we created a carpet of shards. Now we are sweeping away the assumptions and bias of the past so women can advance across new frontiers,” said Ban Ki-Moon, former secretary of the United Nations, in 2016.

The last year has proven many glass ceilings are still in need of shattering as women break new records, push social movements forward and refuse to accept the status quo. It is fitting that the theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is #PressforProgress.

Better but not good enough

From #MeToo and #TimesUP to Harvey Weinstein and the Presidents Club, the world of gender politics has changed over the last 12 months.

When International Women’s Day was set up 100 years ago, women were asking for the right to vote in the UK. In the century since, women’s movements around the world have achieved landmark victories on issues such as voting rights, sexual health and equality under law. Some critics say the need for a “women’s day” is over, that gender equality has been achieved and women no longer need a ‘special’ day.

Much has changed since then, but women today are not ready to rest on the progress and trials previous generations endured.

Women’s March 2017 in the US. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Today only a fifth of parliamentary seats are held by women worldwide and only 19 heads of state out of a possible 196 are women. The number of female cabinet ministers in the world has at least tripled between 1994 and 2014 – but remains low compared to men, at only 17%.

Meanwhile, an estimated 10% of girls and women under the age of 20 (120 million of them) have been subjected to forced sexual intercourse or other forced sexual acts, according to the United Nations.

Women in several countries are not at liberty to wear what they want to wear and the fight for equal pay is a global struggle still affecting most countries.

The issue is not one that can be isolated to repressive regimes or war-torn countries. Reports in the UK suggest structural biases in our culture and institutions create barriers to gender equality. Meanwhile, men like Harvey Weinstein, Justin Forsythe and Roy Moore have shown how widespread sexual harassment is, from Hollywood to charities to politics.

Leading the way

Recent developments have encouraged women across the globe to be more optimistic about the prospects for change.

The #MeToo movement is finally having an impact. Despite being coined by civil rights activist Tarana Burke more than a decade ago, when American actress Alyssa Milano tweeted it last October, urging women to share their experiences with sexual assault and harassment, Twitter exploded.

Overnight #MeToo spread across the world and by the end of the day similar movements in Arabic, French, Spanish could be found. Now women from more than 80 countries are using the hashtag to demand change.

Meanwhile, TIME magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year was the “silence breakers”, a powerful title for the women who fueled the #MeToo movement.

‘The Silence Breakers’ – the women behind the #MeToo movement

The victory of Donald Trump – a man surrounded by allegations of sexual assault and sexual harassment – in the US has also pushed millions of women to mobilise and take part in the global women’s marches, the largest and most peaceful protest in history.

Nisa-Nashim’s co-founders Julie Siddiqi (left) and Laura Marks (centre) with London Mayor Sadiq Khan at London’s Women’s March 2018

The earthquake in gender politics over the last year is not over, mainly due to the tireless work of individual women and whole organisations.

Women are also leading the way on other social issues, such as Emma González, an 18-year-old student who is spearheading efforts for gun control and now has more followers than the National Rifle Association.

Diversity in representation

Meanwhile in Europe, many organisations have begun to bring diverse women together to create social progress.

Nisa-Nashim in the UK brings together Muslim and Jewish women to work on community issues and promote greater understanding between the two communities.

Another organisation based in France, Lallab, is changing narratives around Muslim women, who are often talked about but not addressed in political spheres and the media. Many other minorities have joined Lallab because they welcome their more inclusive and diverse definition of feminism.

Organisations like Lallab and Nisa-Nashim challenge intersectional discrimination, where a person experiences prejudice because of several of their identities such as their gender and their faith or the colour of their skin.

The Fawcett society, the UK’s leading charity campaigning for gender equality and women’s rights, have been advancing women’s equality since 1866 when at just 19, Millicent Fawcett collected signatures on a petition for women’s votes.

Fawcett would no doubt be proud of what has been achieved through tireless campaigns since then. But although the last year feels like a turning point, there are still structural barriers to overcome and societal attitudes to change.

In the words of Kofi Annan, “Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.”


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