Suffragette Chronicals

Historical Suffragettes: Nawal El Saadawi

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I haven’t ever discussed, let alone thought about the practice of female genital mutilation (FMG). Simply because I had never heard of it. We’ve heard of the practice of male circumcision, and the pros and cons of undergoing this for religious or practical reasons. But go figure that we wouldn’t ever hear about female mutilation – especially because it’s most commonly forced upon girls at a prepubescent age, and actually carries more health risks and long-term suffering for the victim.

Which makes sense as to why so many people don’t appreciate the feminism movement. They just don’t hear about what happens to women. They only believe that what they see, or what they experience. For me at least, feminism is not about the equality I can gain, but what can be gained for women who need it the most.

So when I came across this 84-year-old Egyptian feminist and radical activist, whose experience of FGM shaped her values and initiated her story, I was spellbound. As an Islamic girl, she was forced to undergo genital mutilation because of the obsolete beliefs of her religion. It left her with deep physical pain and torment, and a determination to rid the world of this illogical, and cruel practice. Her non-hesitation to criticise religion – where many fear it – is what I really find admirable. Religion may preach peace and love, but man does not. They say that religious fundamentalism is on the rise, and this is never a good thing for women. If men aren’t held accountable, which is often the case under religion, that is when practices of cruelty, or bigotry, or messages of hate spiral out of control.

“If the power of religious groups increases, so does the oppression of women. Women are oppressed in all religions”

FGM has existed since 2,000BC, but in the last ten years, FGM has only just been banned in Egypt. In the UK, it now carries a 14 year imprisonment sentence for anyone who practices it on a permanent UK citizen, but it is apparently still widely performed. Dr El Saadawi believes that you can’t eradicate historical and rooted habits by law only. Education is necessary to combat the spread of lies through misinformation.

Nawal El Saadawi has been published over 50 times, and she may have been nominated for Woman of the Year, but she has sacrificed so much in the name of feminism. In one case, it even lost her the prestigious Minister of Health post in her home country. In another, she was jailed for three months for ‘crimes against the state’. What crimes were these, to fight for the human rights of half a country’s population? And protest the brutality of an outdated religious practice? When feminist are compared with Nazis for standing up for what is right – you know that men have successfully oppressed an entire gender, and brainwashed the other half – all of which will take generations to fix.

“I’m fighting against the patriarchal, military, capitalist, racist post-modern slave system. I am going to fight for this for ever.”

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What we can learn from Nawal El Saadawi’s story is not just the acknowledgement of cruelty in religious practice, but the importance of standing up for others and for what you believe in no matter what. Gender, age, persecution and imprisonment, and most difficulty: religious and governmental restrictions… if El Saadawi can do all this for the advancement of society – surely we in more privileged positions shouldn’t be afraid to do the same?

If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values: they’re hobbies.” – Jon Stewart

The way people roll their eyes and say “that’s just the way it is,” or “it’s none of my business,” or “perhaps it’s for the best,” when they are dead sure it’s not, makes me so angry. Resignation is not an escape route. My challenge to you for tomorrow, or today, is this: if ever you find yourself in a position where you feel obliged to stay quiet to avoid confrontation, or look the other way to avoid involvement,  I challenge you to do the opposite. Even if it’s calling someone out for everyday sexism. Even if it’s taking a stand against social and racial stereotyping. Even if it’s giving a few coins to a homeless person. We aren’t all called to be revolutionary leaders for change like El Saadawi, but every one of us has a duty to lend a hand when we have two. Small steps can change fixed mindsets.

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Suffragette Chronicals

Historical Suffragettes: Ms Pankhurst

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I’m a little late on the posting schedule today, but I really wanted to think this blog post through. I might come across as having an adamantly single view on this topic, but I promise you, I’m open to discussion!

In every wave of feminism over the last 100 years, there is a figure who stands out as the face of the movement at that time. For the first wave of feminism in the early 20th century, that person was Emmeline Pankhurst. A warrior in a corset, Pankhurst was possibly the most critical political and social agitator in the 20th century.

I first became aware of the significance of Emmeline Pankhurst when Meryl Streep portrayed her in the movie Suffragette in 2015. She was in the movie for a whole 5 minutes, so you didn’t really get to know much about her apart from the fact that a) she was the head of the Suffragette movement in Britain, b) she had been arrested quite a bit c) she encouraged the use of force when peaceful protesting wasn’t working and d) for that, she was a controversial protagonist in many ways.

When the movement for Women’s rights wasn’t making progression, Pankhurst encouraged adopting the man’s method in order to make women’s voices heard: Violence.

Deeds not Words

This was a commentary about reform. Fight back. Make the news. Give them a taste of their own medicine. Sounds pretty terrible, but if you think about it, women engaged in peaceful protest were already being arrested, tortured, beaten by the police, and with little success; it would have been madness to continue with the same methods and expect a different result. I have to note that that this message didn’t involve murder. No one died – at least until Emily Davison stepped in front of the King’s Horse at Ascot 1913 and accidentally did. It did mark a turning point in the movement though – her death gained international attention and coverage and forwarded the movement.

As mad as it sounds, while it looked like suicide, Davison was simply trying to attach a Suffragette banner to the moving horse. A risky move, but it’s clear she was prepared to go to considerable lengths to make a statement. And she did so, as part of the struggle against the inequalities of society, in the face of hostility, imprisonment and violence. It raises the question of what we would be prepared to die for.

I have made speeches urging women to adopt methods of rebellion such as have been adopted by men in every revolution. – Emmeline Pankhurst

This resonates with the biblical belief that faith without works is dead, as seen through Jesus’ death for humanity. So can we really blame her?

Violence aside, ‘deeds not words’ teaches us that we need to walk our talk. Make whatever we believe in our lives and passion and commit to it through real action. It may open doors for persecution and hate, but this is all part of the struggle for change. Where in the old days people would stand on a soapbox in the street and yell out revelations, today we have social media in which to vocalise our thoughts, and these messages spread faster and further. A certain responsibility is necessary with this power. If the message isn’t ethical, moral or promoting the advancement or equality of all people, this tool can be more of a curse than a blessing. In the case of taking action, many people are keen to step up and help others out but often for the wrong reasons. For example, there is a problem of ‘voluntourism’ where well-meaning folk sign up to volunteer for people in need – particularly in impoverished and diseased places – but often end up providing superficial service dedicated to the social media experience rather than the goal of making a genuine difference. Now while I certainly don’t want to bag anyone willing to give up time for a good cause, and any sort of charity or volunteering is gratefully required, these people often end up being more of a burden than a help for the organisations they are working for. Similarly, most volunteers travel in summer time, so during winter these people and places can be desperately under-staffed.

Discipline. Sacrifice. Commitment. I know how hard this is! I’ve often flaked or half-heartedly committed to something. I wouldn’t expect everyone to drop their full-time job and travel to Kenya for a full year of intense volunteering in order to convince me they’re committed to the cause. I also wouldn’t expect anyone to die for it. But I have promised myself that whether I end up volunteering for or sponsoring a woman, or a community of women, I will travel during winter, or keep up sponsorship for as long as I agreed to sign up for. Our actions should not be the case of ‘lip service’, or because of ‘duty’, or when one is in the mood. If you want to make a meaningful contribution to the world, it’s simply a matter of following through with a promise. It doesn’t even have to be volunteering! It could be keeping a blog alive. Or donating money, time or skill without complaint. Or standing up for something that matters to you.

But whatever the circumstance, please, please don’t die for any cause!

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Suffragette Chronicals

Modern Suffragettes: Ms Steinem

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Whether she is talking about searching for a leader or for a relationship, this quote is relevant in any context

It’s difficult to find the perfect quote that summarises the values and achievements of Gloria Steinem. Her ideals and activism, particularly around sexuality, resulted in liberation of women in the second half of the 20th century. She’s fierce, she’s unapologetic, she’s inspiring. But this quote is particularly relevant to The 27 Resolve, and the battles I find today as a single woman.

Can you believe she is 82? With the years behind her of fighting for women’s rights (which is still ongoing), you would assume that feminism isn’t working. But she’s not having that sort of attitude! She says that if anything, the feminist movement has proven that we’re not crazy. It’s also proven that one voice can drown out shouting crowds, and a collective voice can change mindsets.

“Our grief is not a cry for war”

Although I’ve only recently started to read about her role in history, I genuinely like Gloria Steinem. She’s everything I want to be as a feminist, as a woman, and as a person. She recognises and fights injustices, but doesn’t turn her nose up at people’s personal choices. She acknowledges, for example, that the quest for youthfulness in women is not necessarily an issue of vanity, but more of a issue of societal pressure (I mean, when a presidential candidate values a woman based on her looks? How can we blame ourselves?). Gloria also recognises the power in freedom of choice. I think it’s important that we never place our own values and viewpoints on another person, so long as we’re working collaboratively, and without judgement, towards a better future.

I also like her nerve. Her daring to go undercover as a Playboy playmate to expose the sexism in the industry. Her boldness to go after jobs for men, regardless of being told that she won’t be hired because clients don’t like to work with women. Challenging this bizarre ideology that pregnant women should leave their jobs at 7 months because companies fear that they will have an accident and sue. How many people complain about problems, but never actually DO anything for fear of retribution? Our own doubts, fears and insecurities hold us back, making us spend a lifetime waiting for the answer, a miracle maker who will change these problems, instead of being the change we wish to see in the world.

I think the difference between an ordinary person and an extraordinary one is simply the self belief that they are capable of making a global difference, even when fears and anxiety tell them otherwise.

 

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Suffragette Chronicals

Modern Suffragettes: Miss Emma Watson

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Emma Watson – can this girl be any more amazing? She is an impeccable example of how women my age can go beyond the mandatory roles played in the media (sexy, seductive, self-absorbed) and commit their work to the benefit of others. Her commitment as UN Goodwill Ambassador and leader of the He for She movement, she initiated the campaign by inviting men to the conversation.

Genius! It seems so obvious, but we’ve been so busy focusing on our oppression we forgot that this is man’s issue too. But it is hard when a lot of men seem threatened by feminism.

I came across a man recently who told me that women already have and had equality, and that ‘this third wave of feminism simply encourages female supremacy‘. I initially thought he was joking … Is it always typical of a party who don’t primarily benefit from a cause to be threatened by it? But his statement wasn’t wholly untruthful – in fact, he was right in suggesting that women have it better than we did 50, 90 years ago. Our main goals – voting rights, equal education for women, property ownership and reproductive rights have been achieved. Except that it doesn’t immediately equate to the full rights and social standings as a man, and it definitely doesn’t cover developing countries and extremist cultures where women are still significantly oppressed, victimised and discriminated against.

Sadly, many women also see feminism as a nasty word. They see it as this sort of, culture of greed where women (particularly ‘privileged’ white women or ‘angry’ black women) simply want more and more, and cannot appreciate what we have got. That’s about the same as saying to an African American, “quit complaining about your oppression, you’re not a slave anymore”. It’s extremely offensive, closed-minded and ignorant. The truth is, the many feminists I know are extremely grateful to everyone who supports us, male or female, authority or civilian, but in particular the Suffragettes and feminists of past who faced discrimination and oppression in order to fight for the freedoms we have today.

We are in the third, but not final wave of feminism. To give up the debate now would be to stick a middle finger up to the efforts of the women who fought before us. And as Emma says, Call me a ‘diva’, call me a ‘feminazi’, call me ‘difficult’, call me a ‘First World feminist’ … it’s not going to stop me from trying to do the right thing and make sure that the right thing happens.

Boom.

 

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