This article was originally published at The Yorker.
On Thursday, 8th March, women and men will be standing on Library Bridge, windswept but smiling. They’ll be holding a large banner covered in messages of solidarity, hope and thanks for the slowly improving rights of women across the world as part of the ‘Join Me on the Bridge’ campaign.
International Women’s Day was founded in 1911, to celebrate the achievements women’s rights campaigners, and to look forward to future triumphs. In 2010, women from the neighbouring countries of Rwanda and Congo joined one another on the bridge connecting their lands to oppose violence against women; every year since, women globally have emulated this move, meeting one another to express solidarity with women in war-torn countries who are demanding peace and equality.
Feminists in the west are often confronted with the challenge of looking beyond their borders, and finding ways to combine local activism – which may only benefit relatively privileged women – with activism on a global scale. It can be a daunting prospect. How do we, women and men being educated at a prestigious British university, use our knowledge and freedom to help oppressed women across the globe without imposing our own values and cultures on campaigners trying to gain equality on their own terms?
We can begin by listening to them. To the women in Saudi Arabia, defying the law to prove they are unafraid to claim their equal place with men. To the women in Sierra Leone, educating one another in the harms of Female Genital Mutilation. To the women in DR Congo, used as agricultural labour by the men who own the rural community’s income. To the millions of Afghan girls enrolling in school, when ten years ago there were only a few thousand. To the women in so many countries, doing back-breaking labour alongside men, then looking after the children alone – because that’s ‘women’s work.’
To ensure everyone listens, we have to remind the media, the government and our educators that these voices are out there. As futile as signing a petition, writing a letter to your MP, or introducing a speaker to a local school might feel, never underestimate the importance of awareness-raising. Without that, people with the resources to help and make large, deeply influential changes might remain deaf to the voices that often get missed; to miss women’s voices is a grave mistake.
When we finally listen, we discover something important. Although International Women’s Day is a chance for many of us to step back and remember that there is a global movement towards gender equality, it is also important to remember that women are not a homogenous group. Issues of suffrage, reproductive rights and education (to take only three examples) may be almost universal problems for women, but the solutions to these inequalities may differ from country to country, or culture to culture. As vital as it is that women attain the rights they deserve, it is imperative for western feminists to avoid falling into cultural imperialism and dictating the direction of indigenous feminist movements. From speaking to feminist activists outside of the UK, I’ve learnt that western feminism, with its sexual liberation and pro-choice politics has a bad reputation in many countries, particularly religious states, where even women’s groups shun association with it. That has to be OK with us. Our way of doing feminism isn’t the only way.
If you come and join us on the bridge this Thursday, we can make the first step of showing that we are listening, and that we want to learn. From there, it’s all down to you – what can you do for women this International Women’s Day?