I was lucky enough to hear Fawzia Koofi talk the other night; she addressed a room full of western journalist’s in an eloquent and confident manner, her Middle Eastern accent thick and heavy but her English impeccable. She sat perched at the front on the room on a raised stage, with a black velvet suit and a powerful red headdress framing her dark, heavy set eyes; eyes that really could tel l a thousand stories.
I sat and listened to Fawzia’s tales, her hopes for her young daughters and her dreams for the country that she loves. She told stories of her youth, detailing experiences she went through growing up and highlighting the savage sexism that is common in everyday life in Afghanistan. Tears came to my eyes and there was a wave of tension that filled the pit of my stomach at the crescendo of every tale. I was totally consumed in my admiration for her.
However, there was one question that has lingered with me; “Are you a feminist?” to which she replied “I don’t think you can call me a feminist.” This rattled me. How can this brave, determined, political and educated woman not be a feminist?
Politics of feminism
I understand for Fawzia it would be a very dangerous political game to enter into the realm of feminism in a country as traditionally conservative as Afghanistan and her answer was, if nothing else, entirely diplomatic. But the episode gave rise to a wider problem that we seem to encounter in this modern day – why are women afraid to admit they are feminists? Or worse still, unable to identify with feminism? Where did the movement go wrong?
I am a feminist. I haven’t achieved a fraction of what Fawzia has achieved in my 25 years. I’m not the first woman in my family to go to school, or the first female MP, or the first female representative of my country to work for the UN, and I doubt I’ll ever run for presidency. But I am a feminist.
Feminism is a “collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women.” It means equality. As the mother of feminism herself, Mary Wollstonecraft said in 1792 “I do not wish for women to have power of men, but over themselves.”
But somewhere along the journey feminism has become, as many writers have described it, a “dirty word”. It seems to embrace feminism is to reject men. Popular culture only adds to this distortion. The singer Lady Gaga has said “I’m not a feminist – I, I hail men, I love men. I celebrate American male culture, and beer, and bars and muscle cars…” But I too love men, I love beer and bars but I want to be equal to men. And being an ‘equalist’ is being a feminist.
With celebrities that have a following as huge globally as Lady Gaga (she currently has 20 million followers on twitter) unable to correctly understand the concept of feminism let alone champion it, of course the movement is going to run into problems.
There are also those women (usually of my generation) who cannot relate to feminism, who believe it is a historical movement that has no relevance to their lives today and that they owe nothing to feminism. I find it disheartening to hear, and there isn’t enough time to re-educate these extremely well educated women to understanding the undeniable gains feminism has given to women in the UK today. The facts tell their own story.
Over the last one hundred years in Britain, lives for women have been completely transformed. But we cannot be complacent as there is still a long way to go. There are only three women in the current cabinet, women earn 15.5% less than men, and topless women are still splashed across page three of our tabloid newspapers.
Elsewhere, there still is not yet worldwide recognition that women’s rights are human rights. In the Middle East women’s rights are still neglected, despite momentous changes that have taken place through the Arab Spring. We mustn’t forget that in Saudi Arabia women are not permitted to drive, and if they are unmarried they must remain under male guardianship, effectively diminishing their status to that of a child. Even in post-revolution Egypt there are only nine women MPs – less than 1%, down from 12% under President Mubarak. In Fawzia’s Afghanistan, President Hamid Karzai has recently endorsed the Ulema Council’s document, which allows husbands to beat wives under certain circumstances and encourages segregation of the sexes.
Less than 20% of the world’s parliamentarians are women. Less than 10% of countries have a female head of state, and less than 3% of signatories to peace agreements are women. Every minute, a woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth and another 20-30 women suffer serious injury or disability. Women face a barrage of difficulties, just because of their sex.
Going back to the night I met Fawzia, one audience member said “I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think you have a chance as president” and Fawzia replied “I wouldn’t expect a woman to say to another woman that she wouldn’t win the presidency”. The audience cheered. And for me this is the essence of the fight, women need to embrace the struggle of other women and support each other in their fight for equality. We need to take back the word feminism, strip away the negative connotations and see it in its raw, unblemished self. We need to see it as synonymous with equality. This is what Our Other Sisters hopes to achieve in bridging the gap between east and west. While we remain divided, the struggle for all sisters will continue.