8 March 2014

Ethiopia: March of Woman

It's March again, and the topic of feminism, gender equality and women is back on everyone's agenda.

Lectures, marathons, documentaries and many more events have been organized in all parts of the world to mark this month dedicated to women. It seems that although there are recurrent topics highlighted ever year, the approaches used to draw attention to them constantly changes.

I came across an interesting walk-athon held in Canada called "A mile in her shoes." The name of the walk comes from the expression "you would have to walk a mile in her shoes before you judge her." The walk took the expression in the literal sense and had men walk in women's shoes for an entire mile. The photos that have emerged from the event are quite hilarious and memorable. But most importantly they are a great reminder that when it comes to fighting for women's rights, the burden rests on women as well as men.

However, it is still important for women to take time to share experiences among themselves and discuss issues that affect them directly no matter what time of the year. Organizing regular intergenerational platforms for and by women where all feel safe enough to disclose fears, hopes and dreams as grandmothers, mothers, daughters, professionals, wives and partners is essential to continuing old traditions and building new ones.

No one is born knowing how to be a woman, we are simply born and because of experiences, mostly negative ones, we learn how the world wants us to be without getting a chance to first figure out who we want to be. As I reflect on ideals of feminism, I keep wondering what it actually means to people. There's a famous presentation by the renowned Nigerian author Chimamanda N'gozie Adichie arguing that we should all be feminist because feminism stands for the recognition of a woman's right to live a full life like any other human being.

Yet I am curious if discussions about feminism and the rights of a woman to live and thrive can be discussed without discussing issues of race and economic relations. I highly doubt it. This begs the question, how aware are we of the racial and economic systems that we live in? As the years went by words such as "sexism," "sexual discrimination" and "patriarchy" have become bad words, the kinds that one hopes to never be called.

Yet you can see that actions that are as easily identifiable as sexism continue to happen around the world, which makes me question why? And the only viable answer I can come up with is that people do not know what sexism and patriarchy actually entail. Although they are bad words, there is little understanding as to what makes a certain act, law, policy etc, sexist. People, both men and women, may know what the definition of sexism is but are unable to recognize it as it happens in their everyday life because what is happening is not something different than what has happened for so many years, it's a recurring routine. And when they find themselves saying or doing things that are sexist, they cannot recognize it as such because it's what they usually do.

This is not just with people, it's valid in many institutions including schools, courts, work places and more that have rules or guidelines that hinder women from accessing them or from fully benefiting from their services. When an act is repeated over and over again for years, it's not easy to dissociate oneself from it and see it for what it really is. The biggest difficulty is not only in recognizing these acts but in replacing them by creating new traditions and routines.

Women's movements have had many successes because of women who refuse to accept norms that discriminate against them. But there is also a practical reason, as capitalism rose businesses realized that women are a profitable market group. In my opinion the challenge for this movement truly rests on healing a mindset that finds it okay to treat a fellow member of the community in a way they wouldn't want to be treated themselves.


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