Is there a feminist spring?

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Is there a feminist spring?

Women’s rights has got its energy back – in time for all the challenges in the future. Hazel Healy reports.


Girls in an advert for GoldieBox. This company is different – it makes engineering toys for girls. (Nick Ut/AP/Press Association Images)

A group of secondary-school girls look good in their school. They’re wearing head scarves and bright red capes, with faces of their heroes – Simone de Beauvoir, Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou.

The girls are from Mulberry school in Tower Hamlets. This was part of the Women of the World (WOW) festival earlier this year. They listened to Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old education activist and they talked about the importance of feminism now. ‘These great women created the rights we have today,’ Maria Amrin said. ‘We must continue to fight.’

These girls are part of what some people say is a new wave of feminism. Feminism never stopped, of course, but there is now new energy and interest. For example, in Britain, UK Feminista say there are three times more feminist groups since 2010. Many groups now ask UK Feminista for talks and training.

For years, feminist issues – control over our bodies, opportunities and value, share of labour and freedom from violence – were not so important. But now, young people, politicians and the media are getting interested again.

Women around the world are becoming active in many different ways. US feminist Jessica Valenti says the groups are ‘not very well organised but moving fast’.

There is a lot of bold activism. Everyone knows the Russian anarchists like Pussy Riot. The ‘sextremist’ group Femen use the power of naked breasts to get attention. This makes sure the media tells their story, so many other groups do this, from Mexico to Tunisia to Germany.

Women are fighting for similar things as before. But they are fighting in a different way. New types of media have made it possible to tell so many more people what is happening.

‘It’s an exciting time,’ says Nimko Ali. She is fighting against female genital mutilation (FGM). ‘The internet makes it possible to be immediate.’

‘You think that you are the only woman that a man touches on a train. But then you find out there are thousands, millions of us who had the same kind of experience. This feminism is not only in books in libraries – this new feminism is happening now.’

Today’s activism is often creative and playful. But the issues feminists are fighting for now are very serious. And it’s difficult. When people said Delhi was ‘the capital of rape’, it also became the capital of protests against rape.

Women’s rights activism is not a 100-metre race. It is more like a relay race, stopping and starting with different people taking over.

And the new feminist energy is at a time when important rights, like contraception and abortion have problems. These were demands of the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today, 65 per cent of women in the world have some form of contraception and deaths during pregnancy and childbirth have fallen 45 per cent since 1990. But there are still many problems for many women. There is a lot of inequality eg. in maternal death between richer and poorer countries. In the US, black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women.

Sometimes feminists win eg. the right to have babies. But sometimes they lose what they have won. ‘I can’t believe we’re talking about this in 2014!’ says Joni Seager, a feminist geographer. She has seen less and less possibility to have abortions in her country, the US. The New York Times said that 22 states restricted abortion in 2013. ‘It’s a very serious fight.’

Religious conservatives are trying to make us return to the past, all over the world. Spain is going to bring in strict new abortion laws because of the power of the Catholic Church. And in El Salvador, 17 women are in prison for as many as 40 years for ‘homicide’ after they went to hospitals bleeding from possible abortions.

In Iraq, Muslim Shi’as are planning a new law – parliament is discussing it now – to decrease the age people can agree to sex to nine years old. It would also make rape in a marriage legal and give the right to look after the children to fathers after divorce.

‘Freedom from violence’ was another fight of second-wave feminism. It’s difficult to know if there is more violence against women today – or maybe people tell others about it more. It seems to be the same or increasing'.

The US writer Rebecca Solnit says there is far too much violence. For example, look at the news in the last week of May. Elliot Rodger killed people in California because some girls said no to sex; a 25-year-old pregnant Pakistani woman was killed by her family throwing stones outside courts in Lahore because she said no to an arranged marriage; and two Indian cousins aged 14 and 16 were raped by many men and hanged when their parents were asking for police to help.

The stories are terrible. But one Pakistani woman, Ghansia Rashid, thinks the ‘honour’ killings in Pakistan are because the control of men is getting weaker. There are many more women who do not agree and they want to marry for love.

Buthina Khoury, a filmmaker, says how terrible ‘honour’ killings are in the Palestinian Authority. He also says there is a positive side to more honour killings. ‘It means people can see that it’s happening. In the past, no-one talked about it.’

Domestic abuse continues in all societies. It happens to about 23 per cent of women in richer countries and about 36 per cent in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. In Australia, one woman dies every week from abuse from her partner. People say there is a ‘national emergency’ there after six women and children died in one week last Easter.

But employment rights for women seem to be getting better. We work in new jobs, and we have been half the workforce for the last 20 years. But writer and activist Beatrix Campbell said that neoliberalism means that women all over the world are mainly working in low-paid, unreliable jobs. And there is always a gap between men’s pay and women’s pay.

It is now law in 135 countries for women to get maternity leave (time away from work after having a baby). But most women who work and look after children say that they are most responsible for housework. Men are doing more housework now, but it probably won’t be until 2050, in the West, that they do half of it, and later for the rest of the world.

Feminism has won in other areas. Education has developed. In the world, there are as many girls as boys at primary school, and nearly as many girls as boys in secondary school.

There are many improvements in political power. It is only in Saudi Arabia and the Vatican that women can still not vote. But Africa now has two female heads of state.

There is progress in the law too. Sexual harassment was so usual that it didn’t even have a name until the 1970s. The first law against it in the US was in 1986, and now, in 2014, nearly two-thirds of countries have laws against it. Sexual violence is used in war and people have been put in prison for this.

Lesbian and transgender people have been successful in getting more rights and acceptance. Women in most parts of the world now have more independence and more life choices than before – they have rights to own property, to keep children, to have careers.

But it is difficult to fight against the control of men because it comes back in a different form. In the West, cultural sexism is coming back. ‘For a time, we thought everything was OK,’ says Chris Blache from French feminist group La Barbe, ‘but this is not true now.’

For example, children are separated into boys and girls. In the 1970s, parents tried to make them the same. But now we have pink for girls and blue for boys and a very sexist toy market.

This started in the 1980s. Girls get pretty princess clothes and cooking pots and boys get action toys and building toys. Children get a clear message about what is OK for boys and girls to do, and this creates expectations later in life. As young as three years old, children think it’s wrong to cross the line between boys and girls.

This is not just in the West. Nursery workers even in El Salvador are trying to stop the gender divisions created with imported toys.

And there is a lot of writing to support this, about ‘female brains’ or men’s natural ‘ability to read maps’.

‘There is a lot of very good evidence that brains change with what’s going on around us,’ she says, ‘but scientists and journalists only show us the sexist studies.’ There is a clear message: there are basic differences between men and women, that we cannot change; we must always have inequality.

And there is also more pressure to be beautiful. Feminists have had problems with beauty since Mary Wollstonecraft wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Women in 1792. And these images have become more and more powerful – usually controlled by the sex industry.

No girl is too young to be sexy. People have criticized Abercrombie and Fitch, the US clothing company, because they sell ‘push-up’ bikini tops to girls as young as seven. They call them ‘padded’ to make people accept them. (And this company also sells thongs with sexy words to children).

The shops tell girls they need to ‘look good’ for self-expression and independence. Feminists first taught us to want self-expression and independence, but not to make us sex objects as part of consumerism. Many girls only think about what they look like, and this affects their confidence. About 40 per cent of British girls aged 10 and 11 want to lose weight.

The world is now globalized, so body image is a problem for everyone. Girls have the same worries in Canada, Australia and the US. And when they show Western adverts to girls in Fiji, girls very soon started doing too much exercise and they were 60per cent more likely to develop eating disorders. The beautiful, white, successful woman is also a powerful selling image across Africa, China and India.

New technology has taken pornography (which feminists do not agree about) into new areas, eg. the school playground. I remember at my primary school when children showed us small pictures of women in bras, from shopping catalogues. Now this has changed to pornography.

‘Boys of 11 are watching porn and learning that sex is something you “do to” a girl,’ explains Sophie Bennett, who runs UK Feminista’s schools programme.

Technology is bringing new ways of putting pressure on people to have sex. The National Society for the Protection of Children did a study of sexting (sending texts of sex pictures). They found that boys feel they have to compete, so they force girls to send pictures of their breasts and other body parts. When they have the pictures, they shame the girls by showing others.

Because of technology, rural India now has porn. New Internationalist writer Mari Marcel Thekaekara says 10-year-old boys are getting violent images on their mobile phones for only two rupees (4 US cents). She thinks that maybe this has caused the terrible rapes of young girls. No-one talks about sex in India.

So there are new forms of misogyny (hating women) now, but a generation that said no to feminism is now unable to talk about it. Sociologist Philip N Cohen studied the use of words ‘sexism’ and ‘sexist’, in books. People started using them more in the 1970s, the highest use was in the 1990s, ‘and now they are less common than the word “bacon”.’

So we need a new feminism. Younger women now are finding that reality is not the same as the equality that the law says we have.

At first, feminism tried to find out why there is oppression of women. But now feminism is more active. It is trying to fight against the control of men wherever it can.

‘In the last two months,’ says Canadian blogger Jarrah Hodge, ‘I’ve been to protests against the closure of an abortion clinic in New Brunswick; I’ve campaigned for justice for missing and murdered indigenous women; and I’ve criticized media reports of sexual assault and how women are shown in Star Trek.’

The internet is full of feminist blogs by many different types of people. Hodge’s blog is typical of new feminism. It shows all women need to act, not just privileged white women. ‘It is great that the new feminist movement has now made connections across class and cultures; including LGBTI people and straight men,’ writes 26-year-old Ecuadorean activist Adriana Garrido.

The new activism also says no to violence. The most dramatic protests have been in India. There, the terrible rape and murder of a student in Delhi made a lot of people very angry. The activist Kavita Khrishnan has said feminists are now thinking deeply about how we support violence and discrimination against women.

‘Maybe this is the first time in decades,’ said the author Nilanjana Roy, ‘that everyone is looking at the problem areas - caste, class and gender.’

Feminist groups in the Global South often fight against different things than in the North. Many try to enforce laws, rights and protections. They show great courage in dangerous, violent places like Colombia or Afghanistan. They are more globally connected – internet activism has brought them together.

For example, there is the story of Liz. She is a 16-year-old Kenyan girl with learning difficulties who was gang-raped and left in an open toilet. This made her physically disabled.

Women’s rights groups in Kenya found that the punishment for the rapists was to cut the grass of the local police station. So they started a protest petition on Avaaz (website for campaigns). 1.6 million people signed it. And the rapists will now be taken to court again with more serious charges in June.

Other new campaigns have been successful eg. the fight to force Facebook to remove images and comments that are against women. Groups work together to share what is successful. There is more confidence and this is a step towards bigger changes.

Feminism seems more populist today. It’s OK to be feminist and like Beyoncé. Men are encouraged to join the fight for equality more. People are trying to get more women in important jobs.

‘It’s not what we thought we would do in second-wave feminism,’ says Joni Seager, ‘but I think it works well together in small steps. It’s the old argument: do we want to be fighting at the gate or the people making important decisions in the companies? I say both.’

Malala Yousafzai told the girls at Tower Hamlets, that both the ‘developing’ and the ‘modern world’ discriminates against women. ‘In India and Pakistan, people say it openly, but here [in Britain] it’s kept hidden. Now we need to make people see it.

‘Women need equality in practical life – real life.’

If we want these big changes, the strong feminist movements are very important.

These organizations are better at fighting violence than political parties or money (from a 40-year study in 70 countries). 9Feminist groups are working to fight against the control of men and they need support and money.

The foundations of feminism are strong. In Brazil, feminist NGOs are looking at laws against domestic violence; and one young woman’s photo to fight against rape-culture - on the front of this issue – is going around the world. New anger brings new ways of working. And together with the older wisdom, has the chance to bring real cultural and political change.

These women will take us to the next part of the journey: to a world that gives importance to women; where girls love the bodies they have; where people see rape as something very important; and where everyone shares care and thinks this is important too.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: (This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).