Standing up to inspire change

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Standing up to inspire change

by Lydia James


Rosa Parks fought against oppression in America's civil rights movement. (Wikipedia Commons under a Creative Commons Licence)

‘I would like people to remember me as someone who wanted to be free... so other people would be also free.’ Rosa Parks.

Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus in Montgomery City in 1955 (when there was race segregation in the US). She had no idea of the effects of her action. Other people had done the same before, but she talked about how wrong the ‘laws of segregation’ were when she appealed against her conviction. And she helped change the world forever.

I thought it would be a good idea for New Internationalist to celebrate International Women’s Day on 8 March by thinking about the idea of freedom. What does freedom mean today to the three billion women and girls across the world? How free are we now and what stops women having this freedom?

Oppression makes it very difficult to have freedom and justice. It has always been a bad part of our world, in its traditional form (one group controlling another group) and also when individual people are cut off as different. It is bad to oppress a group. This creates a feeling of superiority that makes the lives of the oppressed people bad (and the oppressors too – they are afraid that the situation cannot last forever). Oppression and occupation are often together. One model that is increasing is the type of dictatorship of police states where they divide groups to control them better.

It is often difficult to see the oppression of individuals in institutions, laws and media. It can be direct and physical, or psychological and manipulative. Throughout history, women have not been able to achieve full equality and independence; in many societies, this is still true. People often say that all women experience one type of oppression, just because they are women. But many – eg. women with disabilities or women of colour – experience a double or even triple oppression.

Resistance is growing. Indigenous communities are demonstrating against environmental destruction in Canada. Migrants are protesting about not having freedom at Yarl's Wood detention centre in Britain. Bloggers are speaking about mental health issues. Groups are making the Indian government talk about sexual violence. Every day, women are fighting against oppression. The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is ‘Inspiring change’. A few weeks ago, I wrote a tweet asking people to recommend inspiring women writers. A few people replied saying: ‘Aren’t they all inspiring?’

Over the past few years, I have seen how important it is to share something with other women that is bigger than language, cultural and other differences. These women inspire change; and many of them are the change.

My friends Mariam and Noor in Egypt applied for jobs with no success for years. Now they are making handbags and purses from recycled plastic bags. They had no experience before, but they have become self-employed micro-businesswomen. My mother, and others, with terrible pain from cerebral palsy that doesn’t like old(er) age, writes letters to companies demanding accessible public toilets; she makes lists of ‘useful hints’ for people that can only use one arm, and goes around on her mobility-scooter looking for low kerbs.

Zara*, from Iran, new to Cardiff and seeking asylum with her husband, is waiting for the UK Border Agency to decide on their applications. She doesn’t know what they will do if they are refused. So Zara learns English from her six-year-old son and volunteers at a drop-in centre.

Inspiring change is not about earning money, getting a better job, articles published, or countries travelled. It is not even about being the next Rosa Parks; it is about courage and determination, even with many problems. Oppression is a feminist issue. It is a human rights issue. It is everyone’s issue. In a short series beginning today, we ask women of different backgrounds and experiences to tell their personal stories of fighting against oppression and inspiring change.

Happy International Women’s Day.

*not her real name

As this article has been simplified, the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed. For the original, please see: