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I m a g e s t /A P/ P r e s s A s s o c i a t i o n

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New media has turbocharged the old adage ‘the personal is political’

describes the current surge as ‘self-directed and loosely organized; fast-moving micromovements without institutional leadership’.

Daring, in-your-face activism is booming. Russian anarchists such as Pussy R iot have become household names, and the ‘sextremists’ Femen have rediscovered the power of baring their breasts as a confrontational means of attracting attention. With media coverage guaranteed, their method has been adopted from Mexico to Tunisia to Germany.

Women are fighting similar battles as before but the tools and terrain have shifted. For one thing, new media has turbo-charged the old adage ‘the personal is political’, enabling consciousness-raising on a mass-scale.

‘It’s an exciting time,’ explains anti-female genital mutilation (FGM) campaigner Nimko Ali (interviewed on page 20). ‘The internet gives you that instant ability to acknowledge things.

‘You’re thinking that it’s only you that’s been groped on a train but then you find out there are thousands, millions of us who had the same kind of experience. It’s not a feminism that’s shut away in books in libraries – this new wave of feminism is in real time.’

Today’s activism often has a creative, inclusive, playful twist (see overleaf) But don’t be fooled. The issues feminists are tackling now are deadly serious, the challenges intense. As Delhi was branded ‘the capital of rape’, it also became the capital of protests against rape. Unfinished business Women’s rights activism was never going to be a 100-metre sprint to the finish line. It is perhaps better characterized as uneven progress that moves in fits and starts – more like a relay race.

And the new feminist energy comes at a time when key victories of the past are on shaky ground. Take our ability to control our own bodies through contraception and access to abortion – core demands of 1960s and 1970s second-wave feminism.

Today, 65 per cent of women worldwide have access to some form of contraception and deaths during pregnancy and childbirth have dropped 45 per cent since 1990. Gains are, however, fragmented and unequally distributed. Maternal death remains the starkest indicator of inequality across the world – both the NorthSouth divide and that of class within countries (see Facts, page 18). In the US, black women are three times more likely to die in childbirth than white women.1

Gains in the area of reproductive rights have also proved fragile and reversible. ‘I can’t believe we’re talking about this in 2014!’ says Joni Seager, a feminist geographer of 20 years standing, who has watched the access to abortion closing down in her native US. The New York Times reported that 22 states adopted 70 different restrictions in 2013. ‘It’s a very serious, intense struggle, being fought inch by inch.’

Reactionary religious conservatives are trying to turn back the clock, all over the world. The influence of the Catholic Church has seen Spain introduce tough new abortion laws. And in El Salvador, 17 women are serving up to 40 years for ‘homicide’ after pitching up at hospitals haemorrhaging from ‘suspicious’ miscarriages.

In Iraq, Muslim Shi’a principles inform a draft law – currently being considered by parliament – that would lower the age of consent to nine, legalize marital rape and grant custody over children to fathers in case of divorce.

‘Freedom from violence’ was another rallying cry of second-wave feminism. It’s hard to tell whether there is more violence against women today – or more reporting of such cases. Either way the rates are steady or increasing.

The US writer Rebecca Solnit believes we are in the middle of a pandemic. Often it can feel that way. Take, as a sample, news coverage in the last week in May. Elliot Rodger went on a killing spree in California, justified by girls denying him the sex to which he felt he was entitled; a 25-year-old pregnant Pakistani woman was stoned to death outside courts in Lahore by her own family for refusing to agree to an arranged marriage; and two Indian cousins aged 14 and 16 were gang-raped and hanged as their parents pleaded in vain for police to act.

The stories are heart-breaking and hopesapping. Yet one Pakistani woman, Ghansia Rashid, blogging on Bolo Bhi, interprets her country’s ‘honour’ killings as evidence that patriarchy is ‘breaking’ – failing to stem the tide of growing numbers of rebellious women who defy convention to marry for love and live on their own terms.

Buthina Khoury, a filmmaker who has condemned ‘honour’ killings in the Palestinian Authority, also sees a positive aspect to the rise in reported cases of such attacks. ‘It means people are acknowledging that it’s happening. That is part of dealing with it – before it was hidden and taboo.’

Disputed or otherwise, domestic abuse continues to plague all societies. The percentage of women affected ranges from 23 per cent in high-income countries and hovers around 36 per cent in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Campaigners in Australia, where a woman dies every week at the hands of her partner, are talking about a ‘national emergency’ after six women and children died in one week last Easter.

On the face of it, employment rights for women are one area of considerable progress.

We’ve broken into new occupations, and made up half the workforce during the last 20 years. But writer and activist Beatrix Campbell has described how the advent of ‘neopatriarchal neoliberalism’ (‘an ugly name for an ugly deal’)

N e w I n t e r n at i o n a l i s t ● july/au gust 2 014 ● 13

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