I was only 14 when I walked into the course that would change my life. I took a seat in the back of the class, close enough to the door that I could be neither in nor out. I was an awkward, immigrant brown girl you’d hardly notice, in a liberal all-girls high school full of people who didn’t look like me.
Who knows why I signed up for that class, but Comparative Women’s History caught my attention. And 34 years later, it still hasn’t let me go.
In that classroom, this little brown girl learned that women’s history — her history — was one of violence. There, she learned how one binds a foot, the now-outdated Chinese practice of breaking and remaking the feet of young girls in order to keep them small. Or — permanently disfigured.
There, she saw the video footage of a young girl being held down while her genitals were cut by a barber in Egypt. The practice of female genital mutilation persists today and has affected over 200 million girls and women across 30 countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. What’s worse, lockdown measures due to COVID presented opportunities to carry out FGM “undetected,” meaning an additional 2 million girls will be affected.
Before the age of 14, I had never heard of these kinds of things, seen these things. I already knew that the world sees women and girls as unequal, as less-than. I did not know that the world too often seeks to actively destroy women and girls.
So there I was, the brown immigrant girl with no idea who she was or where she belonged. Until she realized that she belonged to women.
Sometimes you gotta recall who you are so you can remember why you are.
Fast forward a few decades. And I’ve seemingly built my entire existence around my anger, and my desire to eradicate this violence. I’m not doing a very good job, it seems.
Now we’ve just come to the end of the international campaign we call the “16 Days of Activism.” In case we don’t know, this extends from the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (25 November) until International Human Rights Day (10 December). But really — what does “human rights” day mean, when women’s rights continue to be denied?
On paper, we’ve got all the language in place. Or so we think?! The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written in 1948. That document defined what we are, as humans, and what we are all entitled to, as humans. Yes — all of us. In principle.
74 years later, it’s worth asking: What has changed?
Catharine MacKinnon, American radical feminist legal scholar, activist, and author, asks: “Are women human yet?”
In examining the declaration, she questions the “spirit of brotherhood” and asks if this spirit also includes us? And what if the document said “spirit of sisterhood”?! She goes on to critique the “spirit” of the articles in the declaration, asking where women are. Articles in favor of “just pay” and participation in government still fail to include women. Women are not paid the same as men. Women are more often relegated to the informal sector. Women’s work still does not count as work. And it continues. What about government?! It seems to me that most countries are still run by men, with women being the exception, the first, the “woman leader.” An anomaly. Not the norm.
MacKinnon puts it clearly:
The omissions in the Universal Declaration are not merely semantic. Being a woman is ‘not yet a name for a way of being human’, not even in this most visionary of human rights documents’. If we measure the reality of women’s situation in all its variety against the guarantees of the Universal Declaration, not only do women not have the rights it guarantees, but it is hard to see, in its vision of humanity, a woman’s face.
Women need full human status in social reality.
When will women be human? When?
And here we are, 74 years later, and another year of this campaign, another year of screaming, another year of violence against women that shows no signs of abating.
Does this campaign end when the “16 Days” end? Oh hell no. Not for me. Not for many like me.
This is not just “16 Days” — it’s 365 days. Probably 16 hours a day.
Violence against women is one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world. When I speak about this — as I do almost daily — I get asked one question consistently: Why?
Why does violence against women happen? Why does it continue? Why can’t we stop it?!
Questions I want so desperately to answer. Meanwhile, American feminist activist and writer Sonia Johnson reminds us that the term “war between the sexes” is fundamentally misguided — in fact, it is dangerous. This is not a case of “natural enmity” where both sides are evenly matched. False. War between the sexes is actually not “between” anyone. Firstly, it is man-made. And — alarmingly — it is deliberately made against women.
Ok — but why?
We speak of gender as a binary. Lierre Keith, radical feminist writer, reminds us that gender is a hierarchy. Moreover, it is global. It is sadistic in practice and it is murderous in conclusion. Not unlike race and class. Patriarchy divides the world in half, with women on the bottom half.
What will it take for women to matter? More often than not, women “matter” when they are the wife, sister, or daughter of some man. Not as women — as humans — in their own right. Legendary feminist activist and academic Cynthia Enloe puts it clearly:
It’s tempting to believe that women matter only because they are somebody’s wife, somebody’s daughter, somebody’s free or cheapened labour, somebody’s unpaid caretaker, somebody’s reproducer, somebody’s emotional attachment, somebody’s source of honour or shame, somebody’s patriotic symbol. At the very core of feminism is the conviction that women matter for their own sakes.
And she asks: What does it mean, to take women seriously?
And, whose responsibility is it to do this? As someone who has worked on women’s rights for over 30 years, I ask myself why it seems to only be women who are charged with fixing a problem they did not actually cause in the first place. Men, where are you?!
My friend and fellow feminist fighter Heather Cole puts it powerfully:
We hear a lot of handwringing from men about how awful violence against women is, and we so rarely have men standing alongside us in our hardest fights. Metaphorically, we are still being left to be killed. We’re having this fight with or without you. We are not interested in your handwringing. We are interested in you risking as much as we do, every day, to make this stop. Either move with purpose or get out of our fucking way.
I look at myself in the mirror and I see that girl, that 14 year old, sitting in that classroom, filled with sadness and rage. I have not fulfilled my promise to her. But I’m not done trying yet.
The last time I saw my friend Heather Cole, she asked me this: What might we have done in our lives if we hadn’t needed to spend them trying to end men’s violence?
I don’t know. I don’t know who I am, or what I could have become, without this. This, to me, is everything that is important and urgent in the world.
I recently met the revolutionary feminist Robin Morgan, author of Sisterhood is Global. The 1984 edition was the first feminist book I ever owned. Her 1972 poem “Monster” continues to be a call to action for the women’s movement. Here’s some of it to remind us of what we’re doing — and why.
Listen. I’m really slowing dying
inside myself tonight.
And I’m not about to run down the list
of rapes and burnings and beatings and smiles
and sulks and rages and all the other crap
you’ve laid on women throughout your history
I want a women’s revolution like a lover.
I lust for it, I want so much this freedom,
this end to struggle and fear and lies
we all exhale, that I could die just
with the passionate uttering of that desire.
I am one of the “man-haters,” some have said.
I don’t have time or patience here to say again why and how
I hate not men but what it is men do in this culture, or
how the system of sexism, power dominance, and competition
is the enemy — not people, but how men, still, created that system
and preserve it and reap concrete benefits from it.
Oh mother, I am tired and sick.
One sister, new to this pain called feminist consciousness
for want of a scream to name it, asked me last week
“But how do you stop from going crazy?”
No way, my sister.
This is pore war, I thought once, on acid.
May we comprehend that we cannot be stopped.
May I learn how to survive until my part is finished.
I owe it to that 14 year old girl — and every girl — to survive until my part is finished.