International Women's Day: Here's why it matters

 

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As part of International Women's Day, we asked our women writers to answer five questions. We couldn't possibly fit in all of the fantastic responses we received, but here's a selection. And to anyone who doesn't see the point in having a day to talk about just some of the issues facing women and girls all around the world, they're about to show you why it matters.

1. What do you think has been the most important step forward for feminism in the last year?

Lisa Markwell: I think the quiet, ongoing evolution from feminism being a cap-F ghetto, perceived as being populated by shrill ‘sisters’, to it being a solid supporting wall for women everywhere.

Joan Smith: The big change in attitudes to sexual violence. Because of the revelations about Jimmy Savile, the public is finally realising how widespread it is. 

Kiri Kankhwende: The emergence (or increased prominence) of young women campaigners such as Fahma Mohamed who has campaigned for education in England about female genital mutilation.

Katy Guest: Proposals announced late last year to allow new parents to split up to 50 weeks of parental leave between them, as it suits them. Equality in the workplace can now at least get started.

Aisha Mirza: Black women taking the microphone and starting loud, imaginative and brave conversations about identity, and the importance of acknowledging race within feminism. It had to happen.

Bina Shah: In my part of the world, the most important step forward has been the realization that educating girls is our biggest priority. There’s been a real change in awareness on the issue and our commitment to the challenge in Pakistan is being supported by our many global partners in development.

 

2. Which issue do you think the UK government should prioritise next?

Paris Lees: We need a radical overhaul of how we approach sex and sexuality education. Kids have greater access to pornographic material than ever before, and they’re seeing music videos that border on softcore porn. So why did MPs vote against compulsory sex education in British schools? We need to teach boys how to respect girls and the importance of respecting boundaries. We need to stop bullying of gay kids and kids who don’t conform to traditional gender stereotypes.

Felicity Morse: Childcare. If equal roles and responsibilities can be properly apportioned with things like paternity leave and proper facilities at work, then women are going to find it easier to keep on working whilst having babies. This will revolutionise how they are seen in the workplace.

Louise McCudden: Consent and VAWG in all its forms. We have protests in Bolton and London on Saturday called Yes Matters because consent needs to be taught in schools - so come and support!

Jane Fae: Inconsistent policing of violence against women. Irrespective of views on sex work, too many police forces are dealing with this issue in ways that criminalise victims and make it harder for them to get help.

Harriet Williamson: The Government should address the horrific treatment of the women currently held in Yarl's Wood Detention Centre. Those women came to this country for help, fleeing sexual abuse, political persecution, institutional homophobia and forced FGM.

Lisa Markwell: Get its own house (and House) in order – every party must find more women to run for parliament – and that doesn’t mean quota nonsense or all-women shortlists, it means thinking creatively about where to recruit from, and offering a genuinely inclusive, fair place to work. From this will flow better opportunities and conditions in wider society.

Caroline Criado-Perez: Sex and Relationships education. In the face of an internet saturated with often violent and misogynistic porn, it's more vital than ever that children are given a safe space in which to discuss how to treat and relate to each other.

3. Who has been an inspiration to you over the past year?

Kiri Kankhwende:  I have been inspired by Nimco Ali of Daughters of Eve, who has campaigned about the issue of FGM and worked to help women affected by it, despite the threats and abuse she has endures as a result.

Katy Guest: Cheesy as it sounds, my mum, who gave a mother-of-the-bride speech at my wedding on behalf of all mothers. The writers Stella Duffy and Shelley Silas; Malala Yousafzai; Eleanor Catton; the editor of the Independent on Sunday, Lisa Markwell; Caroline Criado-Perez; the Pink Stinks campaign; Mary Berry; Dr Alice Roberts; Bettany Hughes; the woman who single-handedly runs my local Indian restaurant…

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Too many to list. I don’t like picking up one or two heroines when everyday unsung heroines battle away.

Alice Jones: Malala Yousafzai for her courage, eloquence and intelligence.I can't get the various images of Pussy Riot - Nadezhda Tolokonnikova speaking out against the regime minutes after being released from prison, she and her colleagues being whipped and beaten by the police at the Sochi games - out of my head. In an entirely different sphere, Bridget Christie, for making feminism funny and doing more than anyone I can remember to dismantle the myth that women can't be funny.

Paris Lees: Caroline Criado-Perez is someone I really admire. She put herself out there and she bloody did it - Jane Austen will be on bank notes in 2017. And the crap she got for it! People are attacking her because she’s out there trying to do something positive. Love Jack Monroe too. And Lupita Nyong’o. And Lorde. I’m excited by the new generation of feminists.

Jane Merrick: Two women in politics - the Defence Minister Anna Soubry, who is a fantastic role model and not only pushes boundaries of gender stereotyping but tramples all over them; and the Labour MP Gloria de Piero, who was made shadow women's minister and who continues to wage a campaign to encourage the disenchanted and disenfranchised to be interested in voting.

4. Where have you seen the most conspicuous failings for women’s rights in the past year?

Harriet Williamson: The rise of rape culture, particularly on university campuses. Female students are being let down by university administrations as they refuse to take sexual harassment seriously and in some cases, force victims to attend lectures and seminars with their attackers.

Jane Merrick: The Spanish government's proposed law to tighten restrictions on abortion is deeply worrying, as is the question of girls' education worldwide. When western forces leave Afghanistan at the end of this year, is this the moment we turn a blind eye to girls' education in that country?

Kiri Kankhwende:  I don't think sufficient attention has been given to the rights of women seeking asylum. Women for Refugee Women has highlighted the suffering of already-traumatised women in Yarl's Wood Detentions Centre, who are detained despite having committed no crime. 

Joan Smith: In this country, another year has gone by without equal pay. How long do we have to wait?

Felicity Morse: What has struck me most about equal rights for women is how often lesbians still face the kind of discrimination which would not be tolerable for straight women. For example pictures of lesbians kissing is still seen as titillation. They are still jeered at for 'dressing like men' etc.

Alice Jones: On television and on Twitter. An unedifying, unending parade of empty sex dolls and trolls seems to me to be one of the biggest threats to women's rights there is.

Aisha Mirza: I’m not really over the cuts yet. Cuts to legal aid that strip women of freedom. Changes to benefits that trap women in dangerous situations. The dismantling of services designed to care for the most vulnerable people in society. All of those things are happening now.

5. What (if any) personal experience of sexism - involving either yourself or someone you know - have you had over the past year that you can tell us about?

Caroline Criado-Perez: I was faced with about a month of terrifying, graphic, violent and relentless threats. I was told that I would have my genitals mutilated, that I would be pistol-whipped and my flesh burned in front of my children, that I would be gang-raped till I died - that I would be begging to die. They also started posting addresses connected to me all round the internet. I felt hunted. It was quite shocking how little it took to set them off.

Bina Shah: I wrote an article for the Independent questioning why the West is fascinated by Muslim women’s dress. Two men told me that as a Muslim woman my opinion was invalid. It made me understand the importance of the intersectionality debate in feminism. 

Louise McCudden: How long have you got? I honestly don't even know where to start.

Joan Smith: Misogyny thrives on Twitter. Quite revealing that some people respond to articles they don't like with a barrage of personal abuse.

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: I used to be on TV and radio a lot more than I am now. I’ve been told by friendly insiders that they don’t like me because I am combative (unlike Peter Hitchins and Nigel Farage) and too old. Go figure. 

Felicity Morse: A date told me i should be quieter if I want to get laid. I didn't shut up. Worst still, I have the feeling he might be right. 

Katy Guest: Again, how long have you got? All the little stuff. Going into Homebase for a countersinking bit and being asked, “What did he tell you he needed it for?”

Jane Fae: Violence and the fear of violence. Out one evening with a close female friend, we were not in the least bit interested in meeting or chatting to guys. Half a dozen slightly sozzled blokes decided to join us and when we failed to conform to their expectations became rude and threatening.

Paris Lees: People talking over me. I’ve been getting invited on more panel shows and radio debates and every time it’s like the boys just instantly take over. I’d never noticed it before and I assumed it would be subtle, but actually when you start to observe it for yourself you see that it’s blatant and constant.

Lisa Markwell: I do enjoy writing back to people who send letters with the standard-issue “Dear Sir” at the top (eg: perhaps you were mistaken and thought I was Mark Well?). More seriously, the editor of another newspaper asked, when told what I did, asked “what, the *whole* paper?” as if it was incredible.

Read more:
Osborne's policies hit women almost four times harder than men
Comment: Here's why International Women's Day really matters
Mothers' and daughters' hopes and dreams: in pictures

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