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What’s there to celebrate on International Women’s Day?


Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.

Yesterday, 8 March was International Women’s Day. But looking around, it seems there’s no need to start popping champagne corks just yet.

To quote a Scottish newspaper, International Women’s Day is dedicated to “a celebration of the achievements of females around the world, recognising how far they have come”. Well done, females, for dragging yourselves out of the primordial soup.

At the risk of sounding churlish about the concept – because there are obvious positive points to having a day to raise awareness for gender advocacy – it is obviously something of a statement in itself that the day exists at all. The fact that we don’t have an International Men’s Day reminds me of the question children often ask their parents on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day: “When is Children’s Day?”, to which the usual response is “Every day is children’s day, darling”.

It is common to use International Women’s Day as an opportunity to raise some of the starker statistics that capture the reality of ongoing gender inequalities worldwide. So, for the sake of tradition, let’s consider the findings of a recent World Bank study, looking at women in 141 countries between July 2010 and July 2011. Women – who make up 49.6% of the world’s population – still perform 66% of the world’s work in exchange for 10% of its income. Women produce 50% of the world’s food, but own 1% of the world’s property. Three out of four fatalities in war are female. Sixty-six percent of the world’s illiterate adults are women. These depressing statistics speak for themselves, and also provide a riposte to anyone who might aver that the battle for equality between men and women has largely been won.

But while it’s easy to agree, for instance, that rape statistics in war zones are unacceptably high, it’s much harder to achieve consensus on the condemnation of more subtle and insidious forms of gender inequality. In December last year, the BBC Magazine released its annual list of 12 Female Faces Of The Year – high-profile women who had made the news in various ways over the course of 2011. The final female they selected was Tian Tian, who happens to be a Chinese panda at Edinburgh Zoo. Was this sexist? The BBC said no, pointing out that they had chosen animals to represent both the male and female lists in past years, and called the decision “light-hearted”.

But many people felt differently, because the selection came in tandem with the fact the BBC had failed to identify a single female for the category of Sports Personality of the Year. In other words, they couldn’t find one woman to be the Sports Personality, and they also couldn’t even find 12 significant humans for their Female Faces. Tian Tian has a male partner, Yang Guang, who attracted the same level of media attention as Tian Tian when the two were brought to the UK late last year, but Yang Guang was mysteriously absent from the Male Faces list.

Discussions about issues like these are quite difficult because in less-defined situations it seems sexism operates a bit like those hidden 3D pictures that were all the rage in the 1990s: you squint your eyes and some people see it and some don’t. It’s even harder when sexism comes cloaked in humour, because anyone who takes offence can be accused of not getting the joke and told to lighten up. This was the case in the UK last week, when a men’s clothing chain was found to be selling a range of trousers which had, as its washing instructions, a label saying: “Give it to your woman, it’s her job”.

Pictures of the label were re-tweeted around the world, and responses were varied. Many men, but also some women, said that people who were offended should “grow up”, or “calm down”. Others admitted it was sexist, but said they still found it amusing. If you had to make a case for why it was sexist (which apparently is necessary), you could point to the fact that it suggests that women should stay at home and wash clothes for men, who are entitled to have this service provided for them as a kind of natural right. In a social context where many women still do just that, not because of their love for laundry – not in fact out of choice at all – but because they are denied the opportunity to do anything except this, it becomes hard to determine exactly where the funny part comes in. To me, the label reads not as a joke, but as a depressingly accurate statement of reality in many cases. It is possible to interpret it like that and still acknowledge that there are women who want to do their husband’s laundry, while having access to every opportunity not to do so. But the World Bank statistics indicate such women are not even close to the global norm.

In the same week that the label sparked debate – just an average week – we had the most successful radio talkshow host in America calling a female student a “slut” and a “prostitute” on air after she endorsed the idea that universities should provide free contraception. In the same week, we also had the European Commission announcing that, at the current rate of progress, it will take until at least 2052 for women and men to be equally represented in top management at European firms. Let’s celebrate International Women’s Day, by all means, but acknowledge that we are not even close to living in a world where men and women are treated equally. DM


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