Feminism – accomplishments and challenges

Feminism – accomplishments and challenges

Feminism is a global movement aimed at advancing women’s rights. It has a long and complex history, with big and small accomplishments in each country and region. In this first part of the feminism mini-series, we discuss these accomplishments, but also shed a light on the challenges it still faces.

Fundamental rights

One of the most famous accomplishment of feminists is the acquirement of women’s right to vote and to hold public office. Famously, the suffragettes fought for these rights in Ireland, the UK and the USA. However, it was New Zealand who first granted the right to vote and hold public office to women in 1893. Other countries were quick to follow. In 2011, Saudi Arabia was the last country so far to join those where women have these basic rights. Nowadays, there are just two countries that have yet to come through; Brunei, where all citizens are denied the right to vote, and Vatican City.

Building a live

Another important fundamental right that women and girls enjoy because of the work of feminists is the right to education. Receiving a proper education opens doors for women and empowers them to choose the kind of live they want to live. Girls who have received education are less likely to become victim of domestic and sexual violence and to enter into child marriage. Moreover, educated women have greater chances of escaping poverty, leading healthier and more productive lives, and can thereby provide a higher standard of living for their children, families and communities.

As beneficial proper education is to girls, its effects go much further than that. Mothers who have received education are much more likely to ensure that their children receive education. They also generally have less children, which enables them to direct more resources to the children they have. Moreover, their children are generally more healthy.

However, while an increasing number of girls go to school, worldwide 130 million girls still do not have access to education. While gender seems to play little role in whether a girl has access to primary education, it is a huge factor in secondary education and beyond. Moreover, whenever education is disrupted by conflict or early marriage, girls are far less likely to go back to school than boys.

Sexual and reproductive rights

Whether and how many children women have significantly impacts their health and wellbeing and their social and economic situation. While a great deal of credit should be given to scientists for coming up with measures such as birth control and abortion, women would not have the right to use these technological advances to their benefits if it had not been for feminists. By establishing rights to birth control, sexual education and abortion, feminism has given women the power to decide over their own futures. 

However, feminism’s accomplishments in terms of sexual and reproductive rights extend beyond family planning abilities. For instance, just a few decades ago, notions of sexual assault and rape were non-existent because women were seen as property, they did not have rights. Because of the efforts of the feminist anti-rape movement, the notion of sexual assault emerged around the 1970s. Most countries now define coerced sexual acts as rape. Moreover, practically every country in the world defines sex with children now as statutory rape because children cannot consent, with notable exceptions of Saudi Arabia and Yemen.

By creating the notion of sexual assault, feminism basically established the right to bodily integrity, the right to control one’s own body. This was a giant step forward, as the common preconception used to be that women caused men to have sex with them, purely by being in their presence. Women used to be seen as a temptation for sex to which men had no way of resisting. But increasingly, men’s predatory behaviour is seen as being the problem.

More than just a vessle of life

By fighting for access to birth control and establishing the notion of sexual assault and women’s right to bodily autonomy, feminists managed to liberate women from the burden that their reproductive function used to be. Women are less and less seen as having just one function – to create new life -, and are increasingly seen as full people who should be able to decide for themselves what to do with their lives and whether or not to have children. Women’s new-found control over their sexuality and reproductive functions has enabled them to take on other roles than solely being a mother.

However, these advances do not mean that feminists’ work for women’s reproductive and sexual rights is finished. Countless women all over the world still face sexual abuse and violence, and struggle with a lack of control over their own bodies. In the US, for instance, 1 in 6 women has experienced rape (attempted and/or completed), and someone is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds. In Europe, where 1 in 20 women have been raped since the age of 15, all countries have laws that criminalise forcing someone to have sex, but only 8 countries have laws that define sex without consent as rape.

Moreover, there are still many places where women do not have access to birth control measures and abortions, and where motherhood is not so much a choice as just something that happens. For example, 214 million women of reproductive age in developing countries who want to avoid pregnancy do not use modern contraceptive methods because of limited choices and access, cultural and religious opposition, and gender-based barriers.

The challenge of being truly inclusive

While feminism has many accomplishments, it has been heavily criticised for failing to be inclusive, accounting only for around the white cis-gendered female perspective. It thereby neglected to account for the situation of women of colour, women in non-western countries, and less-abled, low-income, and LGBTI women. These women were often kept out of feminist protest movements and did not benefit from feminists’ accomplishments.  

For instance, while feminism has been successful in criminalising violence against women, it has failed to protect trans women. These women are still extremely likely to face violence and intimidation. A trans woman’s life expectancy is substantially lower because of the threat of being murdered. In the US, for instance, trans women of colour are expected to live for only 35 years, while their cis-gendered counterparts are expected to live to 78 years.

Moreover, while we are increasingly aware of the objectification of women’s bodies and promote body-positivity, black women’s bodies are still often seen as different or exotic. On the other side of the coin, the crusade on the sexualisation of women has included forcing Muslim women in Europe out of their hijab, without even asking or considering whether they want to wear it. 

More than gender alone

To be really inclusive, feminism has to acknowledge that gender is not the sole reason why women face discrimination. Instead, it is just one factor that interacts with other forms of discrimination, such as age, socioeconomic status, mental ability, physical ability, sexual identity, religion and ethnicity. For instance, a black woman in North-America or Europe likely faces discrimination based on sexism, as well as on racism.

Moreover, feminism should acknowledge that women’s experiences are not similar. A woman in India encounters different obstacles and forms of oppression than a woman in the Netherlands, just like black women in the USA have different experiences than white woman, even if they live in the same country. Different age groups also have different experiences. Basically, different forms of discrimination together shape how women experience inequality, and it is crucial or any equality movement to acknowledge this.

While women are probably the largest discriminated group in the world, we should also acknowledge that they are not the only group that faces discrimination. For instance, while women in the USA got the right to vote in 1920, it was not until 1965 until all racial minorities, regardless of gender, received this right. And while Canada granted women voting rights in 1917, Canadian Indian women received the same right only in 1960. The same goes for Australia and South-Africa, where Aboriginals and black citizens received voting rights only decades after the white population did.

Clearly, gender is just one of many factors based on which people experience discrimination. True feminism strives for inclusive societies in which everyone has equal rights and opportunities, regardless of factors such as gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. 

It’s not a contest

Different social groups clearly have different experiences that deserve to be acknowledged. However, feminism should be careful not to turn into a contest of who is worst off. Instead, it is about the acknowledgement that we all have different experiences, and working together to increase equality for all. True equality leaves no one behind.

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs, Feminism
Female genital mutilation; stats, obstacles and solutions in 2019

Female genital mutilation; stats, obstacles and solutions in 2019

Last week marked a milestone for the fight against female genital mutilation (FGM). A mother of a three-year-old girl became the first person to be convicted of FGM in the United Kingdom. The cutting of the little girl took place during the summer of 2017. 

While this practice had been outlawed for more than three decades, the UK had never had a conviction for it. The crime carries a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. Campaigners hope that the new conviction will encourage other victims to come forward and report the crime. 

Female genital mutilation, also called female genital cutting or female circumcision, is the ritual putting or removal of some all of the external female genitalia. There are a few different types of FGM, which all typically includes the partial or total removal of the clitoris. 

FGM is a way to control women’s sexuality and to ensure virginity before marriage and fidelity afterwards. It is also meant to increase male sexual pleasure. It is internationally recognised as a human rights violation. FGM is practised in households at all educational levels and social classes. Moreover, it occurs among many religious groups, including Muslims, Christians and animists. 

The physical and emotional pain of FGM

“The pain inflicted by FGM does not stop with the initial procedure, but often continues as ongoing torture throughout a woman’s life.”

Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

After girls have been cut, they might experience health problems, discomfort and pain for the rest of their lives. Examples are difficulty urinating, frequent pain and infections, menstrual problems, kidney damage and failure, cysts and abscesses, pain during sex and infertility. The more immediate effects include severe pain, infections such as hepatitis B and C, and organ damage.

Moreover, when women who have undergone FGM give birth, they face higher health risks. They are at higher risk for adverse effects during childbirth, and genital mutilation in mothers also has adverse effects on their newborn babies. One to two babies per 100 deliveries dies as a result of FGM. Moreover, when giving birth, scar tissue might tear and afterwards the vagina is often “ sewn up” again, causing additional pain for women. 

Moreover, FGM also leaves its mark on the mental wellbeing of girls and women. Studies have found that girls can experience immediate psychological trauma caused by the pain, shock and the use of physical force by those performing FGM. In the long-term, girls can experience post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and memory loss. About 80% of women who have been cut suffer from mood or anxiety disorders. Because of the continuous pain caused by FGM, there is a higher risk of depressed mood, with reduced functioning, feelings of worthlessness and guilt, and even suicidal tendencies. 

What is the scale?

FGM is practised in 42 countries in Africa, the Middle East and in Asia. Moreover, it is also prevalent in communities from those countries in for example the UK, USA, and Europe. 200 million women and girls worldwide live with the consequences of FGM. Research has shown that 44 million of these survivors are younger than 15 years old. Every year, about 3 million girls are estimated to be at risk of FGM.

FGM in Africa, the Middle East and Asia

In the four countries where FGM is most common, Sierra Leone, Djibouti, Guinea and Somalia, nearly every girl between the ages of 15 and 49 has been cut. But things seem to be slowly changing. In the 10 countries with the highest rates of FGM, its prevalence is declining. Whereas in 1985, 51 per cent of women aged 15 to 19 had undergone FGM, in 2000 this was 46 per cent, and in 2016 it was 37 per cent. 

Moreover, 63 per cent of men and 67 per cent of women in countries where FGM is common think that this practice should be history. However, because of population growth in the most affected countries, the actual number of girls could actually be increasing despite a decline in the practice. 

But while FGM practices are decreasing in practising countries, its prevalence outside of practising countries is growing because of migration.

FGM in Europe

Each year, 180,000 girls and women in FGM practising communities in Europe are at risk of FGM. In France, for example, between 24,000 and 43,000 girls face the possibility to be cut. It is estimated that about 500,000 women in Europe have experienced FGM.

The EU made a plan to tackle FGM in Europe with actions to increase understanding of the status of FGM in the EU, promote social change to prevent FGM, and support Member States in prosecuting FGM more effectively. Moreover, in 2015, the EU supported 17 projects that address FGM in 18 countries, spending 8 million Euros of EU funding.   

FGM in the USA

FGM is on the risk in the US. Since the 1990s, the number of girls and women who either had undergone FGM or were at risk of it has more than tripled. In 2012, The Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there were more than 500,000 women and girls at risk of being a victim of this procedure. It seems that this increase is caused by the growing number of migrants from countries where FGM is most common. These girls and women mostly live in California, New York and Minnesota.

In 1996, a federal law was passed to make it illegal to perform FGM in the US. In 2013, this law was amended to also outlaw taking a girl out of the US to inflict FGM abroad. However, on 20 November, a federal judge in the USA declared a federal law banning female genital mutilation unconstitutional. He dismissed several charges doctors and others in the first US criminal case against FGM. According to the judge, the practice is a criminal assault, which means it can only be regulated at state level. 

While 27 states have laws prohibiting FGM, this could turn the 23 states that do not have such laws into ‘destination states’ for cutting. This is a realistic scenario, as the dismissed cases showed that victims were often taken across state lines to undergo this mutilation. Anti-FGM state laws often include clauses criminalising “vacation cutting”, which is the practice of taking girls out of the country to have FGM performed.

FGM Canada and Australia

In Canada, FGM is forbidden under the Criminal Code since 1997. This law prohibits FGM practices in the country, as well as taking girls out of the country to be cut. Any person guilty of the assault can be imprisoned for up to 14 years.  In Australia, FGM is a criminal offence as well.

While it is clear that FGM is practised in Canada and Australia, there is little to no data on the practice. It is unclear how prevalent FGM is, and prosecutions are rare.

Obstacles and solution to end FGM

Unfortunately, there is a global lack of data and research about FGM. In many countries and regions, it is unclear how often and how it is practised, how many girls are at risk, and how many people live with the consequences. Moreover, while research most often focuses on the physical harm of FGM, there is much less information available on the physiological and emotional harm. 

This lack of knowledge prevents the creation of effective policies to fight FGM. Moreover, whereas there are grassroots organisations who aim to stop FGM practices, these often do not have enough funding to have a big reach and impact. More research about FGM is needed to create an incentive to develop proper policies and to fund anti-FGM organisations. 

Another factor that stands in the way of ending this horrendous practice is the lack of knowledge in the professional community. Many medical and social workers are not aware of what the practice entails, how to recognise its signs, and what to do in case they come across women and girls at risk or who live with the consequences of FGM. This lack of knowledge prevents victims from getting the help they need, and offenders from being prosecuted. FGM should be a standard part of the education of healthcare and social workers, to identify victims. 

The most critical factor in the fight against FGM, however, is awareness within practising communities. Many women who have undergone FGM as girls and who are surrounded by women who have as well do not realise that these practices are harmful and not needed. For them, it is just normal for girls to be cut. Only when they learn about the physical and emotional harm and the abnormality of the practice, they realise the horrendous nature of it. 

There are many stories of women who were cut and participated in this practice until they realised how harmful and necessary FGM is and became anti-FGM activists. As FGM is a highly culturally-sensitive topic, the power to eradicate this practice lies in the hands of these women. These women are familiar with the culture and customs, which gives them the tools to change minds in their own communities. 

Are you interested in women’s rights? Be sure to check out this article about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, and this article about contraceptives as a tool to fight poverty!

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs, Feminism
The struggle for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia

The struggle for women’s rights in Saudi Arabia

A Saudi teenager named Rahaf Mohamed al-Qunun has made international headlines recently. She tried to flee to Australia after she renounced Islam and was threatened to be ‘slaughtered’ by her cousins. Denouncing Islam is a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. Rahaf also reported that she was physically and mentally abused by her family and that she was being forced in an arranged marriage.

After she managed to make it to Thailand, her passport was taken by Saudi diplomats during her layover. She then locked herself up in an airport hotel room. From there, she tweeted about her situation to attract the attention of international media and the United Nations.

Wait! Weren’t women rights approving in Saudi Arabia?

This might all come as a bit of a surprise. Recently, Saudi Arabia made headlines because of its improvements in women’s rights. In June, women got the right to drive, and last week it was announced that women will now be notified by text if their husband divorces them. Under Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s regime, women’s rights seem to be advancing. 

But critics say that these improvements are mainly superficial. Women’s rights are severely restricted by the country’s guardian system in which each woman is set under the control of her husband or a male relative. While this system is not embedded in the law, most Saudi institutions comply with. Women need their guardian’s approval for all major decisions, such as getting a passport, travelling, and signing a contract. 

Not only does the guardian system severely restrict freedom of choice on a daily basis, but it also puts women in a dangerous position of dependence and possible violence. Women need their guardian’s approval to seek justice if they faced sexual abuse or violence, even if the violence is of the hands of their guardian. This effectively forces women to stay in violent marriages and family situations. 

To be fair, the guardian system has loosened up a bit recently, and women can now access health care and education without a guardian’s permission. Since these law reforms, women are also allowed to open a business.

However, as women are still financially and socially dependent on their husband and male relatives, the effectiveness of these new rights are questionable. What happens when a woman starts a business against her husbands’ wishes? If doing so makes her face the risk of abuse or divorce, she might not want to carry through with it.

Yay, women can finally drive.. right?

Recently, Saudi Arabia had the dubious honour of being the last country in the world to give women the right to drive. But while women’s newly won right to drive seemed like a significant step forward, women still depend on their guardian’s permission to obtain a driver’s license. 

The new right to drive is a part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s programme called Vision 2030. This plan sets out economic and social reforms to reduce Saudi Arabia’s economic reliance on oil. One of the plan’s components is to get more women to enter employment to increase economic growth, and the right to drive is a way to do so.

At least nine women’s rights activists who protested the female driver’s ban are still stuck in prison. According to Amnesty International, these women are being tortured and sexually harassed. Last December, Twitter suspended the account of activist Loujain al-Hathloul’s father. He had been tweeting about the alleged sexual harassment and torture that his daughter faces in a Saudi government prison. 

In reality, the ‘right’ to drive, is more of a gift than an actual right. All of this begs the question whether women can now drive because of a Saudi wish for a more equal society, or just because it might be economically beneficial.

Other so-called improvements

This week, it was announced that women are now informed by text if their husbands are divorcing them. Before, husbands could divorce their wives even without ever letting them know. While this seems to be a big step forward, this law is superficial and hollow. It does not guarantee the right to alimony after the divorce or the right to custody of a woman’s children. 

Furthermore, there are still many things that women flat out cannot do in Saudi Arabia. One of these things is to ‘show their beauty’ in public. Saudi Arabia uses a dress code based on a strict interpretation of Islamic law. Women are expected to wear an abaya – a long cloak- and a headscarf. If women expose too much skin or wear make-up, they are often harassed for it. 

Women’s interaction with men who they are not related to is restricted as well. Most public buildings have separate entrances for men and women, and public places such as transportation, and parks, are mostly segregated. Interacting with unrelated men can lead to criminal charges against both parties, but women usually face harsher punishment.  

Shallow improvements meant to mask a fundamentally patriarchal system

While recently it seemed as is women’s rights were advancing in Saudi Arabia, these improvements are in fact pretty shallow. Newly won rights, such as the right to drive, are ultimately meant to mask a system in which men have ownership of women. And while this ‘progress’ is made in the name of equality and human rights, the motivating factor behind it seems to be mainly economical.

The power of social media

Fortunately, al-Qunun’s situation worked out so far. Because of her tweets, she was noticed by the U.N. Refugee Agency, and granted asylum in Canada. While this does not entirely guarantee her safety, at least she has the chance to build a new life in another country. 

Other women who managed to flee Saudi Arabia were not so lucky. In 2017, for instance, 24 years old Dina Ali Lasloom managed to reach the Philippines before she was returned to Saudi Arabia against her will. She was trying to escape a forced marriage. No one heard from her after she arrived in Saudi Arabia. 

Social media might have been the key to success in al-Qunun’s escape. Since she managed to attract international attention, Saudi Arabia’s options to take her back to the country were limited. In fact, in a video that al-Qunun posted, a Saudi Arabian official is heard saying that he wished they had taken her phone, instead of her passport. Would al-Qunun have managed to find asylum and to stay out of the hand of her family if it had not been for her tweets?

A growing number of Saudi Arabian women realise the potential of social media as well. Ever since al-Qunun managed to escape Saudi Arabia, women started tweeting. Under an Arabic hashtag that translates as ‘remove the guardian system, or we will all migrate’, women share their experiences living in Saudi Arabia. As the hashtag says, they threaten to leave the country if the guardian system is not removed. Let’s hope their protests are being heard.

What can you do?

Unfortunately, the restriction of women’s rights is not the only problem in Saudi Arabia. Other issues include the general lack of respect for human rights, the ongoing war in Yemen, and the murder on journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But hey, this does not mean we should sit and wait until human rights magically improve in Saudi Arabia. There is plenty that you can do.

For instance, you can use social media to raise attention for women’s and human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, and to put pressure on its government by sharing posts and articles! And you can help human rights organisations with their Saudi Arabia campaigns. To get you started, here is an e-mail campaign by Amnesty International UK to free Saudi female activists. Be sure to sign it!

Interested in women’s rights? Check out articles about the relationship between contraceptives and poverty and about the re-appropiation of the word ‘bitch‘. 

Posted by Chantal Verdonschot in Current Affairs, Feminism