Ala Oueslati is a feminist blogger and activist from Tunisia, specialising in women’s rights, gender equality and women in peacebuilding, with a focus on the Middle East and Africa. Based in New York, he currently works for Planned Parenthood Global. Here he explains how men must break from conventional masculine stereotypes to help create a gender equal society.
The first International Women’s Day took place in 1909 to commemorate the march for women’s rights that happened the year before in the city of New York. The day was celebrated by several nations throughout the years, in response to various events and occasions until it was adopted by the UN in 1975.
This is the day that nations of the world – at least the recognised ones – have agreed to celebrate, once a year, to pay homage to the movement for women’s rights, and remember the unconditional historic discrimination and oppression women have been subjected to in nearly all societies, all cultures, and all civilizations from the greatest to the smallest.
On this day, men and women, young and old, those who are strong proponents of gender equality, and those who are not too feminist, they will all congratulate women on “their day”, online and offline, with some many feminist-sounding wishes and gender equality-inducing messages and hashtags, mostly on social media, accompanied by quotes about feminism, gender equality, or women’s rights in general.
On this day, social media sites are exceptionally busier, more proper, better-natured and sympathetic, more indulgent and particularly more pleasant-mannered. People from all walks of life suddenly start using the hashtag #IWD even when they’re posting about their deliciously-looking vegan brownie in some hippie coffee shop. Everyone is suddenly concerned about the status of women and interested in reposting content featuring several female figures (usually the same ones) who, against all odds, managed to excel in different domains, including ones that are dominated by men.
Then the next day is Friday, or Saturday, or any other day that is not International Women’s Day. The next day is perhaps a football day, a movie day, an analysis day, an evaluation day for organizations to see how they did on their campaigns, for the United Nations to celebrate its successful online content, for Oxfam, Red Cross, UNHCR, and all the other international institutions working on behalf of the women’s rights cause and campaigning online.
So does it end there? Is International Women’s Day really a trend? Are we mere followers of trends and campaigns that are so hollow and so occasional? The truth is, to a very large extent the answer is yes. Campaigning online and spreading hashtags and trendy slogans has been our passion, our interest, and virtually our area of expertise.
What we need today more than anything else is a change of attitudes and mindsets, not a change in online accounts’ header pictures or pinned tweets – though that might help slightly- but a change in perspective is way more useful. We need not to give more space for systematic sexism, misogyny, or subjection. We need gender equality not because it generates additional economic gains or boosts the long-term competitiveness of the economy, but because it is an unquestionable need, a condition to a balanced productive human life, a value that defines our very humanity.
Just like peacebuilding, the comprehension of gender equality is something that starts from within. It should be our own individual task to realize upon our own reasoning and judgement that women’s rights are in fact, the rights of a group of human beings who happen to be of a particular gender that should not be alienable because of that gender or anything else. We should question society, and culture, and norms, and religions; hence trying to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes, a woman maybe, a pregnant wife, a working mother, a rape victim, a shamed actress, a fired secretary, a harassed train passenger, a 10-year old FGM victim… We need to know how it is to inevitably embody inequality so we can eventually embody equality.
Similarly, saying that “women’s rights are human rights” or “women’s lives matter” sounds problematic, at least according to the first article of the United Nations Declarations of Human Rights. If all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights , then why do we need to validate this principle over and over again? When something is unquestionable, we don’t find arguments for it. We don’t need to find arguments to prove that all humans are equal. It’s either that, or inequality, and when it’s inequality, well then, everything is wrong. These phrases also encompass the very ideas of categorization and discrimination. Instead of telling the world that women’s rights are human rights, we should advocate for the simple equality between humans.
Let’s not correct sexism, let’s eradicate it. Let’s not take one day to remember that women need emancipation. Let’s use all year round to tell the world how unfair, unjust, and violent our world is and has been for women and girls, and how fair, just, and peaceful it could be if we invest in gender equality education, in all aspects of life, at all times, for all people.