Saturday, March 8, 2014

Happy International Women's Day!

Today is International Women's Day, the day we celebrate the achievements of women around the world. It's also the day that we acknowledge how much work there is still to be done.

When I think of influential females, it's only natural that I think of those close to home: My paternal Grandmother, married at 15, left waiting for her husband to return from war. She left her home country to start a new life in Canada, where she had no family and couldn't speak the language, yet managed to find work and raise 4 children alongside my Grandfather.





I think of my maternal Grandmother, orphaned as a young girl, separated from her 10 brothers and sisters and sent to live with the nuns. A woman whose dream of becoming a teacher never came true because no one thought that the $75 for Teacher's College was a worthwhile investment for a woman who would surely get married, get pregnant, and stay home. She did get married, and had 6 children, but she always worked outside of the home to help support her family.

My mom, married at 19, who gave up a university education and had me instead. My parents celebrated 40 years of marriage this year, and growing up I saw my mom work her way up in her job and my dad support every choice she ever made.

I am aware of the female role models in my life, and of the privilege I have had to be raised by two people who allowed me to be the person I was meant to be, even though that meant hanging out with boys, playing sports, refusing to wear dresses, and choosing my own path. These are the same people who also managed to raise my sister, who colour-coded her outfits and accessories, skipped out of gym class for an entire semester, and has a degree in cosmetology. We were each encouraged to embrace our own uniqueness, whether it conformed or clashed with society's expectations.

I understand that as a Western, white woman, my brand of feminism is a privileged one. Many of the issues that concern me are luxuries for women of colour, those of different faiths, and those who live in certain other countries. Still, to belittle any woman's struggle for equality is counterproductive. Every area of the struggle for equality is a valid and important one. When I hear people state that there is no longer a need for feminism in the West, I cringe.

Women are underrepresented in all areas of politics and in upper leadership positions in business. We still earn less than men for equal work. We attend university in larger numbers than men, yet are the focus of sexist campus chants and the targets of sexual assault at a staggering rate. We live in an age where there is a rape culture so ingrained that there are those who think that group sexual assault is funny, a way to bond with buddies, or no big deal; that getting drunk is a woman's invitation to be raped, or that sexual assault is a way to punish a woman who doesn't know her place. Where slut-shaming is practiced by both men and women. We live in a world where little girls are going on diets before they even hit puberty because they are ashamed of how they look, and have make-up, Mommy, and fashion toys dominate the "girls" section of toy stores.

These are not trivial issues. And I in no way lay the blame on all men, nor am I a man-hater. I think that men and women need to work together to confront these issues whenever and wherever they see them. I am married to a wonderful man who doesn't feel any less masculine for having a strong, opinionated wife. I have two young sons who I am trying hard to raise in a way that instills strong values in them. I already see the impact of our dominant culture's set gender roles, like when my 5 year old was terrified of wearing a pink shirt to school for anti-bullying day, because he was afraid he would be made fun of. There is no such stigma for girls who wear blue. The struggle is not just about allowing girls to express traditionally "masculine" emotions and behaviours, but to stop belittling those that are traditionally female as well.

The struggle towards women's equality in other places is often less about equality as it is about simple recognition of basic human rights. The right to drive, the right to show their face in public (I am not making a statement about women who choose to cover their faces for religious purposes, but to those who are not given the choice), the right to not be forced into marriage as children, the right to basic control over their reproductive systems, the right to inherit property, the right to not undergo genital mutilation or virginity checks, and the list goes on.

Women's rights are human rights. And we have a long way to go.


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