When walking home on the 8th of March, on the evening of International Women’s Day, flower shops in the city centre of Budapest were crowded and stands selling chocolate and bouquets popped up at every corner. Boys and men were queueing to get that tulip or rose for their wives, mothers or girlfriends and then rushed home with a slight smile on their faces. Of course I knew what the occasion was: I also got flowers and chocolate from colleagues in the office in the morning and was secretly hoping for a dinner waiting for me when I arrive home. However, Women’s Day is not (only) about flowers and chocolate: it is an occasion to acknowledge and commemorate women and men who have fought for women’s rights, but also to remember that there is still a long way to go to gender equality.
As the last piece of our #IWD2018 blogging series and also as my last post on Volte-face, let me have a little more personal post than usual: here follows some of my thoughts and reflections on issues around gender equality and women’s rights in my own surroundings, and how I perceive these problems in the society I am living in.
Representations of women’s empowerment: whose empowerment?
Speaking in general terms, there are women who are doing much better regarding their rights and opportunities compared to many others across the globe. For me, as a girl born and raised in a middle-class, intellectual family in Budapest, is has never been a question that I should go to school and then carry on to college, that I can play sports, whichever I liked, that I can have a career I choose, that I can pick the man I want to be with and that I can decide whether or not I want to marry him.
But, of course, I know that I can consider myself lucky. We are constantly facing the various media representations of development learning about issues from refugee girls’ education to forced marriage. Whichever of Scott’s humanitarian communication strategies these reporting and campaigns are using, whether it is a desperate mother struggling to feed her children or smiling girls in a class room of a school in a refugee camp, they keep reminding us about how privileged we are.
Even though most campaigns launched for women’s rights and gender equality use the term ‘every women’, ‘every girl’ and ‘everywhere’, as long as the ‘South’ is represented as poor, backward and uncivilized as opposed to the ‘West’ that is portrayed as the example to follow in order to be ‘developed’ there might be a risk to lose focus on the problems in our societies.
Taking Hungary as an example (even though I am convinced that many of you knows exactly what I am talking about): there is an image of Muslim women (which of course is in itself a highly generalizing term) as oppressed and deprived of their rights and having to be obedient of their husbands, reinforced by the media as part of the heavy anti-migration campaign. The situation of Muslim women, who are generally seen as victims of their own culture are often portrayed as the warning example in contrary to the “free European women” who are equals to men enjoying the same rights and opportunities. And the safety of these ‘free European women’ is claimed to be endangered by the ‘immigrants who do not respect our culture’.
This image, nevertheless, does not only hurt those women who are often portrayed as poor, weak and oppressed and in the need of “empowerment”, but can also be a dangerous one to the societies in the ‘West’ too. If we are, after all, ‘free European women’ living in the ‘civilized West’, what should we fight for?
Also, while we are busy thinking about development, including women’s empowerment, as something that is done to others far away and we face human misery every day from Syria through South Sudan to Burma and Bangladesh, from FGM to child marriage, important issues around us might seem as lesser problems. Seeing all these news and campaigns from around the world might leave some of us thinking: “There is so much suffering in the world and are we really complaining about wage gaps?”
Yes, we are! This should not be a game of comparison. Recognizing and acknowledging our problems does not mean the discredit of others’ problems; and similarly, just because someone else has burning issues it does not make our problems any smaller.
Our society, our problems
Here, in the European Union we have a lot to do when it comes to women and their rights, and I feel that we are not talking about them enough. Data shows that one in three women in the European Union have experienced sexual or physical abuse since the age of 15, that women earn, on average, 16% less than men do, that there is an almost 12% gender employment gap, that 18% of women have experienced stalking and that 20% of young women (18-29) have been victims of cyber harassment. Moreover, Eastern European countries, including Hungary, are among the top countries of origin of victims of trafficking identified within the EU, most of them women subjected to sex trafficking.
These are just some of the facts concerning women’s rights and gender equality in Europe, while 11 out of 28 EU Member States have not ratified the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (also known as the Istanbul Convention).
Still, most of these issues remain unreported, and the shocking statistics reveals that 67% did not report even the most serious incident of partner violence to the police or any other organization.
No harassment is ‘too’ small
And then #metoo came and people were shocked by the magnitude of the problem. Maybe this is one of the reasons that when the #metoo campaign was launched social media exploded: that is was finally a safe platform to speak out as women ‘just’ had to follow the others. However, I still heard women around me saying how they were unsure even about posting #metoo on their social media profiles, claiming that what had happened to them ‘was not that serious’ or ‘was not even real sexual harassment’ just because they were not raped. Then the way it spread and more and more women spoke openly about their experiences of harassment gave the confidence to many to join. So many girls and women realized that they were not alone with their experiences. And it has challenged the image of the “perfect and civilized West” where women are safe and women’s rights are respected.
I believe that we should not stop here. We need to acknowledge the problems we have in our societies and realize that they need to be challenged no matter how big or small they feel like. I am convinced that campaigns like #metoo have the capacity to shed light on these issues, including their magnitude, but only if people use these platforms to come together and speak out. And this might also help women themselves understand that no harassment, violence or discrimination is acceptable, does not matter how ‘minor’. Many of us might feel ashamed of what has happened to us, but the power of community can give us the confidence. The question is, will it result in any actual change?
Scott, Martin (2014). Media and Development. London: Zed Books.
McEwan, Cheryl (2009) Postcolonialism and Development. London and New York: Routledge.
Featured image: The Daily Star