No time for hibernation and dormant voices regarding inequality

Tekst: Maike Köhler-Richter, Bachelor in International Teacher Education for Primary Schools
Illustrasjoner: Henriette Syvertsen

March 2021 has offered plenty of material to invoke women’s voices once again to spring them from hibernation. What do the 19th amendment, Gloria Steinem, Bell Hooks, the murder of Sarah Emerald and Turkey’s withdrawal from the Istanbul convention have in common? The historical lineage of women’s rights might answer this question.

The Encyclopedia Britannica gives the biological definition of hibernation as “a state of greatly reduced metabolic activity and lowered body temperature adopted by certain mammals as an adaptation to adverse winter conditions.” Even though human metabolic activity and body heat remains relatively stable, our engagement with heated debates in the media seem to go through periods of hibernation. We tend to become very involved in certain topics, especially when they are the focus of sensationalist journalism and brutal headlines. “If it bleeds, it leads” is the way modern journalism makes headlines. For example, why is it that the hashtag regarding Sarah Emerald’s death, #Textmewhenyougethome, in March this year is so similar to #metoo, first used four years ago? And while there was at least a legal framework guaranteeing women’s safety in forty-five countries and the European Union, Turkey will now withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, sparking global concern and protests among Turkish women. These hashtags, movements and all pertain to the same issues: discrimination, violence and abuse, sexual or otherwise, against women. Let’s first get an overview of this complex topic, then recount a brief history of modern Western feminism before understanding why we cannot afford to go into hibernation anymore.

What hibernating in inequality can look like
Throughout the history of humanity, there have been multiple theories as to the origins of inequality between men and women. Even though we have all heard of female and male leaders in dominating roles, such as Cleopatra and Genghis Khan, some anthropologists suggest that the majority of cultures were originally based on a partnership model. Such a model implies equal treatment of genders and a less abusive relationship between the sexes. However, over the course of history a pattern of dominator culture has become more common, resulting in a patriarchal system with rigid and con-stricting gender norms. Historians speculate that our current patriarchal systems were established during the shift from hunter-gatherer to agricultural societies around 12,000 years ago. As part of this shift, females moved to join their spouses upon marriage, whilst men remained with their birth families. Anthropologist and primatologist Sarah Hardy at the University of California states that, “in places where women move to live with their husband’s family, men tend to have more power and privilege. Patrilocal residence, as it is called, is associated with patriarchy”. The rise of the dominator culture has also resulted in less male involvement in the upbringing of children, finally resulting in a harsh division between masculine and feminine roles within family, as well as society at large. And yet examples like Pope Joan, a woman who dressed like a man and occupied the office of Pope as Pope John VIII from 855 to 858 AD, are proof that women have long opposed oppressive patriarchal structures and male privilege. Ancient Greek law and the Roman Empire counted women as inferior citizens. In the Roman Empire women were not allowed to vote, occupy public office, become priests or serve in the military. This long history of oppression is one source of contemporary tensions around gender equality.

Women all over the world, of different ages, cultures, ethnicities and social classes are fighting their own fight.

Willful hibernation for some, ectothermic existence for others
In the 18thcentury, the philosopher Immanuel Kant doubt-ed women’s capacity to be principled human beings, and described them as fearful, weak, passive and seductive. He also thought that it was natural that men dominate due to their superior physical strength. In the 19thand 20thcenturies, women began to insist more forcefully that they were just as capable of rational thought as their male dominators. Unfortunately, the Western world was not yet ready to accept women as the social equals of men. Nevertheless, after a prolonged struggle women in the US achieved something close to political equality through the enactment 19th Amendment which gave them the right to vote. Then in 1882, the “Married Women’s Property Act” changed pre-existing English law so that married women could own and make decisions over their own property. This first modern struggle for political equality is what we now refer to as first-wave feminism. The movement originally included black women, such as Sojourner Truth and Maria Stewart, who strongly advocated not only for women’s rights , but also for the abolition of slavery. Black women were not only fighting for the right to vote, but also against the enforced sterilizations that they were commonly subjected to. Divergent concern in this first-wave resulted in a split in the movement. Ultimately, first-wave feminism was for white women only, not minorities.

Spring’s Wakeup Call to Our Hibernation in Inequality
Second wave feminism occurred simultaneously with the US civil rights movement. Leaders such as Gloria Steinem and her colleagues worked actively to unite women of all colours. By giving marginalized peoples from different cultures and ethnicities a voice they sought to elevate the common goal of feminism. Despite these efforts, white superiority dominated gender equality narratives, throwing shade on the issues of minority groups. The essence of second wave feminism boiled down to the fact that women were no longer willing to be mere baby producers or sexual possessions. They also sought liberation from coverture; the legal status of a married woman that placed her under her husband’s control. One of the biggest accomplishments of second wave feminism in the US was the establishment of reproductive freedom in 1973. The female body has long been considered the property of her husband in many societies. This is clearly reflected in laws surrounding spousal rape, non-consensual sex between married partners. In Germany marital rape was only made illegal in 1997, in Bolivia in 2013 and Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Chad in 2018. In 1979, the UN created the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women. The convention’s thirty articles aim to protect women advise nations on how to reduce all discrimination against women, especially with respect to their reproductive rights. In 2011, it was expanded to eighty-one articles, based on prevention, protection and prosecution. The convention is better known as the Istanbul Convention.

Hibernating while equality knocks, frozen, at the cave door
In March this year, a series of worrying developments took place in Europe which fundamentally challenged the accom-plishments of women’s rights. On the 20thMarch 2021, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, notified the world of Turkey’s intention to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, arguing that it runs counter to traditional Turkish family values and that women are sufficiently protected through Turkish laws currently in place. Subsequent protests by Turkish women show clearly that they do not share Erdoğan’s confidence in the protection granted by current Turkish law. Data from the 2016 European Commission reveals that one in three women in Europe have been the victim of physical and/or sexual violence, 55 % have experienced sexual harassment with only 30 % of victims reporting the most serious incidents to the police. Withdrawal from the Istanbul Convention does not only leave women in Turkey with inadequate legal protection against sexual violence, but the lack of an international response to Turkey’s withdrawal can also be interpreted as an active indifference of global leaders towards women’s safety.

On the 3rd March this year, Sarah Everard was walking home in London when she was kidnapped and then killed by a police officer. Interestingly, although Turkey originally signed the Istanbul Convention before then withdrawing, the United Kingdom has yet to even signed. The hashtag #Textmewhen-yougethomeis all too familiar. Why is it so easy for women to understand why Sarah made an effort to have her phone nearby, wore comfortable shoes, stuck to busy streets and stayed away from poorly lit places? Safety precautions now being shared among women around the world, reflect the dire need for conversations and education among all genders, including young people, about behaviour that might cause others direct or indirect harm.

we actually exist in societal structures and express behaviors that are far from new or progressive

According to Amnesty International, only twelve out of thirty-one European countries have laws in place that define rape as sex without consent; Norway isn’t one of them. There have been many counter movements to feminism with some opponents declaring that feminism is for hairy, man-hating women who nobody would want to rape anyway. For those who are aware that the marginalization of parts of the human race, including women, has been going on for not only decades but centuries, it is obvious that feminism is not only for women. Feminism appeals to anyone who thinks that all people are equally valuable in social, economic and political matters. The Encyclopedia Britannica adds that feminism is now a global phenomenon, despite its origins in the West. But what do we do when the current feminist movement falls dormant again? And which wave of feminism are we currently in?

Hungry and confused in a new season
Actually, it does not matter much which season or wave of feminism we are currently in, despite some groups’ preoccupation with third-wave feminism, fourth-wave feminism or future waves yet to come. Gloria Steinem has emphasized that people are linked not ranked and has stated that third-wave feminism should be intersectional. Additionally, Bell Hooks famously stated that “feminism is for everyone” due to the recognition that men are also victims of the patriarchy. Through feminism all peoples can rise together. The real issue is that whilst we define ourselves and the present era as modern, we actually exist in societal structures and express behaviors that are far from new or progressive. Women and girls are still being seen as inferior beings, sexualized, harassed, raped and looked down upon. No human being in this world should be reduced to an object or the means to satisfying someone’s needs. A human is exactly that, a human and no less. Women all over the world, of different ages, cultures, ethnicities and social classes are fighting their own fight. Let’s listen. We should all unite behind the very basic of understanding that all humans are equally valuable. Although there are points in the cycle of moral hibernation when such causes appear forgotten, it is only a matter of time before voices and actions rise in support of these values again. Let’s hope that one day, everyone can say feminist with confidence without the need to tell our sons how not to behave or our daughters to be careful. ■

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