half the sky (in honor of international women's day)
This is, essentially, a post I’ve been composing all my life, even if I didn’t know it. I’ve always been a strong advocate of women’s rights, of course. Growing up, I always inherently understood the principles of feminism and equality, but I could never appropriately articulate how I felt or how it applied to me personally—raised in a very feminist household, it had never really occurred to me that boys and girls weren’t equal. And today, in the 21st century, because women have the same legal rights as men, many people believe the fight for equality is over.
Today is International Women’s Day (it’s nice that women, along with pancakes and pi, are designated a holiday to be fully acknowledged for their greatness). It’s probably one of my favorite holidays because, if only for one day, all the women I know feel comfortable being recognized and empowered. This year, the theme is “Make It Happen”, which according to the International Women’s Day website is “a call for greater equality.”
It's been an important year for feminism. This was the year after the tragedy in Isla Vista, which started a global conversation about misogyny and the hashtag #YesAllWomen. This was the year Pakistani education equality activist Malala Yousafzai became the youngest person to win a Nobel Peace Prize. This was the year of Emma Watson’s powerful “He For She” campaign speech about gender equality at the United Nations and of the controversy over the NFL’s domestic violence policies (in response, the NFL crafted a powerful Super Bowl ad about domestic violence, and the Joyful Heart Foundation later released a great PSA entitled “No More” starring several NFL players). This was the year Super Bowl commercials actually made a noticeable effort to be less sexist, the year that we encouraged red carpet reporters to talk about more than dresses, and the year that we finally got girl toys that weren’t pink and realistic dolls.
And the thing is…it’s exciting. It’s amazing and really wonderful to be a part of this movement, to be privileged enough to witness our world changing right in front of us. We are lucky enough to exist in an age in which social change and a push for equality are not radical ideas anymore, where we have the freedom to express our ideas and more importantly, be heard. This is the kind of cultural evolution that has been long-awaited for centuries. It’s both humbling and empowering.
The idea of writing a post like this was intimidating and overwhelming; I knew that whatever I wrote would be too short and too limited to truly encompass the multitude of issues women are subjected to on a daily basis. But there are fundamentally biased attitudes toward women that permeate our culture and shape our interactions, which only serve to reinforce the naturally patriarchal structure of our society. They are everywhere, whether or not we are aware of it. Pick up a newspaper and you’ll see that while the number of female CEOs on the Fortune 500 list is at an all-time high, they still comprise a minority of only 4.8%. You’ll notice that while the Pew Research Center’s study on women in leadership revealed that while women were more ambitious than men, their career advancement was still limited; and that data from this year’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos showed that only 17% of its attendees were women. And you’ll see that everywhere from college campuses to the workplace, women are still blamed for sexual assault and sexual harassment.
I finally decided to write this (instead of writing my French literature essay) because it’s something we often don’t recognize right away, something we’ve grown accustomed to or unconsciously excuse because “it’s the way things are.” But gender inequality is of great importance, and it’s relevant every single day of our existence. The “international” aspect is recognition of the fact that despite these inequalities, America is a fairly progressive nation and as American women, our privilege eclipses that of so many other women elsewhere.
I recently watched a documentary called Half The Sky, a two-part film series focused on women’s issues around the world: sex trafficking, gender-based violence, poverty, transgenerational prostitution, female mutilation, and girls’ education (I highly recommend it to anyone; it’s on Netflix for your convenience and very well-worth your time). It was inspired by the novel of the same name, which started a campaign called the “Half The Sky Movement,” intended to end oppression of women and girls by raising awareness of these issues worldwide. The name is derived from a Chinese saying: "Women hold up half the sky."
Given the heavy subject matter, I expected it to be provocative. But just watching these girls’ stories was more emotional than I ever expected. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so intensely for women and girls that I’ve had no relation to or interaction with whatsoever. Listening to them describe how they’d been raped or abused or left in the brothels made my heart bleed. In cases of rape in Sierra Leone, it is the victim’s fault for speaking up, for damaging the reputation of the rapist. Girls are disowned for reporting rape or forced to marry their rapist in order to preserve their family’s honor. The most unsettling part is that these stories are largely ignored by the media or by people themselves, who consider these events to be unrelated. But they are a part of a larger contextual discussion, a conversation about inequality on a global scale. And it is these same pervasive attitudes that cause problems in both the United States and in other countries, making it impossible for women to advance: socially, economically, politically.
I recently found out that marital rape only became illegal in 1993. That was 21 years ago, the year I was born, which is further proof that had I lived in my mother’s or my grandmother’s generation, I would have had a much different life. Gender inequality and its constituents—sexual abuse, domestic and gender-based violence, the wage gap, reproductive rights, rape culture, the glass ceiling—are all still very real things.
Former stripper and model Amber Rose recently became the center of attention when she engaged in a very public spat with rappers Wiz Khalifa and Kanye West, who made many defaming remarks about her regarding her former profession, attacking her for being a “slut” and a “ho.” It incited a discourse on slut-shaming, wherein people noted that both Khalifa and West had been accused of infidelity, facts which had gone unmentioned in the social media spectacle between the two rappers and Rose. It’s a perfect example of the immediate tendency to blame women for showcasing their sexuality or accuse them of promiscuity, as if this merits reducing women to sexual objects and homewreckers, and underscores the fact that a dangerous double standard still exists. While stripping may not be the most respectable vocation, it is appallingly unfair that it is used to declare a woman unfit to raise a child or unworthy as a person.
But it’s clear that although currently these prejudices still color our attitudes, the world is changing. While gender inequality is still a prevalent issue, there are so many people making great strides to fix it. HeForShe is a campaign that is “the first of its kind,” in that it formally invites men to personally take accountability for gender inequality. Emma Watson received criticism for her speech being “unoriginal” and “nothing new,” but if appealing directly to the United Nations isn’t a step in the right direction, then nothing is.
International Women’s Day is more than just a day to celebrate the progress that women have made. It’s an important reminder that femininity and feminism are not mutually exclusive. It’s a reminder that women don’t deserve commendation because of their gender, but because of their achievements within a system that fundamentally marginalizes and dismisses them. It’s a reminder that women are equally smart, capable, and deserving of respect as are men. But most importantly, it’s a reminder that respect for women begins with women themselves, every day of the year, and that they really do represent “half the sky.”
THINGS TO CONSIDER