March 8th marked International Women’s Day and the kickoff to the Commission on the Status of Women, now in it’s 59th year. 2015 is a pretty important year for feminists, as it marks the 20th Anniversary of the Beijing Conference, in which the Beijing Platform for Action was created to accelerate women’s rights across the world.
I personally celebrated the day by marching in UN Women’s March for Gender Equality, the “March in March” which took place in Manhattan, New York. I carried a homemade cardboard sign repping Women’s Crisis Care International, a fantastic up-and-coming organization that I volunteer with as their fundraising and development assistant. WCCI is based in Bahrain and its wonderful, enthusiastic and intelligent director MJ has her eyes set on expanding WCCI throughout the Gulf countries and into Africa. I was accompanied by my sister and a new friend, and the day could not have been more perfect.
#IWD2015 (as it is known in Twitter speak) was celebrated throughout the Middle East by celebrities, activists and (extra)ordinary citizens alike. My favorite Arab singers, actresses and fashion personas took to their Instagrams and Facebook pages to wish their follower’s a Happy Women’s Day, spreading the word near and far.
Arab women took a more proactive approach then social media activism, hitting the streets to get their messages across. In Palestine/Israel thousands of Palestinians and Israelis gathered to protest the occupation of Gaza and the Westbank, only to be met with teargas. “International Women’s Day is a day of resistance against oppression. What more than the occupation is discriminating against Palestinian women? What more than the occupation is arresting our young men and women? We make up 51% of the population and we have a voice and a role to play” said Nabila Espanioly, candidate on the Joint List, an alliance of Arab parties formed ahead of the 2015 Israeli Knesset elections.
In Rabat, the capital of Morocco, thousands of Moroccan women marched in the streets not only to mark the special day but also to protest against the sexist beliefs of the Moroccan Prime Minister Abdelilah Benkirane who gave a less than encouraging speech back in June. “Par cette marche, nous voulons prouver au monde que les femmes marocaines sont des militantes, qui n’hésitent pas à répondre présent sur le terrain”, Amina Sabil, one of the march’s organizers and a member of the”Parité et démocratie” party explained. They marched, chanting slogans and waving placards; overall, the event looked much more lively–not to mention bigger–than the UN March in New York!
In Turkey both men and women have taken to the streets recently to protest the rape and murder of a young woman who first fended off her attackers with pepper spray. On March 8th Turkish Kurdish women played music during an International Women’s Day event in Mardin (Al-Monitor). Tunisians marked the day with a performance in Tunis of Blessé à mort, a theatre piece that lightly pokes fun while at the same time condemning violence against women; marches also took place in the capital. Although Tunisia’s 1956 Code of Personal Status is highly progressive as it recognizes the right to abortion and prohibits polygamy, and Tunisian women generally enjoy a higher standard of living and legal rights compared to their regional counterparts, the fight for gender equality in society, much like in the USA and Europe, soldiers on.
The number of laws enacted to protect women and the number of international treaties signed to boost gender equality will not matter if society does not collectively stand up for women, not in the Middle East nor anywhere else in the world. Government organizations and leaders in the Gulf States (including Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates) praised the achievements of their nations’ women on International Women’s Day, but the words of leaders are hollow if they do not produce action and especially if society does not take heed. Case in point: Egypt, although legally providing for Egyptian women in many ways, did not witness any grand celebrations or protests demanding women’s rights. Why?
Activist Laila Soueif, the mother of imprisoned activists Alaa Abdel Fattah and Sanaa Seif, answered this question in her interview with the Daily News Egypt: “Unfortunately, the scene in Egypt is crowded with several issues to the extent that I think demands cannot even be counted.” Her answer gets to the heart of the issues surrounding gender equality: if society is troubled economically and politically, women’s issues usually come last on the agenda. It is time, now in the Middle East and elsewhere, that women’s issues come first on the agenda, because no society can better itself (I’m paraphrasing the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon) if half it’s population is oppressed.