A century ago, more than a million people marched in streets across Europe on the first International Women’s Day. They called for an end to discrimination and for women to have the same rights as men to work, vote, and shape their countries’ futures.
A hundred years later, women across the globe are still much more likely than men to be poor and illiterate. We earn only one-tenth of the world’s income for doing two-thirds of the work. Women produce up to 80 percent of the food in developing countries, but own only 1 percent of the land in those nations.
In many countries, we’re still told what we can do and even what we can wear. Women in Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, and Iran face harassment if they don’t observe conservative religious dress codes. Muslim women in France and some parts of Spain now break the law there if they don traditional attire.
Women campaigning for their liberation are often met with derision, abuse, or worse. In Russia, the Philippines, the Ivory Coast, Mexico, and Nepal, leading activists have recently been murdered for speaking out. In China, Bangladesh, India, Zimbabwe, and many other countries, they are routinely detained and tortured.
Tragically, the international community largely ignores these facts. Women’s inequality is treated as a regrettable but inevitable reality.
Over the past two months, millions of women have participated in the dramatic uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, demanding change. Many have led these movements as well, demanding an end to political repression and calling for systematic reform.
Both women and men have suffered under these repressive governments. But women have also had to endure discriminatory laws and deeply entrenched gender inequality. It’s no wonder that they took to the streets. Or that they cheered loudly when Mubarak fell. Or that they wanted to believe the promise of a new dawn in Egyptian politics. But it remains to be seen how much will really change for Egyptian women.
Many governments–including our own–apparently only support women’s rights when it’s convenient. These rights are often used as bargaining chips in the struggle for control of the international agenda.
When negotiating with the Taliban seems politically advantageous, women’s rights don’t count. When the United States wants to strengthen its alliance with Pakistan, Washington is silent when that government gives autonomy to tribal or religious courts that victimize women. And the United States has supported some Iraqi militias, like the Badr Corps, that have attacked and killed women’s rights activists.
And so it goes in Egypt. There, as the country begins to build a new future, women are in danger of being sidelined once again.
Following decades of discrimination and inequality under previous regimes, women are being denied a role in the creation of a new Egypt by both the caretaker government and the international community. Most recently, the military formed a national committee to write Egypt’s new constitution. All its members are men.
If the international community truly cares about women’s rights in Egypt, it must champion women’s participation in every aspect of building new systems and institutions.
Instead, Egypt’s interim authorities and the international community are exhibiting a sense of paternalism all too familiar to Egyptian women who have spent decades living under an oppressive government.
As existing governments scramble to change and new governments emerge, all must commit to respecting women’s equality, both in law and in practice. Women will only have that equality if they can actively engage in all the negotiations and decisions taking place during this time of transition.
Fulfilling the promise of change in Egypt and elsewhere in the region–and the world–requires women of diverse backgrounds and political persuasions at the table as full partners.
Much has changed in the last century. And yet, many of the same problems remain. The call for equality, fairness, and respect was at the heart of the first International Women’s Day. It still is today.