Week Woman

A Pox on the Patriarchy

This Is Feminism: Speech at Cambridge Union Debate

I thought I’d upload the text of this speech, which contains a celebration of some awesome feminists from around the world, for International iwd2014Women’s Day 2014. The motion was “This House Believes That Feminism Is Fighting the Wrong Battles – I was, naturally, in opposition. Enjoy – hope they inspire you as much as they’ve inspired me!

You know, I reject the premise of the debate to be honest. What do we mean when we say feminism? Who are these feminists we’re focusing on? I don’t think I can name or define a single feminism, with a leader that has had a meeting and decided, “THIS” is what we are fighting for. So, there isn’t really a way you can say “Feminism” with a capital F is or isn’t fighting the wrong battles. That’s not how it works. Feminism is about the liberation of women. It always has been and it always will be. The problem is, that it’s a tricky, complicated and involved business, this woman liberating. We can’t just point to a single issue, a kernel and say “There”. “That”. This one thing, this is it. This is what has been holding us back. Let’s get rid of that.

Well, I suppose we could and the thing would be patriarchy, but that’s less a kernel, and more a life-force.

Patriarchy is the spaces we live in. It’s the way we learn, it’s the way we work, it’s the way we love. Patriarchy is as much a part of us as the air we breathe. It’s everywhere and it’s in everything, right down to the way we speak.

It’s why when we say “he” or “man”, we could be referring to a male person – or female person, but not if we say she, or woman.
It’s why when a group of men and women are put together, if women make up 17%, men think the group is balanced, but if women make up 30%, men think women are in the majority.
It’s why when this debate moves on to questions, if the first person called on to ask a question is a man, women are far less likely to ask questions subsequently (so the chair may want to think about that).
It’s why for the vast majority of the world, female participation in parliament sits at under 30%.
It’s why in the UK, out of 110 high court judges only 17 are women, and why in key stage two of the national curriculum, no women are featured at all.
It’s why women make up 80% of pictures in newspapers that are considered unrelated to the news story and only there for what’s called a “lift”, while men make up 84% of the subject-matter of lead stories.
It’s why in this country, women get paid so much less than men, that we work most of the last two months of each year for free – despite the fact that the Equal Pay Act has been in force for over forty years.
It’s why women make up 70% of the two billion people who live in poverty around the world.
It’s why two-thirds of the global illiterate are women.
It’s why some of us get groped on our way to work and then get sent rape threats for saying we won’t put up with it.
It’s why one out of three women globally experience violence, causing the WHO just last year to declare violence against women a global health problem of epidemic proportions – and they are not an organisation to use the term epidemic lightly.
It’s why 1/4 women will experience sexual violence in her lifetime and why women make up 89% of those who experience four or more incidents of domestic violence.
It’s why a woman is abused by her partner an average of 35 times before she will go to the police, and yet the UK police receive a call to report domestic violence every minute.
It’s why, in the UK alone, two women die every week from domestic violence. 

There are millions of fights. Some of them are big, limelight grabbing fights, some of them are small, private personal victories. But they all matter. They are all connected.

I always say that violence against women is the front line of feminism. It’s the fall-out from all the other injustices women face around the world. It’s where we staunch the blood, it’s where we bandage the wounds. And this work is vital. It keeps us alive.      Most of us.

But if feminism wants to do more than exist as a permanent A & E department, it needs to look at why this violence is happening in such drastic proportions as to be labelled an epidemic. It needs to look at why it isn’t stopping. Why the figure of two women in the UK dying every week from domestic violence has been static for the past fifteen years at least.

It’s because legislation without cultural change is hopeless.

Patriarchy isn’t going to be stopped by making a few things here and there illegal (I remind you that it’s been illegal to pay women less than men for forty years). It’s going to be stopped by changing the way people think. And that’s going to be done by looking at the physical violence, but also beyond it, and towards legislative, cultural and representative violence.

And there are women all over the world fighting the battles that are going to do exactly that. Laura Bates, who to your loss couldn’t be here tonight, started a global movement called EverydaySexism. She made visible the daily indignities and sexual humiliation so many women go through on a daily basis from the moment they leave their homes until the moment they return (although of course for many women it doesn’t stop even then). She made men realise this was happening, and she made women realise they didn’t have to put up with being second class citizens on the street. This is feminism.

Nimko Ali, one of the most brilliant campaigners I know, is using her amazing energy to fight every day against the horror of FGM, standing up against rape threats, death threats, people offering to have her killed for the paltry sum £500 – such is the worth of a woman’s life. And she goes on, with humour, because she knows that her vagina is not shameful. This is feminism.

Fahma Mohamed just the other week forced Michael Gove to write to every school in the country about FGM – the laws are already in place, but Fahma knew that it was a cultural change in schools that was needed, to force them to take this seriously. This is feminism.

A few weeks ago I stood outside the Home Office with some of the bravest women I have ever met, who one by one stood up and told us about the horrors of Yarl’s Wood detention centre, where female asylum seekers who have fled rape and torture in their own countries are locked up like criminals – except worse than criminals, because they don’t have a release date. These women, who have been through rape and torture themselves, know what it is to be watched 24 hours a day by a male guard wearing a uniform that reminds you of your rapist – and they are asking the UK government to stop this psychological torture. This is feminism.

Feminism is what Mouna Ghanem does, as she stays behind in Syria, having sent her children and elderly parents to claim asylum in Denmark, fighting for women’s place in a country where over 6000 women have been raped since the conflict began – many of them gang-raped. Repeatedly.

Feminism is when Hibaaq Osman tirelessly fights for the UN to abide by its own resolution 1325, that stipulates that women must be present at peace negotiations – and it’s feminism when, having been excluded, Syrian women hold their own talks with Bosnian women, to learn from them how to be included with rebuilding a country torn apart by violence – and families torn apart by brutal and systematic rape.

Feminism is when Wendy Davis stands on her feet for ten hours and talks to a house dominated by men who don’t care to hear her words, to prevent lawmakers in the United States from invading women’s uteruses with their bills.

Feminism is when Hania Moheeb speaks up about being sexually assaulted by a mob in Tahrir Square, despite cultural norms that tell her she, rather than her rapists, should be ashamed.

Feminism cares that you are underpaid, that you are undervalued, that you are spoken over, that your ideas get ripped off and passed off as someone else’s, that you don’t believe you’re good enough, because you’ve never seen someone who looks like you getting ahead.

Feminism cares that you walk down the road at night with that awkward half-run half-walk, nervously and subtly giving regular looks over your shoulder to see…is that a man? Is he following me? That you’re more worried about potentially insulting him than protecting yourself. That if you haven’t adequately “protected yourself” you will get blamed for what happens to you – even though you’re more likely to get raped in your own home.

Feminism cares that when women are murdered, as we are on a weekly basis, that we barely get a mention in the news, because well, how can a weekly occurrence be news?

Feminism cares about all this and more. Feminism has room for us to campaign and fight for all this and more. And millions of women are fighting for all this and more, because we have to fight it all. Because we are fighting against the structure of society itself, and society isn’t a monolith: it’s made up of millions of people, millions of acts, millions of norms, rules, laws, understandings, misunderstandings.

There is of course an argument to be made about what stories and campaigns the media is covering, but if we want to talk about that, it’s not feminism we need to talk about, it’s the white men making the coverage decisions for the day – but again, that’s where patriarchy comes in, because it’s easier to blame women for that too.

But ultimately, there’s room in femiminism for every fight, because every fight is part of the battle. We don’t need to be arguing that feminism is fighting the wrong battles, if you don’t like the battles you’re hearing about, either start your own battle to get the “right” battles reported in the media, or if it really isn’t happening, then start that battle yourself.

Because if there’s one thing feminism does have room for, it’s more feminists, fighting more feminist fights.

Thank you.

One comment on “This Is Feminism: Speech at Cambridge Union Debate

  1. alexpolistigers
    March 8, 2014

    This is great, and it all needs to be said. You talk of some truly inspiring women, and in juxtaposition with your statistics, it makes for a very powerful statement

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This entry was posted on March 8, 2014 by in Features and tagged , , , , , .
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