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Monday, March 09, 2015

The Art of Being Woman

Palestinian woman arrives at a Jordanian refugee camp escaping the 1967 war

Recently I've been watching a three-part BBC documentary "Suffragettes Forever! The Story of Women and Power", where historian Amanda Vickery discussed the 300 year-long campaign by women for political and sex equality in Britain, revealing both the heroines and heroes who fought for the cause. It's amazing to think that at one time women were considered the property of men, and as such could be sold at cattle markets by disgruntled husbands.

This happened in Britain. It goes without saying it's unimaginable today.

I live in hope that in the future people will think it unimaginable that we needed to name an international day for women, because equality for women will go without saying.

Sadly, what should already be, will not happen in my lifetime, if ever. And with every new dark story, from each succeeding generation, overshadowing the situation of women around the world, none of us, not even those in developed countries have the luxury of complacency.

To some it comes as no surprise. As a male music artist with the highest profile in his domestic market, Tarkan has been actively posting on his Facebook since 2013 that 8 March is not a day to celebrate until the condition of women in Turkey change for the better. I agree with the singer's spirit of the message, but Women's Day shouldn't be a celebration.

It is a day that marks our century's shame: it is a day to raise awareness over the struggle women face to be treated as equals. Not a patronising form of equality that is somehow "given" or "allowed" to people simply labelled as wives, mothers and daughters. Women are already born equal, it's our recognition of that as a species which is deficient due, for the most part, to a lack of enlightened education.

Boys need to learn it. Girls need to believe it. Only then as adults can they nurture future generations to whom treating others humanely, no matter their gender or genealogy, will become second nature. Only then can they limit the reach of our shared patriarchal past.

They should celebrate when a day for women becomes a quirk and it can be consigned to history: folded so deeply in this wrinkle of time that those in the future will find it hard to believe such a day was ever needed.

For now the day is needed, as men like Tarkan are needed in Turkey, for the stories of women need to be told - but more importantly told not just by men or women, but by all of us together. Recognising women as equals is not a struggle for women, it's a struggle about women we must all support, because it's a struggle for our humanity.

This is the direction taken by British actress, and UN Goodwill Ambassador for Women, Emma Watson. To mark International Women's Day, she led a live HeForShe conversation on the ongoing fight for gender equality following her passionate speech at the United Nations last year. And her words were awe-inspiring, especially about how feminism is just another term for human equality.

Gender inequality is indeed a two-way debate. Men are victims of violence, abuse and discrimination, too. It needs a human perspective.

That's why it was all the more important when, after the murder of a female student in Turkey, Turkish men protested her death - some by wearing skirts. It quickly became a protest meme on social media after men's reaction in neighbouring Azerbaijan first began to trend. It even caught Watson's eye, who raised their profile by tweeting in their support.

Özgecan Aslan was brutally slain for resisting her attacker

Nor was this the first time Watson joined a social media campaign launched by Turkish users. She also shared a photo of herself to support thousands of Turkish women who reacted against a Turkish politician who last year had said women shouldn't laugh in public. It was more than just the sexist comments we're used to from our politicians in Britain. This show of solidarity outside of Turkish borders is not only heartening, but the united reaction to Aslan's murder inside the country has suddenly brought Turkey's political and social divisions into sharp relief.

Much of this revolves around Turkey's unique position bridging East and West, especially at a moment when the secular legacy of its formation faces off against an increasingly conservative government. Compared to most Muslim, Middle-Eastern or Asian countries, Turkey comes out ahead when it comes to women's rights; but compared to the Western world, it trails far behind.

It's also shown that Turkey may have reached a social tipping point against the increasing limitations being ideologically (re)placed on its women as a result of this political rise in conservatism. I truly hope so, because it's not before time.

There are many stories like Aslan's that go unheard in Turkey. It's unfortunate that it needs to take the death of the "right" sort of girl to spur us into action - because as terrible as the death of a loving, educated family girl is, the death of many women considered "on the wrong side of the tracks" that go under the radar is just as terrible. Not all are media-friendly but, as they weren't in life, all should be treated equal in death.

This isn't about shaming a country, either, it's about ending shame. I was reminded of this when I watched "India's Daughter" - a documentary film directed by Leslee Udwin and part of the BBC's ongoing fantastic Storyville series. But I was saddened to read that by a last-minute intervention, the Indian government banned the release of the documentary, and the BBC has been targeted by angry social media users in India with claims that it's an attempt to malign India on a global platform.

The film is based on the 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman who was a physiotherapy student, of which the Aslan murder is a harrowing echo. The interview with one of the Indian murderers was horrifying: the cold unshakeable cultural belief that his victim had deserved it.

But silencing by man or government shames the victim, not the crime. Saying rape happens everywhere isn't an excuse, either. And it goes beyond sexism when the subjugation of women is so institutional.

What has happened, and is happening, must be acknowledged for real change. In India, two years after the brutal gang rape sparked huge protests, there have been some improvements in law and public transport safety, but there have also been problems getting new laws to work effectively, even as crimes against women continue to rise.

I want to think that Turkey is stuck somewhere between becoming Britain and slipping towards India in regard to the treatment of women, but in truth the whole world currently seems to be infected with this frustration over fundamentalism. This, too, has been a long time coming.

On this point, my third, and last, documentary recommendation is the 2015 BBC film by filmmaker Adam Curtis, "Bitter Lake". Although it oversimplifies a complex story, it highlights how America helped to foster the most violent, fundamentalist and corrupted interpretation of Islam through its support of Saudi Arabian oil since the end of the Second World War.

This in turn has fed like a feedback loop back into the many troubles the world faces today, but the same mistakes continue. Credible American newspapers continue to churn out Saudi propaganda, skimming past its atrocious human rights record with a sentence or two - especially over the treatment of women.

This tension is felt all over the West. It broke open between Sweden's feminist face and its desire to maintain lucrative weapons contracts with Saudi Arabia, when the Swedish foreign minister accused Riyadh of blocking her speech on human rights at the Arab League this week on women's rights.

She had been invited as guest of honour to the Arab ministers' meeting in Cairo after Sweden's Social Democrats won general elections in September and announced they would become the first European Union member state to recognise Palestine.

But it comes as no surprise she was silenced. And as long as we continue on this path, the silencing of women and the relevancy of a Women's Day will remain stronger than ever.

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