Dreaming on a Mountain: from Women's Day to Women's Power
Rebecca Johnson, Women in Black London
What is the point of International Women's Day on March 8? It was first established for working women's rights in 1911 and for decades was barely observed outside the Soviet bloc, where its origins in women's struggles were suffocated in rituals of men giving flowers and chocolates to female family members and employees. Such belated Valentine's gestures may be enjoyed by some, but they hardly make up for the high levels of alcohol-fuelled violence and the post-Cold War erosion of women's rights in Putin's Russia, including access to jobs, training and equal pay.
Moreover, I've witnessed how this patronising ritual can be used to embarrass and undermine rather than empower women. When Russian diplomats made a great show of chivalry by doling out red roses to the few women ambassadors at a United Nations meeting some years ago, the recipients had to smile woodenly, but they shared their fury in the privacy of a women-only gathering afterwards. The occasion was an International Women's Day debate on disarmament and development but the romantic parody of the Russian action diverted attention from the serious issues of armed violence and women's security needs and prompted other male delegates to chuckle indulgently at their female colleagues' discomfort.
Here in Britain most people are unaware of the significance of March 8, though International Women's Day was trailed in the Independent on Sunday by a front page and feature on "The best and worst places to be a woman". Some results in this top twenty list begged more questions than they answered, not least about the criteria and implications of such comparative statistics and compilations.
Britain didn't feature very high in any category. That would not have surprised participants in the Million Women Rise march through London on March 3. This year's focus was girl children, and the march was led by feisty young women from the many walks and colours of today's British Isles, with drums, songs and some great chants. On arrival in Trafalgar Square, we were treated to singing and dancing from a young African-British troupe -- mostly girls, but with a couple of boys as well.
Yet for all the smiles and chants about women's power, the Million Women Rise demonstration was not so much a celebration of this symbolic day as a call for us to commit every day to resisting violence and oppression. One after another, women from the Congo, Iran, Somalia and Sri Lanka spoke about the torture, rape and violence inflicted on women who have engaged in liberation struggles for political and human rights. Leila, an Iranian activist, related the bitter lessons learned by women in Iran who had actively participated in the revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979. When their male 'comrades' handed power to religious leaders the clocks were turned back on Iranian women, who were consigned to the political shadows with mandatory hijab and oppressive laws. Pointing to the political upheavals in neighbouring Arab countries, she warned that women's rights and freedoms must not be sacrificed to other political agendas pushed by military or religious factions, even in the name of democracy (which has many versions).
The harrowing experiences of many speakers spelled out how militarism and violence against women are inextricably connected. Speaking on behalf of Women in Black, I also made links with the work of women in the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) to halt the arms sales and trafficking that put guns into the hands of the marauding gangs and rapists who prey on women and children in Africa, Latin America, Asia and also our own cities here in Britain and beyond.
From knives to guns and on up to nuclear weapons, these are the tools that underpin the continuum of patriarchal violence that movements like Million Women Rise, Women in Black, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and Code Pink have been confronting for many years. Last year, the 9 nuclear-armed countries - Britain, China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and the United States - spent over $104 billion (£65 billion) on nuclear weapons, according to US-based "Global Zero". And in case anyone thought that nuclear weapons were a cheap deterrent, the overall military budgets of these same 9 states came to an obscene combined bill of over $1,052 billion (£663 bn), with the US Pentagon responsible for more than half.
In just that one year, 2011, Britain's military bill was around £36 billion, of which £3.5 billion were just for the Trident nuclear weapons system and the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) bomb factories at Aldermaston and Burghfield. And that's even before Trident is replaced for a further 30 years at a cost likely to exceed 100 billion, according to CND. As speakers pointed out during the Million Women Rise demonstration, that's money stolen from women's real security needs, including better education, health services, safe and affordable housing, rape crisis centres, and legal aid for domestic violence and other 'family' cases.
Speakers from the British Asian and Chinese communities, from student organisations, and the trade-union-based Coalition of Resistance described how women and girls are being badly hit by the Coalition Government's cuts in social services and disability, housing and other benefits. Despite several waves of feminism since International Women's Day was instituted in 2011, women in most countries still carry the major burdens of caring for children and the sick, elderly and disabled. As explained by a speaker from the campaigning group Women in Prison, women are also more likely to fall through the cracks when cuts are made to services that provide help to deal with problems related to alcohol, drugs, homelessness and domestic violence.
At the end I sang "The Mountain Song" by Holly Near. Written in the 1970s to support Kentucky women opposing the destruction of their mountain homes by strip mining, the song was adapted by Greenham women as a powerful song of protection, hope and resistance. "I have dreamed on this mountain since first I was my mother's daughter and you can't just take my dreams awayŠ" For us the mountain symbolised the high but attainable objectives that we needed first to dream into possibility and then work together to build - peace and justice in a world free of nuclear weapons. Million Women Rise adds the difficult but achievable dreams of women yearning to live free from violence, of girls demanding education and resources to control their fertility, develop their potential and love whomsoever they choose.
Standing in the way of our human rights, democratic choices, freedoms and political power is a high ugly wall of military-industrial profiteering. We have to break militarism down to size in order to see and reach the mountain of our real security.
When millions of women rise around the world, we won't need an International Women's Day. When millions of women rise around the world we'll be able to harness all the days, years and resources we need to deal with climate change, poverty, violence and war.