For the first time, the UN marked the International Women’s Day on March 08, 1975. It was recommended to the member states to mark March 08 as an International Women’s Day, or they could choose another day related to women in their own country’s history and tradition.
March 08 has become the main day to celebrate women throughout the world and to debate issues to improve gender equality and women’s empowerment. Four international UN conferences have been held, first in Mexico in 2005, then in Copenhagen, Nairobi and Beijing, and several stocktaking conferences in New York to evaluate the implementation of recommendations.
Major achievements have been made. Many issues were put on the broader agenda by the UN. But the concrete debate and action were always fought and achieved by women’s organisations, in collaboration with other groups, research institutions, workers’ organisations and national governments. Laws have been changed in many fields, such as more equal payment for men and women, and maternity leave has been introduced or made longer, in a few countries also with some paternity leave. More focus has been given to how to stop violence against women, which is the theme on this year’s International Women’s Day. The right to abortion has been made legal in most countries, and it has become common that it is the woman herself, who decides whether she should terminate her pregnancy or not. Abortion is always the last option, and it often has psychological and other side-effects; yet, it is seen as a right that women decide over their own body.
Certainly, women’s emancipation did not start in 1975 at the UN Women’s Conference in Mexico! But the last 40 years, and the UN’s accelerated fight for greater equality between women and men, has led to the improvement of women’s lives. But the fight for greater equality has been significant for longer, at least for a 100 years. The labour movements in North America and Europe took up women’s rights, mainly related to work conditions and pay. Information about contraception and other reproductive health issues were also important.
Historically, it is new to place women’s equal social and political rights at par with men’s rights. No country allowed women to vote until the 20th century; New Zealand and Finland were the first ones. Most countries in the West followed suit in a decade or two. This year, Norway marks the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. And when the countries in the West boast about ‘newfound equality and democratic rights for all’, we should be reminded that there wasn’t much of either in the colonies and protectorates ruled by the Western powers, mainly the UK, France, Portugal, Spain, and Holland. The Scandinavian countries pride themselves on not having had colonies, but they also sided with European superpowers and took part in what we today would term unethical international trade.
A few days ago, Gloria Steinem, a leading American feminist, political and social activist, writer and journalist, was interviewed on BBC. She said that there was more need for women’s emancipation now than in the 1970s at the height of the modern women’s liberation movement. She came herself into the movement through journalism, and also through seeing abuse and difficulties in her childhood. In 1969, when she wrote an article titled “After Black Power, Women’s Power”, she became an instant authority. She captured the zeitgeist and feelings of women in America and beyond. Men were, perhaps, less on board that time.
In the interview, Steinem stressed that there are now also many feminist men. In other words, ‘women’s equality’ has become ‘gender equality’ and is seen as important for women and men alike, although still, certain issues are only about women. But when there is oppression, it is not only the oppressed that suffers, but also the oppressors; inequality in race relations and apartheid being a clear point in case.
I believe we have moved fast towards greater gender equality in the course of a few generations. In Europe, it would be strange to go into an office with only men (and a woman as Secretary at the reception). When I held my first job in Oslo in 1973, such work environments were not uncommon, and most bosses were men. Television programmes could have only men to debate political issues. Except for a few foreign university students and some newly arrived Pakistanis (from Gujrat) driving trams and working in city restaurants, there was hardly a non-European face to be seen in public or on TV. Now, there are more than 250,000 from outside Europe in Norway, in a population of five million.
I believe that diversity and multiculturalism are important for any society. People should integrate, but we don’t have to assimilate and become the same. Yet, we should learn about each other so that we can appreciate each other more. If we belong to the powerful majority group, it is our duty to help the minorities, the newcomers and others to integrate, and to do what they want to do, including being as good believers in their faiths as they can be. Women, too, have a duty to include women and men from outside in their spheres and in majority life - now when women are more and more in decision-making positions.
When Pakistani, Iraqi, Iranian, Turkish and other immigrants reach Scandinavia, they will be impressed by the role of women in society, including about 50 percent of government ministers being women, directors in government ministries and board members in publicly registered companies. Most men and women agree that it is better when there is more gender equality. But even in Scandinavia, in the most egalitarian countries in the world, there is more work to do, especially now in a time of economic and financial difficulties. The Head of UN Women in Pakistan, Lena Lindberg, from Sweden herself, underlined this in a talk in Islamabad a few days ago.
In Scandinavia, it is important to continue the debate about how we organise our daily lives. How can working parents with young children find ways of living so that their lives become less stressful? Maybe working hours should be shorter? New values and ways concerning career, home-life and social-political life must be found. Even Scandinavia is just on en route, and lessons about how to organise ‘the good life’, with equality and empowered women and men, are still being sought.
Sometimes, Pakistanis and people in other developing countries, too, have lessons to teach the highly efficient and individualistic Westerners. Many rural and urban values from different cultures should be appreciated in order to find the best development paths - and they are not the prerogative of the rich and old countries only.
The theme for International Women’s Day this year is about how to end domestic and other violence against women and violence in society at large. Several Pakistani women have in recent years become role models for women and men all over the world - and then we don’t even talk about all the ‘everyday heroines’. Many times, Pakistani men also tell me that women are cleverer than men at school and in jobs.
A less competitive world with more equality will be more peaceful and happier. It is a scar on humanity and especially the leaders in our time, that we have dozens of ongoing wars and armed conflicts. The foreign invasion of Afghanistan is particularly sad, and indeed the war on terror, with many negative consequences for Pakistan. The structural violence of major inequality between the north and south can also be solved if there is political will among powerful countries. In many cases, globalisation is not positive.
In the homes, workplaces, local communities and elsewhere within countries, we must make peaceful changes - if those who have power give priority to it. In many cases, violence against women can be reduced if the men want to change the situation. If it becomes politically, socially and legally unacceptable to beat a woman and a child and anyone else who is weak, such crimes will be few.
Women must keep up their peaceful fight for their rights, for human rights, together with feminist men. And then, when change, equality and peace come, we will all realise that the world has become better and more in line with God’s will for all his or her creatures.
Dear women and men, congratulations on the International Women’s Day 2013!