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Who is the 'Woman' on International Women's Day?

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Image: Joe Flood/Flickr

As a young person developing my political identity, I was bemused by my own lack of enthusiasm for "feminism," as narrated through dominant media and popular culture. I came to terms with this ambivalence through learning about intersectionality -- the recognition that my gendered self could not be separated from my raced, sexed, classed and abled self and, thus, a dominant feminism which assumed all other points of privilege could not capture my (or the majority of women's/femme's) experiences, challenges or aspirations.  

I am reminded of this adolescent struggle every March, amid celebrations of International Women's Day -- marked by the United Nations since 1975 as a time "when women are recognized for their achievements without regard to divisions, whether national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political." 

As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor -- editor of the collection How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective -- has said: "International Women's Day, historically, has always been about highlighting the relationship between capitalism and women's oppression."  But like many long-standing social movements, International Women's Day has become so successfully mainstreamed that those originally subject to its critique are now among those waving its banner. Indeed, "IWD" has become yet another corporate branding option, served up to a "feminist" market socialized into the norms of consumable identity and activism. Rather than being an opportunity to reject, resist and reimagine alternatives to a capitalist system for the distribution of wellbeing (and the patriarchal, heteronormative, white supremacist, colonial and nationalist logics that organize it) IWD has, at least equally, become another outlet for participation in it -- albeit with a purple twist.  

But even as we push back against the appropriation of another revolutionary movement by status quo interests, shouldn't we equally be asking ourselves whether "International Women's Day" actually serves any function at all?   

In so much as "International Women’s Day" alludes to -- and perpetuates the mythology of -- an "international womanhood," it may be doing more harm than good.

Liberation for some women at the expense of many more

The "trickle-down feminism" that flows naturally from the notion of a global sisterhood -- the idea that women possess an inherent kinship with one another and that the advancements of some are paving the way for those of the rest of us -- misses a crucial point: that, historically, feminist gains have not tended to disrupt patriarchy but have simply redistributed its burdens, allowing some women to access wellbeing precisely by dispossessing many more women.  

The white feminist "sheroes" of the North American suffragist movement were not only ill-concerned with the Black women's vote, but actively worked against it, often relying upon anti-Black narratives to lay claim to their own personhood. That Susan B. Anthony would have rather "cut off this right arm of mine before I will ever work for or demand the ballot for the negro and not the woman" is reflective of the racism upon which this white feminist movement was constituted; while Anthony is now the namesake of a university institute concerned with "social justice and equality," the Black women who fought harder for a more complete social justice and equality are often written out of suffragist narratives. 

Today, formal political rights in North America are no longer distributed according to identity -- but national borders and global economies nonetheless dole out the fruits of feminist progress, ensuring that an apple for one is taken from the tree of another. Indeed, certain women's integration into the capitalist marketplace is afforded by the ongoing subordination of many more women -- the legally and economically precarious immigrant caregiver women who fill voids in household labour; the below-cost-of-living (i.e. minimum wage) women (often racialized immigrants) who serve up fast coffee and quick meals to the on-the-go business lady; the Global South girls who toil in sweatshops to produce women's power suits; and the femmes on the other side of the world who feel most painfully the carbon impact of the cars that take us to work. That so many white women could help to elect Trump -- an outright misogynist -- suggests that, for many women, their wellbeing is less dependent upon gender justice than it is on racial/economic injustice

Marginalized women are not in the waiting room of women's advancement, as privileged feminism would have us believe  -- they make up its supply room, serving up the resources that sustain it. Progress for some women does not only not mean that it will be for all women -- it means that it necessarily can't be for all women.

Individual women can be integrated into patriarchal systems

IWD asks us to set aside our divisions -- "national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political" -- to "recognize" women's achievements. No better candidate for celebration, by this criterion, than Hillary Clinton -- even as her record reveals less of a commitment to women as to, well, woman (herself). One of Clinton's first high-profile public positions was as a board member for Walmart, where she sat idle as the corporation waged war against labour unions -- a practice that has denied labour justice to its hourly employees, the majority of whom are women. As first lady, she boasted about supporting her husband Bill in gutting welfare, with the primary victims of these reforms being women and children.

Her storied career also includes: a hawkish foreign policy approach responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians; aggressive marketing of U.S. corporations and for the expansion of corporate power around the globe, to the detriment of workers, the environment and consumers alike; upping the ante on the "war on drugs," resulting in mass incarceration; and friendships with regimes, like Saudi Arabia and Israel, with devastating human rights records.

Despite an official nod to feminist issues, Clinton's substance is less than. For example, while she is "pro-choice" (i.e. in favour of women's rights to accessing safe abortions), her political impact of expanding feminized poverty has, in effect, denied the rights of women to make meaningful choices about their reproduction.  

The IWD call to celebrate the achievements of women -- regardless of how those achievements fit into the broader picture of the human condition -- jives well with a capitalist ethic organized around consideration of the individual. Lauding individual women who have "made it" ultimately works in favour of a patriarchal status quo: the selective inclusion of women into exclusionary systems obscures a global economic and political order that is, by design, patriarchal, less-than-meritocratic and disastrous to the human race as a collective.

After all, the woman heading up Lockheed Martin -- the world's biggest arms producer -- did nothing for the mothers of the 40 children killed on a Yemeni school bus by one of its bombs in 2018; just as Justin Trudeau's half-female cabinet composition hasn't disturbed a patriarchal settler-colonial politics which denies consent -- a foundational feminist principle -- to Indigenous nations on the fate of unceded land. Indeed, the reality of growing numbers of women (and others) being subject to the pains of poverty, state violence and climate chaos parallels that of the growing number of women taking up the economic and political posts responsible for perpetuating these very conditions. 

Isolating gender has been used to justify oppression

In so much as International Women's Day elevates for consideration "the woman" -- one intentionally dis-situated from markers related to geography, race, class, legal status, ability, sexuality, gender journey -- it encourages a gender-first politics, one that obscures how patriarchy interacts with other systems of oppression.  

The U.K.'s Lord Cromer -- who administered the nation's colonial project in Egypt during the 1800's -- justified Western intervention based on the need to "save" Egyptian women from their headscarves; more recently, in Canada, then-defence minister Peter MacKay argued that we sent soldiers to Afghanistan to protect the rights of women.

Of course -- women do not benefit from the damage that war inflicts on their geographies and communities, just as women did not find salvation in foreign-imposed governance. Women actually bear the disproportionate burden of war and, to this day, are negatively impacted by the heteronormative patriarchal legacy of colonial rule.  

The belief that Global South societies are particularly and uniquely misogynistic is written into Canadian laws -- through immigrant "values tests," restrictions on the wearing of niqab and hijab and the Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act -- that hurt the very women they supposedly exist to protect.

And this belief also serves to justify an unjustifiable global economic order. Plan International's "Because I am Girl" campaign "focuses on lack of equality faced by girls in developing countries, and promotes projects to improve opportunities for girls." Their approach -- as suggested by the campaign name -- is premised upon a simplified narrative of Global South mindsets: specifically, that men deny the rights and wellbeing of girls and women simply because they hate them. The website backs up this claim with statistics such as, "every 2 seconds a girl under 18 is married" -- failing to consider the reality of poverty that forces families to make such decisions; figures on girls' malnutrition, lack of healthcare, safe drinking water and access to education similarly miss the important context that millions of boys around the world are also denied those basic needs.

Femmes around the world are disproportionately affected by poverty. But focusing on the misdistribution of a meager amount of wealth redirects attention away from the fact of its meagreness, which is caused by a global economy that finances the excesses of a few through the deprivation of the many. Indeed, as the findings of a 2017 report suggest, "Africa is rich, but we steal its wealth," with several times more money leaving these countries in dodged taxes than is entering them in aid. The gender-exclusive focus of "girls' rights" campaigns precludes the acknowledgement of global economic apartheid -- one that impacts more than just girls -- and in the process, demonizes and dehumanizes Global South men and societies as a whole.    

The simplistic categorization of woman = victim versus man = perpetrator -- implicitly encouraged by the context-less "woman" of International Women's Day -- makes space for an imperial politics dressed in "concern for women." This politics does little to address gendered discrimination within societies; it also reaffirms the civilizational divide between the West and the rest that has been used to obscure, normalize and justify the economic and political dispossession of the majority of the world's people: women and people of all genders.     

The reification of 'woman' is a function of patriarchy  

And, of course, underlying the entire concept of an International Women's Day is the belief that "woman" even represents a coherent category of person, one supposedly distinguished from its binary opposite, "man." The existence of trans and gender non-conforming people force us to confront the weakness of this assertion.  

In 2017, self-identified and internationally celebrated feminist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, dismissed the rights of trans women to lay unqualified claim to "woman"-hood: "I think if you've lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it's difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are." The argument, however, is immediately flawed in suggesting there is a common oppression experienced by all cis women, and a common privilege accessible to all those children gendered as boys from birth. 

Adichie later clarified that she did not mean to dismiss the realness of trans women, but to simply differentiate between trans versus cis subjectivity. She didn't admit the irony of suggesting that trans women benefit from male privilege; indeed, trans women are oppressed precisely because their journeys to femininity have required overcoming the imposition of masculinity.

That trans women are vulnerable to hate crime, intentional misgendering and dead-naming, family eviction, poverty, addiction and mental health issues, institutional and interpersonal discrimination, and transphobic legislation (like "bathroom bills") in ways that cis women are not implies that patriarchy is not just used to oppress those labelled "women," but also to punish those who transgress the boundaries of socially sanctioned gender expression: those who are transgender and/or non-conforming but also those who are fat, veiled, queer, non-monogamous and earn their livings through sex work. 

The feminism of Adichie and others (like the Women's March participants who used "pink pussies" to symbolize their womanhood) is organized around concern for the wellbeing of the "woman" as a distinct being and, as such, functions to reify a socially contingent category of person. Indeed, there is no biological reality that is universal to those labelled "women" (science now indicates that biological sex is a spectrum rather than an "either/or" deal); and gender is an ongoing embodiment and social performance separate from this biology. Reifying the "woman" ultimately does some of the work of patriarchy, by legitimating the binary categories through which this system derives authority and power.  

International Women's Day, then, is one more occasion for the assertion of "woman," and the policing of its membership.

Amid news of Harvey Weinstein's conviction, let's remember that "#MeToo" was initiated by a Black woman to facilitate collective healing among racialized femmes -- and is now best-known as a tool for the most privileged to seek justice through the carceral system, and equality within the capitalist system. Importantly, this appropriation of "#MeToo" happened without sacrificing the label of "women's movement."  An ontological category that accounts for half of the world's population can't possibly capture the nuanced oppressions, needs and realities of those within it. At best, this renders it useless -- at worst, harmful.

While International Women's Day is one day a year, the dangerous hegemony of "woman" as the starting point for our analysis and activism is present the other 364.

Khadijah Kanji holds a masters in social work. She works in therapy, as well as in research, programming, and public education on issues of Islamophobia, racism, transphobia/homophobia and other areas of social justice.

Image: Joe Flood/Flickr

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