Man, you're not a feminist?

Posted 03.13.10

SHAWVILLE, QUEBEC | One of the surprises of International Women's Day (Monday, March 8) is that it told us women are not special.

To say that women cannot vote, go to school or to university, cannot limit the size of their own families, or whatever, is to say that women are special; they are singled out for special treatment. The treatment of women in many parts of the world may be unfair and vicious, but it remains the treatment of a special group, more than half of humanity in this case. International Women's Day says there is no difference between men and women in legal and economic matters: women are not special. [

International Women's Day also says that this day has an international context -- that what happens in other countries and other cultures matters to all of us. This is easily overlooked.

It says that the rights which women should exercise are human rights that apply to all humans, everywhere. There are no exceptions which say that because of a certain culture, religion, or tradition, women should wear certain clothes, undergo female circumcision, be kept illiterate (and pregnant), must not use birth control, and on and on. All of these "traditions" have no more force of authority than did the tradition of slavery or of female infanticide. Traditions are, in many cases, merely ingrained bad habits. They cannot trump human rights, and when they do, this affects us all. [

And the fact that International Women's Day is so focused on human rights and their application to women, tells us also that "international" is not the only place our concern should rest.

Quebec women are among the most liberated in the world; they have rights many women in the rest of Canada do not have (from the symbolic right to keep one's own name in marriage to the very practical right of half the assets of a family or spousal relationship upon its dissolution).

But not all Quebec women are liberated. Not all Canadian woman. We may believe that Guatemalan women, for example, need our undivided support, but report after report tells us that the conditions of women in First Nations communities is often worse than conditions in Guatemala. Native women do not have equal rights, in the sense that they do not have the freedom to exercise the rights they may appear to have on paper or in law. [

Nor do many immigrant women, isolated and uneducated, hidden in their neighbourhoods. [

Nor do many women living in poverty, especially those who are single parents. Women with mental or physical difficulties, likewise. Even illiteracy limits a woman's ability to exercise her rights, hence limiting her rights. [

It's easy to hide behind the glowing words of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It is easy to ignore the fact that certain kinds of oppression affect all other aspects of life -- poverty affects how well children do in school and how healthy they are; poverty, illiteracy, low education, chronic ailments, abusive relationships -- these can impact the simplest rights, like voting. [

When we get to complex rights, like equal opportunities for education and jobs, the collateral damage caused by poverty, racism, misogyny, and bigotry can be enormous. These mean that many women do not effectively have the same rights as most men, because they are unable to exercise those rights. Poverty, illiteracy, and racism affect men also -- all the more reason for men to support the International Women's Day, yes, and all the more reason why every man, especially every father and grand-father, should aspire to become a feminist.

Copyright © 2010 Fred Ryan/Log Cabin Chronicles/03.10