Friday, 8 March 2013

International Women's Day 2013

On International Women's Day, there are numerous events, and there are continuities. Many people wish each other a happy International Women's Day, while others whine that there is no International Men's Day (here it is) or claim that in today's "honour", they have "put the washing machine on".

It's important to remember - as many women point out when we begin posts about feminism - just how far we've come in not very many years. Rape and violence including within marriage are no longer acceptable in many societies. Women can now be politicians, when a century ago we didn't even have the vote. In theory, at least, we're supposed to have equal pay, though this certainly doesn't happen in practice (two recent figures are 9.6% and 14%). And - by the way, this often makes me incredibly happy - most men I know are all for equality. Most treat me with as much respect as they treat men. Some, who are initially dismissive of feminism, change their minds when they learn more. Many comment on how the patriarchy damages men too - Puffles, for instance. And I hope most understand that when I mention sexism, I am not bashing men in general, or any specific man unless I say so - just a sheer cultural force of habit.

Recently some of the most moving pieces I've read involve horrific behaviour going unchallenged and the permanent fear in which this leaves women (note: this last site has posts for over-18s only - not including that one). Yesterday there was a hilarious NewsBiscuit take on how differently males and females were represented in the media, which prompted the #thingspeopledontsayaboutmen hashtag ("He's a bit hormonal today"; "Can career men have it all?"; etc.). It may sound trivial to those who have not experienced such things, but this entry on Everyday Sexism pretty much sums it up (click to enlarge):

In other words, just the fact that we are openly talking about sexism is a major stepping stone to victory. Projects such as Everyday Sexism are vital to this sort of thing. The method of a bully is to make the victim feel powerless and alone. This bully might be a schoolkid who tells their victim nobody likes them, a (male or female) domestic abuser, or a dictatorship that makes all its citizens terrified their neighbours will report them, or anyone big or small - and as any woman who's called out sexist remarks can probably attest, she will be accused of overreacting, being a bitch, ugly, frigid, paranoid, a man-hater, etc etc, which has just this isolating effect. But it's a lot harder to say this when 20,000 people tell similar stories!

So, what am I doing for International Women's Day, other than ranting? Probably not much, as I'm unwell - though I hope to go along and see the Daughters of Eve stall here. I should probably write my presentation for Wednesday: it'll be the March Galactic Orchids talk, "Many Mysterious Moons".

Our own Moon has some decidedly odd characteristics. Some of them are intrinsically odd; some are perfectly unremarkable but make you stop and think. For instance, its gravity is only one-sixth of Earth's. But its mass is 1/80th. How can that be? That is because, when we stand on the Moon, we are comparatively nearer its centre, so more strongly affected - you need Newton's laws for that. And then there's the fact that our Moon is much, much bigger than every other planet's moon in comparison to the size of its planet. And then there are other moons: some destined to crash into their home planet one day, some that make gaps in the planet's rings, others that actually create the rings, a few that are hopeful candidates in the search for extraterrestrial life . . . I'll write more about these when I've done my talk. I hope you'll be able to come! 7pm this Wednesday, Newington Green Unitarian Church, 39A Newington Green, Stoke Newington, London N16 9PR - a talk followed by questions and answers, then tea, coffee, biscuits and quite possibly cake. The nearest train stations are Dalston Kingsland and Canonbury on the Overground line.

Galactic Orchids hasn't exactly been my life's smashing success: 13 has been my largest audience so far. I advertise on Twitter and Facebook, contact local news outlets etc - though the latter seems to draw nobody in. (Oddly, when I lived in Wales and travelled to give talks at other places, I'd often have audiences of 50 or more. Now I'm in London, it's very rare for people to come to my talks. Perhaps everything's just higher quality here? Or perhaps I'm really just not very good at advertising.) Recently, suffering from depression and low confidence, I've ended up rushing my presentations a little - and then of course feeling disheartened that they're just not as good as I wanted them to be.

On the other hand, people tell me earnestly that they learn a lot and enjoy the evenings, and I have a small but lovely "hard core" who keep coming back, which is the best possible sign. A couple of especially wonderful people can be relied on to help with the setting up and then clearing up after we've drunk our tea, and some have brought space-themed food! We've had some great chatty evenings as a result. We've been able to donate over £100 each to Daughters of Eve and the Orchid Project, plus some minor expenses for me and a donation to New Unity, which gives me their venue for free. A friend kindly lent me a projector, then said I could keep it! One of my aims with Galactic Orchids is not so much to make people experts in female genital mutilation - the more I learn about that, as with astronomy, the less I feel I know; even campaigners don't agree on everything - but simply to make it, like sexism, more acceptable to talk about. I mean, it's not exactly easy to trample into the subject of private parts permanently injured in a cultural practice believed (incorrectly) to be required by religion, is it?

The resulting ignorance about female genital mutilation is heartbreaking. Take this story of an 11-year-old two years ago, whose 12-year-old sister was cut in Africa without even her parents' knowledge. They only found out when she cried watching a television program about it back in the UK. The 11-year-old was terrified that the same would happen to her when they next visited extended family, and sought help from a teacher. The teacher did not know to contact police, or even a specialised charity.

Things are progressing, though. A journalist recently took on the subject in Liberia which broke a major taboo - putting herself and a lady she interviewed in danger, but both say it was worth it. After Nimko Ali from Daughters of Eve got into the Evening Standard (for which she received death threats, accusations of "hating being a Somali" and so on), £35 million was pledged to battle the problem! It's not going to be an easy task, but at least it's now an open, acknowledged problem. And it's a problem that is part of a wider culture of violence and subjugation of women, which affects us all, men and women, of every country. My tiny part to play is raising a small amount of money and what little awareness I can for people who can help much better than I can alone, I guess. There are events and there are tiny, inching steps.

Incidentally, there's a long but fascinating podcast about female genital mutilation here.

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