Ruth Wishart: The audacity to show what equality looks like

Indian brick work labourers on International Women's Day. Picture: Getty
Indian brick work labourers on International Women's Day. Picture: Getty
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THE Lady, as she’s colloquially known, was not for turning. Not when her supporters were jailed and abused, not when she herself was put under house arrest, not even when offered an exit visa to visit her dying British husband in the UK. For that ticket was strictly one way.

And this week Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy held its first ever congress, positioning itself for historic full blown elections in 2015.

For her, it has been a very good year, parlaying a softening of attitudes in the Myanmar regime into a position of strength which finally allowed her to travel as a world stateswoman without apparent fear of further imprisonment.

A good year too for fellow globetrotter Hilary Clinton, who ended her four year stint as Barack Obama’s first Secretary of State with her reputation never higher. They ask will she/won’t she over a possible shot at the top job in 2016, but not any more could she/should she?

And let’s not forget that spectacular outburst from Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard as she memorably advised opposition leader Tony Abbott to pick up a mirror if he wanted to see what misogyny looked like up close and personal.

It was a verbal shot that echoed round the globe, all the more powerful for being uttered in that part of the Antipodes where casual sexism is still an unremarkable feature of the parliamentary currency.

But on International Women’s Day 2013, on the 50th anniversary of Betty Friedan’s feminist primer The Feminine Mystique being published, it’s a whole lot easier to celebrate the successes of the already powerful than to believe that ordinary women world wide are in a purple patch of achievement.

The recovery from attempted assassination of Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai reminds us that in those parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan where the Taleban’s writ still runs, the very notion of female education is considered an offence against their warped interpretation of Islam.

It’s realistic rather than defeatist to observe that if the fundamentalists restore their primacy when foreign armies retreat from their sorry Afghan mission next year, then all that high flown rhetoric about being there to protect the rights of women will be just that.

We have recent events in India, a nation much lauded as being in the vanguard of the new world economic order. But where the gang rape of a 23-year-old medical student forced that country to examine not just serious crimes of sexual violence, but a widespread attitude to women which still, in some states, condones terminations for no better reason than the foetus being female.

But then few countries have much to boast about in their attitude to rapists. Not the so called “developed” nations where the conviction rates remain pathetic, nor those war torn regions of the world where sexual violence has become as commonplace a weapon as an AK47.

This week’s major UN conference Violence Against Women produced some statistics which were as predictable as they were chilling.

There are an estimate 140 million girls and women currently alive who have been subjected to genital mutilation.

World Bank Data cited in evidence suggested that women aged between 15 and 44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria. Small wonder the Billion Women Rising movement resonated across the world on St Valentines Day last month.

So on our allotted Day, are there reasons to be cheerful? We might record that here in Scotland the Deputy First minister and the leaders of two opposition parties are women. We might reflect that UK prime ministers who still think “calm down dear” is the height of dispatch box wit, are swiftly sent to the naughty step by the amalgamated union of women columnists.

It seems too we are now witnessing the growth of “fourth-wave feminism”, something of a mystery to we first-wavers who didn’t ever imagine the wheel would require so much re-invention before we got the damn vehicle safely on the road.

Perhaps each decade young women feel the need to re-construct it in their own image. To find a way of marrying their own aspirations to the shifting sands of society’s mores.

Yet it often seems to those of us of a certain campaigning age, that the case for equality of opportunity becomes diluted rather than re-inforced by so many makeovers. Hard-drinking ladettes, female clones of pin-striped powerbrokers, party hacks toeing party lines, were never what the revolution was supposed to deliver.

What really matters is what always has; to have the opportunity to get the education and experience that are passports to employment and advancement. To have affordable, accessible child care facilities of the kind commonplace in parts of Europe and Scandinavia.

To have enough hands on the levers of power to be able to affect and inform political priorities.

What slows progress to all of that is too often a breed of women of whom we have heard a lot on the airwaves this week. Women who set their face against anything smacking of positive discrimination on the grounds that women should only ever win through merit.

As if there weren’t countless thousands of talented, meritorious women lost to power and office by the rules of a game carefully skewed to discrimination of the negative variety.

As if there hasn’t been that whole post Friedan half century of women taking rocket propelled grenades to assorted glass ceilings, often to precious little effect.

The aforementioned Hilary Clinton, when she lost out on her bid to be Democratic contender for president in 2010, told her disappointed supporters that at least “there are now 1,800 cracks in it.”

Maybe. But not yet sufficient gaps to push enough ladders through.

Calm down dear? Not bloody likely! Not yet awhile.