Beyond International Women’s Day

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Last International Women’s day, I sat, overwhelmed by the gravity of everything that had led up the 8th March 2019. The space I inhabit, the breadth of it, the freedom within it, shaped by the actions of others. From Elizabeth Pankhurst to Margaret Thatcher, to the women of my own family. Like an eternal palimpsest, the idea of a woman has been redefined and expanded, as more and more women exceed expectations and enter previously ‘male’ spheres. Even now, I am writing this article under my own female name. Marie Ann Evans never had the luxury.

International Women’s day requires us to think beyond the peripheries of the West. Women on an international scale are still fighting for rights we have come to take for granted. Many women are insufficiently protected against domestic violence in law, for instance. Many other women (such as in Saudi Arabia) have only been able to vote in the last five years. When I think of my own position as a woman, it is difficult to reconcile the competing feelings that I am both a privileged woman and inherently disadvantaged, as a woman.

Today, a year has passed, and again I am putting the genders on the scales. Yet, to weigh up what we have requires us to weigh up what we are. For me, that is a cis woman. But that certainly isn’t the case for everyone, and we must appreciate the full scope of the gender when celebrating it.

Last year, some people at a march for International Women’s Day yielded a poster reading ‘Trans women are men’. This received much criticism. Though there are only a minority of people who promulgate these views, it does highlight the fact that many people call themselves feminists but don’t necessarily offer the same support to transgender women. 

In the Western world, we are familiar with a male-female dichotomy. Where people are one gender or the other, leaving those who don’t identify with either category or whose biological sex doesn’t match the gender they feel they are, vulnerable. 2333 hate crimes were recorded against transgender people in the years 2018-2019, a thirty-seven per cent rise from the previous year. Is it not starling to attempt to exclude some of the worst treated, most marginalised people from international women’s day? Women who may need unity and empowerment the most? 

If it is really to be contemplated that International Women’s day should only represent biological women, then the international scope of the day must be questioned. Because, looking past the western gender dichotomy, one can see that other cultures frame gender differently. Someone’s physical sex is not always the defining trait of a person’s gender. Two examples from a plethora of different gender systems are summarised below. 

The Fa’afafine of Samoa, Polynesia

The Island of Samoa in Polynesia has a three gendered system of classification. People who identify as Fa’afafine are assigned male at birth and embody both masculine and feminine gender traits. These people are considered to be suspended between male and female, having elements of both genders. They are an incorporated and recognised gender in the Polynesian isle of Samoa and constitute approximately five per cent of the population there. 

In the West, when femininity is attributed to a male body, this is seen as traversing the gender binary. But in Samoa, even with gender-changing surgery, this doesn’t signify a change in gender. Fa’afafine’s adopt feminine traits from a young age and their gender classification operates irrespective of physical sex or sexuality.

Juchitan in Mexico, Muxe

Another community known as the Juchitan in Mexico were the subject of a documentary in 2000, entitled ‘Blossoms of Fire’. This clearly depicted the empowerment of women and the tolerance of homosexuality and transgender people within their community. This Mexican civilisation exemplifies an alternative gender system. Gender roles are not placed on individuals but instead, everyone is considered equal. For example, children are taken care of by everyone and food is cooked by anyone who is available. This has led to a community where gay and transgender people feel more accepted. This includes Muxe: biological males who dress and behave in ways otherwise associated with women. They are an accepted and incorporated third gender in regions of Mexico. 

Another stance on gender comes from Nigerian feminist scholar Oyewumi. She observed that among the Yoruba people there was no concept of gender at all before colonialism. She argues that colonial powers used a gender system as a tool for domination of the indigenous.

I use these as examples that International Women’s day seems to operate from within the gender dichotomy that we know and understand. From a view that people are men or women, not none or multiple genders. What then of the multitude of different gender systems in operation throughout the world? How can a day be international if it applies one gender system to all?

International Women’s Day ought to be accepting rather than restricting, and in 2020, we should look past the fixed lines in the sand, the fixed courts of men and women, neatly divided by biological sex. Because this isn’t, and has never been, representative of the world around us.

Amy Ramswell

Image: Wikimedia Commons.