‘I would like to be remembered as a person who wanted to be free... so other people would be also free.’ Rosa Parks.
When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery City in 1955, at the height of racial segregation in the US, she had no idea of the impact her spontaneous action would have. Others had done the same before, but by challenging the ‘laws of segregation’ during her appeal against her conviction, she helped change the world forever.
When I began looking into how New Internationalist could mark this year’s International Women’s Day on 8 March, I thought that exploring the concept of freedom would be a good place to start. Inspired by a BBC series on the subject, I wondered: what does freedom mean today to the three billion women and girls across the globe? How free are we in the year 2014 and what are the obstacles to this freedom?
Oppression strangles freedom and justice and has always been an ugly part of our world, in its traditional interpretation (the exercise of tyranny by a ruling group over another) as well as in the subjugation and marginalization of individuals seen as ‘other’.
The oppression of a group or a people is destructive, nourishing a deceptive sense of superiority that ruins the lives of both the oppressed and the oppressors, the latter often through a fear that the status quo cannot last forever. Oppression and occupation normally go hand in hand, and the divide-and-rule dictatorship of police states is a model that seems to be spreading.
Oppression of an individual is often hidden through institutions, laws and mainstream media. It can be direct and physical, or psychological and manipulative. According to Iris Marion Young, there are five 'faces' of oppression: violence, exploitation, marginalization, powerlessness, and cultural imperialism.
Throughout history, women have been held back from achieving full equality and independence; in many societies, this is still the case. It is often said that women, by virtue of being women, automatically experience one type of oppression, but many – such as women with disabilities or women of colour – experience a double or even triple oppression.
Resistance is growing. From indigenous communities demonstrating against environmental destruction in Canada, migrants protesting their lack of liberty at Yarl's Wood detention centre in Britain, bloggers speaking out on the stigma surrounding mental health issues, and grassroots organizations putting sexual violence on the Indian government’s political agenda, women are challenging oppression every day.
This year’s International Women’s Day theme is ‘Inspiring change’. A few weeks ago, I wrote a tweet asking for recommendations of inspiring women writers. The few people who replied responded: ‘Aren’t they all?’ And it is not just writers who are inspiring.
Over the past few years, I have realized the privilege of sharing something with other women that transcends language, cultural and other differences. Many of these women experience multiple oppressions yet they don’t only inspire change; many of them are the change.
My friends Mariam and Noor from a corner of the Middle East, who applied for jobs without success for years but who are now making handbags, purses and accessories using strips of recycled plastic bags: with no previous experience, they have become self-employed micro-businesswomen.
Mothers like mine, who, even with chronic pain brought on by a cerebral palsy that doesn’t like old(er) age, writes letters to companies demanding accessible public toilets, devises lists of ‘handy hints’ for people that can only use one arm instead of two, and mobility-scoots down the road searching for dropped kerbs.
Zara*, from Iran, new to Wales and seeking asylum with her husband, who is waiting for the UK Border Agency to decide on their applications, not knowing what they will do if they are refused. Meanwhile, she learns English from her six-year-old son and volunteers at a drop-in centre.
Inspiring change is not about earning money, winning a promotion, articles published, or countries travelled. It is not even about being the next Rosa Parks; it is about courage and determination, despite the odds.
Oppression is a feminist issue. It is a human rights issue. It is everyone’s issue. In a short series beginning today, we ask women of different backgrounds and experiences to tell their personal stories of challenging oppression and inspiring change.
Happy International Women’s Day.
*not her real name
This article is the first in our series on 'women challenging oppression'.