New Internationalist

Women hold up half the sky

October 1977

Of our 48 chromosomes, there is only one in women that is different from those in men. But on this difference society has based a complete dichotomy of male and female, blithely assuming that the possession of a womb equips you miraculously with the ability to cook, clean, care for children, fetch water, hoe yams, grind corn, and carry huge bundles on your head. If appearances are anything to go by, all these occupations are exclusively sex-linked. This issue of New Internationalist has singled out women for special attention. But women are not just one more cause. They are, rather, part of every cause. List victims of injustice: the poor, the black, the homeless, the jobless, the underpaid workers, the political prisoners. But don’t add women. Because women are already there. Women hold up half the sky. Women are half of the people.

It is just an accident whether you were born boy or girl. Like black or white, there never was any chance to choose. But you cannot equate being a victim of racism with being a victim of sexism. For you can be both black and female. And because of the way the world treats women, among the downtrodden they are often the downtrodden of the downtrodden. If you are poor and female, or hungry and female, the chances are that you will be poorer or hungrier because you are female.

Most of the women in Third World countries would find the kind of demands made by the Western women’s movement puzzling to say the very least. More work, more decision-making, more responsibility, more independence is the last thing they want. For many carry a daily burden on their shoulders that their sisters in the industrialized world would shudder to contemplate. They often bear all the workload of growing, preparing, and cooking the family’s food, as well as bearing and rearing the children, gathering fuel and collecting the water. Between a quarter and a third of all households in the world are reckoned to have a woman as sole provider, and most of these households are among the poorest people, in the poorest societies. Yes, indeed, women hold up half the sky, and a great deal more besides.

For far too long, the issue of women’s rights has been treated as a problem entirely distinct from economic development, capable of isolation from matters such as over-population or world unemployment. Not just separate, either, but altogether less pressing – the kind of diverting side-issue to contemplate when the main task is done. Meanwhile, they feel, these harbingers of progress, if a few more laws are passed, legalizing abortion, outlawing polygamy, making the sale of girl children into prostitution an indictable offence, steps in the right direction will be seen to have been taken.

This attitude betrays a deep-rooted psychological resistance by men, and by many women too, to accept that the issue of women’s rights is central to the whole process of development. While women are pushed out on the margins, relegated to the cracks and crevices of society and denied equal access to jobs, education, training, new ideas, and new technology, development across the board is stymied. Because it is being held back by half of the people. And they must be dragging back the other half with them. There has been an ignominious failure to appreciate the connection between rights of women and the problems of poverty, illiteracy, malnutrition, unemployment, low food production, and all the other pieces in the development jigsaw.

It was all said a hundred times over during International Women’s Year. It has all been said a hundred times since. Slowly the good intentions are being translated, the process of bringing women in from the cold is getting under way. The first step is to recognize the part women have traditionally played in their own societies. The second will be to devise policies that fully bring that role into account, and build onto it rather than undermine it.

People’s liberation involves women’s liberation, as female and male supporters of both are fond of repeating. But the greatest obstacle in turning the rhetoric into reality is the familiar, age-old enemy of womankind: her male oppressor. Are many men anywhere in the world really willing to share their power and share their freedom and share, too, the heavy domestic workload that would release their women for a new way of life? Or is it instead as Portugal’s revolutionary spokeswomen, the Tree Marias, have put it: ‘I wonder whether the guerrillera who battles side by side with her brothers… is with her real brothers, or whether these brothers may not still bear within themselves the roots of treason, both in the present struggle and in the future City.’

This feature was published in the October issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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