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It’s Women’s Day! Needlework, anyone?

We cannot address gender inequality without examining the culture, belief systems and often-outdated religious traditions that breed it and legitimatise it. Women’s Day is a reminder of that obligation. That’s why events such as those in aid of the President’s charity are so frustrating – they serve to sustain stereotypes that remain an obstacle to equality.

Caroline Muscat
8 March 2012, 12:00am
'The Women in Me' is an event in aid of the President's charity being held to mark Women's Day. It's supposed to be a "unique event to celebrate and understand the different facets, and the diverse needs and desires of each woman". It then delivers a programme of activities that is the embodiment of stereotypes of what women want, ranging from make up workshops to honey therapy to the obligatory 'fashion tips'. The highlight is the 'live draping' workshop.

The name chosen for this supposed celebration of women's diversity is, let's say, interesting. 'The Women in Me'. What is it even supposed to mean? If I am a woman, what other 'women' am I supposed to have in me? Does the word 'women' refer to some qualities or skills traditionally associated with women, which I'm supposed to have? If I don't like 'live draping', am I failing to fulfill my potential?

While Women's Day is supposed to celebrate women's achievements, it's also a rallying cry. It's a time to ask important questions about the status of women in society because although impressive life-changing advances have been made towards gender equality, there's still quite a way to go.

'What more do women want?' It's a question often asked. When women are allowed to vote, work, choose their husbands, postpone having children and dress in whatever fashion pleases them, why do they still need a day dedicated to them? It is this perception, that feminism has done its job thank you very much, that is one of the underlying reasons why so many women reject any association with the feminist label or movement. Yet feminism, for all its achievements, has delivered an unfinished revolution.

We have been brought up to consider ourselves wholly equal, so to accept that feminism still has battles left to fight and win requires a reversal of what we believe. Embracing feminism means we have to admit that, no matter how equal we feel, women are still the lesser - lesser paid, lesser represented, and a lesser part of the economic and political spheres.

I'm always surprised when a woman says she is not a feminist. My reaction is to ask: 'How can you be a woman and not be in favour of your own political, social and economic equality?' That is the basic premise of feminism. Perhaps one reason women are reluctant to call themselves feminist is because of the many misconceptions about the word. But the larger picture of feminism is about how gender inequity impacts everyone, including men.

Feminism promotes unity, respect, equality, and justice for all, regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, religion or any of the many other labels and dogmas that often divide us.

The diminished status of women is intrinsically interconnected with wider issues like violence, poverty, the economy and the environment. The education and empowerment of women has a positive impact on all these issues and therefore the world we all live in, regardless of sex. Yet women's rights are not seen as a priority in this country, even though the numbers speak for themselves.

One in four women in Malta will experience domestic violence, equal pay is not a reality, there are sex slaves in this country who are used and abused and then sold off to men for a pittance like some second-hand commodity.  This is an unacceptable situation, and yet not powerful enough to make arguing for women's rights a respectable pursuit.

In Malta, women's rights are mostly discussed in the context of encouraging female participation in the labour market (because the economy needs it), and negating women's reproductive rights (because a foetus doesn't have a voice, never mind the mother).

Such issues are discussed as right and wrong, black or white, rather than complex realities. So abortion is evil, mothers who work are neglecting their children, and the Eastern European women on the island who are forced to work as prostitutes asked for it. It is conditions of disadvantage and vulnerability that make women victims. By refusing to defend women as people and by dismissing the complexity of their experiences, society helps to create the very problems it aims to solve.

Perhaps the fact that there's more Josephs, Johns and Julians in Parliament than there are women MPs may be a contributing factor to this reality.  Women representation in Parliament stands at 8.7%, and we've never gone beyond 10%. And my personal feeling is that the women who do make it to Parliament do so more on their ability to conform to rules and expectations set by successive male-dominated Cabinets, rather than their convictions as women.

We cannot address gender inequality without examining the culture, belief systems and often-outdated religious traditions that breed it and legitimatise it. Women's Day is a reminder of that obligation. If it helps to show the strength of those who seek genuine equality, as well as the scale and importance of what remains to be achieved, then it's a day that's served its cause.

It takes more than needlework, and workshops that sustain the notion of women pleasing and appeasing. That's why Women's Day events such as those in aid of the President's charity are so damn frustrating.

Women in Malta - The Facts:

1 in 4 women is a victim of domestic violence

Malta has more female graduates than male, but about 60% of women are unemployed - the highest in Europe

On average, women earn 23% less than men doing the same job

In the EU, Malta has the lowest number of women in decision-making positions

The number of women elected to Parliament is 8.7% - the lowest in the EU

The number of women on Maltese company boards is 3% - the lowest in the EU

In the Human Trafficking report for 2011, Malta is on the Tier 2 watch list (a country where the number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing and the country has failed to provide evidence of  efforts to combat trafficking, which largely affects women and girls).

Caroline Muscat is a journalist writing for major publications in Malta and abroad. She was awarded the European Commission's national prize for journalism against discrimination for two consecutive years, in 2010 and 2011. She blogs on My Voice.




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