International Women's Day brings with it a bit of an eye roll effect -- both why do women need a day? and, inversely, oh, wow, thanks so much for our ONE day, totes grateful. One could argue, as I plan to, that the day, the label and #IWD are helpful and unhelpful, necessary but insufficient in reminding people that gender inequality is something we still have to fight against. I'm going to a IWD happy hour, so it's at the very least a good excuse for a cocktail. UN Women is hosting events and screenings in cities around the world. There's lots going on that are both marketing opportunities and pure celebrations of sisterhood.
In the same way that the day is necessary but insufficient, the labels used to define women that I work with and know often hide the truth of who they really are, the challenges they face and how bravely they meet them. As someone who lives abroad, I get to meet the women behind some of the rhetoric of International Women's Day and media headlines and awareness campaigns. These loaded terms represent friends I have and women I meet in my day-to-day work in Bangkok, which, most days, feels like the intersection of migration and the rest of the world.
REFUGEE. I recently met a Somali refugee teenager who knows exactly who she is and will tell you. She is a refugee, yes, but she really wants to be a screenwriter. She taught herself English by watching movies and now works as a translator. She is a passionate advocate for gay rights because she saw people killed in her country for mere rumors of their sexuality. Additionally, when she was growing up in Somalia, she taught herself Arabic so she could read for herself what the Quran said about women. She didn't believe that the barriers for women -- lack of access to education, to healthcare, to maternal health services -- were prescribed by her holy scriptures. Sure enough, it was her culture and not her God that limited her and even threatened her livelihood. So she left. Her confidence and her self-determination are so inspiring, I was left wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. For now, she is a refugee because it allows her to apply for services and hopefully resettlement, but one day, you will see her film and it will be brilliant.
TRAFFICKED. I visited with a woman today who was trafficked from Congo to Bangkok for the purposes of sexual exploitation. The thing that so often gets lost in the labeling of and especially religiously motivated handwringing about "trafficked" and particularly "sex trafficked" is, in the specific context of African women I've met here, the women that leave home are incredibly brave and capable. They willingly take on unthinkable debt in the form of a (sometimes) forged passport and plane ticket to a land where they don't know the language or know anyone so that they can work in (what many are told is) a restaurant to work hard to feed their families and put their kids through school. Then they get here and the work is different than they thought, but their kids still need food and school uniforms. The women I've met don't ask to be rescued, they don't want pity, they just need a job. The woman I know is facing deportation and will hopefully be back with her children soon, but she is susceptible to being trafficked again. There are simply no jobs where she is from. Her story, her struggle, is far from over.
ILLEGAL. While I know lots of people who don't have documentation or visas, I don't know anyone who is illegal. Can we just not use this word anymore to describe humans? No one person lives wholly inside or outside of legality. I paid a bribe to a policeman last week that he demanded (not turning left in a left hand lane, nothing more exciting). That makes us both illegal I think. Women who leave Central America for the U.S. or Burma for Thailand could qualify as refugees or as trafficked depending on technicalities of their migration, the particulars of their journeys. I know children born between countries, with no hope of a birth certificate or passport. They are no less human or no less 'legal' than I am by accident of my birth in a hospital in Dallas.
These labels are sometimes a necessary classification to allow women to apply for services or to rally the troops around fundraising and advocacy, but they are not inclusive. I know women who currently have refugee status who were trafficked as children. I know women who were almost trafficked while crossing a border and remain undocumented and somehow aren't eligible for any services because they walked across the border. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (my patron saint) said, "Nobody is ever a single thing." These political labels allow us to partition out gender based discrimination and violence as discrete things -- REFUGEE, TRAFFICKED, ILLEGAL -- like women or people are defined forever by something that happened to them. They also allow us to pretend that each of these happen in isolation. In reality, these are symptoms of the same disease, and some women suffer from them all at once. Women are not equal, and because they are not equal, they are not safe. Not in Somalia, not in Congo, not in Thailand, not in Texas. When women are not safe, they flee. When women are in transit, they are even less safe. Heck, when women are in the same place, they aren't guaranteed safety, but particularly women moving from place to place are vulnerable to forces that take advantage of their desperation. All of the above terms describe women on the move, women submitting themselves to or getting caught up in forces they cannot control in order to make a better life for themselves and their families. Women I know have left kids behind to send money or brought kids with them across borders or given birth along the way. They are fighters and survivors. Bangkok is just one phase of their fight for economic, political and personal justice.
As trite as International Women's Day sounds, I choose to celebrate it and intentionally reflect on the stories of brave women I know caught up in the labels and systems of oppression because of this simple fact -- women are not safe. This isn't an attempt to create hysteria (which is derived from the Greek hysterika, meaning uterus, meaning even this emotion has been unfairly gendered) or make you hide yo kids hide yo wife. Some of us women experience inexplicable privilege and relative safety. As one of these women with access to choices and privilege, I try to understand the women behind the labels and help them fight for access to education or childcare or a job, whatever they want to come next. Because the labels don't define them.
Stereotypes also marginalize male allies of women. I come from a conservative Christian culture where there are men trying to elevate the voices of women and girls above their own. I know many Muslim men who are deeply protective of the rights of their wives, mothers, sisters and daughters. Men are welcome at #IWD. Men are welcome at Girls Impact the World Film Festival (I'll be there! Come!). It's also true that the binary male/female system is exclusionary and that men and boys also experience violence. But cisgender women and those that identify as female the world over experience discrimination and violence at much higher rates than men. International Women's Day isn't perfect, but it's as inclusive as you want it to be. Have a cocktail, tweet, resist, celebrate, cry, call your mom, listen to the stories of women and men around you who believe in equality or have suffered for lack of it. We can and should all be feminists, even if we can't all wear the Dior shirt (though I did ask Phillip for it for my IWD present). Happy International Women's Day. ♀