International Women’s Day: the gender gap shortchanges us all

Heidi Safia Mirza

Today is International Women’s Day 2013, 18 years since the 1995 UN Beijing World Conference on Women that declared “women’s rights are human rights”. But we still have a long way to go in securing women’s global access to health, education and the right to full economic and political participation.

So says Melanne Verveer, Humanitas Visiting Professor in Women’s Rights at Cambridge University. As President Obama’s former Ambassador at Large for Global Women’s Issues, she has delivered a series of powerful lectures this week drawing on her extensive experience in the US State Department and international feminist activism to argue that there is a moral imperative for gender justice and equity.  As she says, “The gender gap in women’s political, social and economic participation is not just short-changing women around the world, but is also short-changing global economic growth for all.”

In the concluding symposium on Monday 11 March I will be joining leading feminist thinkers Henrietta Moore, Sara Ahmed, Susie Orbach, Sarah Franklin,  and Nina Power to debate Gender Equality: A Moral and Foreign Policy Imperative at King’s College Cambridge.

Drawing on my research on young migrant and Muslim women in schools I will examine how gender violence and the symbolic power of the veil limits young women’s right to education. These young women are caught in between conflicting ideologies and cultural perspectives.

On one hand, their experiences in British schools are shaped by the powerful Islamophobic discourses that have circulated since 9/11. According to such ways of thinking, the Muslim woman’s body has become symbolic in the battle against Islam and the “barbaric Muslim enemy within”.

In this context the wearing of the veil has become a key symbol for many young women themselves, but it invites both unrestrained public comment and open legitimate attention from teachers who wish to regulate and control the young women’s behaviour in the class.

On the other hand there are also some parents, brothers and other young men who wish to control their daughters’ and sisters’ emerging sexuality through religious ideas that are both political and patriarchal, and that sanction gendered violence, including honour crimes, and forced marriage.

The consequence of being caught up in these competing discourses of school and family are great for the young women who, worryingly, have high rates of mental distress and trauma, including depression, attempted suicide and eating disorders. The findings conclude that while educational policy must address the human rights violations of young women’s bodily rights, it is also crucial that policy perspectives move beyond stereotypical views of Muslim women and look at violence not as a cultural matter, but as a gendered issue to be treated in the same way for all young women.

The Symposium has already sold out, but it will be recorded and available at CRASSH website (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities), University of Cambridge, after Monday.

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Posted in Social sciences and social policy

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