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March 8: Women and the People’s Revolution

In Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, Women's Rights on March 7, 2011 at 11:12 PM

By René Wadlow

It is only when women start to organize in large numbers that we become a political force, and begin to move towards the possibility of a truly democratic society in which every human being can be brave, responsible, thinking and diligent in the struggle to live at once freely and unselfishly.”

March 8 is the International Day of Women and thus a time to analyse the specific role of women in local, national and the world society.  2011 is the 100th anniversary of the creation of International Women’s Day first proposed by Clara Zetkin (1857-1933) at the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in Copenhagen in 1911.  Later she served as a socialist-communist member of the German Parliament during the Weimar Republic which existed from 1920 to 1933 when Hitler came to power.

Zetkin who had lived some years in Paris and was active in women’s movements there was building on the 1889 International Congress for Feminine Works and Institutions held in Paris under the leadership of Ana de Walska. De Walska was part of the circle of young Russian and Polish intellectuals in Paris around Gerard Encausse, a spiritual writer who wrote under the pen name of Papus. For this turn-of-the-century spiritual milieu influenced by Indian and Chinese thought, ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ were related to the Chinese terms of Yin and Yang.  Men and women alike have these psychological characteristics. ‘Feminine’ characteristics or values include intuitive, nurturing, caring, sensitive, relational traits, while ‘masculine’ are rational, dominant, assertive, analytical and hierarchical.

Clara Zetkin.

As individual persons, men and women alike can achieve a state of wholeness, of balance between the Yin and Yang.  However, in practice ‘masculine’ refers to men and ‘feminine’ to women.  Thus, some feminists identify the male psyche as the prime cause of the subordination of women around the world.  Men are seen as having nearly a genetic coding that leads them to ‘seize’ power, to institutionalize that power through patriarchal societal structures and to buttress the power with masculine values and culture.

However, when women take positions of political power, they have tended to rule according to the same ‘masculine’ values used by their male predecessors, as we saw with Golda Meir in Israel, Indira Gandhi in India and Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom. Thus people have asked what effects the increased entry of women into the political arena would have on public policies and priorities.  Would women assure greater equality of opportunity for all people, including their own gender, a greater emphasis in international affairs on cooperation? It may be that confronted with urgent security threats and economic instability, any prime-minister – of either gender- would govern within a ‘masculine’ framework rather than with ‘feminine’ tools of intuition, compassion, consensus-building and peacemaking.

Can the world be made safe for the ‘subversive’ feminine values?  The Italian sociologist Eleonora Masini, with whom I worked in 1977 in Hiroshima on the life histories of those who survived the atomic bombing, has  an optimistic view of the  capacity of women to be agents of change toward a more just and humane world.  “Women are capable of sensing the seeds of change which need not only rational capacities but intuitive capacities.  This intuition has not been developed by centuries of searching for better productivity, more profit, hence more consumption, which is what men do. Women instead have capacities that are of help in capturing seeds of change that are still alive such as:

a)      Capacity to grasp the wholeness of a situation other than the details, such as the feeling ill or well of a family:
b)      Capacity to act rapidly after rapidly grasping whole situations, such as stopping a child from falling out of a window;
c)      Capacity to change from one interest to others almost at the same time, ironing, reading, watching the child at play;
d)      Capacity to sacrifice herself for the good of others.  This capacity has very often been ill used.

All such capacities make a better audience for the seeds of change and better creators of vision. In the long term, the future is one of more solidarity among people, rather than hunger; one of love and understanding rather than one where the atomic bomb is present; one of peaceful living in big towns, rather than one of violence which the children experience every day.”

A test for women as agents of change toward a more just and humane world is presenting itself in the Arab-Islamic world.  The People’s Revolution which began in Tunisia followed by Egypt has now spread throughout North Africa, the Middle East and Iran.  The waves of the People’s Revolution are having an impact throughout the world.  It is being watched with hope by many and with fear by those who have interests in the status quo.

On this International Day of Women, we must ask a crucial question: How does political conflict degenerate into mass violence, generating new crises and new forms of violent conflict in the future?  How does a community pull itself out from a cycle of violence and set up sustainable ways of living in which different categories of people may be encouraged to contribute to the process?

Women, individually and in groups, have played a critical role in the struggle for justice and peace in all societies.  However, when real negotiations on the future of a society begin, women are often relegated to the sidelines. Therefore, there is a need to organize so that women are at the negotiating table to present their ingenuity, patience and determination. Solidarity and organization are crucial elements. March 8, 2011 is a reminder of the steps taken over a 100 years and the distance yet to be covered.

René Wadlow is Senior Vice President and Chief Representative to  the United Nations Office in Geneva of the Association of World  Citizens.

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