Women of the world
In a corner of Nigeria, where more than half of all women cannot read or write, the 200 or so schoolgirls abducted from a boarding school in the northern town of Chibok by the Islamic militant, Boko Haram, were the privileged few. Their parents thought they were doing their best for the future of their daughters. Today, their hearts are breaking. How they would much prefer that their girls had remained unschooled and stayed at home than learned and dead.
The fate of the girls is, of course, currently unknown. But what is clear, is that far from now pursuing careers as doctors or teachers, as their parents may have intended, their future will be mapped out not by their educational achievements but by men with guns whose leader gleefully boasts that he will “sell them in the market”.
It seems insensitive, perhaps, to jump from the horrific, close and present danger that these young women face to then examine the deep chasm of inequality that women in the West still endure but at the heart of both cases, there is something fundamentally the same – women are devalued the world over, which is why this issue of Holyrood is all about women.
For despite all our progress, our legislation, our quotas and all our laws, we still have to fight the fight and talk the talk. Jenny Marra MSP told Holyrood that she is currently representing women who have been accused of being “greedy” for exerting their right to equal pay and have had words like “avarice” thrown at them. When women are not even being treated the same as men on the basics – and in a Scotland where women represent more than half the population – that just isn’t on.
I am one of three daughters born in the 1960s to a mother who instinctively instilled in us that gender equality was a right. It wasn’t something she drummed into us over the dinner table or wrote academic papers on or forced us onto the streets to march; she was just a traditional, stay-at-home mum who knew, with more than a sense of que sera sera than a quarrel, that her education, her career and her life had been somewhat thwarted because of her sex. Regrets, she had a few. And she did not want the same for us.
But here we are, 50 years on, coming out of an economic downturn that has undoubtedly hit women hardest. Women have become the shock absorbers of austerity. Low pay, zero-hours contracts, part-time work and the prohibitive costs of childcare mean many can’t afford to work at all. Yet, they have paid a far higher price, proportionately, than men for the so-called welfare reforms and with more women than men working in the public sector, they are also doubly hurt by the cuts in public service spending... with more still to come.
This economy should not be an excuse to turn the clock back. We live in a Scotland where the debate about the kind of nation we want to live in is at the fore and the battle to secure the female vote is paramount. So with politicians falling over themselves to find their ‘inner woman’, now is the time to play the real ‘woman’s card’ and say that if we believe that Scotland can have parity as a country on the global stage then now is also the time to ensure that gender equality starts at home.
We are all agreed that no young woman should be shot in the head and left for dead in the back of a truck in Pakistan simply because she wanted an education or that 200-plus Nigerian schoolgirls should be rounded up like cattle and herded off to market simply because they went to school. But we also need to examine how far we have or have not travelled on the journey to equality that our mothers and grandmothers started on so very long ago. Should we not now be the beacon of hope? Should we not now be able to show the art of the possible? And if schoolgirls in Nigeria are prepared to face the daily threat of abduction, rape and murder, all because they want to fulfil their right, as women, to learn, shouldn’t we at least be able to say to them that the struggle is a price worth paying?
In other parts of the world, girls are, quite literally, dying for equality. But we are failing in the West, and in Scotland, not because we face the threat of Islamic extremists who see the education of women as an evil, but by our own inability to grasp the nettle. Increasing inequality and decreased social mobility are not some artificial construct; they happen by design and are about how we do or do not value women.
I was struck recently by an interview in Elle magazine with Kim Kingsley, the Chief Operating Officer of Politico magazine in the US. Kingsley began her career as a journalist and in 2006, she left the Washington Post Company to join a little internet start-up called Politico. By 2010 and at only 30 years old, she’d vaulted to the top of the organisation. When asked how she’s done it, she said: “Early on, the men would have impromptu meetings behind closed doors to talk about the future of [Politico]. I always looked at those rooms and wanted a seat at the table. After a while, I just started opening the door, walking in, and sitting down at the table.”
Not every woman has the balls – so to speak – to do what Kingsley did. Not every woman has a building, never mind a door to a room with a seat at the table. But if we care about the equal rights of all women then not only must we shout very loudly for the release of the Nigerian schoolgirls and support their right to learn but simply, we must shout much louder for doors everywhere to be flung open.