“Even through this onslaught of horror, we must celebrate the feminist victories”: Laura Bates takes heart from 2016

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Ask A Feminist is our regular column tackling issues on sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st century context. This week, Everyday Sexism founder, Laura Bates, explains that – despite everything – 2016 did see some things worth celebrating. 

Everybody hates 2016. But women have particular reason to rage against a year of injustice, setbacks and violence.

In the past 12 months, we’ve seen a misogynistic, racist, xenophobic man voted into the White House above a vastly more qualified woman despite a string of sexual assault allegations. We’ve watched in horror as he went on to stock his top team with pro-lifers, white supremacists and men accused of spousal abuse (not to mention very few women).

We’ve seen campus rape continue seemingly unabated, with laughably light sentences for ‘promising college athletes’ whose future careers seem to be valued above women’s lives.

We’ve watched funding cuts continue to hammer domestic violence refuges and specialist services, with many fighting to survive. We’ve seen refugee women and girls facing violence and vulnerability, only to experience disbelief or detention on arrival in UK.

Reported rapes in England and Wales have doubled in 4 years, reproductive rights are under threat in the US and Muslim women have reported a wave of Islamophobic hate crimes in the wake of Trump’s victory.

Further afield than the UK and US, Yazidi women have been slaughtered and raped by ISIS, Qandeel Baloch was strangled by her own brother in a so-called ‘honour’ killing, and Saudi police have arrested a young woman who tweeted a picture of herself outdoors without her abaya and head scarf.

It is natural to feel sickened and overwhelmed. It would be easy to give up.

But even in the face of all this and more, women around the world are fighting back. Standing alongside one another, facing down terrifying odds, continuing to fight simply because there is no other option. And even during 2016 and its onslaught of horror, there have been victories to celebrate and cherish.

In March a successful protest saw David Cameron announce the abolition of the so-called tampon tax, in a victory for campaigners who had argued it was ridiculous for women to pay tax on essential sanitary products while items like helicopters and Jaffa cakes were VAT free.

In April, Malawian district chief Theresa Kachindamoto hit the headlines after breaking up over 850 child marriages and persuading 50 sub-chiefs to sign an agreement banning child marriage. She organised financial support to help families send their daughters back to school instead of marrying them or keeping them at home to do housework.

The number of female MLAs in the Northern Ireland Assembly increased by 50% following elections in May. With women still outnumbered, ongoing schemes like Politics Plus aim to close the gap through training and encouraging young women into public life.

June saw the US Supreme Court strike down Texas’s controversial HB2 abortion bill, which had been criticised by activists for imposing demanding and medically unnecessary requirements on abortion clinics in a veiled attempt to restrict access to reproductive health services.The Supreme Court ruled that the requirements were unconstitutional, in a huge victory for women’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies.

In August Great Britain’s women’s hockey team struck gold at the Rio Olympics, beating defending champions the Netherlands in a dramatic penalty shootout and creating a new group of role models for a generation of young girls. Great Britain captain Kate Richardson-Walsh and wife Helen Richardson-Walsh became the first married couple to win gold for Britain since 1920.

An incredible 100,000 women and activists led mass protests across Poland in October in response to a proposed near-total ban on abortion, including in cases of rape or incest. In the wake of the protests, Poland’s parliament voted overwhelmingly to reject the bill, with Jarosław Gowin, the minister of science and higher education, admitting that the protests: “caused us to think and taught us humility”.

On cold Autumn afternoons, women in France and Iceland staged mass walkouts to draw attention to the gender pay gap. Women in Reykjavik left work at precisely 2.38pm, cutting 30% off the working day to point out that they earn almost a third less than their male colleagues given the gender pay gap in average annual income. And at 4.34pm on Monday 7 November, French women downed tools, took to the streets and sparked spontaneous rallies, highlighting the moment from which they are effectively working for free for the rest of the year.

France’s female education minister backed the strike and at City Hall the first female mayor of Paris suspended a meeting of the city council at 4.34pm in solidarity.

In spite of Donald Trump, the number of women of colour in the Senate quadrupled after the US election, with candidates like Democrat, veteran and double-amputee Tammy Duckworth overcoming racial bias to make history. Catherine Cortez Masto became the very first Latina elected to the Senate, promising, in light of Trump’s election: “I’ll be one hell of a checks and balances on him. Tonight, we start our fight together.”

In Turkey, a bill that would have pardoned men convicted of raping underage girls if they married their victims was withdrawn hours before a final vote after thousands took to the streets across the country to protest, with women chanting: “We will not shut up. We will not obey.”

December saw a remarkable victory won by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, indigenous activists and allies, when the US Department of the Army announced it would look for alternative routes for the Dakota Access oil pipeline, originally slated for construction just half a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. It was an incredible achievement for a movement led by indigenous women, in the face of arrests and what they have described as cruel and inhumane treatment by the authorities.

Not everybody is able to fight. For some, the price of resistance is higher because of multiple oppressions and survival is at risk. But for everybody who is able to, the only possible response to the atrocities of 2016 and the threats ahead is to keep on going. To take heart from these victories, and angry fire from the downfalls; to keep shouting about prejudice as normalisation threatens to numb us; and to fight on together, one battle at a time.