Visible Women

From climate change to democracy: how women became the driving force for change

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Sarah Shaffi
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Women are at the forefront of change, and it’s inspiring.

A decade ago abortion was illegal in Ireland, women weren’t allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia and climate change was barely an afterthought for the world’s governments.

But a decade is a long time, and not just in politics.

The past 18 months have seen the partial or wholesale knocking down of laws and structures that are sexist, the start of movements to change the balance of power in the world, and a surge in campaigning on global issues.

And leading the charge are women. Women like the activists who campaigned to legalise abortion in Ireland, American politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Swedish campaigner Greta Thunberg, who are working in very different ways to tackle climate change, or Manal al-Sharif, who was among the people who broke the law in the battle to get women the right to drive in Saudi Arabia.

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And it’s not just the big protests and actions that matter. Some of the most powerful are individual stands against injustice, such as Shaymaa Ismaa’eel’s viral photograph of her smiling widely while in the background a group of white men hold up signs condemning Islam. She captioned the photo: “Kindness is a mark of faith. Those who aren’t kind have no faith.”

I’ve also been struck by the bravery of women like Deeyah Khan, who engaged with white supremacists for her documentaries, and Ieshia Evans, the black woman who stood calmly in front of a row of armed police officers in Baton Rouge during Black Lives Matter protests in 2016.

These kinds of actions and changes could only have been carried out by women, but why?

The simple answer is that’s it women that have been disadvantaged for centuries, and men in power have been happy to let the status quo continue. It’s therefore been up to us to be the generals, sergeants and soldiers in our own battles.

It’s been men who for decades, centuries even, have made the laws that have discriminated against us, who have decided they have the right to police our bodies and to tell us where we can and cannot go. As women, we’ve had enough and are using our voices and our actions to force change, and we’re in a position to talk about issues of inequality because we’ve got direct experience of it.

A key tool for women has been the use of technology, which has allowed us to communicate in ways we never could before. Imagine what the Women’s March of 2017 would have looked like if the internet hadn’t allowed us to connect and share stories, cheer each other on and coordinate a day of action. Think about the attention the campaigners against the ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia would have received if they hadn’t been able to share videos of their direct action. Technology has been important, the way women have used it has been even more so.

The Women’s March in London in 2017 brought thousands together.

And as far as we’ve come, in some ways it feels like the world has become worse. Industries from film to hospitality have been rocked by allegations of sexual abuse and harassment, largely carried out by men, and America’s president has used his platform to hurl threats and abuse at women.

But, and hear me out, those bad things aren’t totally bad when you look at the after-effects. The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have brought into the open the appalling behaviour that has been kept secret for so long. Of course, those campaigns don’t mean the end of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, but in speaking up women, and men, have signalled to the world that it’s no longer ok for abuses of power to be open secrets.

And the election of Donald Trump has led to a surge in women taking to the streets to protest, in the aforementioned Women’s March and its follow-ups, which women in different countries have tailored to their own needs. And, dissatisfied with how elected officials weren’t listening to them, more women in the US are running for and becoming elected officials en masse. 

Kamala Harris is among the women running for Democratic nominee for president.

The field of candidates for the Democratic nominee for President – the person who will campaign against Trump – is crammed, and there are more women filling out the ranks than ever before, from Kamala Harris to Elizabeth Warren. These women are up against all the normal barriers presidential candidates face, plus more because of their gender – as well as criticism about their looks and their clothing choices (completely irrelevant to their ability to be president), female candidates are said to get less media coverage than men.

Yes, we still have a long way to go when it comes to women and equality: abortion is still banned in Northern Ireland, the US has never had a female president, pay inequality is rife, women in Saudi Arabia (and beyond) still face unfair restrictions, and much, much more.

But, with women leading the way, I’m confident the world will continue to change for the better.

Images: Getty

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Sarah Shaffi

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