by Victoria Jelinek
Before God we are all equally wise – and equally foolish. Albert Einstein
International Women’s Day is March 8th and it has me thinking about what it means to be a woman in the context of motherhood today. It may be a taboo to write, but I find that the most difficult aspect of motherhood is the fact that I must be less selfish. I think it’s hard enough to be an ambitious woman in this world, much less one who is also a mother.
Having my son has been, by far, the greatest accomplishment of my life. This in the context of surviving divorce, illness, several moves, and a few career incarnations. In the long run, too, it is likely the most interesting thing I’ve ever done.
This is in the context of living in a variety of places, working in the film industry and as a writer, traveling everywhere, and being married more than once. But in the daily scheme of things, it’s hard work to be a woman and a mother. I won’t be able to sleep in again until he’s in his teens. I can’t just move to a more desirable locale if the whim or an opportunity arises, as I must defer to my husband and his wishes. I must work towards compromise and contentment in my marriage to the father of my child, even when circumstances are taxing.
Living in a provincial small town, I must often sit with the women in the kitchen as we discuss our children and our marital relationships, when I would prefer rhetorical conversations on politics, culture, books, and film. And, when I do have the opportunity for these types of conversations, they are fractured because I must attend to my small child. It’s a lot of personal sacrifice and a lot of work, which has prompted me to go outside of myself and consider what we as women have accomplished over the last century.
Issues typically associated with notions of women’s rights cover, but are not limited to, several points: the right to bodily integrity and autonomy. Yet these rights do not exist for many women in the Middle East or Africa, as evidenced in mutilation exercises, rape, and the covering of the body. The right to vote. This is relatively new - it only became possible for women in the U.S. in 1920 and in the UK in 1928, and it has just became possible for Saudi women in 2011.
The right to hold public office. Yet women are not evenly represented in public offices throughout the world. The right to fair wages and equal pay. Yet women, on average, earn 44% less than a male counterpart in the same position. The right to own property. Yet in China, male family members are the proprietors of property, and in France, a man’s property goes to his son, first, and if there isn’t a son, the father, and if there isn’t a father, a brother, before it goes to his wife.
The right to be educated. Yes, indeed, girls can go to school, but see the aforementioned regarding equal opportunities and wages. Parental and marital rights. In France in a divorce, the children are not automatically put in the guardianship of their mother (not by a long shot) and there is no such thing as an equal division of property (the French republic’s motto is, after all, “Liberte, Eqalite, et Fraternite” even if the French republic’s motto is embodied by the image of a woman, Marianne of France). When there are disparate rights between men and women, institutionalized or supported by law, local custom, or behavior, the argument runs along the lines that women’s rights are different from the broader aspirations of human rights because of inherent historical and traditional bias against females.
In essence, a man’s rights trump a woman’s rights because it’s just that way historically and culturally.
I stumbled on an article written in The Washington Post in October entitled “7 Ridiculous Restrictions on Women’s Rights Around the World.” Apparently, road safety laws do not apply to women in India (such as helmets on a motorbike). In Yemen, women are considered half a person when giving testimony (but hey, they can give testimony). Also in Yemen, women can’t leave the house without permission from their husband (rushing to the aid of ill parents is exempted). In Ecuador, abortion is illegal unless you’re “demented” or an “idiot” (there’s another article on political correctness here). In Saudi Arabia and Morocco, rape victims can be charged with crimes (such as leaving the house without a man in the first place). Also in Saudi Arabia, women can’t drive (but they’re not even the worst – they’re #10 ahead of Mali, Morocco, Iran, Cote d’Ivoire, Mauritania, Syria, Chad, Pakistan and Yemen).
What’s also worrying to me is that many younger women (I can’t believe that I can say this!) feel that the battle for equal rights between men and women has been won. Sure, there are more women in the boardroom and in the political arena, as well as greater equality in legislative rights, and there are visible female role models in all aspects of life…but, as mentioned, they are not paid the same as their male counterparts, nor represented in equal numbers in politics or business.
But this prompts me to hope, and, as I explain my hope, I reveal my cynicism: my hope is that money will eventually motivate the change necessary to truly make women equal. The World Economic Forum recently wrote that there’s a “strong correlation between a country’s gender gap and its national competitiveness.” Ergo, a nation’s competitive edge in the long term depends on whether it utilizes its women, who comprise one-half of a given country’s “potential talent base.”
When I consider the global situation, I know I should be grateful, not least because I have the luxury to consider these questions. I’m also married to a Danish man, and all the Scandinavian and Northern European countries are in the top rankings for gender equality (alongside the Philippines and Nicaragua – who would have thought?).
I can vote (but for whom?). I can leave the house of my own volition without fear of arrest. I can drive. I can work and have a family, even if it’s stressful sometimes. And while it sometimes doesn’t seem like it, I do have choices.
read more birth diaries here