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International Women’s Day is for all women

Black women are too often objectified, demonised and face threats to our lives just for speaking out. Our voices must be lifted, says ZITA HOLBOURNE

PRESS for progress is the theme for this year’s International Women’s Day, focused on equal pay and standing up to gender violence and harassment. 

To achieve gender parity at the current rate of progress we would have to wait 200 years. 

We deserve equality in our lifetime, but to achieve it we need men as well as women to stand up for gender equality.

It’s encouraging to see women-led campaigns such as #timeup and #metoo but it is essential that women’s movements and feminist spaces are inclusive of all women.

Women who are black, migrant, lesbian, bisexual, trans, disabled, younger and older face not just gender discrimination and disadvantage but double or multiple discrimination and as such there is an even more adverse impact on them when it comes to achieving equal pay, accessing jobs and services and just having a seat at the table. 

In addition to this, intersectional women face a disproportionate impact of austerity and as campaigners are more likely to face harassment, abuse, trolling, death threats and misogyny.

As if all of that was not hard enough to contend with, we are often excluded from women’s structures and movements or, if we are included, it is a tokenistic approach to tick the box. 

Then, when we create our own safe spaces and practise self-care, we are accused of being separatist or oversensitive. 

If we are to achieve progress for gender equality, we must build a movement that is fully inclusive of all women’s experiences and voices and not pay lip service to equality nor have a hierarchy of equality rights.  

There should be no expectation of us to be twice as good as our white counterparts in order to participate.   

We do not need to be talked about, as we are perfectly capable of speaking for ourselves.  

Solidarity for the real struggles that black women and other intersectional women face has to be real and meaningful. 

Symbolic solidarity is good, but we also need practical solidarity with a physical presence. 

Black women, illustrated very clearly by the experience of Diane Abbott MP, are repeatedly targeted for abuse online and physically in an attempt to silence us.  

We are objectified, demonised and face threats to our lives just for speaking out, whether we are standing up for the rights of women or black people or for the human rights of all of us. 

If the global women’s movement is to be truly progressive, inclusive and achieve gender parity, it has to be a movement that is led by all women for the benefit of all women.   

We have to acknowledge our intersectionality and recognise that some women have more privilege than others and some women are more disadvantaged and marginalised than others. 

We have a real chance to build on the momentum of current women’s movements and in marking the 100-year anniversary of some women gaining the vote, but, unless we stand with all our sisters and lift all our voices, progress will be slow.  

This must come hand in hand with challenging the patriarchal society we live in and it means that men must be accountable for their actions and examine their own behaviours. 

I am part of an all-black women’s choir called Nawi Collective. We sing for freedom, for equality, for justice. We are named after Nawi, who was the last survivor of the all-women Amazon army in the kingdom of Dahomey which is believed to be the inspiration for the Dora Milaje warriors of Marvel’s Black Panther.

Our collective is made up of inspirational and strong, predominantly young, black women and, before and after our performance exactly one week before International Women’s Day at London’s Jazz Cafe in the green room, we debated the meaning of feminism and who feminism is for.  

All the women I spoke with felt that current feminist movements were not about them and the struggles they face because of race, ethnicity, gender, age, class etc and were not inclusive of them.  

Our collective, while focused around singing and performing, is equally important as a safe space to come together, recharge our batteries, exhale and feel invigorated for the struggles of #everydayracism and #everydaysexism we must navigate to get through each waking day. 

It was founded by an amazing young black woman, Amina Gichinga, who is our choir leader, a musician, vocalist, campaigner and activist. 

Such spaces are essential for women who face multiple discrimination in the same way spaces for other intersectional women exist, for example, the fantastic Sisters of Frida providing a space for disabled women. 

Many other women globally create safe and empowering spaces for women, sometimes at great risk to their own safety, such as the rural women’s groups of Swaziland, with 350 women coming together to form a Progressive Women’s Charter that was launched on International Women’s Day in 2016 and includes declarations relating to patriarchal culture, religion, gender, land, food sovereignty, marriages, governance, education, health, disabilities and media. 

In Swaziland one in three girls experience sexual violence, 31 per cent of women are HIV positive, marital rape is legal and out of 65 delegates to the House of Assembly only four are women.   

Every other month, for the past three-and-a-half years, my organisation Black Activists Rising Against Cuts UK has been co-ordinating solidarity and humanitarian aid distributions and convoys to our sisters and brothers who are refugees in northern France. 

While the majority of those who are currently there are men or boys, there are a number of women, many with young children, who have faced horrific experiences, forcing them to flee for their lives on long and perilous  journeys to face inhumane conditions living outside in Calais and other parts of France and Europe, where they are often harassed by police who take and destroy tents and blankets. 

Where are the voices of these women in the discourse about gender equality?  They are not included and are scapegoated as less than human, coming to steal jobs and housing by politicians and the media. 

Those celebrities using their voices to say #metoo #timesup and #pressforprogress have the privilege and opportunity to use their global positions to bring about real change in the way people think of feminism and women’s movements. So my message to them for IWD is to not just lift your own voice but to use your power to empower all women to use their voices — if you have a platform, share it with a sister. 

Sometimes in order to make progress we have to challenge not just those outside but challenge our own perceptions about what progress looks like. 

Zita Holbourne is the national vice-president of PCS, a member of the national executive of Artists Union England, elected to the TUC race relations committee, co-founder and national chair of Barac UK, an artist, curator, poet, author, writer and vocalist. She is elected to the Action for Southern Africa (Actsa) NEC and you can read more about the charter and our solidarity work with Swazi women via www.actsa.org.

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