In order to survive, liberal democracy needs feminism

Europe and other nations that consider themselves part of “the West” are undergoing culture wars.

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In order to survive, liberal democracy needs feminism - NewsMavens
Woman wearing pussyhat. Wikicommons

-- by Elizabeth Walsh, January 2018

The elections and controversies of 2017 brought years of increasing polarization to the surface, with debates centering around what it means to be Polish, French, British or European. But also in 2017, women broke the silence that has allowed patriarchal and right-wing ideology to thrive.

Already, those voices are translating into action, as the first week of the new year in Europe began with commitments to secure equal pay and launch more women into politics.

Iceland snagged headlines on the first day of the new year when it announced a new law mandating equal pay between men and women. It’s not just a sign of progress; it’s a shift in strategy. Instead of placing the burden on women to find out if they are earning the same salary as their male colleagues and then leaving it to women to blow the whistle, the onus is now on companies.

Companies that employ more than 25 people are now required to obtain a certificate from the Icelandic government proving that they do not discriminate. The proactive legislation ensures that company’s records are made public to prospective employers before they take on a new job -- ensuring transparency and accountability.

Women in Iceland fare better than any other country in the world in terms of equal pay, but many still bring home a smaller income than men for the same amount of work. The gap is much larger in countries like the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Spain, Poland and others. But Iceland proves that even equal pay laws -- which have been in effect in the country since the 1960s -- are not enough to secure pay equity.

Will the year continue to usher in approaches that put the pressure on society, not women, to change?

As Marjan Justaert pointed out this week, being among the least bad is no longer good enough in Belgium, either. The country ranks in the top 20 for women’s participation in Parliament -- ahead of Denmark, Serbia, Italy and Germany -- but that’s no longer going to cut it for feminist, politician, immigrant and author of two books Assita Kanko.

She’s launching a summit on February 7 to ensure women who are interested in getting into politics have the resources they need to make it. Her incubator, called Polin, was inspired by the French organization Elues Locales, a start-up dedicated to improving French politics by launching more women into elected office.

Kanko, a former journalist and activist from Burkina Faso, emigrated to Europe in her twenties and has since written about her experience as a victim of female genital mutilation. The fact that she is now creating an opportunity for women across Europe to enter into politics challenges the assault from nationalists and those on the right who argue that immigrants and women like her are a threat to European values.

Still, as Julia Sahlenderpoints out, that assault is still a common strategy and disproportionately targets women.

“There are few topics that will set off trolls or hate-spewing commentators as much as feminism and gender equality,” she writes.

And despite a year of activism from a group of female journalists in Austria, few strides have been made to keep online harassers away from women. Such attacks threaten women’s voices and the integrity of free speech and public debate. Statistics on online harassment clear demonstrate that, for attackers on the right, it is no longer just a war on cultural differences, but a war on rights.

That’s part of the reason why Sahlender, in another article this week, believes 2018 to be the year when “feminism [becomes] a defensive strategy, not a trend.” While feminists have been hard at work without pause for centuries, its newfound popularity is in part, she says, due to the rise of the right-wing and its partner patriarchal policies.

From the attack on reproductive rights to co-opting women’s rights in order to further xenophobic and anti-immigrant policies, jumping on the feminist train seems to be not only in style, but subject to reinterpretation by those who believe they can manipulate it for political gain.

More than ever, women’s rights are at the crux of the culture wars between nationalists and globalists, right and left, traditional and progressive.

That’s why 2018 must become the year of intersectional feminism. A women’s rights approach that advances the rights of some women at the expense of others is not feminist. For feminism to be emancipatory for women and to defend liberal democratic values, it must be inclusive of race, class, ability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender and religion. It must embrace the difficult conversations about these issues.

Feminism may be a defensive strategy, but if the recent developments in Iceland and Belgium offer any guidance, it’s that feminism is a valuable offensive tool as well. For feminist policies to come through, the debate needs to shift away from a competition to define culture and to one that defends human rights.

**This article was written as part of a NewsMavens collaboration with exceptional freelance women journalists in Europe. Elizabeth Walsh is an American journalist covering women's rights in Europe and the Middle East. Her work has been published by The New York Times, Middle East Eye, United Nations and others. She has a master's degree in international affairs from Sciences Po Paris and speaks English and French. See more of her work at www.elizgwalsh.com.**

women's issues, reproductive rights, gender equality, feminism

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