“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences”— Audre Lorde
I woke up on January 20, 2017 with a feeling of dread in my stomach. I knew all too well that at 4:00pm GMT a new president would be taking an oath of office in the United States. Being both an American and an international student at Birkbeck, I spent the previous year worrying about first, Brexit – Would I get my scholarship? Would my fees change? Would I feel welcome in the UK? -and second, the toxic rhetoric surrounding Donald Trump’s campaign – Would I have equal rights as a woman? Would my black, LGBTQ and immigrant friends be safe?
If I felt helpless on January 20th, then I felt empowered on January 21st. With plans to attend the Women’s March on London at noon, I awoke early. I chose wool socks, pulled jeans over long johns, grabbed a hat, and picked out my warmest scarf (cashmere – a gift from Bolivia). Deciding to make feminism the theme of the day, I walked over to The Photographer’s Gallery, where an exhibition entitled Feminist Avant-Garde of the 1970’s was on in full force. I was greeted with free entry (every day before noon – great for students!) and five floors to explore.
Two floors showcased pieces of art that I am not qualified to critique, but their striking international scope highlighted diverse ways of approaching the issue. For those of us feeling small in the face of patriarchy and wondering what we can possibly do to fight this, the fifth floor was key. A few larger-than-life light box photos and a film, Joanne by Simon Fujiwara, were compelling in the way they opposed the typical portrayal of a woman as one-dimensional. The project depicted Joanne from the perspective of who she is, rather than what she looks like. In her words, “I feel like I’m cheating if I say: I am a model, I am a teacher, I am a lover, I am an artist, I am a chameleon, I am a fighter . . . I am a person . . . I am a female.”
Inspired by the active role Joanne played in re-branding herself as a complex human being and feeling a bit more hopeful, I headed towards Grosvenor Square. As I neared the meeting point I saw my first pussyhat. I followed the pink ears towards the rapidly-growing crowd and was met by a variety of signs.
There were some standards being handed out: “Reject Hate, Reclaim Politics,” “No to Racism, No to Trump,” some poignant quotes: “But still, like air, I’ll rise,” by Maya Angelou, “When they go low, we go high,” by Michelle Obama, and “Women’s rights are human rights,” from Hillary Rodham Clinton,
The true creativity of some participants was shown in more heartfelt hand-written signs, such as “Respect existence or expect resistance,” “Viva la vulva,” and “Women of the world UNITE!”. For 5 or more hours I felt the hope creep slowly back into my worldview as we gathered together, wound our way along Piccadilly, then convened in impressive numbers at Trafalgar Square (nearly 100,000 people in London alone).
Excitedly, I watched online as other groups gathered across the Western Hemisphere. The high was muted however, as a polarised stance was emerging on social media. Among the disparaging comments, a friend posed the question:
“I’ve tried looking up specifically what is being protested, but it seems exceptionally vague. Womens [sic] rights and visibility, I know, but specifically?”
It wasn’t the first, nor the last question like this that I saw, and although I like to promote research into topics that are a bit out of one’s grasp, I think friends of mine were looking for a more personal response. For them, and any others wondering:
…because rhetoric in the United States (and throughout the world) has disrespected women, demonized immigrants and threatened all minorities.
…because I want to make decisions about my body.
…because everyday sexism is ignored, denied and ridiculed.
…because I did not invite the male gaze.
…because female genital mutilation is STILL happening!
…because if I wear a skirt, I’m a “slut.” If I wear a low top, I’m “asking for it.” If I wear jeans, I’m a “tomboy.” If I wear makeup, I’m “professional.” If I don’t, I’m “frumpy.”
…because the first thing little girls are told is how pretty they are.
…because people of color in the US are still treated as second class citizens.
…because aside from Native Americans, everyone is an immigrant in America.
…because, “legal rights are of limited value when they are enforced by people steeped in a culture that does not respect women. They can run for office, but can they win? They can accuse their rapist, but will the accusation stick? They can be themselves at work, but will they be promoted?” –Paul (from a forum on Our Shared Shelf, Emma Watson’s online feminist book group, and part of her work with UN women)
…because men STILL make more money than women for the SAME jobs.
…because I don’t just want your daughter to be told she can be an engineer, a scientist, a politician, an artist, an astronaut, a CEO, a designer, an academic… I want her to be ENCOURAGED to be whatever it is that makes her happy and confident and strong.
…because we live in a patriarchy, where “men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.” –Oxford Dictionary
…because a person holding the highest office in the US has been recorded saying, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything …Grab them by the p***y … You can do anything.”
…because women are valued primarily for the way they look.
…because the patriarchy is ALSO detrimental to boys and men.
…because “We can not all succeed when half of us are held back.” –Malala.
…because I believe in the importance of telling the truth.
I do not claim to speak for all attendees of the Women’s Marches on January 21st (up to 2 million worldwide), but I do hope that this glimpse into one attendee’s personal reasons for marching may draw attention to the concerns underlying the movement. Studying at Birkbeck – the 50th most international university in the world – global political policies have very real implications for students who are also immigrants, women, and minorities.
What kind of entry requirements will we have? Will our status be monitored by the government? Will women in burkas or men with beards be discriminated against? We must remain vigilant – the hospitality we receive, the respect we are afforded, and the underlying equality that is the goal of feminism could be at stake.
Wondering what’s next for women’s rights activists? This is a good place to start.
All images by the author