Participating to women’s gatherings never fail to remind me how diverse women are. Working in women’s rights, you sometimes tend to forget this basic fact, what with all the talk about sisterhood and harmony amongst women, the “common ennemy” being patriarchy.
I’m just back from such a gathering in Europe, and have to admit I was not expecting some things. Indeed, compared to my stays in Africa and the Middle East, I found a huge difference between Africa and the Middle East on the one hand and Europe on the other: while african and middle eastern women tend to question their own environement and beliefs, trying to point out what’s wrong in THEIR societies, European women (from what I’ve seen) tend to gloss over their issues in their own societies, and have a tendency to point out to other communities . HIV? A problem that only minorities from Africa have to face. “We don’t really need any HIV programmes, we’ve already done them 20 years ago” one of them said to me. The answer shot back from my mouth before I could soften them with diplomatic flowers “Oh really? Do you really think Europe does not need anti stigma and discrimination programmes for people living with HIV?”A wary stare was the only answer I got. Besides, the spectrum of discrimination, and yes, racism, is never far behind. All the calamities that happen to women only seem to happen to migrant women. The “standard” european woman’s only battle seem to be domestic violence, and even this issue is more of a migrant women thing. Now I’m not saying that middle eastern women for example are not discriminatory towards migrant women (the example of domestic worker is striking enough in the region) but women i’ve spoken to do not automatically turn to them as if the world was a bed of roses for them. They speak about both (this is particularly true about young women), emphasizing their own situation and putting into question their own prejudices and mentalities.
In any case, I also found similarities between the different regions. Indeed, as I was describing my job, which implies a fair bit of traveling, I was met with a question that I’ve now started to consider as universal: But, but, how are you going to do when you’ll be married with children? Well, I say, my husband will just have to manage now, won’t he? If I have to travel, I have to travel. More wary stares. People thinking I’ll probably be an unnatural mother. (Note: no one never ever seem to consider the possibility that I might not actually want children)
The issue of language is another thing that shocked me, what with all the talk about “helping” people and “saving” women. I know these women have all the best intentions in the world, but I’ve never been big on the “assistance” kind of vocabulary.
However, I’ve met wonderful women as well, ready to share their experiences and views with an open mind. Like this Finnish nurse who volunteered in 1976 with the Lebanese Red Cross. Like this Italian doctor who went to Gaza to treat the wounded and train the on-site medical aid volunteers on emergency care situations. Like this Swedish young woman who stayed in Palestine for several months, partaking in journeys for justice. Like this Dutch young woman who puts on her pink bathrobes and towels to demonstrate against Ahava. Like these two young women who were pregnant teenagers and who now support women and girls in the same situation.
Not only do these women and many more act for change abroad, but also lobby within their own countries to force media to change the body image they’re promoting towards young women, advocate for equality in political participation, and fight to end stigma and discrimination towards positive people.
We shouldn’t however put women who may noth think along the same lines as us on the side. On the contrary, we should open up the conversations to any kind of comments if we’re truly committed to be agents of change.
It’s just that sometimes, when you’re a daughter of migrant people, the stigma does not go down too well.