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July 16, 2018 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

It Could Be Better

It could be worse, right? Women in NZ can vote, we’re not married off at 12, and genital mutilation isn’t a rite of passage. So what the hell are feminists in NZ complaining about? Tara Ó Súilleabháin investigates.

My journey advocating for women’s rights started only a couple of years ago while volunteering for JERA International, a human rights organisation in Melbourne. I spent three months with a team of about 10 as the events coordinator for an Australian Awards fellowship, providing training to 15 female Sri Lankan fellows. I was in charge of arranging all meals, accommodation and transport, assisting other volunteers with booking meetings, as well as attending all of the training myself, so I was with the women every day and spent a lot of time talking to them about human rights in Sri Lanka.
Equality for women in Sri Lanka is a completely different ball game to equality for women in New Zealand. Sri Lankan women lack the right to land ownership independant of a husband or other male relative. It didn’t matter that some of the fellows had doctorate degrees, were lecturing at universities, setting up NGOs, and running for office. They could not own land, simply because they were women. We also offered fellowships to Egypt, where according to the USAID survey 2015, 75% of married men thought that women should undergo female genital mutilation.

Nepal was another country that we worked with, where 1 in 10 girls are married before they are 15, and though this is illegal, police action is rare. In comparison, the women of New Zealand are lucky. Here we live in a country where we can own land, where child marriage is punished, and where female genital mutilation is illegal. We’ve got it pretty good here in New Zealand really, I mean that’s case in point right there that “it could be worse”.
I’ll admit it wasn’t, and still sometimes isn’t, an easy transition from working with women who lack what Kiwis would consider such basic rights, to begin questioning gendered language, the period tax, and the wage gap in New Zealand. One of the first things I did when I joined the feminist organization was ask my co-president Hannah to recommend some books that would help me understand the types of women’s rights issues that we face in western countries like New Zealand. Those books, along with taking HIST112 – Islands and Peoples: Aotearoa New Zealand in World History (which I highly recommend), taught me that women’s rights advocacy has never been well received. I’m sure almost all Kiwis today would agree that women should have the right to vote, but while we celebrate the suffragettes in 2018, they were not popular in the 1890s, and for any women reading this you may be surprised to know that it wasn’t just men who struggled with the idea of women getting the vote. The only reason we shake our heads at women not being allowed to vote in Saudi Arabia until 2015, is because we’ve been doing it since 1893. The suffragettes could have sat back and said “it could be worse”, but instead they stepped forward and said “it could be better”.
Kiwis on the whole are sympathetic to women’s land rights in Sri Lanka, but the reaction I receive when I bring up the period tax in NZ is far less supportive.
What if NZ society’s response to the period tax isn’t actually all that different to Sri Lanka’s response to the idea of women owning property? What if the difference isn’t in the issues, but in what our society perceives to be important, equal, and right? Do we believe that it’s fair for feminine hygiene products to be taxed as a luxury item? Think about this issue on its own, don’t compare it to anything else. Imagine that 50% of the population requires a product to absorb blood that freely flows from them for 5 days once amonth. Why would that product be taxed as a luxury item? Does that really make sense to us?

Here’s a radical idea. Maybe most of us don’t question the period tax because we’ve been socially conditioned to think that it’s normal. From the moment we’re born, we are being socially conditioned by everything around us, from our families and upbringing, to the media and the government. Once we are able to recognise the personal experiences that make up our own social conditioning, we can begin to question and critically analyse our opinions, morals, and values. Don’t be put off by the idea that you might be wrong, no one is exempt from social conditioning. Focus on the self-awareness and knowledge that you’ll gain.
We got here by asking “why can’t women own property” and “why can’t women vote” over a hundred years ago. I hope that when you shake your head at women’s land rights in Sri Lanka that you start to recognise that women’s rights activists in both countries are fighting the same sorts of battles.

Get angry for Sri Lankan women, know that they are suffering a huge injustice. Acknowledge that it could be worse in New Zealand, but understand that it’s always important to fight for what could be better.


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