On the occasion of International Women’s Day Dr. Widad Akreyi, a global women empowerment icon and co-founder of Defend International, says “We should be brave enough to voice unpopular truths as well. We must always denounce violence, no matter the gender of the perpetrator… To attain equality, it is imperative to take into account that every person is entitled to a life free of violence and abuse… Justice and equality are human rights… To bring about the change we desire, we must safeguard our rights in our respective communities, where people from all genders, backgrounds, ethnicities, lifestyles and belief systems can come together to form global champions for gender equality.”
On this occasion, Dr. Widad has agreed that we publish her contribution to a dissertation on women’s clothing history and feminism. The dissertation was titled “Restriction and Release before, during and after World War One” by Ms. Claudia Knecht (CK). Below are the questions of Ms. Knecht and the answers of Dr. Widad:
Q: Would you call yourself a feminist?
A: I don’t call myself a feminist but rather a humanitarian and a human rights defender who believes in gender equality. My mission is to save lives and alleviate suffering via, among other things, advocating against armed gender-based violence, promoting peace and equal rights and opportunities for all, and mitigating the impacts of man-made conflicts and natural crises on humans and the environment.
Probably the main reason I don’t consider myself a feminist is the fact that I would like to distance myself from the traditional definition of gender as either male or female in my attempt to embrace a more multidimensional definition that encompasses new socio-cultural constructs (e.g., intersex/third gender) and gender identities (e.g., transgender), irrespective of an individual’s birth-assigned sex.
In the end, it is not whether or not we call ourselves feminists that matters. What matters is the human aspects of our activities. Emphasis should be placed on how much work we have done to facilitate dialogue on gender inequalities within political, social and economic structures regarding the implementation of strategies designed to institutionalise gender issues at all levels, contributing to the achievement of the third Millennium goal.
Q: What is the most significant milestone in women’s history in your opinion?
A: While the right to vote is an important fundamental right that enables us to influence government decision-making to ensure that the needs of our communities are addressed by policymakers, I consider education for girls the most significant milestone in women’s history. Nothing empowers females more than an education. Not only it influences the different phases of child development, but their behaviors, learning and health, as well as their accomplishments and resilience in later life. It improves their reasoning skills and decision-making ability for the benefit of their families, immediate community and society. Thus, it is paramount for successful growth.
Q: Do you see any parallels between the first and the second movement of women’s right and liberation?
A: Yes, there are parallels between the first and second movement of women’s right and liberation. During both movements women were expressing their desire to be liberated from rigid gender roles. The two World Wars advanced women in the workplace. Women were in search for a higher level of flexibility, autonomy and freedom.
Women’s specific demands in the early 1900s and 1960-1980 varied, though. Focusing on legal barriers to women’s empowerment, the key objective of the Suffrage Movement was to effectively respond to unfair practices, such as chattel marriages, gender-based wage discrimination, education deprivation, and discrimination in property ownership. Yet, women like Emmeline Pankhurst, Lucretia Mott, Lucy Stone, Elizabeth Stanton, Frances Willard and Susan Anthonyplaced a strategic importance on securing the right to vote for women as a first step towards gaining political power. What’s more, suffragettes like Margaret Sanger and Voltairine de Cleyre advocated for women’s sexual, reproductive, and economic rights.
In comparison, the second movement tackled social, cultural and political inequalities summed up in the slogan “The Personal is Political.” This movement followed World War II, which had strengthened women’s position in the workplace and society. Nonetheless, after the war, barriers were reestablished, and enforced domesticity reemerged.
Both movements did, however, strive for the betterment and equality of women and girls.
Q: Do you see any parallels between the first and the second movement of women’s right and liberation regarding the clothing?
A: There are also parallels between the first and second movements of women’s right with regards to clothing. In my opinion, common for both movements is that personal freedom was linked to what women wore in public as a way to tackle the sexualisation of the female body. As such, the fight for gender equality, which manifested in rejecting the use of corsets and bras, went hand in hand with political and socio-cultural developments.
During the first movement women had, for a period, given up their corsets, partly due to metal shortage during World War I, but also because corsets were perceived as symbols of repression. In addition, tight corsets could be a health hazard because they misplaced the ribs and constricted or squeezed the internal organs to create a tiny waist.
Prior to the second movement, women’s clothing had become simplistic, more functional and gender neutral because of World War II. After the war, though, female participation in the work-place decreased and women were pushed back to their traditional roles in society as wives and mothers, dressed in traditional clothes. As a result, during the second movement, women revolted against this repression by defying oppressive gender norms with the outfits they wore.
Q: Do you know women who used clothing as a way to fight for and demonstrate their newly gained rights?
Q: How did they do that?
A: Two examples come to mind. One is the Icelandic MP Bjort Olafsdottir, who serves now as the Minister for the Environment and Natural Resources. She protested the existing censorship on women’s bodies in 2015 when she posted a topless photo of herself and joined the Free The Nipple campaign, which is a movement created in solidarity with women being arrested or harassed for being topless in public.
Another example is the annual event Go Topless Day (established in 2007 in USA), during which women demonstrate for the right to be bare-chested in public places.
Q: Do you think clothing mattered for the whole feminism movement? If so, how?
A: Yes. There is no denying that the history of feminism has been intertwined with the history of lingerie and women clothing. Some may go as far as saying that the lingerie industry has been fighting for women’s rights. It is true the brassiere that substituted the corset enabled women to work outside the home, think outside the box of gender, allowing them to move more freely and comfortably. Still, what is often forgotten is that changing lifestyles and a multitude of political, social, cultural and religious factors played a big role in the type of clothing women wore. Moreover, bras were among the items the protestors in the 1960s called “instruments of female torture.”
The symbolic burning of bras in Atlantic City and Berkeley is associated with feminism and portrayed as a powerful rejection of male supremacy, even though bras were invented by women, not men. The first modern bra was patented by Caresse Crosby in 1914. Modern-day campaigns like “Free the Nipple” and “Go Topless” are branded as rudimentary approaches to achieving gender equality. And yet, nowadays we do see that activists face, sometimes, backlash for posting topless photos or wearing little clothing. Some critics say these photos undermine their feminist views.
Q: Why was it for women important to appear in a new way? (1960-1980)
A: In the 1960-1980, women were not only defending their mothers and grandmothers by fighting against the stigma attached to repressed housewives, but also themselves and the future generations of women. They were disempowered, both physically and socially. Getting a new look became part of liberating their bodies.
Personally, I believe that bra burning, for instance, should not be celebrated as the key concept of the second movement, but rather a form of personal liberation and transformation in the sense that the liberated self of a feminist was aware of the society’s repression of her body. Armed with courage, feminists sparked off events to express their dissatisfaction and feelings of injustice. These events helped women address traditional gender norms, leading them into a life of self-development and freedom. Our societies did change because, finally, reasonable people viewed equality as a basic human right – one that captures a society’s degree of liberty.
Q: Have you ever used your clothing to fight for or demonstrate something?
A: Yes. In 2008, while campaigning for a legally-binding Arms Trade Treaty, we put women’s clothing from around the world on display inside the United Nations’ building in New York to advocate for the inclusion of armed gender-based violence in the discussions that took place to examine the feasibility, scope and draft parameters of the Arms Trade Treaty.
Photos are posted here http://defendinternational.org/ny-gallery-of-2008-bms-on-small-arms/
Q: Do you think that women can and should politically and socially evolve further?
A: Looking at the road still left to walk, the fight against various forms of injustice, domination and structural relations of oppression must continue.
Gender equality is crucial to accelerate the facilitation of serious change in our societies. For example, in developed countries, we need the inclusion and empowerment of women in sectors that are traditionally male-dominated like security and defence forces. In developing countries, where fixed gender roles are applicable, women are required to follow laws (e.g., property ownership, inheritance, marriage) that undermine their rights and well-being. Most noticeably, women are not able to make decisions about their own body. In Saudi Arabia, women can neither vote nor drive a car. Globally, many marginalized and inconvenienced populations are still denied their fundamental human rights. Certain reprehensible practices, such as the use of rape as a weapon of war, slavery, human trafficking, forced labour, child labour, child marriage and FGM, are still prevalent. As long as this is the case, it is necessary to reaffirm our commitment to the dignity of every human being.
Importantly, we should be brave enough to voice unpopular truths as well. We must always denounce violence, no matter the gender of the perpetrator. For example, some women in the MENA region use violence against their children and in some cases against elderly men, relatives, housekeepers or babysitters. In Western countries, there are reports of men being victims of domestic violence. To attain equality, it is imperative to take into account that every person is entitled to a life free of violence and abuse.
In conclusion, justice and equality are human rights. To be more productive, we must actively pursue ways to influence political, economic and social systems. To bring about the change we desire, we must safeguard our rights in our respective communities, where people from all genders, backgrounds, ethnicities, lifestyles and belief systems can come together to form global champions for gender equality.
Note: Dr. Widad was interviewed in May 2017.