International Women’s Day

Today is the celebration of the 100th International Women’s Day.   While it’s meant to be an event that celebrates the diversity of women’s accomplishments, often times the focus of such celebrations is overly young, white, straight and normatively gendered.  To counter this trend, I thought I would highlight three women leaders who don’t fit this model.

Estela Maris Álvarez is a member of the Enxet people, an indigenous group in Paraguay´s Chaco region, an area of semi-arid grasslands and thorny forests. She lives in La Herencia, a community in the western part of the country, located 340 km from Asunción.

Álvarez, who is 40 and raising two kids on her own, practices natural medicine as a nursing assistant and treats people in her community. From her traditional position as mother and healer, Álvarez has become a more non-traditional leader, taking on sexism and discrimination within her community and from outside it, such as in the governmental National Institute of Indigenous Affairs (INDI) which only recognises men as leaders. “If a group of indigenous women turns to INDI to protest about a specific problem that affects us or to demand respect for our rights, they tell us that we’re not tribal chiefs, and just ignore us,” she said.  Dismissing women’s voices exists within the Enxet community as well.   According to Álvarez, the  reality in the indigenous communities is that they’re governed by tribal chiefs with authoritarian and even violent attitudes. “They think that just because they’re chiefs they have the right to decide over the life of the community,” she said.  Violence against women is a chronic problem in the patriarchal culture that prevails in indigenous communities, where it is considered acceptable.  As a community leader, her position is clear. “The rights of indigenous women must be defended even over the interests of the communities,” because, moreover, it’s not true that you have to choose one or the other, she said.

“I am becoming more radical with age.  I have noticed that writers, when they are old, become milder. But for me it is the opposite. Age makes me more angry.”   This is the observation of Nawal El Saadawi, Egyptian advocate for women’s rights.

El Saadawi trained as a doctor, then worked as a psychiatrist and university lecturer, and has published almost 50 novels, plays and collections of short stories. Her work, which tackles the problems women face in Egypt and across the world, provokes outrage in many ways because she takes on religion, but she doesn’t back down.   She continues to address controversial issues such as female circumcision, domestic violence and religious fundamentalism in her writing and speaking.  Here is a short video clip of her talking about some of these issues (warning: strong content, annoying ad at the beginning).

Sojourner Truth famously asked, “Ain’t I a Woman?” in her speech at the 1851 Women’s Convention.  Her speech was meant to challenge the race and class privilege of the white women who organized that convention and did not imagine Sojourner’s struggles in their conceptualization of “women’s rights.”   More than a 100 years later, women who are outside of privilege have continued to challenge what is meant by “women’s rights,” and who gets included and excluded from the category “woman.”   Someone who is widely regarded as a pioneer in this struggle is Sylvia Rivera.

Rivera, a veteran of the Stonewall Uprising in 1969, continued throughout her life to fight for the rights of the disenfranchised, particularly homeless LGBT kids and trans people everywhere, as she pointed out the often privileged myopia of the white, middle-class LGBT movement.  Part of Sylvia Rivera’s legacy is a more inclusive definition of who is considered a woman and understanding that fighing for “women’s rights” includes transgendered women’s rights.