The advancement of social media and technology have made worldwide online campaigns against sexual harassment, (i.e. the #MeToo movement), go viral, expose perpetrators and in some cases, secure convictions- proving that obstacles and problems faced by women are similar on a universal scale. One could, in fact, argue that if there has ever been a good time for feminism to go big and go global, this is it.
Nonetheless, through the years, feminism has unmistakably become a dirty word, all the more so among women themselves. Even when concerns about gender issues are raised, this is often quickly qualified by the “But I am not a feminist” punchline. There is even an underlying presumption that feminism is a non-necessary evil, propagated by extremist, annoyingly angry, man-hating activists, who just need to shake a chip or two off their shoulder, before getting a grip on life. Especially in traditional hierarchical, patriarchal societies such as Cyprus, the debate can sometimes turn nasty, poising women against women and letting men off the hook.
Disappointingly, among the unconverted, we often find those (few) Cypriot women who hold key, decision-making positions and who could have probably made a difference in gender equality and women’s rights, had they chosen to do so. In many cases however, these women consider their own, usually unique, presence in a male-dominated business or political environment, as some kind of individual medal of honour, to be cherished and preserved as is. And, thus, they make little or no effort to provide room for other women striving to reach the top. If we made it on our own, so can others and so they should- or at least so their argument goes…
Yet, their sense of entitlement rests on the struggles and successes of feminists before them. These very same women, who nowadays choose to ignore or even despise feminism, only possess the right to vote and be voted for, because a century ago some angry suffragettes took to the streets and demanded political equality on their behalf. They now enjoy equal employment rights, maternity leave and access to the labour market, exactly because this was what the second wave of feminists had fought about. They can now take legal action against sexual gender-based violence, they can have sexual reproductive rights and demand equal access to social benefits and subsidies for single parent families, only because the feminist movement has already claimed them, on their behalf.
In a recent study, conducted in Cyprus by SeeD-Centre for Sustainable Peace and Democratic Development, around one third of highly educated, high-income Cypriot women admitted that although they are theoretically in favour of gender equality, it has never occurred to them that there is something that can be done about it nor have they themselves done anything much towards that direction. Women being in denial of the need for feminist action (simply put, action towards the achievement of equal rights for women in all walks of life) becomes even more of an oxymoron, as harsh reality comes calling.
According to the Gender Gap Index of the World Economic Forum, Cyprus worryingly keeps slipping through the ranks, with latest numbers showing a diverging gender gap. Unless remedial action is taken immediately, we do risk handing over to the next generations an even less equitable society than the one we live in today.
This is certainly a serious drawback, as female engagement and active participation in public life could have perhaps been the most important driver to change. This is so, as the conspicuous absence of women from positions of power contributes to the reinforcement of the existing, self-perpetuating vicious cycle of male predominance and traditional gender stereotypes, which keep men on top and women in the sidelines. Men are, in any case, rarely interested in pushing forward the agenda for gender equality- simply put, they do not see it as a problem or, at least, not as their problem. Therefore, unless we have women in decision-making positions –provided, of course, such women are determined to put in the fight- it is extremely unlikely that gender mainstreaming and gender equity policies of any kind are ever introduced in Cyprus, let alone implemented. Change does not come on its own.
American women realized this early on, after the initial shock of having a conspicuous misogynist, such as Donald Trump, elected president of the United States. By now, it had become obvious to them that marches and demonstrations were not enough, in order for their hard-won rights, previously taken for granted, to be secured against this newly-arrived obnoxiousness. One actually needs to be sitting at the table where decisions are being made to have a greater impact. The so-called “Trump effect” mobilized an unprecedented number of thousands of female candidates to run in the 2018 mid-term elections, compared with the few hundred who had previously dared to do so. Women from all walks of life joined forces and pushed through, in defense of their own. Subsequently, a number of ‘firsts’ was achieved, women winning a record number of seats. Exit entitlement, enter fight.
Anna Koukkides-Procopiou is President of AIPFE and a Senior Fellow at the Cyprus Center for European and International Affairs. She regularly writes and contributes articles on foreign policy, inclusive security and gender.