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International Women's Day 2019: Fearless Girls

08 Mar 2019
By Dr Maria Tanyag
Environmental campaigner Greta Thunberg at the WEF in Davos. Source: World Economic Forum, Flickr

The theme for International Women’s Day 2019 in Australia is “more powerful together.” This is about how achieving a better world with equal rights and sustainable development requires everyone to work collaboratively. It involves recognising and supporting women’s diverse expertise and capacity for leadership across all areas of decision-making.

International Women’s Day 2019 is an opportunity to highlight the young women who have been at the frontlines of activism on the defining global political issues of our time.

Greta Thunberg (16 years old)

Greta Thunberg from Sweden has started a revolution on climate justice. What began as her individual act of skipping school to protest climate change denial and inaction in August 2018, has now inspired a youth-led global movement called #FridaysForFuture and #SchoolsStrike4Climate. These “school strikes” have spread rapidly with students mobilising in different countries, including Australia. Greta is adamant in her belief one is never too small to make a difference. Speaking before world leaders at the UN Climate Change Conference in Poland, she said leaders are “not mature enough to tell it like it is” and that climate change is about global inequality where “the sufferings of the many” pay for “the luxuries of the few.” At the beginning of the year in Davos, Greta incisively spoke truth to power by telling leaders at the World Economic Forum, “our house is on fire” and you must act with panic because we are in a crisis.

Emma Gonzales (19 years old)

In the US, young women are also becoming the face of important social movements. Emma Gonzales became a public figure through her speeches before youth-led protests against gun violence. She has called “BS” on Trump and American politicians who ignore demands for gun-control and allow the normalisation of gun violence through inaction. Along with the rest of the “Parkland Teens” who survived mass shooting in their schools, student activists recognise “social media is [their] weapon” and have been leveraging it to continue to mobilise and protest gun violence.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (29 years old)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, known as AOC, became the youngest woman elected to Congress in January 2019. AOC has had sustained media coverage of her grassroots campaigning and subsequent electoral victory. She has been effective in drawing on her personal experiences as a “girl from the Bronx” to speak, connect and articulate clearly what she sees as systemic problems in US politics. Positioning herself as a democratic socialist, AOC champions progressive policies on healthcare, education, poverty and climate change. She connects these issues through an integrated approach represented by the Green New Deal. AOC proposes bold economic reforms promoting clean and renewable energy and the promotion of the rights and well-being of marginalised groups.

These young women share a radical vision for change. First, Greta, Emma and AOC, all oppose established political authority, arguing authority has been reproduced by playing by the rules – even if the rules are unfair. These young women suggest that while we are indeed “more powerful together,” it is not enough to add women within the same built structures and practices that have led to gross inequalities and environmental depletion.

Second, in carving out spaces for their voices and demands to be taken seriously, they have been met by criticisms and often very personal attacks based on their age and lack of experience.  In Australia, youth protesters inspired by Greta were narrowly framed as truants and told to go back to school, thus deflecting attention away from the causes of their activism. The radicalness of their politics is dismissed as a symptom of their youthful naivety despite themselves actively integrating multiple sources of information including first-hand knowledge of gun violence or the scientific consensus on climate change. The backlash against youth-led movements tells us the politics of expertise is deeply coded in seniority. Claims to seniority form part of the embedded norms and representations that define authority by gender, class, race/ethnicity, physical ability and other markers of identity. The intersections of age and gender are evident in how infantilising young women leaders serves as a tactic to silence and deny them spaces in political decision-making.

The reassertion of authority in response to young women’s political participation is particularly effective when it is overtly violent and masculine. In other parts of the world, activism by young women is matched by threats and violence to keep them in subjugation.

Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun (18 years old) and Loujain al-Hathloul (29 years old)

This brings us to another frontline of women’s rights activism – Saudi Arabia. In this context, the backlash is not just discrediting young women’s capacity to envision and enact radical change, it is connected with the control of women’s bodily autonomy and preserving male domination. In Saudi Arabia, authority is centralised under a government led by patriarchs from the Saudi Royal Family. Justified by the fundamentalist ideology of Wahhabism, women have been systematically placed under control of men through the state, in the streets and within the home. Rahaf Al-Qunun and Loujain al-Hathloul are among a number of Saudi women that have gained global attention for their resistance to the male guardianship system. This system treats women as dependents whose decisions and mobility need to be made for them by men from their families. Women are kept in “their place” by their male guardians through restrictions on driving, education and professional development. The reach of male guardianship even extends digitally such that male guardians can monitor and control the mobility of women through a smartphone application, Absher.

Rahaf’s successful escape from her family remains an exception amongst Saudi women trying to flee their country. Her escape to Canada has undoubtedly sent a stirring message to other young Saudi women. However, Loujain’s experience and that of other women who campaigned against the driving ban highlight the cost of challenging authority within the Kingdom. Women who led a long campaign to lift the driving ban have been repressed and detained. Loujain’s and other women activists’ current state remain unknown amid reports that many young women activists have been taken captive and tortured by the State.

Interconnected struggles

Though separated by geography, the struggles of these young women are interconnected. Their stories and the causes they are championing reveal how threats to women’s security and well-being are linked with the same material drivers that have caused existential threats to our planet: militarism and environmental degradation. Importantly, there is an economic basis to ideologies that promote violence and control of women’s and girls’ bodies. For example, global military expenditure data indicates the United States accounts for 35 percent of global spending and Saudi Arabia 4 percent. Australia’s share is 1.6 percent. These countries rank highly in global military expenditure and are also among the top greenhouse gas emitters.

The United States and Saudi Arabia are among the world’s largest oil producers and have actively undermined the effective implementation of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Indeed, the Saudi government’s efforts to meet its commitments to the Paris Agreement have been assessed as “critically insufficient.” We see the connections between militarism and environmental degradation by accounting for the range of conflicts the two countries have funded, participated in or promoted globally. This includes conflicts driven by competition over natural resources and extractive industries. There are environmental costs to sustaining military capabilities and tremendous resources are devoted in pursuit of militarism and violence which could be used to build peace instead. These country cases show us how resistance to radical change led by young women stems from an interest in reproducing forms of authority that have benefited from violent and extractive economies.

Both Greta and AOC have been challenged to account for the “practicalities” of their proposed radical visions. Their detractors argue economic reforms to safeguard our planet such as the Green New Deal will be too expensive and burden economic growth. Yet underneath this rhetoric is a problem of valuing. It is precisely the economy that is the problem because it reflects what and whose lives matter. Young women like Emma, Rahaf and Loujain are refusing to have women’s autonomy and well-being added to the long list of collateral damages that enable business as usual in global politics. In Greta’s words, “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis.”  How many fearsome girls will it take for global policy-makers to panic?

Dr Maria Tanyag is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Gender, Peace and Security, Monash University. She is a recipient of the 2018 Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) Early Career Research Impact Award. In May 2019, she will commence her new role as lecturer at the Department of International Relations, ANU Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.