International Women’s Day: How global reflection can lead to local understanding

International Women’s Day, like all such days, is an occasion for celebration. It celebrates the achievements of women both at home and around the globe.  It also celebrates the freedom from oppressive and discriminatory conditions that women have won in so many societies: the right to vote, to choose a partner, and to have recourse against domestic violence, for example.

The Day also calls to mind the hardships and injustices that many women still suffer, and the changes in culture still required if women are to have an equal place in society. It encourages those who have long struggled for change and invites others to support their struggle.

When a designated day goes international it adds another dimension to the celebration.  In this case it invites us to look beyond the conditions, injustices and needs of women in our own nation, beyond what we take for granted about our own lives, and to reflect on the conditions that affect the lives, sadness, and happiness of women in other cultures. It invites us to reflect on their hopes, fears and their understanding of what it means to flourish. To look without judging, and to return with a fuller vision of what it means for women to thrive in our own society.

International Women’s Day leads us beyond a narrow vision of the domestic roles of women to reflect on the qualities of our own society and the wider world from the perspective of women. It reminds us that when violence, discrimination and brutality reign in any society, women suffer disproportionately. When we consider the Middle East, women are the majority of the non-combatants on whom the multinational bombs fall indiscriminately. In the appalling conditions under which asylum seekers from the Middle East live in Europe, women and the children they care for are most at risk.  Among the Muslims and immigrants who are threatened with expulsion from the United States, women have the most reasons for anxiety about their future.

The perspective offered by International Women’s Day allows us to reflect on the world we live in and judge the ways in which it works. It also pleads to all members of the community to cooperate to change the cultures and institutional structures that shape how we live in order that women may flourish.

Cooperation, of course, means more than making decisions on other people’s behalf. It involves consulting them and including them among the decision makers. It means allowing those who stand under the bombs to be part of the deliberations that about the making of war. It means allowing the women affected to participate in decisions about the legality of the dress codes they adopt. It involves reaching beyond the prejudices that we have as individuals and as representatives of a particular culture, and so entering the worlds of other women and making their aspirations our own.

At Jesuit Social Services, International Women’s Day offers us an opportunity to celebrate the lives of the vulnerable women with whom we walk. Their lives and their resilience are a great gift to us.  It also reminds us how pernicious are brutality and prejudice, whether directed against asylum seekers or Muslims in our society, and how their destructive effects fall disproportionately on women. And it reminds us, as a Catholic agency, of our need to ensure that women are not discriminated against, patronised nor excluded from leadership, but receive the same welcome as men, the same consultation and the same opportunities to lead.

Written by Andy Hamilton SJ – Andy is a Jesuit priest and a member of Jesuit Social Services’ communications team.