By Cora Metrick-Chen
Two months ago, I started working at the Iowa United Nations Association as their advocacy and media director. Our biggest fundraiser, Night of 1,000 Dinners, is coming up on March 6, and in educating myself and others about the cause for the occasion, International Women’s Day, I’ve come to feel something I’d like to feel more: pride.
In thinking about the situation of women in the world, I often find myself angry or despairing, but at the Iowa UNA, I get to look at things from a more global perspective steeped in a history of radical idealism. It’s hard not to be proud.
I’m proud of the suffrage movements that began in the late 1800s and have gained for women the right to vote in almost every country in the world. I’m proud of the 51 countries that ratified the UN Charter in 1945, reaffirming the universal equal rights of women and men.
I’m proud that, as the ripples of the United Nations’ momentous declarations of equal rights have made their way inexorably across the globe, we have begun to go beyond mere equality to address arenas that demand more nuanced approaches: familial and bodily integrity, and violence and war, which have a disproportionate negative impact on women. I’m proud, for example, that the Vienna Declaration of 1993 officially acknowledged women-specific issues, such as exploitation as a result of trafficking, as human rights issues.
I’m proud of the many different waves of feminism. Their critiques continue to shape local and international anti-oppression movements. I’m proud of women for making themselves leaders and politicians, and for working to clear the way for future women to do so. And I’m proud of global role models like Mother Suu, who is unyielding in her fight for democracy, undaunted by decades of imprisonment.
But, when I come down from that grand, global vision, the long strides of women in history, and I look at the lived experience of women in these moments, it’s possible to lose sight of our progress. I have seen the violent oppression of my friends and community members, and I know that this is just a fraction of the oppression I would witness in most other places on earth. In the United States alone, a woman is assaulted every two minutes. One in three women worldwide will experience abuse in her lifetime. It is undeniable: There is ongoing oppression, a global epidemic of violence against women.
Knowing this, I look at the United States, and I feel ashamed. We are one of only eight countries in the world that has not ratified the international Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, commonly known as CEDAW. I’m ashamed that in the face of honor killings, acid burnings and slavery, we have not passed the International Violence Against Women Act, which would incorporate measures addressing violence against women into our foreign policy.
And when I think about Iowa City and listen to my community members, what I feel and what I hear is also shame. When families of female freshmen feel the need to send their daughters pepper spray and rape whistles in their care packages, we are ashamed. When women are afraid to walk on the street and “being smart” is staying inside, we are ashamed. When a friend is touched without consent by a hallmate and she stays silent because she doesn’t want to get anyone in trouble, we are ashamed. When there are at least eight assaults in two months and it has always been this way and the institutions and officials respond with resounding apathy, we are ashamed.
We have to ask ourselves, then, what comes of shame? Shame, even when appropriate, can be incapacitating. When we are ashamed, we are telling ourselves something about how we are. That message can quickly become self-reinforcing—an excuse, a way out. Left to reign freely, shame will teach us that women are always victims and society is always the indefatigable oppressor, that “that’s just how things are.”
Remember that Iowa was the first state to admit a woman to the bar in 1869? Remember that the University of Iowa was the first public university in the U.S. to admit female and male students on an equal basis? Or that our law school was the first public institution from which a woman graduated? These are some of the things that we forget in our shame. Shame can be crippling, and pride can be pacifying, but taken together, they are a formula for liberation. When we hold both in our hearts, we will come to know something great.
On March 6, the Iowa UN Association will be celebrating International Women’s Day with its 13th annual Night of 1,000 Dinners. We’ll be petitioning congress to finally sign that convention against discrimination (CEDAW), and we’ll be donating proceeds to the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women, taking the steps to protect women that our government has yet to take. Join us to mark the achievements of women and inspire positive change. Let’s have the mettle to be proud of ourselves and hold ourselves to a higher standard. Friends of Iowa City, let’s celebrate: we know that we can do better.
Cora Metrick-Chen is the advocacy and media director at the Iowa United Nations Association, where no job is too small or large, and updating Facebook or organizing events are both just all in a day’s work. Recently she has been focusing her efforts on Night of 1,000 Dinners, and she hopes to see you there!