The Bartered Sex

An op-ed on how payment of bride price turns women into commodities provided welcome respite from the endless sexism in Uganda’s mainstream media. While I generally agree with the writer, payment of bride price in itself isn’t what turns women into commodities. Rather, in a society where women are seen as commodities, bride price is just one of many cultural practices emblematic of a ridiculous notion.

Obviously the need to pay is taxing on men, as it is for anyone buying a good or service. In a hard-pressed economy, the pressures are more constrictive and likely to create discord for those who fail to deliver what is owed, be they women or men. Marital frustrations on the back of bride price debt could partly explain why in a recent UN survey across 37 African countries, Uganda was in the lead with 60% of Ugandan men considering beating their wives a ‘necessary’ aspect of marriage, while a similar percentage of women think themselves deserving of a beating. Neither the air we breathe, nor the food we eat could have led us to this warped level of odious beliefs. Nevertheless, they are evidence of a culture accepting of violence against women. And with practices like bride price, it is the woman received in exchange who pays the ultimate price for this innocent-seeming giving of gifts.

Yet often, culturalized human-to-commodity metamorphosis of females not only manifested in customary exchanges between men, but in the reality of women’s status in society, is brushed off; bride price touted as a good, traditional practice. Some claim it is paid to show appreciation; another equated it to a ‘tip’ offered in addition to payment for a meal. These views are neck-deep in paternalism; further expose the lower rank of women in a male-dominated society, and importantly, fail to deliver a non-sexist reason as to why this gratitude isn’t also shown by women for men. It is there that we find the woman-commodifying ideals celebrated as unique, valuable aspects of African culture.

But there is nothing uniquely Ugandan in the practice of men pimping “giving away” their daughters and sisters to other men in the name of marriage, nor in man-as-prize and woman-as-property ideology. Brides are walked down aisles to their new owners in Kampala, Cambridge, Calcutta, and California. Romanticizing bride price needs to be seen for what it is: a ruse to mask its significance as one of the markers of man’s assumed lordship over woman, in marriage, and in every other socio-political institution for that matter. We should at least be frank about that, if only for the sake of honest discussion.

Our honest selves would acknowledge that the dehumanisation of women permeates myriad settings and cultures wherein the female body is objectified and violated in the day-to-day. Take the recent case in Ireland where a woman impregnated by a rapist was denied access to health-care, specifically, an abortion. As per interpretation of Irish law, the right to life of the foetus took precedence over her needs. In addition to the mental and physical suffering from sexual assault, she was placed under confinement and forced feeding, culminating in delivery. Being female, she had no right to deny the seed of the man who raped her from growing off her body – her trauma now in flesh. Whereas the rapist walked away from his crime, most likely unscathed as many of them do, she carries brutal lifelong reminders.

Such a horrific conclusion can only be seen as moral and justified in a society where women are valued only to the extent to which their bodies serve men and the wider good. Her right to self-determination was of little to no significance within and outside the law; first the rapist violated her by exercising his (perceived) right to her body, and then her personhood is dismissed for the ‘higher duty’ of woman as womb. Justice may not have been dealt to the rapist. His offspring will get it, the state will see to it. But for sure it will not be afforded to woman for whom, regardless of circumstances, child-bearing is the raison d’être.

The injustice is replicated in laws like the Mozambique one which exonerates a rapist if he marries a woman he raped. That a man’s crime can be written off because a woman’s status has been ‘raised’ to property of the miscreant who violated her (thus awarding him, in retrospect, the right to do so) underlines the position of women in a woman-hating society: commodities whose worth is in the value men can make of them.

Similar dynamics are in force when a man opts to ‘try elsewhere’ for a boy child; essentially taking advantage of his (perceived) male right to find another uterus in which to play reproductive lottery. Such recourse would be considered unbecoming of the wife – who is usually blamed for a couple’s seeming inability to conceive children of a preferred sex. Which is just as well since her duty, with bride price firmly in dad’s tummy, is to fulfill her husband’s physical/biological demands.

This normalization of men’s right to women’s bodies must be seen for its role in many societal ills. According to the World Bank, women between 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war, and malaria. In Uganda, the high incidences of different manifestations of male violence against girls and women indicate a society which views female bodies as objects to be beaten/raped/bought and used for sex; enforced by cultural practices which naturalize inequality between the sexes. That women too can be violent doesn’t negate the fact that gender violence is overwhelmingly perpetrated by men.

Meanwhile in India, the rule of male over female rages on like a cancer. The long-outlawed dowry system, characterized by a bride’s family ‘gifting’ a prospective groom and his family in exchange for the honor of having him as their son-in-law, still thrives. Dowry institutionalized the hatred of femaleness in that land of ancient goddesses; spawning female infanticide, poor investment in the girl child, rape, bride burning, and death – one woman killed every hour over dowry.

Like dowry, payment of bride price presupposes the inferiority of women to men. It establishes wives at commodity level; subordinate to husbands, and supposedly privileged to be in service to them. It relegates women to the same category as slaves bought to perform field labour, or a heifer added to a kraal for reproductive labour. The analogy may not be representative of the intentions of a 21st century African man when he is paying bride price. But good intentions don’t change the fact that commodities are given in exchange for the reproductive, domestic, sexual and emotional labour expected of a wife.

The individual woman’s favorable view of bride price doesn’t attenuate its legitimation of the commodification of women into human objects that are exchangeable between men in return for material objects.

Men’s favorable view of the practice is expected because it is for their benefit; as fathers who receive goods/animals/money, as husbands who receive wives, and as future fathers expecting a ‘return’ through their own daughters. They also get to retain a position of superiority and ownership over women.

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that men are major advocates for bride price as a “woman-valuing” tradition.

In that tradition, women will remain treated as lesser human-beings for as long as the bedrock of our society, the family, is built upon customs cemented with the bartering of ‘things’ for female life and labour.

Aiming for so-called ‘gender equality’ without striving to dismantle the cultural practices keeping inequality alive maintains the pillars of the mindless belief that to be female is to belong to an inferior caste, and women are, thereby, living commodities existing to be in service to everyone except themselves.

This nonsense must end. Starting with bride price.

 

 

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CALL FOR GLOBAL WEEK OF ACTION October 11-18th #BringBackOurGirls NOW and ALIVE!

#BringBackOurGirls

It is outrageous that six months down the line, these girls have not yet been returned home. Men in leadership in Nigeria need to sort this out with their fellow men in Boko Haram!

FEMNET

Bring Back Our Girls Placards_Page_06

October 14, 2014 makes it exactly six (6) months since 276 girls were abducted by the Boko Haram  sect  from their  school  – Government  Secondary  School,  Chibok,  Borno  State, Nigeria. The Boko Haram Sect  leader claimed responsibility for the mass kidnappings in a video where he informed the world that he plans to sell the girls into slavery. Till date, not one girl has been rescued, save for 57 girls who escaped on their own, while 219 girls still remain in captivity.

As the United Nations marks the International Day of the Girl Child on 11th October, we, the #BringBackOurGirls movement and the families of the abducted girls, are calling for a Global Week of  Action from 11th to 18th October 2014, to mobilize everyone around the world to demand for the immediate rescue of our Chibok girls and end this humanitarian tragedy.

It is undeniably apt that this year’s theme…

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Taking one for the Team

Great news from the national netball team, She Cranes, who qualified for next year’s Netball World Cup in Sydney, Australia. It is the first time Uganda has reached the finals since 1979; netball being one of a handful of sports which have made it to elite level – having won the Six Nations Cup in Singapore last year. Interestingly, the ‘national sport’ (football) has never smelled a whiff of success beyond East Africa.

Any Ugandan with an ounce of feeling for the motherland, with its dramatic history and everyday microaggressions, is proud of such representation on the world stage. But if you are remotely vested in issues related to local sports, then you know that this achievement is remarkable beyond the obvious. You know that any victories celebrated by Ugandans are largely thanks to the effort and passion of individual sportswomen/men, with minimal contribution from the government.

Our representatives endure unfathomable humiliations in the pursuit of their dreams and to raise our flag. Lack of adequate sports facilities is one thing, understandable rather unfortunately, considering that we grapple with critical infrastructure such as hospitals and classrooms. Yet even basics like equipment, footwear, uniforms, and even drinking water are a luxury often footed by the enthusiastic youth. We heard of these shenanigans at the London Olympics where the team lacked shoes, contrary to word that “officials” had received them from the official kit sponsor. Similar drama played out at the recent Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. It is when welcoming medal-clad victors at the airport or parliament, and at events organised by international bodies, that government gets most actively involved.

Amongst the She Cranes, members are likely to be full-time employees or students, job-seekers, mothers, caregivers, wives; holders of different permutations of responsibilities away from the field. That they were able to qualify without losing a single game (leaving Zambia, Botswana, Swaziland, Namibia, and Zimbabwe in their wake), despite being encumbered with logistical issues, is pretty impressive. These women are champions regardless of the medal count next August.

Now they begin the arduous task of mobilizing for airfare, accommodation etc. And that’s beside fitness and skill preparation. This was top of agenda last week at a dinner organised in their honour, and to launch Project Sydney 2015 – the committee coordinating activities leading up to the games. The ladies seemed jubilant and energized and optimistic. I felt the same reading the news story. But only until where the team manager begs that in the months ahead, spouses “leave her girls alone” so that none will miss the tournament – alluding to pregnancy.

Which took me back…

One of the major ‘setbacks’ in Uganda’s recent sports history features Dorcus Inzikuru and the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The Gazelle of Arua, as she’s fondly known, had done us proud bagging steeplechase gold at both the 2005 World Athletics Championship in Helsinki, and the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games. It was highly anticipated she would deliver a medal in China. Alas, Inzi delivered a baby. Was also unable to pull off the feat. The wrath of the nation’s armchair track-stars flooded like venom. Many using the opportunity to bash women, proclaiming  us a thoroughly unreliable lot. To this day some are still pissed about it.

Ultimately, it is a personal matter. Just because a woman is in sports doesn’t mean that we, officials and the cheerleading public, have any right of say or ownership over her body. If she wants to have a baby when she wants it, to hell with Beijing or Sydney.

This applies to women in all areas of commitment really.

No woman owes anyone, nation – spouse – clan, the use of her body or any of its parts.

Sadly, the She Cranes manager’s plea, while it may have (partly) been in jest, goes painfully deep into the reality of women’s autonomy over their bodies in our society. That men have to be “begged” to take one for the team and respect their wives’ desire not to conceive within a given period reveals insights that are extremely problematic at multiple levels. At the lowest, it shows that despite all the hype, men have the final say over women’s bodies; underscoring the powerlessness of women on decisions of sex and reproduction.

The issue isn’t unique to the sports world. Years back I worked on a pitch for a client in the reproductive health sector. We analyzed studies on usage and attitudes toward contraception in rural and urban Uganda. Findings showed that many women don’t use birth control; not that they don’t want or need it, but because they are forbidden. They stealthily seek information and treatments behind the backs of controlling husbands; some suffering physical violence as a deterrent.

This disregard for a woman’s real consent (the absence of it), even in the marital bed, is simply called rape. But apparently, preventing a man from forced sex with his wife is un-African.

Is rape African culture?

In a country where according to recorded cases, 492 women die per month (16 daily) due to complications in pregnancy or childbirth, why don’t women have a say on an issue that puts their lives at risk of disease and death? Why are women dehumanised to this extent; in this Africa where we brag incessantly about heritage and values? Who’s values, anyway?

Is it any wonder that our communities are rife with sexual violence? Or that wife-beating is considered an expression of love? And child marriage defensible?

What future lies ahead when 50% of the population has no autonomy over their own bodies?

This shit has to end if Uganda is to ever achieve its full potential. For starters, we should stop fooling ourselves ‘celebrating’ women if the status quo is maintained where females are not seen as full human-beings with their own hopes, dreams, and rights as individuals, but as uteri and objects for sexual domination. And for the disposable use of the state.

Even for medals.

 

 

 

 

On Fake Hair and African Liberation

Recently I came across a comment along the line,

Africa would be better off if the money spent on fake hair was spent on books.

It caught my interest for reasons; as an African, a woman, and someone who finds great pleasure in books. While I agree with the sentiment that spending on resources such as books provides an enduring return, the statement left a bitter taste. There is a fair amount of unflattering commentary about ‘fake hair’ – at one point the subject of a popular song here in Uganda. But is ‘fake hair’ the most trivial expenditure in Africa? Are there no pursuits on which money is vacuously spent by African men to the detriment of their families and communities? Or is it Africa as mythical Eden; the bastion of success only to fall at the arrival of women and their ‘fake hair’?

Seriously though, is money spent by women on face, hair, body ‘wasted’ in a society in which keeping up with the strict ever-evolving requirements of beauty, as fake as they may be, is life as many know it? Where beauty practices are considered (by women and men) a normal aspect of womanhood?

We are bombarded on a daily basis with images of ‘ideal beauty’. For black women on the continent and in the diaspora, concepts based on whiteness as the standard, such as light skin and straight, flowing hair, are in our faces 24/7. Whereas the reality of a vast number of female bodies, those classified ‘typically African’, are largely disapproved of, boxed in the ugly – except in some circumstances, and that’s when on a white woman.

In one of the several online articles explaining why Africans have ‘larger’ lips, a writer begins with the disclaimer: there is nothing racist about this post or the topic.

That caution is necessary because in a western-dominant world where features and cultural expressions categorized as African (of black people) are considered inferior by default, big lips are undesirable.

But hey, they are sexy when on Angelina Jolie.

In the same way that “bold braids” were taken to a “new epic level” by Kendall Jenner.

This month Vogue magazine caught itself at crossroads with women, in particular western black women, after it ran a story proclaiming that We are officially in the era of the big booty’. The article is a roll call of white women – the liberators of booty. Backlash was inevitable due to the fact that international fashion magazines have historically portrayed women’s beauty in mostly white, thin, big-booty-free bodies. The mainstream effectively marginalized the booty’d body, long celebrated in black/African culture. Until now; because some valuable people are embracing their behinds. Yet it remains a thing of caricature for performers like Katy Perry.

And going back in time, we are reminded of the enslavement of Sarah Baartman, a Khoikhoi woman from South Africa. She was transported to England and taken across Europe on display under the stage name Hottentot Venus. It was tagged a freak show starring her body, with special focus on her  buttocks and labia; dehumanized to feed the curiosity of the European eye. As an object of African femininity, considered abnormal (white women being ‘the normal’ according to white supremacist nonsense), her body was prodded and gawked at, in addition to suffering poor upkeep and disease. Sarah died in 1815 at the age of 25. But even in death, the inhumane use of her body prevailed; consumed as a museum exhibit in France. Only after condemnation in South Africa, and at the behest of then-president Nelson Mandela for her remains to be released, did France relent. It was not until 2002 that what was left of Sarah Baartman was repatriated.

Suddenly, now that the gods of vanity have given the green light, women must reconsider the dimensions of their derrières, as cosmetic surgeons sharpen their scalpels ready to mutilate more female bodies, and vendors of butt implants (‘fake butts’?) prepare for a business boom.

Fake hair is one of many must-haves directed at women. Reasons as to why we buy into it include to look good, for convenience, to protect natural hair, confidence issues, and so on. This fuss is inevitable when an otherwise  neutral feature like hair is politicized into a marker of difference between women and men, sexualized into a symbol of beauty among women, and commercialized as a pathway for the individual woman to gain advantage over another. It follows that we are told hair is a woman’s crowning glory. Who determined this?

In the final analysis, beauty practices are taught, policed, and have been normalized in different cultures for women’s survival in a male-dominant world.

And men are the topmost beneficiaries.

Women are under considerable pressure to look good in order to attract men, hold on to men, or get back at men, and other women – over men. We are objectified, subdivided, and pitted against each other by men and fellow women; white/black, light/dark, fat/thin, beautiful/ugly, old/young, fertile/infertile, womanly/not, sexy/not, hot/not. And it is men who benefit from the tension.

We are on our toes in service to the visual interests of the supreme sex. Sweating under layers of chemicals. Heels tormenting feet. Restless about what to wear tomorrow. Broke in the process.

Is ‘choosing’ these discomforts that we have somehow learned to bear really choice?

Just because some women claim not to have any problem whatsoever with living under the demands of beauty qualification, that it is a ‘normal’ part of a woman’s life, or an exercise of agency – my choice, doesn’t strip the pressure or desire to look good of its oppressiveness to women as a class.

Women’s freedom to do with their bodies what they want, when they want, is a core tenet of women’s movement toward liberation from the evil that is sexism. But in a male-dominant society where ‘femininity’ is constructed in deference to men, and the pursuit of beauty, and maintenance of it, enforced as ‘rituals’ of womanhood, women are constrained in the options from which to choose. There is an unwritten requirement to choose wisely in order to be found worthy under the male gaze. And there are penalties for non-compliance.

Looking good in accordance with patriarchal dictates of beauty can be, in some situations, the difference between securing employment and being jobless. It is the currency through which many women access shelter, food, and clothing. Add the culturally-prized husband to this list. We need to be honest about the politics of looking good to see the hypocrisy in one-sided, (often) male, criticism of women’s adherence to beauty practices, and the oppressive reality of these demands on women.

Moreover even from a shillings perspective, many of the major beneficiaries in the global industry, from beauty products to media, to hair-dressing to clothes etc, also happen to be men.

On the Forbes list of Top 10 Beauty Brands  only Estée Lauder was established by a woman. In Uganda, these are firms like Movit and Samona – the latter set up by a man, maybe even both. While in Taihe in China, home to hundreds of companies in the billion-dollar business of hair extensions, Fu Quanguao, the man who ‘pioneered the trade in the 1970s’, waxes about the money-maker that is women’s hair issues.

Growing up in the eighties, it was to Loy that my mother and I, as did several others within the neighborhood, made the pilgrimage to have my hair plaited – black African hair, no extensions. Today, walk into a hair salon in Kampala; many of the celebrated fake hair implanters are men. Men who, like Fu, with extensions in tow, are cannibalizing the business of hair plaiting – one of the few professions in Africa for women, by women (predominantly), and through which many African women not only earned a living, but also built community with their sisters. Loy is no longer her vibrant self; the income source from which she raised her children, one of whom had followed in the profession, almost a thing of the past. Her frustrations drove her into the neocolonial hellhole of second-hand clothes hawking.

That men benefit greatly from this beauty stuff is evident without even going into the matter of chest-thumping dudes heaping endless praise on their gorgeous-when-beweaved; directly or indirectly putting pressure on women to keep up with the performance of beauty.

Therefore, in the age of viagra, for men to be the ones constantly picking ‘fake hair’ as this major money-drain, one powerful enough to hold back a continent, is intellectually dishonest. It is akin to blaming a slave for their fate; and for sure many are enslaved by the fashion-beauty complex. Crucially, it ignores the vast wealth lost via theft committed mostly by men at all levels of power across Africa.

It isn’t women’s fake hair rendering our hospitals drugless. It isn’t fake hair causing deaths from hunger and disease. Fake hair isn’t robbing Africa of its natural resources. And it is definitely not fuelling these endless wars. That there is a need for fake hair is unfortunate, but we mustn’t ignore the entire picture.

No group can be liberated if some of its members are trudging along under the heel of oppression – a good chunk of it dished out in the name of ‘preserving’ African culture.

It is easy to focus on fake hair and in effect throw jabs at women whilst ignoring the system which demands conformity to beauty standards. Perhaps a more productive exercise would be to objectively critique all the different systems holding us in a cycle of poverty and perpetual dependence. In doing so, we must examine our own complicity in keeping these ideologies in play. And ultimately, put into action those revolutionary measures which will deliver us, as individuals and society, from the grip of the forces draining us – women and men – of our wellbeing and wealth.

Finding Our Voices

In becoming forcibly and essentially aware of my mortality, and of what I wished and wanted for my life, however short it might be, priorities and omissions become strongly etched in a merciless light, and what I most regretted were my silences.

Audre Lorde

 

I’ve been pushing the urge to blog to the back of my mind.

It was inevitable for a couple of reasons.

The first is finding myself in a state of permanent rage over the multitude of injustices which girls and women in Uganda on the continent and globally, have faced historically and still suffer on a daily basis. Hardly a day goes by, not even an hour, without a report: man rapes woman, wife beaten, man kills woman, girl raped by father, soldiers rape women, and so on.

In the era of widely touted Millennium Development Goals, Uganda is in the lead or close to the top when it comes to incidence of child marriage, sexual abuse of children, teenage pregnancy, sexual harassment and assault (rape is hardly reported; on record is mostly that by LRA insurgents during the war in northern Uganda), intimate partner violence, maternal mortality, and deaths from complications arising from unsafe abortions. The horrors are endless to the point that many have become desensitized to the real suffering, in real time, of real people.

Human-beings. Girls. Women.

The second is frustration with the everyday woman-bashing in the local media in Uganda. You only have to open a page of any of the newspapers on any other given day to find headlines  questioning women’s behavior, attitude, choices, and lifestyles. The critique is endless.

Every Odong, Ssemwezi, Wanzusi, and Kamukama has ‘advice’ for women based on the most unrealistic, dehumanizing expectations and demands for the benefit of men. All this while women are sexually objectified  and our agency undermined in the name of ‘culture’.

I am sick of this matter-of-fact anti-women stance. Sick of male violence against girls and women. Sick of society where women are valued in direct proportion to their living/being in service and subservience to men. Sick of the commodification of women. Sick of institutionalized sexism in the family, in education, religion, politics, and commerce. Sick of the state, legislators, and men of all stature assuming ownership and claiming control over women’s bodies.

Sick of indifference to the plight of girls/women here in Uganda and everywhere.

Perhaps by now the genius that you’re has figured out that my primary and secondary concern is issues pertaining to the interests of female human-beings. Life isn’t a bed of roses for all boys/men, neither are all women oppressed equally, or never perpetrators of violence. Even then, men themselves are responsible for most of the hardship their fellow men face – from playground bullying to war zone atrocities. Whatever the struggles men encounter, they pale in comparison to the gross violence visited upon women [as a class] by men. This is reinforced by structural discrimination and minimal access, if any, to the privileges enjoyed by boys/men in a male-centered society.

Certainly, things are a little ‘better’ for women in some parts of the world – credit to our foresisters who fought for them. After years of struggle, blood and tears, women won the right to vote. Today many of us take voting for granted. However, we must remember the past to truly appreciate women’s historical position in society vis-à-vis our present-day challenges. To secure voting rights, women who didn’t give-in to despair and hopelessness battled on.

We need to evaluate the contribution decades of women’s votes have made to the liberation of women. How are we using our votes and voices to improve our lot in a culture which views women as ‘inferior’ to men? How can women assert our standing as full human-beings in a society brimming with dogma, norms, and the deeply-held beliefs which keep the patriarchy and its inhumane ideals of womanhood in place?

We need to move beyond simply hoping for the time when the global sisterhood will be fully delivered from the shackles of male supremacy. We must work toward the day when women are seen not as objects existing to provide men with sexual, reproductive, and domestic labour, but as we really are; full human-beings in our own right, just as men.

That day may not be near, but it gets closer the more we challenge the oppressive ‘normal’.

I choose not to be complicit in the dis-engagement and individualism of a generation seemingly mindless of the backlash nibbling on the gains of many years of feminist movement. We must continue in the spirit of those who walked this path knowing well that as distant as emancipation may appear to be for women as a class, as ‘different’ as our struggles may be, in our silence we collude with the oppressor.

This blog isn’t about men; hating or bashing them. But neither will it be about glossing over male violence, soothing male egos, or shrinking in acquiescence in response to male aggression. There’s no room at this inn for the delusion that men are inherently or otherwise superior to women. Zero lollipops for all manner of good-guy/bad-guy Olympics. The oppression of women isn’t simply about the actions, inaction, or feelings of individual men and women. It is about the system which to this day permeates all others; therein giving men [as a class] dominion over all at the utmost expense of women.

It will be a place to vent and share thoughts and observations with the understanding that an educated, financially-independent woman living in Kampala can never be ‘free’ if a woman in Yumbe lives under the heel of sexist oppression. Similarly, a middle-class woman in Geneva cannot be free of oppression as a woman, when women in Kapchorwa, here in Uganda, live with excruciating pain from the horror that is female genital mutilation; when women in Pattaya and girls in Cambodia face daily abuse as sex slaves, while others line the streets of red light districts in major cities across the world; and in Kinshasa, Majorca, Pretoria, Sydney, New Delhi, Tokyo, Michigan, and so on, stats keep piling of the girls and women raped &/or killed by men.

Importantly, a space to celebrate women wherever we are in all our marvelous being. And if that brings moments of reflection, a spark of energy to keep us moving – and as we are able to, play our part toward the liberation of women – it will have done more than is hoped for.