International Women's Day Is Only Powerful If We Make It Inclusive

If we continue to use 'women's movements' to erase those who don’t fit gender or sex binaries, we’re undermining their power to do real damage to the patriarchy. And isn't that the point?
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Not to put a damper on today, but this is your annual reminder that International Women’s Day (IWD) is but one tool in the fight against patriarchy. What’s more, if we continue to use International Women’s Day to erase and exclude those who don’t fit gender or sex binaries I would argue we’re sleeping on the day’s capacity to do real damage to the patriarchy. And isn’t that the heart of IWD, destroying systems of oppression?

IWD started in 1909 as a radical way to recognise the purposefully ignored contributions of women in labour markets. Today it’s heavily commercialised, full of celebrity opportunism and it has a hashtag, #BalanceForBetter (yawn). But I remain optimistic that all people who are oppressed because of their sex and/or their gender – including cisgender women like me – can revive the “dismantling [of] the master’s house” using our tools, if we make sure that one of those tools is collective and persistent refusal to erase the experiences and identities of those who are nonbinary, intersex or transgender.

One way to do this is to stop referring to anti-patriarchy movements as “women’s movements” and recognise that in addition to the women who lead anti-patriarchy initiatives, nonbinary and intersex people have also contributed hugely to the work and leadership needed to undo patriarchal thinking and practices. They lead the way in helping wider activist networks to love their bodies and understand the harm we can do when we enforce normative gender practices on each other and on ourselves. People like writer and scientist Naseem Jamnia, whose work covers a range of issues including technology, eating disorders and the nonbinary nature of sex, and is part of important educational work on gender and sex as complex things that can be both liberators and an oppressors. There are also people like Michaela Ivri Mendolsohn, a business owner championing employment rights and opportunities for transgender people. Her contribution to the fight for these rights helps provide better opportunities for all of us.

Acknowledgement of the diverse leadership work in anti-patriarchy work doesn’t inherently mean erasing women or halting the fight for women’s rights. It means that in the fight for our rights, we also remember to get out of the way of those who are even more marginalised. It means ensuring that the rights we secure for ourselves also guarantee the safety and equality of others oppressed by patriarchy. It means that when we create private space to celebrate our own identities – which we can and should do if we need it to strengthen ourselves – we aren’t taking resources away from other marginalised groups or excluding them from spaces they might also need. We cannot do this without explicitly including nonbinary, intersex and transgender people in our public anti-patriarchy initiatives like IWD.

At the Inclusive Mosque Initiative, this is something we’re trying to do with our digital sound installation of women, non-binary and intersex people reciting and reflecting on the final section of the Qur’an called Juz Amma: The Qur’an in Public. We are launching it as part of ‘All The Ways We Could Grow’, a new season of work exploring gender at London arts venue Free Word.

We’re creating it to explore the dynamic between private and public religious practice and the relationship between personal meaning and public expression regarding religious text. To do this, we’re using our most recognisable cultural signifier, the Qur’an. When the Qur’an was first being shared as part of the Islamic oral tradition in 7th century Arabia, it was part of a radical social justice movement that provoked thinking on topics including corruption, exploitation, children’s rights and minority rights. We want to continue that process of rights-based social justice work today and that’s part of the reason we wanted to launch Juz Amma: The Qur’an in Public on International Women’s Day.

The origins of International Women’s Day are about acknowledging the work of a group of people whom Arundhati Roy helpfully clarified are “the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”. I hope Juz Amma: The Qur’an in Public can do much the same thing by creating a shared space for recitation and reflections from those whose insights are rarely valued in public spaces.

Naima Khan is a trustee of the Inclusive Mosque Initiative. She is also a content creator and arts journalist.