Friday was International Women’s Day. My Twitter feed was a mixed bag. Many were supportive but others felt it was a politically correct waste of time, serving only to heighten divisions rather than bring people together. ‘You’re victimising yourselves’, said one person to a woman promoting the initiative. ‘Name one thing that women can’t do.’ ‘Why isn’t there a men’s day?’ asked others. (There is (http://www.internationalmensday.com/)) Many conservatives – and some libertarians – simply dismissed the whole thing.
While deploring any feminist thought that spills over into socialism and treats women as a single group, a collective with identical thoughts, needs and political standpoints, as I deplore all special-interest pleading, I believe libertarians should support International Women’s Day and use it to highlight the countless abuses against women’s liberty and equal rights that take place every day, across the whole world.
The most basic libertarian principle, the axiom from which all our other ideas flow, is the principle of self-ownership. Your life and your body are your own. From this we derive ideas about property rights and equal rights for all people – providing they respect the equal rights of others. There is no question that throughout history, women far more than men were denied this basic right of self-ownership. Whether through marriage laws giving the husband control of his wife’s property, through the explicit denial of equal pay for equal work, or the exclusion from participation in government and politics, women fought to enjoy the same rights as men.
Although in the more egalitarian West the fight for equal rights has been won, on the whole, this is ‘International’ Women’s Day. Looking at the global picture it is all too obvious that abuses against the equal rights of women are tragically commonplace. In South Sudan, for example, 39,000 women are forced into marriage every day (http://bigstory.ap.org/article/half-girls-south-sudan-forced-marry), according to the Associated Press. Girls as young as twelve are married off, thereby ensuring they will have no access to education and no opportunities to improve their lives.
Female circumcision takes place in Africa, for example, at the rate of 3 million girls (between infancy and the age of 15) each year (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs241/en/). The World Health Organisation estimates that, worldwide, 140 million women are living with the hideous after-effects of female circumcision which can include infection, infertility and the increased risk of childbirth complications. Female genital mutilation is grievous bodily harm by any other name and should be treated as such.
Contraception is outlawed in many countries around the world, denying women control over the functions of their own bodies. Abortion itself is illegal in most countries, leading to tens of thousands of deaths each year from botched back-street abortions. Whatever their personal, private views on abortion, libertarians cannot but agree that it is a woman’s right to dispose of her body as she wishes and that the ‘potential’ rights of an as-yet unborn foetus are in no way equivalent to the actual rights of a living human being.
An obvious common factor in all the abuses of women is religion. Religious dogma drives female circumcision and forced marriage. Scratch a pro-lifer and you’ll most likely (though not always) find religious sensibilities. Religious text after religious text subordinates women to men. The National Secular Society tweeted, ‘In few areas is the negative impact of religion on human rights more in evidence than in issues involving women’. It’s hard to disagree. Libertarianism was born out of the Enlightenment, another name for which is the Age of Reason. Religion is the enemy of reason and quite often the enemy of equal rights for all. As a libertarian I will always uphold the freedom of religion, but I will fight just as hard – if not more so – for freedom from religion. No religion should be exempt from the laws that govern the rest of us.
Above I said that the West had largely won the fight for equal rights, but there are still problems. 24,000 women are said to be at risk from female genital mutilation in England and Wales. There are signs that the number of forced marriages in the UK is increasing. These trends should worry all of us.
In the West, the argument for equal rights for women has gone beyond whether a woman can go to work, vote, drive a car, use contraception or choose to marry. The reason we must continue to recognise International Women’s Day in Britain is to set an example to the rest of the world. This is about women living as they wish, as sovereign individuals making decisions over their own lives. This is about equal rights for everyone. We libertarians know how to deliver equal rights for all – through free minds and free markets.