Stand up for feminism on International Women’s Day, lest our hard-fought rights slip away

It’s crucial we support women’s rights across the globe. Al Jazeera English

US conservative radio show host Rush Limbaugh apologised to a young woman this week. His apology to law student Sandra Fluke is unusual for a number of reasons, chiefly because shock jocks are rarely called to account for their extreme opinions, but also because of the content of his attack. She had argued that contraception continue to be covered by private health insurance as a basic right for women.

Referring to Ms Fluke’s strong arguments for the rights of women, Limbaugh described her as a “slut”, who “wants to be paid to have sex”, who “is having sex so frequently that she can’t afford all the birth control pills she needs.” She is “having so much sex,” he said, “it’s amazing she can still walk”. He also suggested she make a sex tape “so taxpayers can see what we’re getting for our money.”

Curiously, contraception has become an issue in the US Republican nomination contest. In a move that Democrats are describing as a “war on women”, conservative Catholic candidate Rick Santorum has come out against all forms of contraception. The Republican pronouncements have given licence to commentators like Limbaugh to use extreme language.

We need look no further than Limbaugh’s appalling outbursts to know that the hard fought rights of women are being breached, questioned and devalued across the globe. Women’s basic right to control their own bodies in a first world country is again under question.

Women in public life still face vilification. AAP/Dean Lewins

The fact that women are being vilified for expecting this right should ring alarm bells across the world – a world plagued by significant injustices against women. Daily reports of acid attacks on young women, violence, sex trafficking, rape and countless millions of “lost women” indicate that the war on women is global and dangerous. Now more than ever, we need a revival of feminist values and activism to assert our equitable place in the world.

In our own country it has become acceptable to vilify our first female prime minister with apparent impunity. At an anti-carbon tax rally in March 2011 the Leader of the Opposition was filmed standing near banners reading “Juliar – Bob Brown’s bitch” and “ditch the witch”. Vilification of the prime minister has reached new heights of a prejudice bordering on hatred and misogyny.

Meanwhile in countries where women’s rights are minimal, extreme efforts are being made to contain and wind back gains for women. A report by Human Rights Watch notes that Saudi Arabia is not sending a women’s team to the London Olympics. Officials argue that “once women start to exercise, they will shed modest clothing, spend ‘unnecessary’ time out of the house and have increased possibilities for mingling with men.”

As I see it the future of feminism is, unfortunately, very secure because women’s rights are fragile, dependent on unstable foundations, readily diminished by a change of government or leader and dependent on women’s activism.

The top five feminist issues from my point of view are the right of women to control their own bodies including through ready access to contraception and abortion; unequal distribution of caring tasks; unequal access to resources; unequal distribution of leadership positions and questionable valuing of alternative models of leadership; and unequal power relations between women and men across the world leading often to violence.

Women must again be prepared to fight to achieve and maintain citizenship rights, be prepared to publicly defend and protect our hard-fought rights and, importantly, rise as a global collective in support of oppressed women across the world.

If privileged women do not speak out against unspeakable human rights abuses of our global sisters who else will do this? If privileged women do not speak out against the vilification of women like Ms Fluke, we are doomed to secondary status and a normalisation of misogyny.