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Wednesday 4th March, 17:00, the European Parliament. The PES Group in the EP are about to hold an evening roundtable discussion on gender equality to mark International Women’s Day. The event features an impressive panel of progressive European politicians and women’s rights campaigners, including PES Women President Zita Gurmai. The guest of honour is the Iranian human rights campaigner Shirin Ebadi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003.
Suspended above the room, a large deck of interpreters are preparing to translate the discussions into almost a dozen languages – evidence of the range of nationalities represented; women’s groups from a number of member states have been invited, and almost fill the large chamber where the meeting is being held.

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As the speakers take their places on the platform, the Babel of tongues dies down, headphones are switched on and the moderator, Socialist MEP Lissy Gröner, coordinator of the PES Group on the Women’s Rights Committee, welcomes everyone to the event. She hands over to the Chair of the PES Group, Martin Schulz, who launches into a powerful attack on gender inequalities, branding the gender pay gap “a scandal” and “unacceptable”, adding “it is not just a social injustice; it’s a disgrace!” He goes on to stress that the economic crisis hits women hardest. Barbara Dührkop, Vice-President of the PES Group, then speaks, describing the struggle for women’s rights as a “long journey, with lots still to do”, and defines 50:50 gender parity as “the goal of that journey”.
Shirin Ebadi delivers her intervention in Farsi, in a measured, authoritative, wholly matter-of-fact style that commands great authority over those listening. She begins by stressing that the campaign for gender equality is a long-term project, wryly observing that “There are times when I think that ‘democracy’ and ‘equality’ have been made for men and that only if there is any left over once they have been given to them is it ok to give them to women.”
“I come from the Middle East. The Islamic Middle East. In some countries women are not just denied the same rights as men, but they are not even considered as human beings.” Ebadi goes on to note that in Iran, despite the fact that women make up 65% of university students, as well as a large number of engineers, doctors and senior civil servants, a woman has half the legal value of a man.
But she also gives cause for optimism, explaining that the Iranians are a highly educated people who oppose much of the institutionalised discrimination imposed on them. The equality movement is strong, Ebadi says, and includes men. That it has no leader, no formal structure, is an advantage: “There is a branch in the house of every Iranian who believes in equality of rights. It is an indestructible movement which has infiltrated the masses. […] Whenever they arrest a woman, a dozen take over.” Ebadi ends her inspiring intervention with great force, describing herself as “determined to achieve gender equality at any price”, and receives a prolonged ovation from the audience.
Gröner thanks Ebadi, describing her as “A voice for those who cannot be heard”, and hands over to Zita Gurmai, who delivers a passionate intervention in which she builds on the comments of previous speakers. She pays tribute to Ebadi and points out that women must not forget how easy it is to lose hard-won rights.
The floor is then given to Vladimír Špidla, European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, who moves the debate onto the issue of women’s political representation, a topic which is echoed by Beatrice Achaleke, Director of the International Centre for Black Women’s Perspectives, who echoes the statistics quoted by Špidla by showing a slideshow of photos of Europe’s ministerial cabinets and leaders summits. The lack of women leaders is all too plain to see. The last two to speak are Vera Claes, President of the Federal Institute for Equality in Belgium and Michaela Mihai, President of the Arts Trade Union in Romania. Both added useful national perspectives to the debate, with Claes telling of effectiveness of the quota system in Belgian politics.
The discussion is peppered with audience interventions; an Iranian man speaks of Ebadi as “the pride of Iran” and Myria Vassiliadou, Secretary General of the European Women’s Lobby (which is behind the 50:50 campaign “No Modern European Democracy without Gender Equality”), urges those present to sign the 50:50 petition.
Lissy Gröner gives the final word to Zita Gurmai, who slams the conservative President of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Pöttering, for refusing to sign the petition. Gurmai makes it clear that equality is impossible without parity in politics, as women leaders represent role models whose impact creates a ‘spill over’ effect felt throughout society. She sums up the event with the force of a tornado, slating the Right for failing to support women’s rights and hailing the PES manifesto for its proactive measures on gender equality, and is met with a warm applause from the audience.
The conclusions of the discussion are clear – women’s rights have come a long way since the first International Women’s Day 90 years ago, but there is still a lot to do, and real effort is needed at all levels to sustain the momentum of the gender equality movement. This makes political parity an essential first step, so with the European elections less than three months away, what are we waiting for?
To sign the 50:50 petition, click here: http://5050campaign.wordpress.com/
And above you can see the PES video of the conference, where you can see the high points of the event along with an interview with PES Women President, Zita Gurmai. Enjoy![kml_flashembed movie="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLoc_jwVCNo" width="480" height="295" wmode="transparent" /]

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