In celebration of International Women’s Day, UN Women has released an English-language song, “One Woman,” featuring 25 female artists from 20 countries.
Personally, I prefer “Break the Chain,” the “mass rising” theme song for One Billion Rising, which I wrote about last month. Partly because of the music itself (though I do love the roster of female vocalists who came together for “One Woman”). Partly because of the catchy lyrics. “Break the Chain” names the issues in the very beginning (rape, incest, abuse, ownership of women’s bodies) and defies this violence in powerful lyrics that embrace dancing as an act of self-empowerment and connection. (The creators did such a good job that I’ve witnessed elementary-age kids singing along, in a girl power kind of way: “This is my body, my body’s holy….”)
Plus, “Break the Chain” fits in nicely with the “official theme” of this year’s International Women’s Day: violence against women. As the UN website tag line puts it, “A promise is a promise: Time for action to end violence against women.”
By contrast, “One Woman” doesn’t directly address rape or sexualized violence. While I very much like the different women’s voices—each artist sings a line about a different woman in a different part of the world—it’s not as catchy or as issue-based. Instead, it wades right into the fraught feminist territory of sameness and difference.
Take, for example, the following line: “We are One Woman, your dreams are mine, and we shall shine.” Last I checked, feminists had pretty roundly critiqued the notion of “one woman,” led by many women of color in the U.S. and globally (including Chandra Talpade Mohanty, M. Jacqui Alexander, and the members of the Combahee River Collective, to name only a few). These critiques of overly idealized notions of global sisterhood have pointed to the deeply significant differences of race, nation, and class in our capitalist world. Many feminists have theorized and acted upon alternative models of alliance and coalition-building that can allow for difference and disagreement even as solidarity can take shape around particular issues.
To be fair, the song also contains examples of difference: it identifies many individual women living in particular locations (Kigali, Hanoi, Tangier, Kampala, Juárez, Jaipur, Manila, and so on) whose everyday lives are sources of inspiration and strength. And one line says, “Though we’re different as can be, we’re connected, she with me.” These elements of difference, however, are framed within the refrain of “We are One Woman”—which is, after all, the title of the song.
So who is this song for, and what is it trying to do?
The press materials for UN Women state that “‘One Woman’ aims to become a rallying cry that inspires listeners about the mission of UN Women and engages them to join in the drive for women’s empowerment and gender equality.” This suggests that the song wasn’t written for activists on the frontlines, but rather potential donors and women (primarily in the U.S.? across the “developed” world? or throughout the entire world?) who aren’t involved in struggles for gender justice.
I do love the voices of each of these female artists, many of whom I was not familiar with before this song. And who knows? Perhaps some of their fans at home will listen to “One Woman,” learn about International Women’s Day, and experience heightened consciousness around gender-based violence.
That’s the thing about cultural productions like songs. You just never know how listeners will understand what they hear.