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International Women's Day: Cutting through the crap

By Ammu Joseph

International Women's Day began as an occasion to demand women's suffrage, the right to work and the right to strike for bread and peace. Today it's been commercialised and reduced to just another occasion to offer discounts on clothes and cosmetic surgery

Come International Women's Day and it is open season for potshots at feminism, the women's movement, gender, and related ideas and activities, especially in the media. Some of those taking aim suggest that the admirable achievements of one extraordinary, successful woman or another is proof enough of the redundancy and irrelevance of all of the above. Others imply that the occasion is observed only by privileged urban women who know nothing and care even less about their unfortunate sisters struggling for basic needs, especially in rural areas. In the process most would-be critics reveal their extreme ignorance about IWD and its role in the long-drawn-out effort across the world to establish the equality of human beings irrespective of sex (and other differences) and to secure women's entitlement to fundamental human rights.

Such ignorance is understandable, if not quite excusable, considering what has happened to IWD in recent times. Hijacked by commercial interests seeking to capitalise on anything and everything, it has in many ways been shorn of meaning and purpose, and placed alongside Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, and so on, as an occasion for celebratory consumption.

The first paragraphs of a report on the 'Day of fun 'n' frolic' that appeared in one newspaper on March 9 last year provides a glimpse of the typical metropolitan melange that has come to be associated with IWD: "From discounts on clothes and food to cosmetic surgery camps, grooming sessions and fun-filled 'women-only' dos, Bangalore's women had all this and more to celebrate their day. A retailer decided to offer ladies' tops, and an MNC bank announced that its credit card holders would get a 20% discount if they took their mothers out to dinner. A bar organised a show featuring men dancing to popular Bollywood numbers. The exclusively female audience was invited to basically let their hair down."

The corporate sponsors of this new genre of IWD celebrations would probably blanche if they knew the radical origins of the day they now profit from. Ironically, it was from the trade union and socialist movements that the initial concept of the day emerged. The idea is believed to have emanated from the strikes by female textile workers in New York City in 1857 and 1908 to protest against poor working conditions. But the first Women's Day is usually traced back to a large demonstration on February 28, 1909, organised by the National Association of Socialist Women in the USA and calling for recognition of women's political and economic rights, including the right to vote. Women's Day continued to be observed in the US on the last Sunday of February every year till 1913.

It was in 1910 that the concept went international, with over 100 women from 17 countries endorsing the proposal for an International Women's Day put forward at the Second International Conference of Socialist Women held in Copenhagen. The next year more than one million women and men attended mid-March rallies in several European countries. In addition to women's right to suffrage and to hold public office, they demanded the right to work and to vocational training, as well as an end to discrimination on the job. A tragic fire in a garment factory in New York that year, which killed more than 140 young women workers, ensured that subsequent IWD events continued to focus attention on the situation of working class women.

In 1913, on the eve of the First World War, the IWD agenda was expanded, with women in Russia and elsewhere in Europe using the occasion to advocate peace and, later, to protest war. In 1917, with two million Russian soldiers dead, Russian women again chose the last Sunday in February to strike for "bread and peace". Four days later the czar was forced to abdicate and the provisional government granted women the right to vote. That historic Sunday apparently fell on February 23, according to the Julian calendar then followed in Russia, but on March 8 according to the Gregorian calendar used elsewhere.

Later, in the 1970s, with the United Nations also endorsing the annual commemoration of IWD on March 8, the event took on a more global and official character, emerging as a rallying point in both 'developed' and 'developing' countries for coordinated efforts to demand women's rights and participation in political and economic processes.

In India IWD has been used by women's groups and others to highlight a wide range of important issues, ranging from violence against women to women's participation in politics and governance. What is more, IWD-related events are no longer confined to the metropolises. For example, in 2003 a team of rural, female masons in Puri district, Orissa, marked the occasion in one village by constructing a house using disaster-resistant construction technologies. In another village women revitalised self-help groups in an attempt to improve their livelihood options.

In 2004, 50 women representing three of the 18 women-headed panchayats in Mirzapur district, Uttar Pradesh, held a silent demonstration before handing over a petition to the local development officer. Pointing out that their husbands and other influential men were trying to run the show despite the 73rd Constitutional Amendment reserving one-third of seats in panchayat institutions for women, they demanded regular gram panchayat meetings in which women could occupy their legitimate place and perform their duties as elected representatives.

Even in the cities, where IWD has been commercialised almost beyond recognition over the past decade, many events continue to focus attention on serious problems and to expose a larger public to the issues at stake. For example, this year a coalition of organisations in Bangalore has chosen to highlight the fact that five months after the legislation to deal with domestic violence (the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, 2005) was finally passed by Parliament - thanks to consistent work and persistent lobbying by women's groups and progressive lawyers -- it cannot be implemented because the necessary infrastructure is not yet in place. And an organisation in Mumbai has put up a photo exhibition along four city bus routes depicting the history of women's activism from 1931 onwards.

This is, surely, a far cry from the recent suggestion in a popular column that IWD is all about "hundreds of empowered women in metros ... shedding their clothes, their inhibitions and declaring how great it is to be a woman" and "women across the world ... raising toasts, heaping caviar on blinisand hailing yet another year of living extravagantly."

InfoChange News & Features, March 2006