Dhaka Courier

Necessity of the International Women’s Day… or is it even necessary?

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A special observation on March 8

‘Gender’ is a common term being used to define the human race, and mostly being ruled by two of its major species- men and women. Nonetheless, one can surely assume that a gender-equal world can be healthier, wealthier and more harmonious to live in. Since the year of 1975, the world is celebrating a specific day (March 8) as the International Women’s Day (IWD). The question is, as we are taking major steps in the name of equality, then why do women around the world celebrate only one specific day as the women’s day? Is it only to inform men of women’s rights? Or has it become a marketing campaign? What is the reason behind this gender-specific day? Let’s see the background reasons first.

The original aim of International Women’s Day was to achieve gender equality for women around the world; however, this has not yet been realized. The first International Women’s Day was held in 1911. From that time, every year thousands of events occur to mark the economic, political and social achievements of women organizations, governments, charities, educational institutions, women’s groups, corporations - and the media industry also celebrates the day with women-themed media contents.

History says the earliest Women’s Day observance was held on February 28, 1909, in New York. It was organized by the Socialist Party of America, in remembrance of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. There was no specific strike that happened on March 8, despite later claims.

In August 1910, an International Women’s Conference was organized to precede the general meeting of the Socialist Second International in Copenhagen, Denmark. Inspired in part by the American socialists, the German Socialist Luise Zietz proposed the establishment of an annual ‘International Women’s Day’ and was seconded by fellow socialist and later communist leader Clara Zetkin, although no date was specified at that conference. [References are taken from Temma Kaplan “On the Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day”, Feminist Studies, 11/1 (Spring, 1985) and  “History of International Women’s Day”, United Nation].

According to the Internationalwomensday.com, the delegates (100 women from 17 countries) agreed with the idea as a strategy to promote equal rights, including ‘suffrage’ or simply the right of votes, for women.

The UN website page on the background of the IWD says that on March 19, 1911, IWD was marked for the first time by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. Temma Kaplan’s “On the Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day” also says that the Austro-Hungarian Empire alone, there were 300 demonstrations and in Vienna, women paraded on the Ringstrasse and carried banners honouring the martyrs of the Paris Commune. Women demanded that women are given the right to vote and to hold public office and they also raised their voices against employment gender discrimination. Meanwhile, the Americans continued to celebrate National Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February.

Although there were some women-led strikes, marches, and other protests in the years leading up to 1914, none of them happened on March 8. In 1914 International Women’s Day was held on March 8, possibly because and that day was a Sunday (holiday), and possibly from that time now it is always held on March 8 in all countries.

We observe that in this day, various organizations identify their own International Women’s Day theme, specifying their local context and interests. Many charities, NGOs and Governments also adopt a relevant theme or campaign to mark the day. World Association of Girl Guides & Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) and more - run exciting and powerful campaigns that raise awareness and encourage donations for good causes.

But what happened after that? The UN has been declaring an annual equality theme for many years.  But even in this century, it is seen that women forming two-thirds of the World’s total illiterate ratio. In the case of Bangladesh, most of the women live in rural areas and the majority of them are still deprived of basic human rights. They are deprived of their family property rights, access to social services and also in sectors such as health and education. Still, most of them have not been allowed in any decision-making powers even when it concerns their own bodies. They bear a lot of burden with working and caring for the children. Women are tortured, imprisoned and even killed for raising their voice.

If we shed light on the salaries at their working sectors, they do not get equal pay even if they work hard. However, they are compelled to sell their labour at the cheapest price - thanks to poverty. Due to this discrimination, not only the poor women suffer but also their families, community and eventually the state are obstructed in progressing towards sustainable development.

In Bangladesh, there are many laws in favour of women. But what is the real picture? Law is only favourable for men or that woman who has power and money but not for poor women. Corruption in the law enforcing agencies is a critical obstacle to eliminate crime and violence against women. It is clear that the mechanisms to enforce and administer the relevant laws are inadequate and ineffective. Unusual delay in court procedures and trial proceedings allow accused persons out on bail to intimidate victims and tamper the evidence. As a result, ultimately these laws do not favour or even harm women.

Despite these discriminations, we celebrate Women Day regularly every year.  A lot of programs, seminars, discussions is arranged on this day, spending a great sum of money. Instead, marking this day, we can take a lot of decisions for the betterment and development of women - and for that, we do not need to celebrate a gender-specific women’s day. If we have to celebrate this day, let the men arrange this and give them a chance so they can show how the scenario is changing into positive. Otherwise, it is not possible for women to bring the change even if they shout out their slogan for their rights. There is no benefit of women shouting alone. Men are depriving women of their rights because they do not understand women and women’s rights. When men will understand and be aware of the equality of women, when men will stop depriving women of their rights - that day women will get their due recognition and rights. The day, when men stop torturing women, the day when they stop sexual harassments, stop raping women diminishing age-barriers, stop repulsive hate crimes against women- that day will be the ultimate day we recognize women for what they are.

There is no return if women are fighting alone for their rights. Nothing happens until the heads of the bowl move. They are always men, in this patriarchal society and culture. So men should also take a stand for their beloved women. They should shout at the ears of this patriarchal society, culture and their masters. History says that this is possible- remember how the brutal practice of Sati stopped? When men stood beside women and shouted against it. Just like that, some of the men wanted to stop child marriage and now-a day’s child marriage in most areas has been closed. Men like Khan Bahadur Sakhawat Hossain wanted to revolutionize women’s education, so he motivated Begum Rokeya to ignite the revolution. If these women wanted to do these things, nothing could have been possible even after hundreds of years passed without the help of some real men. Not taking against anything, but this is a fact that women took the movement alone for the right to vote and took hundreds of years to achieve it.

The position of women in our society is low and the people are not accustomed to hearing the voices of individuals in low position in this society. In these circumstances, men will have to overcome their male-chauvinistic mentality. Otherwise, how society can even hope for a gender-equal culture? Due to the discrimination of men and women that had been occurring for years now, women alone cannot fight to get their rights. All people are responsible for the disparity of this discrimination. As long as there is discrimination between men and women, there is no reason to call mankind a civilized nation - and no reason to celebrate a particular day for us, the women. If we call it a women’s day - let it be a profound and meaningful one.

The writer is an Upazila Women Affairs Officer for the People’s Republic of Bangladesh and a Ph.D. researcher in the field of Gender and Development Studies at Asian Institute of Technology - AIT, Thailand.

  • Necessity of the International Women’s Day… or is it even necessary?
  • Vol 36
  • Jakia Begum
  • Issue 35
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