(I wrote this post a good fortnight ago…Punctuality is very far from being my forté)
Today, the 8th March, is International Women’s Day. To be perfectly honest, it’s not a key date in my calendar and not something I would’ve remembered if it weren’t for the fact that it’s everywhere on social media – even Facebook is asking me how I’m celebrating…
Here in Colombia, I can only come to the conclusion that International Women’s Day has been seriously misinterpreted. Today, upon entering my English class at 8 am I was greeted by many a “Feliz Día de la Mujer teacher!” much to my confusion. Later on in the staff room I was given sweets by no fewer than five people, also wishing me a happy Women’s Day. I was sent numerous whatsapp messages with brightly coloured, sickly-sweet cartoons repeating the above, to which I responded with a bewildered “gracias!” Upon leaving university I saw many schoolgirls carrying roses or chocolates – Women’s Day gifts. In my dance class all female members were given a rose. As if it were an excuse to repeat the same commercialised horror that is Valentine’s Day. In short; it’s not.
I understand that different cultures have very distinct ways of marking celebrations, yet in my interpretation (and I’m very aware that it is nothing more than that; an interpretation) International Women’s Day has nothing to do with the above. Converting it into little more than another field day for modern commercialism, to celebrate the simple fact that a given person identifies as female, is to do a grave injustice to an event that is still of vital importance today.
To me this does not seem to be a simple case of an alternative way of celebrating the day, but rather a complete contradiction of its focus and principles, i.e. gender equality. Granted, at first glance they seem harmless enough, but messages such as the ones above do much to further emphasise the supposed differences between men and women. Interpreting qualities such as “loving,” “sweet” and “beautiful” as principally female traits, as opposed to what they really are – HUMAN characteristics – further separates men and women. It reinforces stereotypes that have limited both sexes to rigid categories since the dawn of time and promotes the idea of gender as an inherent quality, as opposed to what it truly is, a societal construct.
It’s like saying let’s celebrate women’s emancipation and progress by giving them all these very stereotypical and gender specific gifts and compliments… On the surface it may seem cute and harmless, but that’s the very problem: trivialisation serves to make this day meaningless, at the same time as aiding a subtle, (and probably wholly unintentional) current of sexism.
My disquiet at the above interpretation inspired me to investigate the history of International Women’s Day and what it’s really about. It all began in the early 1900s with various protests and marches in the US against women’s oppression; in 1908 15 000 women marched through New York demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights. Women’s Day was observed nationally the following year. International Women’s Day was born a year later and marked in various European countries. The New York “Triangle Fire,” in which over 140 women died trapped in a factory, is widely believed to be the event that catalysed International Women’s Day, drawing attention to women’s working conditions and rights. International Women’s Day became increasingly important and more widely celebrated over the following years. In 1913 the date was changed to the 8th March and has remained the same ever since. One of the main original focuses of the day was the granting of universal suffrage and over the years the day has adopted different emphases: a world free of violence against women, empower rural women, women in decision making etc. Though many nowadays (erroneously) believe that feminism’s cause has been won, IWD is still observed to both celebrate women’s achievements and illustrate the many issues they still face, such as unequal pay and the overwhelming dominance of men in politics and business.
International Women’s Day was seen as a necessity in order to raise the profile of women’s rights and support the struggle of oppressed women worldwide. This event was considered essential back in 1909, and it is a struggle that is, in my opinion, unfortunately just as relevant, important and necessary today, and one that must seek to avoid a misinterpreted and wholly commercialised fate.
So, instead of using International Women’s Day as an occasion to congratulate me on my gender (thanks…) or overlooking it entirely, I wholeheartedly urge all people to interpret it as a day to reflect on how they can act to promote gender equality in their own lives, because after all, sexism is not simply a women’s issue.
“I raise up my voice—not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard…we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” ―Malala Yousafzai