By Sneha Rajaram
Last week, PM Modi had an idea for March 8, International Women’s Day: that only women speak in Parliament on that day. This gimmick is only one of a gazillion pale pink jack-in-the-boxes that jump up and go ‘boo’ at women in the week leading up to Women’s Day. The retail industry is going crazy, just as it did on Valentine’s, and as it will on Mother’s Day. Nothing like some pinkified obfuscatory sentiment to fool us into thinking the world at large actually values us as human beings.
So, was International Women’s Day always like this? A quick surf of the interwebs says an emphatic No. Once upon a time, it was sharp as a blade, angry, full of muscle. For instance, look at this German poster for International Women’s Day in 1914, demanding the vote for women.
Do you see any pink? Nope. Just plenty of angry energetic red.
Does the woman look like an adult? Yes.
Does she have flowy blow-dried hair? No.
Is her body language passive? No.
Is she smiling pleasingly? No.
Is the poster asking women for money? No.
Now look at today’s Women’s Day posters on billboards, on the internet, in your spam, and tell me if they fulfill these criteria.
If you thought that Women’s Day was always a beastly little commercial animal trying to give women pink discounts and pink coupon codes, think again. Women’s Day has socialist origins! (That might explain the red flag in the poster above too.) So what did Women’s Day start out as? Here are some of the milestones in the history of this day.
November 1908: Over 15,000 garment workers in New York, mainly immigrant Jewish women who worked in sweatshops, went on strike for better working hours, wages and conditions. They were supported by the National Women’s Trade Union League of America and were successful in February 1909. Now, this is strangely reminiscent of the Munnar tea plantation workers’ strike last year. (Pssst: more on this later.)
28 February, 1909: The Socialist Party of America decides to commemorate the success of the strike with a nationwide Women’s Day. Take that, coupon codes!
8 March, 1914: The first year in which International Women’s Day was observed on March 8.
8 March, 1917: If we think we can make as much of an impact this Women’s Day as 1917’s did, we’d just be deluding ourselves. Don’t believe me? International Women’s Day demonstrations in St. Petersburg served as a catalyst to precipitate Russia into the February Revolution (named ‘February’ according to the Russian calendar at the time). Tsar Nicholas II had to abdicate his throne.
What are we doing this Women’s Day, eh?
23 December, 1949: The People’s Republic of China declares that women will have the day off on Women’s Day. Yep, you heard right. Women’s Day is now moving leftwards from socialism.
8 May, 1965: International Women’s Day is declared a national holiday in the USSR. Left, left and further left.
1975: Women’s Day starts being recognized by everyone, not just the Left, in the 1970s. The UN observes Women’s Day as part of its International Woman’s year in 1975.
8 March, 1977: The UN General Assembly proclaims March 8 to be the “UN Day for Women’s Rights and World Peace”. That’s when International Women’s Day became a global, officially UN-certified event. It is hard to say if that’s what started the current dilution of the day, but our consumer culture has definitely accelerated the process. Think of the ads using Women’s Day (as they would any other occasion) to peddle products.
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This year, the UN tells us that “The official United Nations theme for International Women’s Day in 2016 is Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality… how to accelerate and build momentum for the effective implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It will equally focus on new commitments under UN Women’s Step It Up initiative, and other existing commitments on gender equality, women’s empowerment and women’s human rights.”
This sounds predictably vague and arithmetical – just like many of the previous UN themes for Women’s Day – and so we must look elsewhere for our inspiration this March 8th.
Who’s been bringing the edge back to Women’s Day in the last year? There are so many women who’ve been doing kranti that there’s not enough space for all of them in any one person’s head. So let me just focus on my head instead – who made an impact on my tiny, sheltered, microcosmic life? I’d say this year has been not so much about individuals, but about groups of women for me – groups who got together and struggled to make an impact, and will keep struggling, groups like those 15,000 garment workers who got together and brought an exploitative industry to its knees. There’s nothing quite like knowing that dozens, hundreds, or thousands of women are fighting side by side – it’s sentimental, I know, but it’s goosebump material for sure.
Here are three super duper inspiring groups of women who’ve been struggling to make an impact this last year:
1. Pembila Orumai
This women’s trade union was formed last year in response to the employers at the Kannan Devan Hills [tea] Plantations company in Munnar, Kerala. The women tea pickers on this plantation struggle through difficult working and living conditions, low pay, occupational health problems, and long hours. The strike started out in early September with around 50 women, By December, the strikers numbered three lakh. They successfully kept traditionally patriarchal trade unions out of their strike, and successfully negotiated a bonus hike and wage hike in the following months. And then they proceeded to contest in the Kerala panchayat elections and win, too!
2. Pinjra Tod
This movement against restrictions in adult women students’ hostels first came to my notice with a mind-blowingly articulate open letter written by an anonymous student of Jamia Millia University, Delhi, addressed to her Vice Chancellor. She asks why, as a woman who is old enough to vote, she is still under a curfew in a women’s hostel. This movement was then picked up by women’s hostel students from other universities in Delhi, who have put together a petition to abolish curfews in women’s hostels. #PinjraTod has since then broadened its agenda and reach. It has called universities out on their pretext of ‘jhooti suraksha’ (false protection) and planned protests all over the country. Follow their Facebook page for more.
3. The Khabar Lahariya Correspondents
Khabar Lahariya is a newspaper that’s run entirely by women. It covers (and caters to) media-dark rural areas in UP and Bihar. There are six editions of KL in different languages: Awadhi, Bajjika, Bhojpuri, Bundeli, English and Hindi. The newspaper’s field correspondents and reporters are local women from Dalit and minority communities. (Watch this video to know more.) The KL correspondents face obstacles every day in the course of their work, including aggression from male reporters who feel threatened. But last year their work became much, much harder: they were persecuted by a phone stalker for nine months. He made their professional and personal lives hell. The police were unhelpful. When this story came to the notice of the media, the CM of UP finally took action, and the stalker was arrested within two days. As a PR exercise, the UP government proceeded to wow them with their 1090 women’s helpline and statistics. But Khabar Lahariya wasn’t wowed. Their skeptical open letter to Akhilesh Yadav is a lesson to all of us, telling us why we should not be wowed by government PR. And now, Khabar Lahariya has gone digital with a vengeance. Videos on their website and a larger font for the audience, who is often self literate or can only read with difficulty. Media workshops, mobile apps, cameras and smartphones for the correspondents. A blog for KL readers. And archives of their reports, in all six languages, on their website, KhabarLahariya.org. Now that’s something to be wowed by.
And that’s a wrap. Yes, I’ve only omitted around 3.5 billion daily struggles of women everywhere. But that’s just proof that one day cannot even begin to address all the billions of women on this planet. Let’s have an International Women’s Millenium, shall we? If, at the end of it, we’re not oppressed at all – keep in mind that the last millenium didn’t achieve that – then we can go back to one day.
March 8, 2016 at 11:06 pm
imsabbah theladiesfinger saw ur name in firstpost 5 women who have done great job in J&K…
March 8, 2016 at 11:35 pm