I remember last year having an online discussion with a group of well informed women about the point of having an International Women’s Day. In my mind, speaking as a somewhat diluted feminist, I could not see any reason why women should have a special day when men do not. I mean, I’m all for equality. The responses to my question absolutely astounded and enlightened me at the time, and this is why I am writing this particular article. As a white, working class woman, living in the UK, with all this country has to offer; its education (I attended an all girls Grammar School, much to my chagrin), the health service, the variety of jobs I could enlist upon should I so wish, I felt that women, in this day and age, have nothing to be ‘praising’ themselves for. But my eyes were opened to the plight of other women who do not enjoy these ‘luxuries’ that I readily accept as the norm, even dismiss as the norm. Growing up in a household where my mother was the breadwinner had always taught me that no job was out of my reach, all men were equal to me and my attitude towards men who deemed me beneath them was always one of slight amusement. Imagine then when I was informed of situations where women still did not have the right to vote, or countries where women could be stoned to death for certain ‘crimes’, where female genital mutilation is still being carried out for religious or cultural reasons, and the wearing of the burka is not optional. Thank goodness then that International Women’s Day has been celebrated since the early 1900’s. The official website of International Women’s Day has kindly set out a calender of events to which I have shortened for the purpose of this article.
Women were becoming more vocal and demanding action for change in a time of great unrest and change. In 1908, 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter hours, better pay and voting rights.
The Socialist Party of America declared the first National Woman’s Day (NWD) which was observed all across the United States on 28 February. Women continued to celebrate NWD on the last Sunday of February until 1913.
In the second International Conference of Working Women, held in Copenhagen, Clara Zetkin (Leader of the ‘Women’s Office’ for the Social Democratic Party in Germany) tabled the idea of an International Women’s Day. She proposed that every year in every country there should be a celebration on the same day – a Women’s Day – to press for their demands. The conference greeted Zetkin’s suggestion with unanimous approval and thus International Women’s Day was the result.
The first International Women’s Day (IWD) was honoured in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on 19 March. More than one million women and men attended IWD rallies campaigning for women’s rights. However, on 25 March, the tragic ‘Triangle Fire’ in New York City took the lives of more than 140 working women. This disastrous event drew significant attention to working conditions and labour legislation in the United States that became a focus of subsequent International Women’s Day events.
On the last Sunday in February, the eve before the start of the First World War, Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day. In 1913 following discussions, International Women’s Day was transferred to 8 March and this day has remained the global date for International Women’s Day ever since. In 1914 further women across Europe held rallies to campaign against the war and to express women’s solidarity.
Russian women began a strike for ‘bread and peace’ on the last day in February 1917, in response to the death over 2 million Russian soldiers in war. The women were opposed by political leaders but continued to strike until four days later the Czar was forced to abdicate and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote.
1918 – 1999
Although it has its roots in the socialism, International Women’s Day has now grown to become a global day of recognition and celebration across developed and developing countries alike. For decades, IWD has grown from strength to strength annually. The United Nations holds an annual IWD conference to coordinate international efforts for women’s rights and participation in social, political and economic processes. There was an ‘International Women’s Year’ in 1975 as declared by the United Nations. Women’s organisations and governments around the world have also observed IWD annually on 8 March by holding large-scale events that honour women’s advancement and while diligently reminding of the continued vigilance and action required to ensure that women’s equality is gained and maintained in all aspects of life.
2000 and beyond
IWD is now an official holiday in Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar (for women only), Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal (for women only), Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zambia. The tradition sees men honouring their mothers, wives, girlfriends, colleagues, etc with flowers and small gifts. In some countries IWD has the equivalent status of Mother’s Day where children give small presents to their mothers and grandmothers.
So how will you celebrate International Women’s Day, or will you still be as I was last year, wondering what all the fuss is about? I do hope not as it took only a few educated women to enlighten me as to what some women have is a daily struggle, and all becauseof their gender. If you are in any doubt that this is a day that deserves recognition then just take a look at what ‘ird’ means within Sharia Law. A woman’s ird is based upon traditional standards of behaviour or a ‘code of honour’. For men, their code of honour is called ‘Sharaf” and involves protection of the ird of the women of the family, protection of property, maintenance of the honor of the tribe, and protection of the village.
‘Ird: the sexual purity of a woman that confers honor to her husband, family and community. Ird is based on the traditional standards of behavior set forth in the shariah code and includes subservience to male relatives, modest dress which could include veiling and the covering of the body, and restricted movement outside of the home. The loss of a woman’s ird confers shame upon her family and can result in ostracism by the community, economic damage, political consequences and the loss of self esteem.’
For more information on International Women’s Day visit the website – internationalwomensday.com. *All pictures courtesy of the International Women’s Day Website.