Saturday, March 5, 2011

Memories of the IWD

In the world of abbreviations and short names, among many other things that the IWD may mean, it also means the International Women’s Day.

I didn’t know much about the IWD till about 17-18 years back. Not because I didn’t work on the issues of human rights. The issues of secularism, anti-caste movements, governance and justice, environment and poverty motivated me and have affected the decisions that I took in one or the other way from the time I was in my late teens. The issues of the women’s and child rights, on the hand, have been companions since so far back into the childhood years that I can’t even put a finger on the age when I became aware of these issues. Growing up with anger and frustration, living within the boundaries and following the directives but only after expressing how angry I am, which often earned me names implying a juvenile delinquent who knows nothing more than willful disobedience, it wasn’t difficult to know these issues. But I didn’t know the IWD.

I went on to participate in and work on the women’s and child rights issues and gradually got to know the Children’s Day, the birth anniversary of the freedom fighter and India’s first Prime Minister, Chacha Nehru, as the day when sweets are distributed among the children in the schools. Nothing in my surrounding guided me to link the day with the issue of child rights. As the school years progressed, I learnt of more international/world days. But awareness of these days and the work continued in separate compartments for a long time. The IWD was one of the dates on the paper and a day when some fancy people spoke in some fancy places.

Then there were years of the rallies and dharanas on this day and of an expectation that women’s world will change as swiftly as the fancy people speak. In the hindsight, I do not see the logic of this expectation because all along I knew that education, income and empowerment are the only way out of inequality, discrimination, and violence. Daydreaming, perhaps. As my engagement with the issues of women’s and children’s basic human rights and exposure to intersecting development and humanitarian issues deepened, I almost forgot the international/world days and began regarding them nothing more than political gimmicks of नेता (leaders) and प्रणेता (fathers).

2011 Theme:
Women and men united
to end violence against women and girls
 Then one day in the UK, I saw a poster that led me to read the history of IWD. Until then I used to believe that the IWD began with the 'International Women's Year' by the United Nations in 1975. I learnt of symbolism of this day and about the ways this day is commemorated. I saw it being celebrated as a feminist media event in the UK but saw only feminists of a certain stature and class being involved. A gimmick of another kind of group, I thought.

Then on one 8th of March in Yemen, as I came to my office to be taken to one of those big commemoration events, I was greeted with a chorus of ‘Happy Women’s Day’. It was the first time that I heard the use of this phrase on the IWD. I asked two of my male colleagues to explain why it should be a happy day. Their answer was thoughtful. They described it as a day to honour the women who made progress possible for all women. The following day, one of the two male colleagues shared his profound thoughts on how women invite sexual violence by this or that. I wondered if the thought shared on the previous day was lifted from one of the concept notes that some of the women’s organizations came up with to describe why there are having events on this date.

On my first 8th of March in Afghanistan, for the first time in my life, I received flowers. In fact, all three of us – the office cleaner, a programme assistant and I, who at that time, happened to be the only women in an organization of about 27 persons – received a flower from each of the male colleagues. Then I learnt that it is an official holiday in Afghanistan. One of my male colleagues, a cheeky patriarch, shared his opinion that the government people like the IWD because it gives them an extra holiday and all it costs is a flower! Shouldn't we, too, have a holiday ... , he wondered. I wondered if the Afghan government on its own would have chosen this day as an official holiday and whether it is premised in an idea that ‘if you can’t convince them [men], buy them [with a holiday]’. My colleagues laughed and said that I could be right.

Since then I have seen many symbolic mega pink and purple events in many countries in Africa, held in fancy hotels with people being flown in from here and there. Most of those, who I hear speaking, are urban upper or middle class women and the ministers and senior government officials reminding the women in the audiences (usually, the audiences are all women) of the great achievements and the need to ensure women’s representation in political or public life. One or a few subdued or quiet, and visibly rural and poor women are usually brought into these events as a inclusive tokens.

The regrettable fact of pomp and show of this date always affected me. It still does. Some say that it is my inability to see that the investment in this date keeps the issue of women’s inequality alive. On this centennial celebration of International Women's Day, I can only hope that the large-scale events would be large in their inclusivity of issues affecting all categories of women and girls, especially, those who live in remote areas and belong to marginalized communities. That these events would come out of the hotels and entry-restricted auditoriums and would not use the poor rural or slum women as props.

And now, here's a good video link Just One Woman, especially for those of us who keep saying I am just one person, what can I do.

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