why international women’s day is more relevant than ever
Despite the usual slew of detractors claiming that men and women are now equal, shocking statistics prove International Women’s Day still matters.
Originally tied to Socialist movements campaigning for better working conditions, better pay, and the right to vote, International Women's Day has evolved into a global event marked by millions of people across the world to both celebrate the achievements of women, and to shine a light on the continuing struggle for gender equality. The occasion as we know it has taken shape around the United Nations commission on the Status Of Women, a key policy making space for governments to make commitments to women's rights. Although the origins of IWD can be traced back to New York, 1909, it was in 1977 that the UN invited to member states to proclaim March 8 as the official UN Day for women's rights and world peace. Since then, UN themes for the annual event have included initiatives such as 'World Free of Violence Against Women,' 'Women and HIV/Aids', and 'Investing in Women and Girls'. The focus for 2016's IWD is 'Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality', looking to progress the targets laid out in the 2030 Agenda which includes ensuring free access to education, the elimination of discrimination and violence towards women in both public and private, and the ending of all harmful practices such as child marriage. Simply looking at these aims is evidence that International Women's Day is still important despite the usual slew of detractors claiming that men and women are now equal and feminism is useless.
It is undeniable that we have come a long way since the days of the first IWD: women across the world now enjoy universal suffrage, most can choose beyond the single vocation of housewife, and atrocities such as a man's right to sex with his wife regardless of her consent have been criminalised in the majority of the world. But although some are blessed to live in a time where marital rape is officially illegal, it is still common practice in millions of relationships. 1 in 3 women are still affected by sexual violence on American campuses, and the assailants are usually men that they know. Economic downturns and the associated government cuts to social services disparately affect women and girls. Many doubters of IWD often argue that feminism is no longer needed - women in the West are free, they claim, pointing to the progress feminist movements have made in the last century. The holiday is sexist! What about International Men's Day! What about the Real Problems with sexism in the Middle East?!
Despite criticism from Men's Rights Activists, International Women's Day is still both important and necessary, both in the 'liberated' West and the rest of the world. British women are beaten, sexually abused and murdered by partners, relatives and total strangers every day. Two women a week are killed by former or current partners in England and Wales. Worldwide, over 50% of sexual assault against women is suffered by girls younger than 17. There is not only still a gender pay gap but a gendered chasm in employment rates. Violence against women and girls is systematic, and all women suffer sexism in some form, whether it is harassment on the street or discrimination in the workplace. Upsettingly, white feminists who champion the importance of the day are often just as ignorant as the men who criticise it, regularly framing their arguments in support of IWD with ignorant depictions of impoverished African women and oppressed Muslim girls. The fact is, we need International Women's Day because women everywhere are still unequal to men, not because we need to save our 'less fortunate' sisters from backgrounds different to ours.
Indeed one of the important challenges for IWD is inclusivity - mainstream feminism has long been guilty of overlooking the voices and concerns of women of colour, painting the struggles of women all across the world as one homogenous lump. It is this kind of thinking that leads to dangerously alienating forms of feminism such as Femen, whose discourse is centred on a Western ideal of freedom linked primarily to nudity and a "freedom from religion". What if the rest of us don't feel oppressed? First and second wave feminists were guilty of this, but in an age of intersectionality and global interconnectedness, short-sighted white feminism is inexcusable. Unfortunately IWD is often one of the worst days of the year when it comes to displays of white saviour behaviour, with campaigns aiming to raise awareness regarding the plight of women in developing countries often coming off as patronising extended Oxfam adverts. Initiatives focusing on 'places where women's rights have a long way to go' are condescending at best and woefully misleading at worst - from the rampant sexual abuse of children by powerful men in the UK's media, to the wide scale closure of domestic violence shelters that means support for some of the most vulnerable women has been pushed back 40 years, gender equality still has a long way to go at home.
It is important that IWD doesn't become a symbolic gesture, a public holiday where men buy the women in their lives flowers and spend the rest of the year ignoring sexism and misogyny, as has arguably become the case in countries such as Russia. The day is in danger of becoming a commodity, just another social media hashtag or marketing exercise for brands to sell more things to women under the guise of empowerment whilst doing little to target sexism in their own sweatshops and boardrooms. The statistics of life as a woman are why the day is still necessary, and why it is crucial that IWD is more than just a brand exercise in feminism or an annual session at the UN, an ultimately exclusive space that many women have little knowledge of and even less access to.It is crucial that IWD is more than just an annual session at the UN, an ultimately exclusive space that many women have little knowledge of and even less access to. There is a dangerous disconnect between the official spaces in which policy is made and the issues facing women in the real world. For every feminist applauding Emma Watson's He for She speech, there are hundreds of women of colour asking why we still have not been invited to the table. The continued value of IWD lies in our ability to move beyond a one-dimensional feminism - to integrate and amplify the voices that have historically been ignored in mainstream feminist discourse, not just on 8th March but every day, and to create unified movements that are inclusive of all women, not just those in positions of privilege.
Continue to explore our International Women's Day content by following Molly Bair and Natalie Westling on a great American road trip to discover what it means to be an American woman in 2016.
Text Niloufar Haidari