If We Forget The History Of IWD, We Cannot Understand Its True Spirit!

Instead of focusing on the history of IWD, its social and political significance especially in addressing gender inequities, we have unfortunately converted it into a commercial festival.

Do you know the history of IWD, how it all began? It was 8th March 1917 (23rd February according to old Russian calendar). At Petrograd, the Russian capital, about 40000 women from all classes and walks of life took to streets demanding bread and equal rights including suffrage. As the day progressed, they were joined by more than a lakh people protesting on streets which ultimately led to the overthrow of the Tsar regime leading to the Russian Revolution.

This movement also led to the passing of the law which gave the women the right to vote and also be a part of the then government, the first major European nation to do so.

This event was so significant that Lenin, much later declared 8th March officially as The International Women’s Day, and made it a national holiday. (Many nations of the world observe a national holiday on this day even today).

But the history of IWD begins even before that

But according to many historians, the seeds of International Women’s Day (IWD) were sown much earlier.

At the turn of the 20th century, in many parts of America and Europe, women were migrating from rural areas and joining the urban workforce, but the conditions of women workers were terrible, with long working hours, substandard working conditions and much lesser pay than men. This lead to formation of many unions of female workers, fighting for labour rights of women.

In the year 1909, in New York, thousands of young women workers from garment factories went on a strike demanding better working conditions and pay. Inspired by this, Clara Zetkin, a German women’s rights advocate proposed the idea of an annual women’s day at the International Women’s Conference(1910) and 100 women from 17 countries agreed to this as a strategy to promote equal rights. Following this, in 1911 the first International Women’s Day was observed by more than a million women on 19th March after which many women leaders took the decision to observe Women’s Day annually on 8th March, which is carried forward to this day.

Despite this, the UN officially recognised 8th March as International Women’s Day only in the year 1975.

Why is the history of IWD important?

As the women of the 21st century, it is extremely important for us to be aware of the origins and the history of IWD because there are many important learnings for us from those pages of history.

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Firstly it shows us to believe in the power of unity. More than a century earlier than us, thousands of women believed that they could bring about the change in governance and policies by getting together, forming unions, developing strategies, protesting and even taking to streets and fighting the highest powers to get equal rights.

In a society where the power was in the hands of a few aristocratic men, these women from the working class could fight for and achieve voting rights. This is the best example to show that women getting together to fight for a cause can bring about social and political changes.

In today’s society, women do have voting rights in almost all countries. Despite this, the total percentage of elected women representatives in India’s Parliament is less than 15%. If we need better policies, we need equal representation and definitely more women in decision-making positions.

The history of IWD also shows that women can be change-makers if they take charge of their own destiny. These women more than a century ago were not hesitant to demand what they believed in, and even fight for it. In most countries of the world including India, equality, especially in the workforce is still a myth.

In India the Oxfam report (2022), shows that gender discrimination is still very much a reality with women getting lesser wages and missing out on raise and promotion opportunities compared to men. If this gender gap needs to be addressed, women need to take the reins in their hands following the examples of their counterparts from the previous century.

Commercialization of IWD

But instead of focusing on the historical, social and political significance of IWD, especially in addressing gender inequities, we have unfortunately, over many decades, slowly converted it into a festival of celebration of womanhood. Though it generates a sense of achievement and unity, the current version of IWD largely negates the founding principles and objectives of IWD which is to fight for equality of gender.

The narratives in popular media that celebrate women for being great mothers, sisters, daughters or worse, being superwomen who can handle everything don’t serve any objective other than perpetuating the same old gender-defined roles.

Many industries also capitalize on IWD, offering women exclusive discounts, offers that just lure women and make profits out of this business. We , women must learn to introspect and understand that these momentary celebrations and pleasures don’t help us in any way to achieve a larger, more important objective of gender equality.

IWD is less about celebration and more about empowerment

As a young woman who was unaware of the origins of IWD, I too was happy sending and receiving celebratory messages, going out with other women and celebrating women’s day in my own way. But understanding the significance of this movement has opened my eyes to not only the absolute relevance of this movement even in this day and age, but also how the knowledge of IWD has made me realize how much work needs to be done, despite our sisters laying it’s foundation stones a hundred years ago.

If those spirited women were to visit the world we live in today, would they be happy or satisfied with this version of IWD that we “celebrate” today? Have we done justice to their vision of equality and equity?? Have we, as 50% of the world’s population, achieved the working and living conditions that we rightly deserve??

This International Women’s Day is a perfect opportunity to bring about the change in our attitudes and think seriously about finding answers and solutions to important questions like these. Celebration of womanhood can happen on any day but the fight for gender equality is an ongoing battle even today. Only when we are aware of the foundation principles of this movement will we be engaged and better prepared for it. And we as the women of today’s world surely have many promises to keep and miles to go before we sleep.

Let this women’s day be the start of this change. I want to end by quoting another women’s rights pioneer, writer, activist, suffragist and champion of gender equality Theresa Malkiel. She wrote: “Come, my sisters, let us shake off our fetters; let us rise and assert our rights. It is time! The bugle call sounds louder and louder; my toiling sisters of the world, arise!”

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About the Author

Soumya Bharathi

Writer| Poet| Self-published author| Oral Surgeon| A woman who believes that subtlety is strength, feminine is formidable, beauty is in benevolence and vulnerability is validation of strength of character. For more read www.soumyabharathi. read more...

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