Monday, 12 March 2012

The Hypocrisy of International Women's Day

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a good friend of mine when the conversation turned to International Women’s Day. I asked her whether she was looking forward to it to which she dismissively said, ‘Yeah, but for us, every day is international women’s day.’ I replied, “Yes, but this is the one time of the year where everyone else pays attention.’ This was an offhand conversation. I did not expect it to come to frame my experiences of the day this year.

I lost count of the number of times people wished me International Women’s Day on Thursday. A fair few of them were feminist activists but this also included many who seem to count winding a feminist up as one of their more enjoyable pastimes. Even those who I have not seen for months sent me text messages and emails. My email inbox was filled with different newsletters or emails from organisations wishing me a happy International Women's Day telling me what they stood for and how this was important for women, how absolutely central to their work women’s rights was and in what ways they were going to celebrate this day. There have been so many events planned that my head is spinning from finishing the merry-go-round that is the days around 8th March.

Whenever 8th March comes around, the vibe reminds me of independence days. In so many ways, 8th March is an independence day for women. It’s a chance to reflect, think and write about what we have achieved so far, feeling proud of the activism that brought that to pass (even if it is not your own), taking stock of how far we have to come and how far there is left to go. The anniversaries of the anniversary (100 years of international women’s day, 60 years of Indian independence, 55 years of Ghanaian independence and thus the start of decolonisation in sub Saharan Africa) take on special significance and become key moments in and of their own right.

All of this is good, right? So why have I spent the last few days feeling so annoyed?

My reaction is to blatant cynicism and hypocrisy I have experienced. Plenty of people do precious little for women most of the time, focusing their attention on issues that disproportionately affect men, organising events where just white middle class men are able to speak and not seeing the ways women are differently affected by the same issues nor the issues of particular concern to women. Then, all of a sudden in March, they realise that now is their opportunity to prove their feminist credentials. They organise an event, write an article or otherwise speak out on women’s rights. The amount of attention around international women’s day almost crowds out the work of year long feminist activists. Of all the events organised, count the number that have been organised by activists. Why would you organise an event this week, knowing the number of organisations and institutions with much bigger marketing budgets that will ‘have it covered’? Of the media coverage received in the past week, how many activists have written articles or otherwise been profiled? And how much of all of this has focused on black, lesbian or bisexual, trans, disabled and/ or working class women?

This all matters, and it matters because of the attitudes of the people who come to ‘own’ IWD. This becomes clear when you consider their actions the rest of the year and exactly how they choose to mark the day.

In the week beforehand, I heard about some plans. A European embassy in an African country invites women’s rights activists to a reception with the injunction that the dress code is ‘smart and feminine.’ A school in Beijing provides a free photo-shoot for its female members of staff, complete with hairstyling and makeup. There are events up and down the UK offering massages and a chance to buy jewellery. The website www.internationalwomensday.com is run by Aurora Ventures, a private investment firm. International Women’s Day is not for activists anymore. It seems to have largely become depoliticised, an alternate Mothering Sunday or Valentine’s Day, stripped of its call for fundamental, radical and transformative social change.

On 7th March, I attended an event on the perspectives of women in LGBT campaigning. Afterwards, I congratulated one of the men in the organisation: ‘This was a great event, well done; just make sure that all the events you do from now on have at least 50% women on the panels,’ only to be told that this was impossible as it ‘would be too difficult.’

Thursday morning, David Cameron announced the criminalisation of stalking and the piloting of ‘Clare’s Law’, declaring ‘ending violence against women and girls is a priority for this government.’ He ends by saying ‘So International Women's Day is vital as it forces people across the planet to focus on issues like this. But we have got to make sure that action to stamp out violence against women continues every day - and that's what this government is determined to do.’ Given the brunt of the government’s economic policy is falling on women and the impact of cuts to services (31% in the current financial year) and legal aid, how seriously can anyone believe David Cameron or anyone in his coalition government cares genuinely about stopping violence against women?

The South Bank Centre’s Women of the World festival is perhaps the main women focused event happening in London the weekend after International Women’s Day. I have heard mainly positive feedback and I do get the impression that Jude Kelly, its artistic director, is a committed feminist who has fought hard to be able to put on the festival at all. When I return on Sunday night, I sit down with their April programme and google the names of those taking part in events. I count the numbers of women and men: 49 women and 153 men. Fifty-two women are missing and 52 men have taken their place.

I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, a 32% representation of women is not so bad. It is usually much less. A few months ago, Kira Cochrane found that 22% of newspaper articles are written by women, 28% of Question Time contributors are women and 16% of Today Show reporters and guests are women. Given the abysmal statistics elsewhere, must we be content with figures like 32% when women make up over 50% of the population?

We are meant to be grateful for the small crumbs that are offered in March. These are expected to suffice to sustain us for the rest of the year. I do not believe any of these people or institutions actually care about women beyond our use as a PR opportunity. This ethos is simply not followed through the rest of the year. It should be obvious that the awareness, discussion and celebration need to continue past early March. You need to pay attention to women 365 days a year and not just on the one day which has our name on it. After all, women’s rights are for life, not just for International Women’s Day.

by Kali Mandodari

3 comments:

  1. I couldn't agree more. I work in PR and we're always looking for "news hooks" to guide when we tell what story. Knowing the press will go all out on IWD corporations choose March for their diversity campaigns. They then refuse to believe that their own numbers and track record do not meet feminists' expectations. "That's a good percentage" they say, "it's better than our competitors and the reason for that is initiatives like our one-day-a-year acknowledgement of women". I paraphrase.

    But yes, I agree with this post completely.

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  2. This is a refreshingly honest and brave look at what IWD means (what it should mean and what sadly it might have come to mean). As a women's rights activist I also got a bit tired of the 'Happy International Women's Day' wishes, and hit the roof completely when a (male) friend suggested it might be a good day to go and see the Iron Lady! As I said on my Facebook status that day (to mixed response): "It's international women's day, stay angry sisters".

    Thanks Kali for putting this out there. Lee x

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