Woman power

A timely reminder that International Women’s Day had its origin in the revolutionary socialist movement.

Published : Mar 15, 2017 12:30 IST

THIS year’s celebrations of International Women’s Day come in the wake of, though not as a consequence of, the January 21 Women’s March in the United States, a protest which eventually spread around the world. There were men as well as women who came out in their thousands to make their protest heard. The slogans and posters at the marches set out the parameters of the protest: against misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia and white supremacism. Like feminism in the good old days of revolutionary socialism, the march in support of women’s right to dignity and control of their lives and over their bodies felt and expressed the need to incorporate and embrace other struggles, including those of refugees fleeing violence and political persecution. It is a measure of how much the world has changed since the early days of feminism in the 1800s that the leading voices in the January 21 protests were those of women.

Yet, the more things change, the more they seem to remain the same. In India, as young people in colleges and universities keep alive the hope for forces of reason and good sense by taking on Sangh Parivar bigots over narrow notions of nationalism and patriotism, women daring to think or act independently face harassment and rape threats. That does not necessarily translate into fuel for an organised women’s movement, even less for movements on the Left. Still, there are voices speaking up for people on the margins, and many of those voices are of women. Many women’s organisations and groups in India, as in the rest of the world, use International Women’s Day to ask and answer important questions about the role and position of women in society. In our mixed-up kind of world, however, the corporates and big businesses also make use of March 8 to sell products aimed at women, everything from manicures to luxury cars. It is a good time to be reminded, as R. Jawahar does in the book under review, that International Women’s Day had its origin in the resolution of the International Socialist Women’s Conference in 1910 and that the 1917 march by women workers of St. Petersburg, which launched the Russian Revolution, started the tradition of celebrating it on March 8.

In this age of easily accessible information, it is not surprising that myths about the origin of International Women’s Day should be widely accessed and shared. Jawahar lists the myths about the origin of International Women’s Day in a separate section called “Appendices”, in which the first part is titled “Myths vs Reality”. He points out that even organisations such as the United Nations subscribe to some of these myths. Even some revolutionary women activists, he shows, have sometimes fallen prey to misrepresentations of a tradition started by their own movement. The second part of “Appendices” is called “Chronology”. It is a useful timeline of the programmes adopted by revolutionary socialists that nurtured the tradition of observing “women’s day” to press ahead with demands for equal rights for women, including the right to vote and to equal pay. It is a tradition whose roots can be traced in times when women were fighting for something as basic as the right to vote.

The writer also locates the revival of interest in the tradition in what he calls the “storm of feminism” that swept the West in the 1960s. Young women who take for granted the rights that feminist movements won through long, arduous struggles are often reluctant to identify with feminism. The grip of what Betty Friedan called “the feminine mystique” in her 1963 book, nurtured by “lived-happily-ever-after” fairy tales from childhood, is still strong enough for feminism to retain a kind of stigma. Jawahar reminds us that the feminist movements of the mid 19th century created the conditions for the U.N. to “take some concrete measures on women’s rights and for the celebration of International Women’s Day officially”. In more ways than one, his book constitutes a timely reminder.

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