By Jessica Mack
Last week was International Women’s Day (March 8), in case you miraculously missed it. And Tom asked “is International Women’s Day good for women?” He questions the value of gratuitous global days of recognition, with which I mostly agree. It’s kind of annoying and it’s exhausting. There is always a new one popping up and it’s like, “oh man, really?”
But International Women’s Day is different.
It is, personally, one of my all time favorite days of the year. I love it more than Thanksgiving, and maybe even my birthday. I definitely love it more than Halloween and the Fourth of July.
I am someone who is privileged enough to have a job (that I love) where I think, talk, research, and write about women nearly 24/7. It is not really a job for me, I suppose, more a way that I live my life. International Women’s Day is a rare day when I can share that passion unfettered with the world. I can subject friends to dinner conversations on emergency contraception without feeling guilty. I can post seven consecutive Tweets on gang rape and not worry I’ll lose followers (or to hell with them).
I feel empowered by International Women’s Day because for that day, I feel like much more of the world is behind those who work on these issues all day every day.
Now that I’m writing this, it’s occurring to me that perhaps I’m too apologetic as a women’s rights advocate. At the risk of being insultingly generalizing, I would gander that women are often too apologetic for the space they take up, for the discussions they start, for the opinions they contradict. I feel grateful when someone who doesn’t work in my field is willing to talk to me about the state of rape in Congo. Or access to birth control in California. But why am I so apologetic? These aren’t issues that affect only me, or only women. These are issues that affect each of us, plus they are just part of the reality of the world around us.
Tom suggests there might come a time when international Women’s Day will “work itself out of existence” as it were, rendered moot by the leaps and bounds of progress of the world’s women (and the millions of men actively preventing that progress).
I want to be hopeful and say that time is coming, but I am not that confident. Regardless, there is always an important in remembering the why-who-where-what of a struggle, even long after it’s over. And really, is any struggle ever entirely over? Think about racism. Think about homophobia. Think about colonialism.
International Women’s Day’s roots are planted in the 20th century American women’s liberation movement (though women around the world are part of early and pre-dated machinations, to be sure). It is, at its core, connected to a sense of grassroots movement bubbling-over of outrage. It is the culmination of “we’ve had enough of this bullshit.”
The day is closely connected to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which more than 100 poor women workers died because the shoddy condition of their factory prevented their timely escape. Thus it is intimately linked to women workers – a phrase whose meaning is still problematic in the US today, and around the world.
In the US, the wage gap is still a very real thing, and perhaps getting worse. Women workers are still caught between rocks and hard places everywhere they look, from juggling families and expectations of good-motherhood to climbing the professional jungle gym. From labor rights of sex workers to migrant, domestic and factory workers, from farmers to women contributing to the informal economy through housework… this issue is a the heart of the women’s rights movement still.
International Women’s Day here in Bangkok was full of reminders of the battles and contradictions that characterize life as a woman. I pulled up to the United Nations building on a motorbike to a rally of nearly 1,000 Thai women workers were camped outside, with banners and shirts and chants. They were delivering a petition to the International Labor Organization about fair working conditions (and I felt like a jerk walking into the UN with my security badge). Fair working conditions. More than 100 years after the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, this is still our go damn axe to grind.
The cries of the rally grew more distant as I skirted security with my fancy badge and headed into the UN’s bubble of privilege. Then I attended an event where I heard a sex worker speak about her gang rape in Malaysia, while a deaf Thai woman spoke about resisting the pressure to be sterilized. An Australian woman who argued Thailand’s first ever domestic violence case said that, at first, no male lawyer would represent her client since “no man would betray another man in that way.” In front of an audience of suits and diplomats, the sex worker said, “I am a sex worker. I am also a human being, and I was raped.” Hear hear.
Later, I caught the premier of an Al Jazeera report on gang rape in Cambodia. Recent research suggests rates of gang rape are higher there than almost anywhere in the region. The practice is called “bauk” and it’s basically a male bonding activity. Several self-identified perpetrators were interviewed, who felt absolutely no remorse for coercing women – even schoolgirls – into cars or guesthouses where they’d let six of their friends take turns. It was sickening.
After the report ended, I hopped on the Sky Train home, passing no fewer than six full size nearly-nude lingerie ads in the train station. Women just depicted in two dimensions, for your consummation.
Do you think all this stuff is unconnected? This is a battlefield and our vigilance must be 360 degrees at all times.
I won’t bore you with a veritable litany of depressing facts about women’s status and rights worldwide. But you know they’re trying to pass a law in Iran that would prohibit single women from traveling without a male guardian’s permission, right? And you know that Arkansas (male) lawmakers just passed the US’s strictest abortion law yet, right? And the list goes on.
Yet I guess I do actually wish that International Women’s Day would be abolished. Instead, I would much prefer International Women’s Year, and make that every year, until infinity. Tom thinks it’s silly to have an international day of recognition for half the population. It would be silly if it weren’t so sinister that half the population of this world still faces such systematic violence and oppression.
Jessica Mack is a global gender specialist and freelance writer. She is currently based in Bangkok, Thailand where she works on issues of violence against women and girls in the Asia Pacific region. More at www.jessmack.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @fleetwoodjmack