March 8 – A Day of Rights, Witches, Flowers, or Mothers?

I don’t know if there’s any other holiday celebrated by millions of people that combines so many seemingly incongruous ideas and meanings as March 8.

As we know, it all started with female revolutionaries, socialists, and suffragists prepared for radical protest in the fight for equal rights with men, which at the time was mainly aimed at equal voting rights. Equal pay also soon became one of the most important goals of the struggle as more and more women started working at factories but earned much less than men. Ladies in hats mobilized the mass of toilers in industrial society, calling for them to come out to demonstrations and become active participants in the political process. For them, solidarity became the foundation of the women’s movement. Rich and poor alike were arrested for protesting, but women never retreated. Over just two decades, they were able to achieve a great deal—women gained the right to vote in countries where they fought for it, and work conditions and pay improved.

But behind this brief and historic success story, meaning, form, and even understanding of the “roots” of “women’s day” celebrated on March 8 were already being distorted. The communists declared that this day was their invention (even though in 1910 Clara Zetkin supported the tradition of women’s demonstrations that had come to held around the same time). The Soviet government choose March 8 to promote the achievements of “working women” in the Soviet Union and to glorify the colossal milk yield and overfulfillment of plans. When, during Khrushchev’s thaw, people were given the chance to breathe, March 8 was declared a day off, thus becoming not a “day of struggle,” but a national holiday for Soviet people. It gradually came to be called a “spring holiday,” and its emblem became a branch of mimosa or other flowers with no connection whatsoever to women’s struggle for equal rights. This holiday replaced an array of cancelled holidays needed to bring joy to people, from Easter or Purim to Valentine’s Day (boys decided that they should only treat their classmates gallantly on March 8 and frequently used this “legal holiday” for half-confessions).

But there were also official formalities: on the eve of March 8, all companies held events where speeches were pronounced and awards and prizes and bouquets and cakes were handed out. Men brought women presents, gave up their seats for them on public transportation (the one time a year that that happened), and in some families men even triumphantly washed the dishes. The notion of a holiday of “mothers and grandmothers” was instilled in children. All of this only served to offend the dignity of women who were not entirely indifferent to the idea of equal rights.

Meanwhile, with a push from Communist countries, the United Nations also declared March 8 women’s day, and Western countries also started to celebrate it. I recall how surprised we were in the early 1990s by the Western style of posters for March 8: they almost always had pictures of witches on broomsticks, which did not jibe with either the Soviet aesthetics of “international women’s day” or with the revolutionary values of the original idea.

Gradually, the images and ideas of Western feminism wormed their way into former Soviet lands, where this day continues to be celebrated by those who hold dear the tradition of a drink at work and flowers from their beloved. At the same time, the few feminists we have demonstrate under violet or rose-colored flags, chanting “freedom, equality, sisterhood” and other topical slogans. In our times, the question of fighting violence, sexual harassment, and the demeaning treatment of women has taken priority. Meanwhile, the history of this matter has become overgrown with myths. The media provides its interpretation: for example, the following assertion about March 8 was apparently made in all seriousness: “This holiday finds its roots in women’s centuries-long battle for participation in society on the same par as men. In Ancient Greece, Lysistrata organized a sex strike against men in order to end a war”.

With all due respect for the efforts of progressive women to end war, Lysistrata should certainly not be presented as a real historical figure! And the strange idea about March 8 as a holiday with roots in antiquity does not stand up to criticism. But it’s not just in Russia that people believe that the ancients taught us this holiday. In Tajikistan, there’s no talk at all about equal rights (never mind “sex strikes”)—the country’s leader ordered people to celebrate “mother’s day” on this day. But even here grounds for this were found in the traditions of the ancient Greeks: “By order of the Founder of Peace and National Unity, Leader of the Nation, President of the Republic of Tajikistan, His Excellency Emomali Rahmon, Tajikistan has celebrated Mother’s Day since 2009. ‘The figure of the mother has always been and will remain the embodiment of all that has been sacred and eternal for our nation since the dawn of time,’ Rahmon has stated repeatedly in his speeches. Mother’s Day has a long history. This was the time of year when ancient Greeks and Romans honored the goddess of fertility”.

The dichotomy of the supposedly classical undertakings of sex strikes and cults of female fertility is actually fairly modern. We can find among people who consider themselves feminists those who support a mother’s right to take her infant to work and breastfeed in public, as well as others who categorically insist on childlessness, separatism from men, and flat-out asexuality for all legal norms (including “maternity” leave and childcare leave). Some proclaim that the very concept of gender is politically incorrect and demand that any differences in address, first names, and last names be abolished (more and more children are being given non-gender-specific names). Others insist on marking all words used in relation to women with gender because they believe this is the only way to overcome discrimination. All this creates a vast expanse for the struggle for equal rights and provides a bedrock for great disputes, controversies, and eloquent arguments. This is probably necessary and useful; the truth may not be born in arguments, but diversity—that is, pluralism—is.

But how far all of this is from the idea of solidarity, primarily with women who have it hardest of all! With women who simply will not understand what “My Body, My Business” means or how unpleasant it is to be looked at or treated the wrong way. I remember the faces of young “second wives” (whom I met not just in Muslim countries, but also in other traditional societies) with their missing front teeth, which they always explained with embarrassment had “fallen out on their own, were aching.” And the aging “first wives,” as well, who paint a sad picture: they compensate for their resentment and pain with their power over the young women brought into the home by their husbands, who have cooled towards the mothers of their oldest children. Neither young wives or “old” ones (usually slightly over 35) can leave the house.

The never-ending cycle of abortions is the only recognized form for regulating the birth rate in places where all power lies with jealous husbands, since preventing pregnancy always carries the risk of deception in their eyes. Many women enter the hospital every few months and experience pain, shame, fear, and humiliation from these abortions—possibly dozens of times in their lives!

The stories of sexual exploitation are the stories of older relatives, lovers, and pimps chasing women “down the highway.” I know of a case when a husband who had been arrested paid for cigarettes and other items he needed from guards (and other prisoners) with his wife’s body. And successful, well-paid female human rights defenders tell us that “sex work is a job, like cleaning; after all, both involve work with bodies,” while at the same time explaining that “I don’t like quickies in the bathroom, I wasn’t raised that way, but other women really enjoy it.” Who likes what is, of course, a matter of taste (upbringing, if you wish, but this already reeks of arrogance), but we’re not talking about a means of achieving pleasure, we’re talking about sex under duress, about exploitation. Exploitation that is clearly discriminatory in nature: the absolute majority of victims here are women. Equally hypocritical and arrogant, in my opinion, are the arguments of successful women who call themselves “sex workers” (using the masculine gender for some reason [rabotnik (male worker) instead of rabotnitsa (female worker) – Trans.]) and assert that they represent everyone who is driven out onto the pavement by the “organizers of the business.” They tell us that sex is their favorite thing to do and that it pays well too. It’s possible, but what percentage of women came to prostitution of their own free will? And can we really say that this miniscule percentage is representative?

It’s as if some of the “young wives” announced that they are rich, educated women who love living in a polygamous family. If you like it, please, go right ahead, but we’re not talking about people who have freedom to make this choice. We’re talking about people who are dependent, discriminated against, sold, and betrayed.

While we live in a world were women suffer so, but all conversations are about “how terrible it is to be a cis-woman and forced to play the piano in childhood,” all we can say is that this is feminism of the elite and not solidarity.

Stephania Kulaeva

First published in the blog of Radio Liberty

Photo by Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com