(Published in The Telegraph, March 11, 2006–the last of the Last Word columns)
If you missed observing International Women’s Day on March 8, try November. That’s when a handful of men celebrate International Men’s Day in Trinidad & Tobago. There is an International Men’s Day on February 7 in Malta, on July 15 in Brazil, and on February 23 in the Ukraine. Not only are there very few takers for an International Men’s Day, none of them seem to be able to agree on when it should be!
Every so often when March 8 rolls around, I hear grumbles about the apparent gender injustice: why an official day for women, but not for men? (The only answer to that is to ask why women get just one day to themselves—are the other 364 days of the year reserved exclusively for men?)
Over the years, the necessity of International Women’s Day has been fiercely debated, even as the occasion has moved far away from its original roots as a protest by women workers in factories facing impossibly cruel working conditions. But in a time when everything seems to have a Day to itself—Aids, punctuality, single parents, the pizza, malaria—IWD has actually become a point of focus for the women’s movement.
For me, March 8 offers a rare opportunity to take a look at the concerns of women in other parts of the world: the rest of the year, we’re occupied with our own, local concerns. In Pakistan, International Women’s Day had more than symbolic resonance, as Mukhtaran Mai, still seeking an elusive justice after being raped by order of a tribal panchayat, led a rally of thousands of women.
In the Philippines, women took to the streets to protest President Gloria Arroyo’s policies. A friend in Manila wrote to me: “Being feminist means not celebrating women achievers blindly; just because Arroyo is a woman does not make her pro-woman. It is up to us to say, look, we don’t want figureheads, we want real change.” In China, some women bloggers debated how much freedom they were really allowed—”we are free to be sex symbols but not to say what we want about politics and economics”, one writes. In Iran, government agents tried and failed to shut down protests by women demanding their rights. In the US, the focus was on the body, as women demanded more rights over contraception, better medical knowledge and the right to choose to have abortions in the wake of recent conservative government policies.
There were women too beleaguered to consider celebrating anything. The women in Sudan’s refugee camps, the women in Turkey caught between old and modern tyrannies, women in war zones, women under the poverty line. But even here, there was a growing recognition that the problems of men and women are different, and that even in times of apparently general crisis—war, famine, natural disasters like the tsunami—the two genders face different challenges.
Listening to the stories, testimonies and narratives that emerged this week, so many of them harrowing, I found myself glad for the sake of men that they don’t have an International Men’s Day. Special days are there to provide an outlet for groups that suffer consistently and deeply from specific problems. Feminist or not, I hope there will never come a time when men as a gender must deal with oppression, bias, sexual assault, deprivation, gender violence and contempt at a level where they need a day of their own.