International Women's Day is a celebration of more than a century of women's mass movements demanding equality and freedom.
It is important to remember that it was socialist revolutionary women who began observing International Women's Day to commemorate the historic strikes by women workers in the United States of America, demanding an 8-hour working day and the right to vote. Those working class women and revolutionary socialists struggled for women's freedom – and for a revolution that would free not only women but the world's people from oppressive shackles.
This is a history that the market and most of our ruling politicians would like us to forget, as they seek to appropriate IWD and empty it of its true historical and contemporary significance.
Many politicians would like us to observe IWD as a day to express gratitude to women for their 'selfless service', and praise women for their 'achievements'. And in the same way, various companies that commercialize IWD would like us to observe IWD as a day to buy gifts for women to express gratitude and praise.
This 'praise' and 'gratitude', ironically, is like a paternalistic “good conduct” prize to women for performing the roles prescribed by patriarchy. While in fact, IWD commemorates women's rejection of those patriarchal roles and the struggle to overthrow patriarchal structures!
Reflecting this patriarchal approach, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi issued a massage on IWD saying, “I salute the indomitable courage and stellar achievements of women”. In this message, he mentioned the “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” (Save and Educate Daughters) scheme and the Sukanya Samruddhi scheme (to “support the marriage and education of young women”). These schemes also reinforce the notion that girls and young women must be 'saved' because they are “good daughters”, not because they are equal human beings. 'Sukanya' literally means 'good daughter'. And why should 'marriage' be tagged with 'education' as a goal for women, when there are certainly no schemes for the marriage of men; is it not a tacit appeasement of the dowry system?
Modi's message does not mention that his Government's first full Budget recently slashed the funds for the ICDS scheme by a whopping 51%. This scheme is meant to combat malnutrition and healthcare in children and gender discrimination against girls, and is run by anganwadi workers. How can the PM 'save daughters' by slashing the budget for this scheme? By slashing the budget for this scheme, India's abysmal performance on child nutrition and girl children's rights will take a further beating, and anganwadi workers will continue to be underpaid and exploited.
Moreover, Modi is silent on the fate of the rape survivors of Muzaffarnagar, who were raped at the behest of leaders of Modi's party, as part of the communal violence that helped secure BJP a huge mandate in the Parliamentary elections. The accused men continue to enjoy impunity thanks to the protection of the ruling party, and the quest for justice is being actively obstructed.
The Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal's Women's Day message also reinforced patriarchal stereotypes. He said, “When I used to fight against the corrupt system, my wife ran the house and my mother supported me”, and asked Delhi men to admire “how easily and honestly women carry out their responsibilities and relationships without expressing the slightest protest … They go about their families”. He asked men to refrain from street harassment because “Men who do not respect women outside can never respect women in their household.”
Patriarchy expects women to “run the house” for men who lead political struggles; to do household work as their 'responsibility' alone; and do waged “jobs” as well as “take care of families”, all “without expressing the slightest protest”. The history of the women's movement is a history of women rejecting this division of labour and assignment of roles. It is the history of women expressing vocal, vigorous protest against being asked to bear the burden of housework alone; against exploitation at work and in the home; and against being expected to “run homes” for men who have prominent public roles. It is the history of women leading struggles and social and political movements. Kejriwal's message shows that he has chosen not to credit this history of protest, but has praised women for 'suffering and bearing burdens in silence' – something that patriarchy has always done.
Moreover, why should men be asked to refrain from violence against women, as a show of respect to women in their homes? In effect, this amounts to asking men to keep all women safe, in gratitude for the services women perform for men inside homes. In fact, men are violent and coercive to women inside homes precisely because they feel entitled to women's household services. This fact is clearly indicated by a study based on the based on the India Human Development Survey 2004-05, which found that justification for wife-beating and domestic violence in India ranged from 'going out alone without permission' (about 39 per cent), followed by 'neglect of household duties' (about 35 per cent), 'badly cooked meals' (about 29.50 per cent), and dowry-related (about 29 per cent).
The BBC film India's Daughter also reinforces the idea of the obedient and well-behaved Indian daughter, who seeks her parents' 'permission' to go out with a male friend. It claims to show the “mindset of the rapist”, but it locates the abhorrent anti-women ideas only in the rapist and his lawyers. It fails to show how the custodians of the system, including police officers and politicians and godmen, display the same mindsets. It also profiles poor underprivileged men in India as rapists, failing to show that rape is a much larger problem, occurring across classes both in India and in the world.
Close to IWD, the horrific lynching of a rape-accused man in Dimapur by a mob of thousands is a chilling reminder of how the issue of rape and 'women's safety' is often turned into a patriarchal display of violence rather than a quest for justice for women.
In this case, the accused is from the minority Muslim community, and was wrongly profiled as an 'outsider', and 'illegal Banglaseshi immigrant', whereas in fact he was from Assam. But even if he had been Bangladeshi, the fact is that the lynching would still be an instance of xenophobic, patriarchal violence.
The incident highlights how xenophobia and communal hatred against 'illegal Bangladeshi' is being whipped up in the eastern parts of India and also elsewhere in India.
But the Dimapur incident also raises the question of why mobs never 'avenge' rapes committed by men of their own community? Such mob violence is orchestrated and unleashed only when a man from an 'Other' community is accused of raping “our women”, that is when the rape is seen as an attack on the community's 'honour'. Women are seen as property and repositories of community honour, and men accused of violating that property and that 'honour' are attacked. This is no different from khap panchayats killing men for having married women from another caste.
In Dimapur, and in the political pogrom unleashed by the BJP in Muzaffarnagar, and in the mob attack on African men in Rajiv Chowk in Delhi, the same patriarchal sentiment was operating. In Khirki, it was African women who were painted by an AAP Minister as the threat to the safety of 'out women'.
Justice for women can never be brought about by unleashing mob violence to 'avenge' them, and it can never be achieved on the basis of asking men to 'respect all women like 'their' women”. Instead, all men must be asked to learn to respect the autonomy and freedom of all women, including those in their families. And the patriarchal structures of class, caste, gender, race, from the homes to the workplaces, must be challenged. That is the message of International Women's Day!