I was invited by a friend, director of an AIDS hospice, to speak to a room full of women on Women’s day, some years back. I wasn’t the intended speaker, Sean was. I was just a tag along. After Sean spoke, the director of the hospice, our friend, came towards me with a big smile on her face. “Say something. As a woman, to all these women!” she said. With cold clammy hands and sweat dripping down my shirt, I walked towards the lectern, my mind racing. I was the undeserving cynosure of at least 50 pair of eyes. By accident of birth, I was on the other side of the lectern. My family’s expectations from me were degree, job, good marriage, a happy life, in that order. They worked hard to get that for me. I didn’t have to struggle to achieve anything. The women sitting in front with hopeful faces, however, were tested by fire. Former sex workers, rape victims, wives of HIV positive men, who unknowingly carried the deadly virus, paying a hard price for their errant husbands’ vices, former drug users. Poverty, lack of education, and squalid living conditions led them to desperate measures. Yet they did not give up the battle to have a shot at a better life. They were fighting tooth and nail, they were staying afloat, they were gasping and struggling, yet holding on. Despite their sickness, they were trying to carve out a decent life for themselves, and some, for their HIV positive children. So that is what I told them. I told them they were inspirations to me, to be a better person, a better mother, a better daughter, a better wife. I vowed, like them, I would never give up, no matter how hard the going gets. From them I learned never to disregard or take for granted the chance that I got in life just because of an accident of birth.
My grandmother studied till the 10th standard. My mother married a man of her choice in her first year of college. She finished her graduation when I was six years old. I, however, was expected to not only finish college but study further, get a job and then think of marriage. There has been a linear progression among the women in my family. That is symbolic of the state of women throughout the world. There has been progress, definitely. But has our gender found equal footing with men? Not yet. We are a work in progress, we are still paving the highway to reach our destination – equality. Many are hard at work, some are, perhaps, way back in line but they are moving – forward. Women’s Day celebration bothers many enlightened women. This whole concept of Woman’s Day irks me too. Me, a privileged, respected, somewhat enlightened woman living in an equal partnership with a man. The history of Woman’s day doesn’t reek of discrimination though. Instead, it represents the unity of the working women. According to Wikipedia, International Women’s Day
“Started as a Socialist political event, the holiday blended in the culture of many countries, primarily Eastern Europe, Russia, and the former Soviet bloc. In some regions, the day lost its political flavor, and became simply an occasion for men to express their love for women in a way somewhat similar to a mixture of Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. In other regions, however, the original political and human rights theme designated by the United Nations runs strong, and political and social awareness of the struggles of women worldwide are brought out and examined in a hopeful manner.”
I personally don’t want to have a day dedicated to my gender. I, and many others like me, don’t feel inferior to the other gender in any way and dedicating a day for women is actually demeaning. It is like pointing out that you are weak, it is patronizing and as I said before, it reeks of gender inequality. But I am not one of those multitudes who are struggling against social stigma or religious conservatism. I am not the girl whose mother tells me it is a sin among their ‘beradari’ (clan) to send a girl child to school. Only boys are worthy of education. A girl child is only good for marriage – sold, in other words, at a steep price. I am not the woman who is getting beaten up by her husband every night in his drunken stupor because she fell asleep before he came home. Celebrating Women’s Day by buying a Hall mark card is not going to help the sweet girl who swept my house with her mother or the woman who hid her scar the next morning, accepting the abuse as her fate. But raising awareness about their condition might help them. Wishing other women ‘Happy women’s day’ on Facebook, for me, is completely meaningless. How about we make a resolution on this day to champion a cause that is close to our heart. Maybe sponsor the education of the daughter of our domestic help, or her son, for that matter? How about teaching the children of sex workers so they can break out of the vicious cycle? How about volunteering at a women’s shelter, how about donating money to a reputed Non Government Organization (NGO) who work towards women’s empowerment? Why not be the change that we want to happen instead of being an armchair analyst and either condemning Women’s Day or doing mere lip service by wishing another woman ‘Happy woman’s day’. What does Happy Woman’s Day mean anyway? Should we be happy that we are struggling and working hard to be counted as equals – like a world-wide sorority, working towards a common cause? Should we be happy that a few of us lucked out and got ahead of the game? Are our sister in remote parts of Africa, Latin America, Asia happy that they are part of this sorority? Do they even know?
I apologize if this blog seems preachy or didactic. That is not the intention. What right do I have to tell the world what they should do on this day? None, whatsoever. Sean and I make our meager contribution to women’s cause and other cause that are important to us and keep the faith that every little bit counts. I only want to share some ideas on what I think celebration of Women’s Day should be. I am fortunate to know so many people who are working hard and dedicating their time and energy in empowering women by providing education, healthcare, by helping them start cooperatives and little businesses. I have seen some of the fruits of their labor and have been amazed and humbled by these workers’ tenacity and relentless desire to make a change in another’s life. They talk less and work more. They motivate me to do my share in helping another – like trying to sponsor the education of a young woman of limited means. She didn’t want to continue her education so I put that money in her bank account so she could have a nest egg when she went into marriage. She is happy and expecting her first child. I hope one day she will use the money towards the education of her child. Today I made a resolution to help a woman who tried to kill herself by setting fire on her body because she couldn’t suffer her husband’s abuse anymore. She lived, but badly scarred. She is twenty years old, she hardly ever goes out and never takes the cover off her face to hide her scars and her shame. I will write about her and ask for your advice about how to go about helping her. I don’t need your money just your thoughts, a collective brainstorming of sorts.
Celebrating Women’s day is important I think. A day to raise awareness of the struggle that many women face everyday in any sphere of her life. Unfortunately, some women begin their struggle right in their mother’s womb. A struggle to live. At the same time, I hope and pray that during my daughter’s lifetime there will be no need to celebrate a day dedicated to her gender. And I tell her and her brother, whenever the occasion arises, that both of them have equal rights to the air and the sunlight they receive. Hopefully they will pass on that message to their children. But right now, the majority of women all over the world are playing catch up. Although, changes have been made, yet anybody who does humanitarian assistance work will agree that lot needs to be done to bring women up to speed. Dedicating one day to women can actually make people pause and take notice.
Let us each vow on this Women’s day to do at least something. At least, reiterate again and again to our children, nieces and nephews, students and grandkids about respecting other individuals. Let us stop using demeaning words and phrases against women, against different races, against people who may be different from us. It is so easy to do. Let us just think before we speak. Let us think of the repercussions of our words on others. And eventually, one day, during our children’s life time, men will not feel the need to insert an iron rod inside a woman to ‘teach her a lesson’ because she spoke out against wrong doing.
Lets keep the faith. It can happen.