In Central Asia, the day is being used to reinforce traditional gender rolesby Jessica Abrahams / March 7, 2016 / Leave a comment
In 1910, Clara Zetkin—head of the Women’s Office of the Social Democratic Party of Germany—proposed an idea: every year, women in every country would gather on the same day to celebrate their achievements and press for equal rights.
More than a century on and International Women’s Day, held on 8th March, still offers an opportunity for people around the world to promote women’s equality—organising protests, festivities, talks, debates, mentoring sessions, performances and a host of other activities usually based around a central theme—this year, #PledgeForParity.
In Central Asia it is one of the most hotly anticipated days of the year and a national holiday. But the celebrations have diverged from what was originally intended. Rather than an emblem of women’s rights, one expert on the region describes it as “like Valentine’s Day”—cities become a sea of pink as men give flowers and cards to female friends, teachers and colleagues; organise meals for female family members and offer greetings and good wishes to women they meet. Elaine Conkievich, representative for UN Women in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, tells me that International Women’s Day in Central Asia is “considered to be the day of spring, feminine beauty [and] tenderness.” In Tajikistan, the government has recently rebranded the event from International Women’s Day to Mother’s Day. A celebration that was supposed to challenge gender roles is being used to reinforce them.
In 1917, Russian women used the day to launch an anti-war protest that contributed to the Tsar’s abdication shortly after, and the subsequent provisional government granted women the right to vote. After the October Revolution later that year, International Women’s Day was promoted by the Soviet leadership as a way of encouraging women to take up work in textiles, factories and agriculture, creating a narrative about the vital role of women in the construction of a communist empire. Festivities celebrated the Soviet figures of mother-heroes and the women-heroes of labour. Leading Communist Party members would take part, speaking about women’s rights and announcing education programmes and job opportunities for women.
Gradually, however, the political significance of the day was lost and its connection to the struggle for women’s rights forgotten. “Most government attempts to mark the occasion with even symbolic gestures toward women’s equality disappeared when the Soviet Union fell apart,” says Marianne Kamp, Associate Professor of History at the University of Wyoming, and author of The New Woman in Uzbekistan. “In the 1920s and 1930s, the holiday provided an occasion when the Soviet government felt obliged to try to do something about women’s rights, but after the end of the USSR that no longer seemed to be anyone’s agenda.”
Conkievich tells me that at present, the official meaning of the day is sometimes communicated. Some governments organise events to recognise the achievements of successful women—the annual Zulfiya Award in Uzbekistan, for example, named after a female poet and given to gifted girls and women under 25 —but the theme of women’s rights is not emphasized and is not associated with the day in the minds of most people.
It’s not surprising: activists can face almost impossible barriers in raising awareness of the subject there. Discrimination is widespread, women are poorly represented in government, and sexual and domestic violence is rife. A UN survey found that almost half of women in Kyrgyzstan said that their partner had used physical force against them. Many of the women asked—more than two-thirds in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and just under 40 per cent in Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan—said that a man could be justified in beating his wife. Thousands of women are thought to be trafficked from the region each year; and patriarchal traditions such as “bride kidnapping”—where a man abducts the woman he wishes to marry—are said to have been on the rise again in some rural areas.
Some groups have commented on a re-emergence of conservatism with regards to gender norms in recent years. The UN Population Fund notes that: “The socialisation of strict masculine and feminine gender identities contributes to the reinforcement of men’s entitlement to engage in aggressive behaviour and act as the power holder and predominant decision-maker.” As they try to campaign on these issues, women’s rights activists in the region can find themselves subjected to harassment from the authorities and to threats and even violence from conservative groups.
This is the context in which International Women’s Day is hijacked to celebrate not women’s equality but a prescribed feminine ideal. It may be observed on Tuesday more enthusiastically in Central Asia than anywhere else in the world— but the opportunity to promote women’s rights has been turned on its head.