International Women’s Day: When they can’t defeat, they manipulate

Women’s struggle has never been individual. Also, it has never been against men, despite how misogynist propaganda depicts it. It is against the patriarchal system that treats women as less than human. Patriarchy is a system where we, men-women, and all genders live and negotiate. It is not the duty of individual women to break free from it. Also, it is not all about individual men and their oppressive behaviour. It is not about our personal choice or individual voice. The system doesn’t change automatically through the success of  particular women getting into positions of power while those positions of power remain violent and masculine, despite what neo-liberal feminism tries to make us believe.

 

 

The origin story:

Everyone knows the 8th of March is International Women’s Day. Still, very few know that it all started with socialist and working women’s fierce protests against capitalist exploitation. The idea originated from a labour strike by female textile workers in New York Sweatshirt factories in 1909, also known as the ‘Uprising of the 20,000’. They were demanding a very anti-capitalist idea: higher pay as a way to take ownership over their work. Eventually, this protest led to industrial labour reform in the US. This protest inspired socialist women to celebrate national women’s day in March 1910. In August of the same year, at the International Conference of Socialist Women, German socialist feminist Clara Zetkin proposed celebrating ‘International Women’s Day’. Later, in Russia, on the 8th of March 1917, female textile workers began demonstrations that inaugurated the Russian revolution (Smith 2005). Following the revolution, Feminist Bolshevik leader Alexandra Kollontai declared the  8th of March an official national holiday to celebrate International Women’s Day. Born from the socialist movement and having initiated a socialist revolution in Russia, from 1967, International Women’s Day was adopted by the United Nations and celebrated worldwide.

 

Erasure is a master’s tool

The adoption of  IWD by the UN was also the beginning of the erasure of its socialist origin. By the turn of the century, we had almost entirely forgotten its origin, but we alone were not to blame. There was a systematic, careful erasure through a seduction of feminism, adapting it to fit within a neo-liberal worldview (Eisenstein 2015). There was a process of erasing the ‘political’ from the ‘personal’ that feminisms established through their long and bloody struggle. Debates of difference raised by the black and Third World feminists against white/Western feminism were manipulated. They challenged the assumed idea of ‘woman’ and the white-centric sisterhood by arguing that other forms of systematic structural inequality, i.e., class, race, sexuality and global politics, privilege white-middle class women and prevent solidarity with marginalised women (Mohanty 1988; hooks 1982).

The issue of difference and the critique of women’s essential category has been manipulated by neo-liberal individualism, especially since the beginning of the 21st century. Feminisms were co-opted by the neo-liberal identity politics that post-structuralist feminists had been critical of from the start. With the rise of postmodernist fluidity, the debate of difference was explained as a matter of individual choice, and a focus was placed on the success of  (mostly powerful and privileged) individual women (Rottenberg 2014).

The fierce women’s movements which arose with different forms of feminisms, couldn’t be defeated. Therefore, they were appropriated, manipulated and used by neo-liberal capitalism (Funk 2013) and its powerful agents who benefit from women’s unpaid labour and perpetual exploitation; from the body to the home, from the street to the factory, from the school to the office, from local to global. The erasure of this collective struggle and politics instead makes neo-liberal feminism a masters tool, and we must remember that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” (Lorde 2003).

 

Remembering is a revolutionary act

To resist the systematic erasure of the collective struggle, we need to re-write feminist history and to shed light on the anti-capitalist roots of International Women’s Day. Feminist achievements are never won by taking the easy path. Every single achievement that women have, from reproductive rights to voting rights, from access to education to ruling the country, from breaking the silence about harassment to breaking the glass ceiling, nothing came without collective struggles and the loss of numerous lives. By erasing that history, International Women’s Day’s contemporary celebration has now become a consumer event. The neo-liberal celebration has focused on the success stories of individual women who ‘have it all’ through their ‘free will and choices’. We have to shout out loud that this is a big fat lie. They can’t have it all within the system unless they are privileged with some other forms of power relations. We have to remember that what we consider an ‘individual’ woman is actually a combination of selves constructed and shaped by each and every person they encounter.

We have to remember that blaming or praising individual women makes them solely responsible for their success and failure, as well as for the oppression they face and the abuse they experience. It has become a new way of victim-blaming. It has blinded us to the systematic inequality of intersectional power relations and how women negotiate with it and even use it to their advantage. Between second-wave feminism’s emphasis on structural oppression and millennial feminism’s emphasis on individual choice, the inseparable interrelation between the structure and the agency was forgotten. It has prevented us from seeing how women, with diversified bodies, in different socio-cultural and political contexts constantly negotiate and struggle with the dominant norms to make little spaces for themselves and make noise against the powerful forces that try to silence them in many ways. Suppose we can’t see that power and resistance simultaneously. In that case, we cannot see how women’s choice is neither a matter of individual freedom nor entirely determined by the sexist social norms. It always remains in-between, in a constant struggle with many forms of power entangled with patriarchy. Therefore, the task is to remember what was forgotten: the violent power of patriarchy and ways to resist it. We have to remember that what individual women are achieving today are the gifts of numerous women’s collective struggle.

 

The fight is not between you and I; it’s you and I against the system

Women’s struggle has never been individual. Also, it has never been against men, despite how misogynist propaganda depicts it. It is against the patriarchal system that treats women as less than human. Patriarchy is a system where we, men-women, and all genders live and negotiate. It is not the duty of individual women to break free from it. Also, it is not all about individual men and their oppressive behaviour. It is not about our personal choice or individual voice. The system doesn’t change automatically through the success of  particular women getting into positions of power while those positions of power remain violent and masculine, despite what neo-liberal feminism tries to make us believe.

We sometimes see women being accused of not being able to leave abusive relationships, but without any thought given to how a better alternative by which they would be able to leave the situation could be provided. Women are blamed for using sexist dress codes to survive or accept subordination to avoid losing everything. They are either seen as passive victims or as ‘free’ subjects who have free choices. Seeing them as only passive victims doesn’t give them room to resist. Simultaneously, the focus on the individual is an effective way to keep the system unchallenged, maintaining the inequality, oppression and exploitation of women and all marginal genders. We also often see the blaming of individual men for not giving up the violent masculinity they have learned in a sexist society. While every little act of unlearning sexist consciences helps, we still have to remember that everyone lives in the same patriarchal and profoundly sexist society and has therefore internalised sexism forms. Making an individual woman successful cannot be the signifier of women empowerment; in the same way, making an individual man guilty of patriarchy doesn’t dismantle the patriarchy. It certainly makes the path more manageable, but it cannot be the end goal. It is crucial that particular women’s struggle to survive in a profoundly violent society needs to be acknowledged. At the same time, we have to create solidarity for structural changes to the capitalist patriarchy. Empathy for the individuals and rage against systematic oppression is what we need to aim for. As  Irish black migrant activist, Oluwaseun Ola says, “The fight is not between you and I, it’s you and I against the system”. This mantra can build a ‘common yet history-specific’ (Spivak 1981) solidarity across gender, class, race, religion, or nationality to make changes in the system.

 

Still, We Rise.

A decade ago, I wrote a piece analysing the Barbie doll’s politics as a symbol of capitalist-consumerist patriarchy (Khandoker 2011). The doll was born as a weapon to erase the socialist ideology by creating an unrealistic dream body for women to follow sexist norms that are violent to themselves. I also showed that Mattel, who created Barbie at the height of the Cold War, had changed Barbie’s shape and attire to sustain its market within the changing political climate, even endorsing multiculturalism to handle critiques. However, this accommodation never really challenges the doll’s foundation: the very idea of consumer-capitalist sexism. This year Mattel made a Barbie doll of Maya Angelou, the Black American civil rights activist and poet, to “recognise all female role models and the Inspiring Women”. The retail price of the doll is USD 29.99. With its expensive price tag, Maya’s collective rage expression has been detached from the political context of civil rights movements. It presents her as a successful individual idol for girls, not representing the civil rights movement’s politics. The Maya Angelou Barbie with a price tag is probably the perfect example of the neo-liberal International Women’s Day’s fundamental problem as it is celebrated now.

 

Nevertheless, in remembrance of the collective anti-capitalist feminist struggle, I quote Maya’s most inspiring poem, ‘Still, I rise’:

Still,

“Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave”,

We rise.

 

 

Refences cited:

Eisenstein, Hester. 2015. Feminism Seduced: How Global Elites Use Women’s Labor and Ideas to Exploit the World. Routledge.

hooks, bell. 1982. Ain’t I A Woman: Black Women and Femnism. London N6 5AA: Pluto Press.

Khandoker, Nasrin. 2011. “পুতুলখেলার রাজনীতি। বারবি কাহিনী (The politics of doll-playing: The Barbie Story)” in Public Nribiggan, edited by Rahnuma  Ahmed, Probol O Prantik-1. Shondhi, 38/4 Bangla Bazar, Dhaka-1100.

Lorde, Audre. 2003. ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’. Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader 25: 27.

Mohanty, Chandra. 1988. ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’. Feminist Review 30 (1): 61–88.

Rottenberg, Catherine. 2014. ‘The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism’. Cultural Studies 28 (3): 418–37. doi.org/10.1080/09502386.2013.857361.

Smith, Sharon. 2005. Women and Socialism: Essays on Women’s Liberation. Haymarket Books.

Spivak, Gayatri. 1981. ‘French Feminism in an International Frame’. Yale French Studies, no. 62: 154–84.

 

 

Nasrin Khandoker is an associate professor of Anthropology in Jahangirnagar University, Bangladesh and a post-doctoral fellow in the project of GBV-MIG (Gender-Based Violence and Migration Ireland) in the National University of Ireland, Galway. She is also a mother and a stupidly optimistic feminist.

 

 

 

 

 

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