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 The Paradox Of Women's Day: Commercialization, Depoliticization
And CommodificationOf A Dynamic Radical Revolutionary Idea

By Shalu Nigam

10 March, 2015
Countercurrents.org

This women's day is being celebrated with much vigor on the social media, the mainstream media as well as otherwise. There are well articulated ideas about women's empowerment that were raised and lively debates spanned over the range of issues including those related to a heated passionate arguments generated by the ban on the documentary relating to gang rape held in December 2012.

Further, not only this year, but for past few years, I have been receiving sms's on my mobile phone and emails wishing me `happy women's day' on March 8. These were the messages from banks, brands selling women clothes and accessories, health and wellness clinics as well as from beauty parlours among others.  Some of these also offer discount on this special occasion! For instance, a beauty parlour launched recently announced free manicure, pedicure and hairdos with 50% discount because `women are special and on the women's day they need to feel special' says the tag line. Another of its competitor advertised, “pamper the woman for a day, she cares for you for her whole life'. A cosmetic product company offered special discount on the women's day on the “Exotic eyeliner for the special woman, because your eyes speak much more than you think”. Another one selling women's branded clothes declared, “This women's day, indulge for the `woman of substance' in your life”. All these announcements use the special occasion of women's day to promote the culture of consumption by alluring men and women to spend lavishly on luxuries as they `deserve' the opulence.

 Also, the newspapers and electronic media were full of advertisements which attempt to sell range of products – from diamonds sets and gold jewelry to fancy lingerie sets, kitchen accessories, branded clothes and various life style products specifically on the occasion of women's day. The purpose is to `empower' women as consumers in exercising choices and spend `because they are worth it'. The capitalist patriarchy promotes a culture which endorse women as `ideal' wives, mothers, homemakers and office goers who after work take care of family and still fit in the `image of beautiful women' thus fostering double and triple discrimination against women. Regressive ideologies are being pushed by market forces that commodify women's body. The promotion of culture of consumption in the guise of women's day celebration has been growing over the years. The concern here is not the consumption or repressive practices and regressive trends per se but the manner in which these are promoted while using the occasion of women's day thus depoliticizing the concept of women's day celebration while diluting and dampening the spirit with which it has been created. Such commercialization of women's day to exploit women goes against the spirit of the celebration. This marketization of the concept of `woman of substance' that promotes the image of `an ideal woman' has acted to reify and reiterate the capitalistic patriarchy in its vituperative and virulent form.  

Moreover, two days back, I overheard a few young girls chatting cheerfully in a metro between Gurgaon – Delhi about celebrating women's day. One of them said her boyfriend got her a huge card, chocolates, flowers and gifts, all she wanted. The other shared that she went to her hometown and met her mother and bought her saris and went out for dinner with her family. The third one proudly pointed out that she got several gifts from the multinational company in which she is working and that there was a party at the office where typical management bosses – all males, greeted the staff. Besides, one woman management staff shared her views about managing work life balance. The fourth one highlighted the way celebrations for the women's day started a week before where a big multinational company called experts to share views on self defense mechanisms, yoga classes, stress management, activities like nail arts, hair and makeup contests, art of successful dressing, image building and branding, movie screening and special coupons were handed out for spa to women employees.

The ground realities exhibit that situation has changed for worse as women's vulnerabilities have been enhanced and intensified in the globalised age in the modern India. A journey of around 100 years of women's day celebration in the country probably has not made a significant dent on the situation of women as is reflected in a divide between the two Indias – the one which still is facing violence and dealing with the basic livelihood and survival issues, and the others for whom the beauty treatments, spa, vacations, makeup, nail design art, and gifts are more important than the basic women's rights. One section is struggling strive for basic necessities and the other is pushed towards depoliticization. These fragmented realities together are creating situation where women's position is weakening becoming fragile and susceptible. The necessity to strive for social, economic and political roles for women has been pushed back due to by backlash by capitalistic and regressive forces. Capitalism fuelled by patriarchy is resulting in a different kind of social order where social segmentation is pushing women to the peripheries while coercion and oppression is exhibiting in newer and virulent manner in the form of commodification, domination, alienation and isolation.

These different events happening around me also made me think that this is not the idea with which the celebration for international women's day was called for in the early 1900s across US, Germany, Russia and other countries. What I had read is that international women's day was initiated to demand political rights for women which include right to vote, right to hold public office, end sex discrimination and promote equal rights of women. The struggle for `Bread and Roses' or `Bread and Peace' were more political in nature which has linked right to employment, right to livelihood and equality rights and demanded end of World War I. These were the beginning of a great dynamic revolution – a step to bring about structural change in the world pushing inequalities and discrimination based on gender and class and changing the power equation to create a better world conceptualized of the ideas of equality and justice.

And being associated and engaged with the social, human rights and women's movements in India, I myself have witnessed the women's day celebration in a myriad ways. Multitudes of strategies have been evoked over the years while mobilizing men and women to bring radical social transformations, challenging oppressive practices while contesting patriarchy and imperialism. In fact, over the years, I got several opportunities to participate in marches, dharnas and protests being organized specifically to highlight the significance of this day which end up with well articulated speeches and impressive dialogues that calls for mobilization on women questions.  At times, in association with the local grassroot organizations and political organizations, the international women's day is celebrated while focusing on different themes like violence against women, legal literacy sessions for women, melas and morchas among others events or call on experts to speak on the issues on women's emancipation with the purpose to spread message of women's liberation. Focus has been laid on collective rights to raise consciousness on women's question. However, this form of celebration of women's day is getting lesser attention these days and what is being promoted is the commercial form of celebration.

Though recently with the emergence of donors' well as international organizations the concept of celebrating international women's day has been changing within the so called `development sector' too. Today these International organizations, funders and donors organizations often in association with corporations, trusts, foundations and government departments celebrate the International women's day in a different manner. The website of International Women's Day (IWD) did list various events with the different themes every year. http://www.internationalwomensday.com/esearch.asp?country=98#.VPvwSJofpjo The UN organizations also do calls for themes every year to celebrate the women's day giving a different meaning to women's day celebrations and designing it in new form.

However, if we look back, in the colonial India, many women in India participated at par with men fighting against the white Western men to oppose colonialism. But today the crusade has to be fought every day within our own fraternity and community that is marginalizing and oppressing women. Also, the corporations are entering in and exploiting women and men in new ways. The war today therefore is to be waged not only against patriarchy but capitalist patriarchy, neo-liberalism and imperialism in its new avatar in the modern Indian independent nation. The strategies to root out systemic structural discrimination and eliminate regressive ideologies are required in the modern independent state where women are made vulnerable because of gendered division of labour within homes as well as in public and work spaces where patriarchy legitimizes social hierarchies and policies of liberalization operate to exploit women.

The Constitution is premised on equality and that too substantive equality. Yet, more than six decades after independence, the percentage of women in Parliament is 11.4 (62 women out of 545 MPs in Lok Sabha and 28 women out of 245 MPs in Rajya Sabha) when women constitute half of the country's population.  India ranked 114 out of 142 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report 2014. What does it implies? Are women oppressed? Are they exploited, discriminated and subjugated? The nuanced layers of analysis with indicate that probably yes women are marginalized in multitude of ways. Because when corporations celebrate women's day the male bosses still are called to inaugurate women's day because for women breaking the glass ceiling is still a difficult task. Because sexual harassment exists at work place and women are denied the opportunities to participate or contribute equally. Because millions of women are still employed in non formal sectors where basic labour rights are violated, they are deprived of minimum wages and are compelled to work in derogatory hazardous and exploitative work conditions in an informal work environment. Because more than a million of women today are working as scavengers, street vendors, in agriculture, fisheries or mining without any provisions for social security. Because millions of women still need to walk miles to fetch water. Because millions of tribal women are surviving on forest produce and even that right is being taken away to benefit big corporations. Because women are assaulted within homes and in public places – female foeticide, domestic violence, rape, sexual assault and all forms of violence exist not only in statistics of National Crime Record Bureau but within and around us – every day and everywhere.  Because women are killed for making marriage related decisions or reproductive choices on their own. Because sex trafficking still exist. Because million of women are still living in state of hunger even if they are employed in farming or agricultural sector.

I wonder if attempts are being made to usurped and commercialized women's day celebration by various actors to depoliticize it and making it banal and futile. The celebration of women's day is being much hyped in today's world but is it being celebrated in the same spirit and with similar intention to bring social transformation with which it was initiated a century back, I certainly doubt that. Capitalism is reinforcing patriarchy and altering human ties where emphasis is on individualistic culture rather than the spirit of sustaining collective communities or strengthening social relations. This paradox of celebrating a day seems to be absurd when in actual practice in their day to day lives women are denied their basic rights or opportunities and they are hardly respected as citizens or human beings. Though such celebrations may have symbolic appeal in raising the awareness about the women's issues yet, merely commemorating women's day in this fashion could not contribute to the elimination of patriarchal culture. Endowing gifts on a particular day neither empower women or draw attention to their accomplishments or do anything to reduce struggles they face in their daily lives; neither does it remind the givers of those gifts to challenge the status quo. Merely giving or receiving chocolates, cards or gift items promote culture of consumption rather than the culture of respect or equality. The celebratory text messages or slogans are doing no good rather than just promoting momentary complacency, though taken otherwise these are gentle reminders and may act to sensitize in long run.

Women's emancipation entails changing the mindset, initiating revolution and bringing radical transformation in the ways contemporary capitalist patriarchal society operates. It demands meaningful understanding and interventions in day to day to struggles of women situated in different contextual background. Focusing on prejudices, stereotypes and discriminatory attitudes that have denied women of their constitutional or human rights is essential.  The women's liberation movement in the modern Indian society needs to focus on the issues relating to struggle for substantive equality, freedom from violence and survival issues. Commercialization is not a solution; the answer lies in political and social mobilization around everyday issues relating to women lives on daily basis. The need is to strive for dignity and respect at the work place, within homes and public spaces and reimagining the new world order based on social justice. To sum up I just recall the lines of the poem, Bread and Roses

“As we come marching, marching in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: "Bread and roses! Bread and roses!"

As we come marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women's children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses!

As we come marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it is bread we fight for—but we fight for roses, too!

As we come marching, marching, we bring the greater days.
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler—ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses! Bread and roses!”

The Author is an activist and a researcher and has been working on Women, Law and Governance issues in India for several years. She has written several books, articles and research papers on these issues. These are her personal views. She may be contacted at shalu_nigam@rediffmail.com






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