Image: Russian president Vladimir Putin giving flowers to women on International Women's Day / RIA Novosti / Wikimedia Commons
North Korea. Russia. Syria. Belarus. Eritrea. Yemen. Saudi Arabia.
What do all these nations have in common? Let’s see… most of us can agree that democracy is not their strong point. We can likely also agree that women in these places face systematic oppression in ways cisgender men do not.
They also are among the biggest supporters of International Women’s Day (IWD).
Most of us think of International Women’s Day as this amazing time to celebrate all that’s awesome about women and people who identify as women, while also steeling ourselves to continue fighting for equality and basic human rights that cis men already enjoy. There’s nothing wrong with that. But the problem is, the meaning of the day has been co-opted, hijacked and bastardised by regimes that absolutely do not believe in equality.
That is not OK.
Take Russia, for example. International Women’s Day is one of the country’s biggest holidays. There’s public parades and celebrations, ceremonies hosted by none other than Vladimir Putin himself (who often also gives speeches praising the “awesome power” of women as if he were a true feminist), and a tradition where women receive flowers from friends, family, co-workers, and more (fun fact: more flowers are shipped from around the world to Russia for IWD than basically any holiday anywhere else in the world). But the country also recently decriminalised domestic violence (I’m not fucking kidding), and the government’s obsession with “traditional” gender roles (which in addition to being utterly appalling also fails to recognise that gender is a spectrum, not a binary) means it’s one of the worst oppressors of women’s rights in the world.
Let’s also look at North Korea. As a percentage of the female population, more women in North Korea work than anywhere else. But women are also almost never promoted to any type of supervisory role, unless it is supervising other women or children. Sexual abuse is thought to be rampant. But International Women’s Day is a pretty big deal there. Even Kim Jong Un usually makes a public appearance and, like Putin, spouts a whole bunch of feminist-sounding bullshit he probably doesn’t actually believe.
And Syria? The forces of President Bashar al-Assad have been documented using rape as a form of punishment against civilians and prisoners of war. Women are generally treated like shit there – despite what the government-run propaganda proclaims.
The question all this begs is, why are these places that treat women so badly so big on International Women’s Day? The answer is unfortunately sadistically simple: it’s because, by having big public events that serve as fodder for the extensive propaganda industries of these nations, they can create the illusion that women are treated equally. That way, if someone accuses them of systematic sexism and misogyny, they can say “well, if things are so bad, how come International Women’s Day is so widely celebrated?” In many ways, it’s worse than not celebrating International Women’s Day at all; another fun fact: International Women’s Day was also widely promoted by the Nazis.
All this isn’t to say celebrating International Women’s Day is wrong. Considering it’s International Men’s Day 365 days a year (though there is in fact an actual International Men’s Day on November 19, it remains debatable whether there is a real need for such a holiday since it is widely celebrated by so-called “men’s rights” activists as a way to spite feminists), it’s pretty important that we do take time to celebrate the progress we’ve made, and to focus on the things that still need to happen in order for us to achieve full equality. But as with anything even tangentially related to feminism, it’s important that we be aware of how our movement can be co-opted and used for the wrong reasons.
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