The Slogans of Hundred Years of Women’s Liberation Struggles Resonate Even Today

Who deserves the credit for the legacy of ‘International Women’s Day’? Governments or the United Nations may try to turn it into a day for official (sarkari) pronouncements and promises of ‘women’s empowerment.’ They try to hide the real legacy of Women’s Day, because they are deeply uncomfortable with the fact that it was communist women workers protesting on the streets a century ago, who started International Women’s Day.

Origins of IWD

Women workers in garment and other factories in the USA in 1909 first observed ‘Women’s Day’ with huge demonstrations to demand labour laws (including the 8-hour working day) and the right to vote for women. In 1910, the Second International Conference of Working Women at Copenhagen accepted German socialist leader Clara Zetkin’s proposal that International Women’s Day be celebrated every year demanding rights for working women, including labour laws for women, the right to vote, and peace. In keeping with that decision, communists organised International Women’s Day the next year in many countries, and in Germany, 30000 women workers participated in processions, defying police repression. Since 1913, International Women’s Day has been celebrated every year on 8 March as a day of women’s assertion of their commitment to liberation and to the struggle for a world free of every kind of oppression.

As we approach 8 March this year, the issues that moved women to raise the banner of revolt a century ago continue to resonate among women today. While women have made huge strides in the last century, the fact is that many of achievements of the last century (and more) of women’s liberation struggles are under attack in the wake of globalisation.

“Bread, Land and Peace” – Then and Now

It is worth remembering that the people’s upsurge that led to the socialist Revolution of 1917 in Russia began on March 8 that year, when thousands of Russian women flooded the streets of Petrograd raising the slogan of bread, land and peace’, demanding bread, land for peasantry, and an end to the imperialist World War I.

Globally, this slogan continues to resonate among women. In Iraq, Afghanistan and Gaza, women continue to be devastated by imperialist wars – while women are at the forefront of huge anti-war mobilisations in the US and its allied countries. Imperialist economic policies have resulted in global hunger – which hits women the worst.

‘Bread, land and peace’ is a particularly relevant slogan for the women’s movement in India today. The image of the women of Manipur in 2004 protesting in the nude with the slogan ‘Indian Army Rape Us’ is a reminder that women are the worst casualties in the state’s war on its people. Be it at Bastar, Shopian (Kashmir), Lalgarh (W Bengal) or the North East, women suffer brutalities, rape and murder at the hands of security forces. Women in land struggles (Tapasi Malik at Singur, many women at Nandigram and more recently, adivasi women at Narayanpatna (Orissa)) have been targeted with rape and murder.

The question of bread assumes explosive proportions this March, as prices of food break all records. The Global Gender Gap Report 2009 had ranked India bottom (134th among 134 countries) in terms of the ‘women’s health and survival’ index, noting that women suffer from chronic malnutrition and anaemia. The impact of the steep rise in food prices (nearly 20%) on these women can only be imagined.

Women Workers Today

Take the question of women’s rights at the workplace. Even the 8-hour work-day which women won 100 years ago is now being widely violated, with workers in the informal sector having to work long hours. Women won the 8-hour work day a century ago – but today, again, the 8-hour work law is being openly violated. The global recession has had a disproportionate impact on women’s employment.

Women’s labour force participation in India, at 36%, is less than half of the labour force participation rate of men (85%). Their estimated earned annual income is less than a third of men’s income. If adult women are underrepresented in the workforce, girl children are overrepresented in child labour: according to NSSO data of 2004-05, while women aged 15 and above comprise only 27 per cent of all employed persons in India, girl children account for 42 per cent of all children in employment.

The Global Employment Trends for Women Report 2009 (released by the ILO on Women’s Day last year) showed that the global financial crisis had a worse impact on women as compared to men, in a scenario where women are ‘last hired, first fired.’ This is especially true of developing economies. Women tend to be overrepresented in the agricultural sector: barring some of the more industrialized regions, almost half of female employment globally can be found in this sector alone. The share of employment in agriculture globally has declined from 40.8% in 1999 to 33.5% in 2009; this decline has hit women’s employment badly. In India, women constitute 40 percent of the agricultural workforce and 75 percent of all women workers are in some way dependent on agriculture. (Not surprising, then, that the agricultural crisis in India has hit women badly, and that women are at the forefront of movements against corporate land grab.) One-third of India’s urban women workers are employed in the sectors worst hit by the recession – textile, garments and leather industries.

Women’s Political Participation

Alexandra Kollontai, leader of the Bolshevik Party and one of pioneers of the women’s movement, wrote in 1920 that one of the “vital issues” of International Women’s Day at the time of its origin was “the question of making parliament more democratic, that is, of widening the franchise and extending the vote to women.” The question of making representative institutions more democratic continues to be a challenge, with women’s representation continuing to be low globally. In India, it is particularly shameful that for the last decade, the demand for 33% reservation in Parliament and Assemblies continues to be betrayed by successive governments.

On 8 March 2010, we can salute the legacy of a hundred years of International Women’s Day and centuries of women’s struggles in India and abroad against the shackles that bind them, only by upholding the banner of struggles of oppressed and toiling women for their rights.

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Clara Zetkin

(5 July 1857 – 20 June 1933)

One of the foremost leaders of the German socialist and communist movement, Clara Zetkin was a vanguard fighter for women’s liberation and the initiator of International Women’s Day. She interviewed Lenin on “The Women’s Question” in 1920.

Because of the ban placed on socialist activity in Germany by Bismarck in 1878, Zetkin went into exile in Paris; during this period, she played an important role in the foundation of the Socialist International socialist group. She consistently struggled against the reformist and revisionist current in the communist movement and was one of the architects of the revolutionary current. A leading anti-war activist during World War I, she was arrested several times.

Zetkin represented the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) from 1920 to 1933 in the Reichstag (German Parliament). A determined fighter against fascism, she was exiled when Hitler’s Nazi party rose to power in Germany, and the German Communist Party was banned following the Reichstag fire in 1933. She lived the rest of her life in the Soviet Union.

Savitribai Phule

In the mid-19th century, Dalit writer and activist Savitribai Phule pioneered education for women, defying the feudal forces who would molest and abuse her and throw filth at her.

Along with her husband Jotiba Phule, Savitribai also challenged the abhorrent and discriminatory social customs to which upper caste Hindu widows were subject.

More than 150 years later, in 2009, a Dalit schoolgirl in Chandigarh was stripped in class, because her father availed of a fee concession and did not pay fees. This incident is a grim reminder of how commercialisation of education acts not only deters girls’ access to education but intensifies the humiliation of those from Dalit and poor families, even if they manage to reach school. The literacy rate for women in India (53%) is still only two-thirds that of men (76%). Almost twice as many girls as boys are pulled out of school or never sent to school.

As we demand the right to education and equality for women, Savitribai’s legacy inspires us.

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Rakhmabai

Rakhmabai is an inspiring icon for women’s choice in matters of marriage and personal relations – extremely relevant in times when child marriage is common (India accounts for over 40 per cent of child marriages globally) and young couples are being attacked by obscurantist forces like the Sangh Parivar and khaap panchayats for marrying in defiance of caste and community norms.

Nowadays, the popular TV serial ‘Balika Vadhu’ with the tagline ‘Kacchi umar ke pakke rishte’ (binding ties of tender years) claims to oppose child marriage. Compared to the remarkably bold legacy Rakhmabai, the real-life heroine of India’s women’s movement of the 19th century, this serial appears pale and lifeless. Rakhmabai, a woman from the carpenter caste was married when she was 13 years old – but refused to honour this child marriage once she became an adult.

She became the rallying point for social reformers, and earned the attack of the orthodox sections of society. In an editorial in the Kesari dated 21 March 1887, Tilak attacked Rakhmabai as a woman who, “dazzled with the flame of knowledge” was corrupting Hindu society. He wrote: “…we agree that the upliftment of our women is necessary. We would, however, like to say to these reformers that this will never be achieved by women like Rakhmabai who have turned yellow with half a piece of turmeric. Today thousands of men are living happily with their underage wives. When that is the case, is it not surprising (as in, is it not a bit much) when a woman dazzled by the flame of knowledge demands in court that she be granted a divorce now that her husband is no longer good enough for her?”

Rakhmabai refused to buckle even in the face of such a virulent backlash from powerful and respected figures. She declared publicly that she would never accept a ‘kacchi umar ka rishta’ (tie of tender years) as ‘pakka’ (binding) – even when she lost her case in Court, she declared she would rather go to jail than join her husband. She went on to become one of India’s first women doctors.