Thursday, May 30, 2013

Part II: International Women's Day

Old Soviet-era poster for Women's Day, proclaiming an end to "kitchen slavery."

In the pantheon of made-up, Hallmark-bankrolled holidays, International Women's Day is not the worst offender -- at least on paper. 

For one, it's not wholly manufactured.  Its origins harken back to the spirit of early 20th century revolution, and its contemporary counterpart is the grandchild of a century of political and social change.  One can even overlook the commercialized modern-day incarnation in Kazakhstan to see it as an interesting by-product of Soviet legacy and, simultaneously, an internalized reflection of changes in Soviet society over time. Through a purely objective lens, this holiday's social history is far more fascinating than my favorite revisionist historical holiday, American Thanksgiving.  (To be fair, this is largely due to Thanksgiving's emphasis on pie). 

After enduring my first-ever Women's Day celebration, at least in a part of the world where it is a national holiday, I can confidently say that I have discovered my least favorite holiday on the planet.

In Kazakhstan, as in Russia and other parts of the former Socialist sphere, Women's Day has metamorphosed into an appalling hybrid of Valentine's Day and Mother's Day with little substantive content.  Women are showered with flowers, chocolates, perfumes and gifts from all the men in their lives.  They are reminded about their special "virtues" -- mostly by men -- and praised for their roles as mothers and caretakers of the country's future -- again by men.  Political leaders, of course, will pay some lip service to the contributions of working women to the economy, but even that is couched in patronizing rhetoric about women's innate abilities to be amazing employees and great mothers/wives.  Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev, for example, highlighted women's "sacred" mission to raise a new generation even as he discussed the lack of women in leadership positions in the state administration. (He also honored a 32-year-old woman with seven (!) children with a special gold medal at the ceremony).

Women's Day tulips at work.
While none of this sounds particularly offensive, there are broader ramifications to reducing a holiday presumably celebrating half the world's population to a second-rate Valentine's Day. (Besides, Valentine's Day hasn't yet been declared a national holiday anywhere).  National holidays, after all, are public rituals that play important roles in shaping culture, identity and nation-building.  When compared to 'Defenders of the Fatherland Day' -- the de facto Men's Day that was celebrated with a sense of dignity -- the public celebration of Women's Day bordered on cartoonish frivolity. Billboards lined the streets of Astana for May 7 with poignant quotes from veterans about their experiences from World War II.  Not a single billboard I saw on March 8 quoted Kazakhstani women, famous or otherwise, on their accomplishments or challenges.  Instead, the city was adorned with flowers, which were incidentally recycled a few weeks later for the Nauryz celebration.  The imbalance of this symbolism is telling, even if it is unintentional.  

City decorations aside, what bothered me most about the holiday festivities was something much more fundamental.  Under the guise of giving women deserved recognition for their work in and out of the home (incidentally, in both the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, women end up working just as hard -- if not harder -- on Women's Day since the day off from work is an excuse for family and friend gatherings for which they do most of the heavy lifting at home), it relegates women to passivity. Men recognize women for their "special roles."  Men buy women gifts.  Men give lofty speeches extolling the virtues of women.  Men plan the special events at workplaces.  Women, ironically, don't seem to have much of an active role in celebrating "their day." 

Now, I can probably guess what you're thinking: stop being such a judgmental Westerner.  

Indeed, I gave a lot of thought to why I was feeling this visceral hatred that I normally only reserve for holier-than-thou vegans and sorority girls who wear black leggings in lieu of pants.  Was this just my Western liberal bias?  Or, worse, was I becoming one of those expatriates who criticizes everything about the country they're living in because it doesn't conform to their values?  While I admit I am especially intolerant of social norms that bestow special status -- and consequently, special rules -- on women, I do not believe it is culturally insensitive to question practices and values that promote racism, sexism, or homophobia.  One can still respect the differences in cultural, or social traditions and challenge the basis on which they are formed.  

Pausing each year for a moment to recognize the contributions -- and, yes, even the "roles" -- of women in society is a worthy cause, but it's a cause that deserves more than just chocolate, flowers, and empty compliments from the menfolk.  Perhaps it's time for a new Women's Day tradition in Kazakhstan -- for women to take charge of the celebrations!

Bonus: Here are some selections from several poems that appeared in my inbox on March 8 for Women's Day. 

"Each woman is gentle, caring and kind.
We must respect, both her body and mind."

"Let will this Day of the Springtime
For You particularly miraculous"

Next time on Wanderlost...

Part III: Adventures in Running

1 comment:

  1. Hey Mala, I've nominated you for the Liebster Award, details here:
    If you've got the time to answer, I'd love to read your responses (for some of the questions I had you in mind...) but if you don't, no hard feelings.