Saturday, March 8, 2008

International Women's Day

International Women’s Day came about as a result of the Socialist Movement in Europe, Russia and the suffragist movement in the United States. In 1910 at a Socialist conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, there was a proposal to officially commemorate an International Women’s Day. On the threshold of World War I, Russian women activists came out to the streets protesting for ‘peace and bread.’ Later in 1917 at the height of the Great October Revolution women organized mass demonstrations demanding the right to vote and asking the Czar to abdicate. The famous women’s strike commenced on February 23 on the calendar then in use in Russia, which is March 8 on the calendar elsewhere in the world. (visit)

This day is very personal to me. Growing up in the Soviet Union, March 8 was a national holiday of first importance and we had parades with flower shows on the squares of our cities. I remember very vividly the sense of pride of women on this day. Men, women and children like me were walking with large posters with international symbols of peace and solidarity. With the Cold War a reality, longing for peace was enormous. It was this international spirit that made me want to be a world citizen. I was born on March 10, 1978. But when my father went to the county office to get my birth certificate, he recorded my birthday as March 8 to have it associated with International Women’s Day. All my formal documents reflect that. I see a symbolic meaning in this. If throughout my life I make a significant contribution to international women’s rights, my life will be fulfilled.

For centuries in almost all cultures throughout the world women were severely marginalized and minimized to the role of a housewife and mother. While many tribal and pre-Roman societies were matriarchal and centered around women, that rapidly changed with the advance of the Roman law and its influence in the world. Women were perceived as completely lacking in intelligence. They were not allowed access to higher education beyond the education received at home even in the nobility. You see, their minds were too frail and they were not seen as capable of mastering sciences and arts. Any ambitious woman who set up goals for her advancement had to become a mistress to a famous man to reach them. Fortunate were those born to kings. As queens they were allowed to rule over men by Grace of God. They were divinities, not simple women. Otherwise who would have followed their orders? There were those who surpassed kings in their rule. Cleopatra, Catherine the Great of Russia, Elizabeth I of England were such. But until the end of the 19th century women were largely invisible and voiceless. Exceptionally talented women would shine like lone stars in the darkness of the night and again submerge into darkness, forgotten and rendered to oblivion. Grace O’Malley was one. But with growing industrialization at the threshold of the 20th century women began awakening from deep subjugation and slumber. Because the industrialization touched the West more forcefully than other parts of the world, women’s emancipation movement also began in the West. Women’s suffragist movement that bestowed the right to vote was an essential beginning. Till then women were not privileged to participate or contribute to the civic society except for by charitable work or patronage. This was a crucial threshold that women of the West crossed. Of course, we should also recognize that socialism with its basic egalitarian principles made a significant contribution to women’s rights. Therefore, countries with socialism as political ideology made similar progress in women’s rights. Slowly, step by step, but surely women marched on in the 20th century, acknowledging, defying, and breaking barriers. First treated as non-conformists and rebels these women were going to set new standards for the newer generations of women. Lucille Ball and Katherine Hepburn come to mind. Things they fought hard for day in and day out were already taken for granted by those of us who followed. For us, women lawyers it is simply inconceivable that there was a time, not long ago, when women were simply not found in law schools. Those who began breaking this rule were treated with ridicule and sexism.

So here we are today. For us, fortunate women in the West and some other regions, most of the barriers are no longer a reality. We are no longer perceived as intellectually inferior to men, or subordinate to them. While there are still subtle and invisible to the eye barriers and sexism is still existent, we cannot compare our condition to that of our foremothers. Yet, yet, in a large part of the world women are still mistreated, disrespected, viewed as inferior at best. At worst they are sold, abused daily, raped, as easy targets of violence. Their suffering is enormous. They take the biggest hit of poverty, economic degradation, cultural and tribal backwardness. We, women in the West, who are fortunate to have achieved so much by virtue of high development of our countries, have a responsibility to render a helping hand to these women across the Globe who are less fortunate. Women in Africa, Asia, Middle East are those in need of our help. Powerless as they are, they only need our guidance and inspiration to arise because they have all the determination, strength and maturity that characterized women suffragists in the West and those Russian women activists. The UN and human rights institutions have done a lot but it is not enough, because the suffering of women all around the world is continuing daily, hourly and by minute.

To me International Women’s Day is a day of realization of the high responsibility of all women in the world in standing up for one another. Women’s rights cannot materialize and be enforced in societies if women all around the world are inactive. On this day, I would therefore like to give a tribute to a woman who has dedicated her life and career to arousing this great sense of responsibility in other women—my favorite Professor at UC Davis School of Law, Madhavi Sunder. (here) Graduate of Harvard and Stanford, she came to teach at a very young age, feeling the sense of urgency in development of women’s rights around the globe. Her scholarship is devoted to rejecting old-fashioned, settled norms about women and culture, women and religion, women and modernity. She has courageously crossed the high threshold towards new thinking, new ‘enlightenment’ that gives new impetus to women’s rights and prepares all the essential groundwork for advancement of women in the Middle East, Asia and Africa. A distinguished Carnegie scholar, an author of numerous brilliant articles and an upcoming book, she is a superb role model for us. As an affectionate mother of two children and a wife she is a role model not only as a scholar and champion for women, but as a well-rounded woman successful in all roles. Congratulations to Professor Madhavi Sunder!
Happy International Women’s Day!

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