What to celebrate on Women’s Day?
German Socialist leader Clara Zetkin has become a household name in the global women's movement because of her declaration of a "Day" for women called "The International Women's Day" (IWD). At the Second International Conference of Socialist Women in 1910 held in Copenhagen, Denmark, Clara’s declaration of the International Women's Day was indeed international in both spirit and character because her internationalism was akin to worker’s global concern in general. Honoring the movement for women's rights and to assist in achieving universal suffrage for women was a working class issue. It is still remained a working class concern. The conference of over 100 women from 17 countries greeted the proposal with unanimous approval by.
However, on the day the IWD was declared in 1910, no fixed date was selected for the observance of the International Women's Day. The following year, 1911, IWD was marked by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, on March 19. It was very successful event in the countries it was celebrated. In 1913 International Women's Day was transferred to 8 March and this day has remained the global date for International Women's Day ever since. The proposal to select March 8 as International Women's Day was to commemorate the struggles of women workers in different countries. The first recorded organized action by working women took place in New York on March 8, 1857, with hundreds of women in the garment and textile factories staging a strike in protest of low wages, long working hours, inadequate pay, inhumane working conditions and the absence of the right to vote. Similar incidents happened in 1860 women workers formed trade union of their own and in 1908 on 8 March; women workers staged protest in New York.
We must not be confused that the date of March 8 was the most important thing in declaring the International women's day. It was rather the acknowledgement of women's struggle in the industrialised countries where women started to appear as the wage-earning workforce and faced hardship with appalling working conditions. Their struggle was to make their workplaces better. Women protested and took political actions. They did not appear to seek "help" as "victims" rather became the symbol for all women's struggles to improve their lives.
For Clara, the interest in women's rights grew in the context of rapid industrialization during the period of the 1880's and 1890's in Germany. During this period women and children were drawn into industry on a large scale. The Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) was born as the mass workers party. It laid the basis for a socialist led and working class based women's organization. In 1891, the first issue of an independent paper Die Gleicheit, subtitled 'for the interests of working women' with its own editorial board, led and coordinated by Social Democratic women, appeared.
Until 1908, women did not have freedom of association, thus barring them from party membership and trade union membership according to laws in Prussia. Women faced very particular problems in the Germany of that time. There was hostility in the party to the involvement and demands of militant women. Many trade unionists saw women workers simply as a threat to their jobs and bargaining position. Clara had to fight against the male hostility and draw women into conscious political action.
In Germany, the proportion of women in the workforce increased from 18.5% to 44.3% during the period 1882 and 1907, but due to campaign for women's membership in the trade unions, it increased by 2000% between 1895 and 1907.
The women leaders in SPD waged a consistent campaign for women's rights within the party and the trade unions and finally in 1890 secured the right to elect women delegated to party conference from special women's meetings. During the successive years, their painstaking works resulted in the adoption of a comprehensive party program for the protection of women workers in 1891 and succeeded in establishing a system of permanent women's vertrauenspersonen - women's spokespersons-in the party, whose task was the political education of proletarian women, the organization of work amongst women in 1892. These important landmark events led to the legitimacy of Clara Zetkin's declaration of the International Women's Day. She worked hard for more than 20 years prior to the declaration.
In United States, American women socialists demanded political rights for working women. Women's Day for the first time in New York was celebrated honoring the involvement of thousands of women in the numerous labor strikes in the early twentieth century in many major centers such as Montreal, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York. These women protested and rallied for the right to vote, a decent wage, and an end to sweat shops and child labor. In 1908, socialist women in the United States convinced their party to designate the last Sunday in February as a day for demonstrations in support of "woman suffrage".
Clara Zetkin ((5 July 1857 - 20 June 1933)
The two most important democratic rights of women were addressed prior to the declaration of the International Women's Day – (a) women workers rights to unionize and (b) the right to vote. During the same time, the suffrage oriented bourgeois feminism in Germany was also developing. However, Clara Zetkin wanted an independent working class struggle for women's suffrage. The difference in opinion between Social Democratic women and the bourgeois feminists was over the question of protective legislation for women workers. For the bourgeois feminists 'emancipation' meant the right to freely compete with men on an equal basis inside capitalist society. The Die Gleicheit and the Social Democratic women campaigned for protective legislation for women-whose standards could then be applied to all workers, recognizing that women were the weakest and most exploited section of the working class. However, the Social Democratic women did not pose' universal suffrage, protective legislation as ends in themselves. For Zetkin the right to vote was to be fought for as part of the struggle to draw working class women into an active fight against capitalism as part to the struggle to draw working women into the battle for socialism.
In 1906, Clara Zetkin presented a paper on Social Democracy and Women Suffrage at a Conference of Women belonging to the Social-Democratic Party held at Mannheim. She said:
“We take our stand from the point of view that the demand for Woman Suffrage is in the first place a direct consequence of the capitalist method of production. It may seem perhaps to others somewhat unessential to say this so strongly, but not so to us, because the middle-class demand for women’s rights up to the present time still bases its claims on the old nationalistic doctrines of the conception of rights. The middle-class women’s agitation movement still demands Woman Suffrage to-day as a natural right, just as did the speculative philosophers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We, on the contrary, basing our demand on the teachings of economics and of history, advocate the suffrage for women as a social right, which is not based on any natural right, but which rests on social, transient conditions”.
In her paper Clara gave examples of Russia, Prussia, Austria and other provinces, where women's right to vote was restricted to those who own land and pay taxes. In Sweden women who fulfilled the same conditions of property were allowed to vote in the elections for local bodies. In England, too, women could take part in elections for local bodies; but this again was only under conditions of owning a certain amount of property or paying a certain sum in taxes. Clara said:
"When we carefully consider all these cases, we find that women do not vote because they are women; they do not enjoy, so to speak, a personal vote, but they only have this right because they are owners of property and taxpayers. That is not the kind of Woman Suffrage which we demand; it is not the right we desire to give a woman, as a burgess of the State, it is only a privilege of property..... But when we demand Woman Suffrage, we can only do so on the ground, not that it should be a right attached to the possession of a certain amount of property, but that it should be inherent in the woman herself, This insistence of the personal right of woman to exercise her own influence in the affairs of the town and the State has received no small measure of support, owing to the large increase in the capitalist methods of production.
The present celebration of the International Women's Day is guided by the United Nations theme rather than its original history of socialist women's struggles. In the year 1975, which was designated as 'International Women's Year' the United Nations began celebrating International Women’s Day on 8 March. Two years later, in December 1977, the General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming a United Nations Day for Women's Rights and International Peace to be observed on any day of the year by Member States, in accordance with their historical and national traditions. In adopting its resolution, the General Assembly recognized the role of women in peace efforts and development and urged an end to discrimination and an increase of support for women’s full and equal participation. The growing international women's movement, which has been sponsored by global United Nations women's conferences such as Mexico conference in 1975, has guided a new dimension, with much less political actions and positions, to support for women's rights and participation in the political and economic arenas. The next important step of the United Nations was to adopt The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 1979 by the United Nations General Assembly. It is considered as the essential international tool for achieving women’s human rights. More NGOs, rather than women's political organizations have appeared receiving support from United Nations and its member countries to achieve women's rights.
However, what do we see in Bangladesh in terms of women workers and on women's political rights? Women constitute 38.8% of 60.3 million in the civilian labor force (Labor Force Survey 2000 of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS). Women are increasingly entering into job market mainly in ready-made garments and allied sector, tea gardens, NGOs, health care services, food processing industry, export processing zones, services sectors and commercial enterprises and informal sector i.e. construction, agriculture etc. The majority of women are in the Ready-made Garment factories. The number of Garment workers in Bangladesh is 2.5 million, (90% are women) in 5300 factories.
Women of Nayakrishi Andolon are fighting against Syngenta, Monsanto and other transnational seed companies to stop GMOs. Forging alliances between working class women and the peasant women is the real task of international women's movement.
The workers are still struggling hard for a minimum wage. In 1994, the minimum wage for the garment workers was fixed at Tk. 930/ per month for the unskilled workers and Tk. 2300/ for skilled workers. After lots of movements by the minimum wage is set at 1662.50 (23 dollars) per month, where as the demand from the workers is Tk. 5000 (70 dollars) per month. Even this is not implemented by all the member factories of the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturer and Exporters Association (BGMEA). The wage of the unskilled workers is very uncertain and still is at a very low level. Most of the garment factories do not follow the labor law and ILO conventions. The workers cannot enjoy the weekly holiday, job security, social security, gratuity or provident fund. Most of the cases the management does not provide appointment letters/ contract letters, identity cards and service books. The transportation facilities are not provided in most cases. The working environment is dangerous and cannot get out of the factories at the time of fire incidents. The provision of sufficient and pure drinking water and toilets for the workers is not ensured despite so many discussions on the issues of compliance from the international buyers. The most recent case of Garib & Garib Sweater factory is shameful with tragic deaths of 21 workers. The workers could not get out of the factory because of the lock in the heavy gate and blocked stairs. They died painfully in suffocation.
Garment workers, organized as informal unions now, cannot protest openly if they are on the job. Many leaders of the garment workers could not go and visit Garib & Garib factory after the incident. Government has deployed police force to protect the factory from agitation of the workers.
Regarding suffrage issue, women in Bangladesh have the right to vote and elect their own representatives at all levels. However, women are discriminated by the existing constitutional and legal arrangements in denying the right to vote for the representatives for the Reserved Seats exclusively for women. The elected members of the Parliament indirectly elect these seats. This is nothing but denial of rights and goes against the principles of equality in the suffrage issue. Women counted as 'numbers' for votes, their right to be elected depends on the social and economic power. Women in the local government bodies are directly elected but they do not have the privilege to work with the people.
Implicit danger in the institutionalisation of the working women’s struggle into an UN event of International Women’s Day is the displacing effect of the present day women's concern from the history of both working class and the woemn's struggle. This has the potential of depoliticising and disempowering process. if women remain unaware of their own history and their contradiction and difference with propertied and powerful classes the depolitcisation will be accelerated. Disarticulate the historical connection between working class movement and the women’s movement is the most critical concern of both feminist movement as well as the people's struggle to challenging the present global reality. In her role as an agent in the popular struggle committed to change the world women are social being and not merely ‘women’; their struggle is in no way different from anti-caste, anti-classs, anti imperialist and anti-capitalist struglle but with added responsibility to fight against patriarchy, and masculine world views. In global capitalist processes women are constantly being reduced into a means of cheap labour or consumer. Feminist movement is aware that women’s question must be addressed assertively with due attention and focus to women’s problems concretely but not as a movement independent from the collective social endevour for human emancipation.
A simple way to keep us alert is to ask us a question: are we celebrating Clara Zetkin’s spirit of the working class women or are we just trying to be the part of the present global regime – celebrating a United Nations event?
5 March 2010