It’s easy to dismiss the idea – a day just for women? Why is it needed? Where’s the men’s day? (It’s the 19th of November, for those interested). If you look at the average life of a woman in a country like Ireland, you might be slightly sceptical as to why it is necessary. After all, women can do what they want here – they have the vote, can work where they want, receive the same education, everything on the surface seems fair.
But it’s important not to forget that International Women’s Day is over 100 years old. Less than 50 years ago in Ireland, women had to resign from their civil service jobs if they got married. They couldn’t own property completely on their own. They couldn’t even collect child benefit – it was paid out to the father.
So there obviously has been a lot of progress in the last 50 years or so, in terms of Irish women’s place in society. But it’s not the same in every country. In countries like Somalia, 98% of women aged 15-49 have experienced female genital mutilation. In El Salvador, women have been jailed for having an abortion (back-alley, of course, as there is no other option), or even a miscarriage. In Pakistan, the literacy rate of women is 39.6% compared to that of males at 67.7%, is nearly double. It’s clear that true equality is a distant reality in many countries around the world.
Events associated with International Women’s Day provide a safe space for women to discuss and take action. Women who never get a chance to say what they experience on a daily basis have, for a precious week or so, a forum catered just for them to talk about everything that affects them, from their work to their education, their medical rights to their ownership rights. International Women's Day will spark this discussion and help steer public opinion.
We must look back as well as forward, and remember the struggle that women faced throughout the centuries in gaining basic rights that are taken for granted in western countries, and desperately needed in many developing countries. The right to vote, own property, to have an education. All these had to be fought for, battled against the will of those wanting to deny 50% of the population a right they enjoyed without further thought.
We must also celebrate the courage of women living in countries where their rights are restricted, especially those who dare stand up for their rights. The brave women who faced whipping, or worse, for driving a car in a protest in Saudi Arabia. The women removing their headscarves (as seen on My Stealthy Freedom). The Nobel Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai, who wrote a blog about her education in Pakistan, and was nearly murdered as a result.
As well as aiding discussion, it’s a chance to celebrate all the achievements and contributions that women have added to the world! Too often women have been wiped from the books of history, and International Women’s Day is an opportunity to enjoy all the music, literature, scientific discoveries and so much more that has been as a result of a woman, and often never credited. Women like Ada Lovelace, often called the first computer programmer, shunted aside for other men’s achievements.
The award-winning paintings of Margaret Keane, fraudulently claimed by her husband to be his own. Common instances like when a production company, who did the finishing touches to the beats on Bjork’s album Vespertine getting the credit, when she did the majority of the work herself. These stories are commonplace amongst the arts world, and therefore it is important that women are remembered for their artistic contributions to this world.
Things certainly are not perfect here in Ireland (see: abortion laws, wage gaps and the huge inequality in politics) but we need to remember that events like this are an important step of practical solidarity for many women around the world. We must reflect on the work that remains to be achieved and remember the many women whose voices go unheard and who continue to be excluded from realizing their full potential.
This is why International Women’s Day is important – it gives otherwise silenced women a voice, and that is a step in the right direction.