This year we celebrate International Women's Day

Hania Sholkamy , Friday 8 Mar 2013

On Friday, 8 March, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, women and men will march in the streets – once again – to protest violence and exclusion

Who would have thought that the young and not so young, the left and the right, the rich and poor, the working and those staying at home would all speak in one voice and challenge the politics of the regime and police?

There is a united front of mothers who have lost dear children and of activists who challenge the authority of the state and its security apparatuses – an unlikely alliance of the hurt and grieving brought about by a revolution that is challenging, injuring, infuriating and liberating Egyptians every day.

This is the silver lining of what has been a difficult and dark cloud of gloom over Egypt and its day-to-day politics.

The story of this day, however, is worth remembering, as it poses some questions that are relevant to the politics of Egypt in general and to gender politics in particular.

Before becoming a UN cause, the day that celebrates women was a socialist invention that was instrumental in the political fight for workers' rights. The first National Woman's Day was observed in the United States on 28 February 1909.

The Socialist Party of America designated this day as the first national working women’s day in honour of the 1908 garment workers' strike in New York, when 15,000 women marched through New York City demanding shorter work hours, better pay, voting rights and an end to child labour. They adopted the slogan "Bread and Roses" to signify their desire for economic rights and a better quality of life

These events had been preceded by the protest of 8 March 1857, when garment workers (most, if not all, of whom were women) in New York City demanded humane working conditions and better pay. Two years later, again in March, these women formed their first labour union to secure basic rights in the workplace.

Working women continued to celebrate it on the last Sunday of that month until 1913.

A well known tragedy cemented the association between working and women’s rights and made both the focus of activism. On 25 March 1911, over 140 workers, mostly young girls working at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, lost their lives because of the lack of safety measures.

The Women's Trade Union League and the International Ladies' Garment Workers Union led protests against this avoidable tragedy, including the silent funeral march that brought together a crowd of over 100,000 people. The Triangle Fire had a significant impact on labour legislation and also became the leitmotif of working-class action and activism.

During World War I, International Women's Day became a mechanism for protesting the war. Women held rallies to protest the war as mothers and wives stood in solidarity with other activists. Many of these women were active in the fight for the right to contraception, abortion and universal suffrage.

Young women who had entered the labour market to replace the men who had gone off to war peopled these movements.

In Russia, women chose to strike for 'Bread and Peace' on the last Sunday of February 1917 (which fell on 8 March on the Gregorian calendar). Four days later, the Czar abdicated and the provisional government granted women the right to vote.

Since the 1970s, this day has been celebrated at the behest of the United Nations, which adopted the cause of gender equity in its developmental programming and which has so far held four international conferences to discuss and set standards for gender equality.

With the association of women's rights and development programming came the possibility of dissociation between gender and socio-economic rights. Thus, the celebration of working women's rights and of women's right to have a political voice slid into the development quagmire that de-politicises as it 'internationalizes' causes and values and exited the realm of radical politics.

Today in Egypt, women are united in calling for the right to have a political voice and to personal security and freedom, but are oblivious to women’s economic rights and their economic insecurities. The social justice narrative of the revolution has not percolated in feminist and women's circles.

There have been clear threats to women's personal, political and legal rights. Since the revolution, the assault on women's bodies and personal rights has been sustained and relentless.

Sexual harassment on the streets and squares in January 2013, brutal attacks in front of the presidential palace in November 2012, and virginity tests in March 2011 are incidents that punctuate an extended process of exclusion and pressure to contain women's activism. It is logical for women to focus on the transgressions that they fear and from which they have suffered.

But the economic and working rights of women need to also be remembered and secured. Women will suffer from the coming austerity measures and will be hurt by subsidy reform, changing structures of the labour market, fewer employment opportunities, unsafe streets, lower recruitment in the public sector, and any changes in the provision of public goods and services.

The alliances that exist need to extend beyond development projects and into the political process itself. Women are at the heart of this revolution not because of the emerging identity politics of Islamism and Salafists, but because they are equal to men in their suffering and citizenship. Women must transcend the obvious and face the complexity of a different development path.

In celebrating this day for women, we must prepare for the battles ahead – not just the ones that are being fought. We must also remember that the politics of gender are at the heart of the struggle for human rights, dignity and decent livelihoods.

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