International Women`s Day in Russia: celebrating 'femininity' and 'beauty' instead of promoting women's rights

5 minutes to read
Column
Daria Kholod
12/03/2018

For many people March 8 - International Women's day serves as the legitimate pretext to raise the issue of women's rights and to press forward gender parity. For others, on the contrary, this day lost its initial message and they celebrate women's 'femininity' and 'delicacy'.  How did this in Russia, one of the countries where feminist movements started? 
 

International Women's Day: a history

March 8th is International Women's Day, which was officially recognized by the UN in 1975. This day is celebrated in some countries and is completely unknown or unacknowledged in others. In Belgium, for example, there are two similar days comemorating the battle for women's rights throughout the year – Women’s Day on the 11th November and International Women’s Day on 8th March. However, Women's day should be distinguished from Mother's Day, which is celebrated in many countries, but on various days. For instance, in the Netherlands and Belgium it is on the second Sunday of May, while in Russia this celebration does not exist at all. 

The history of International Women's Day dates back to 1910, when German communist Clara Zetkin offered to establish a special day in honor of fighting for equal rights for women. The date, 8 March, commemorated the Women's strike in New York in 1908. Since then, women in different countries conducted meetings and went on strikes during the fist week of spring to fight for their rights – to be treated equally, to be able to vote and to receive equal payment and work benefits.

In Russia, it was first celebrated in St. Petersburg in 1913 with street demonstrations and political readings under the slogan of the struggle for economic and political equality of women. From the first years of the Soviet Union on, March 8th became an official  holiday, but it remained a working day until 1965. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the holiday of March 8th remained on the list of public holidays of the Russian Federation and of most of the former Soviet republics. In 2018, for example, the Russian people will enjoy a four-day-long vacation, from 8 to 11 March.

                                                            

 

Traditional celebrations and the meaning of International Women's day

International Women’s Day in Russia is mostly associated with the popular tradition of giving flowers: smiling women carrying bouquets of roses or tulips seem to be everywhere in the streets in this period of time. Not surprisingly, many Russians call March 8th the “Day of Spring and Flowers”. Apart from flowers, Russian men and women give presents - chocolates, postcards, perfume, cosmetics -  to all the important women in their lives: mothers and sisters, teachers and grandmothers, wives and girlfriends, daughters and colleagues.

All the rights women have now, are sometimes taken for granted.

From the very beginning, this holiday had certain political connotations and was connected to the struggle of women for equal rights and emancipation. However, nowadays in Russia the day is freed from any political meaning and has ceased to be a day of political actions. It became a day when all women get praised just for being women, and women’s achievements in the personal, public, and political spheres are acknowledged and celebrated. The current focus of this holiday, now, is not women's rights and the battle for equality, but the women themselves, with their (highly expected) femininity, fragility, and beauty. But is this a justifiable approach?

The depolitization of Women's day

The initiative behind the 8th of March is admirable: it promotes equality and emphasizes that women should have just as much access to education, work, elections or any other sphere of life as men do. Women have all the necessary skills to do great things and are not supposed to be restricted to household and family activities. Step by step, such changes have been taking place around the world and women are getting the right to drive a car or to vote at the elections. These were all essential steps for societal development, for equality and peace. 

All the rights women have now, are sometimes taken for granted. But it is important to remember that the right to vote, work alongside men, and to drive a car were achieved by hard work of pressure groups. Women all around the world protested the circumstances they had to live in and sacrificed their freedom for their beliefs.  

Nowadays, this fight for women's rights has not stopped and March 8th serves as a day to raise awareness for the inequality that is still present in many spheres of our lives. Influential speeches like Emma Watson's for the United Nations are also very significant: they contribute to the spread of feminist movements and bring considerable changes all around the globe. However, surprisingly, Russian mainstream society seems to ignore such achievements, movements and initiatives. The media hardly ever use March 8th as the pretext to talk about women's rights in Russia.                                            

                                           

 

So, does March 8th celebrate gender equality in Russia or is this day about something else? On the first glance, it looks appealing  – men rushing around with bouquets of flowers, chocolates, presents, organizing something special for their loved ones. For one day a year, a Russian man does a favor to his partner or mother, and does all household chores, letting her relax and ‘enjoy her day’. 

All the other days of the year, however, it appears to be more challenging to expect any cooperation from men. This way, instead of bringing significant changes around, which would have a noticeable impact on society, Russians prefer to focus societal attention on women for just one day, ingoring the issues of women's rights on the others. Even the wishes which are expressed on this day sound sexist: ‘Be feminine!’, ‘Be beautiful!’, ‘I wish you true women’s happiness (which implies having a family or a partner)’. An inspiring initiative to promote women’s rights has therefore not been able to avoid hypocrisy and sexism and its principal message has become very distorted. 

References

Chulov, M. (2017).  Saudi Arabia to allow women to obtain driving licences

Dorozhkina, A. (2013).  The History of the March 8 Holiday in Russia

Gatten, E. (2015). Swiss suffragettes were still fighting for the right to vote in 1971

Niland, L. (2012).  International Women's Day: Who was Clara Zetkin? 

United Nations Women, International Women's Day history