Here in Moldova, where International Women’s Day is an officially recognized holiday, custom holds that men give flowers to women on this day, most especially to mothers and grandmothers, as well as to female friends and co-workers. So, over the past week, in the days leading up to March 8th, the most visible evidence I saw related to IWD were the flower booths which sprang up along the main boulevards of Chisinau in and among the booths selling Martisor ornaments. The usual flower storefronts also spilled out onto the sidewalks all over the city. Primroses, hyacinths and tulips appeared to be favorites.
Flowers for “Bunica” (Grandma) and for a girlfriend.
And sprigs of mimosa. Bob and I saw these same mimosa blossoms being given to women in Puglia, Italy when we were there three years ago on March 8th. It was in fact, an Italian Communist female politician in 1936, who chose the yellow mimosa as the symbol of IWD in Italy, because they were readily available and not costly like other flowers. That choice spread to other Communist countries, many of which, like Moldova, are now the post-communist countries of the old Soviet block. The appearance of this flower on the streets of Chisinau therefore, served to remind me that IWD has its roots in the feminism of early socialist and communist movements.
The first National Women’s Day was organized by the Socialist Party of America in New York on February 28, 1909, and the first proposal for an International Women’s Day, –as a way of building world-wide support for women’s rights and for universal suffrage, came the next year, 1910, at an international meeting of socialist women in Copenhagen. International Women’s Day was observed for the first time on March 19, 1911, in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, where more than one million women and men attended rallies, demanding the right of women to vote and to hold public office, to receive vocational training and to work without discrimination on the job.
According to information from a UN website and a concise Wikipedia article, the earliest observances of International Women’s Day in Russia were closely tied to the granting of women’s suffrage, and to the Russian Revolution itself. Russian women protested WWI in 1913, by observing their first International Women’s Day on the last Sunday in February. The following year on March 8, all around Europe, women held rallies to protest the war and to express solidarity with other women’s rights activists. Four years later, on March 8, 1917, in Petrograd, the capital of the Russian Empire, a demonstration that was initiated by women textile workers became the catalyst that set the revolution on fire. The women went on strike that day for “Bread and Peace,” demanding the end of World War I, the end to Russian food shortages, and the end of czarism. Leon Trotsky wrote, “23 February (8th March on the Gregorian calendar) was International Woman’s Day and meetings and actions were foreseen… but we did not imagine that this ‘Women’s Day’ would inaugurate the revolution. …In the morning, despite orders to the contrary, textile workers left their work in several factories and sent delegates to ask for support of the strike… which led to mass strike… all went out into the streets.” Seven days later, Nicholas II abdicated and the provisional government granted women the right to vote. Following the October Revolution, IWD on March 8th became an official holiday in the Soviet Union.
In its early years, IWD was predominantly celebrated in communist countries and by socialist and communist movements worldwide, but the United Nations began celebrating International Women’s Day in 1975, and in 1977, the UN General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8 as the UN Day for Women’s Rights and World Peace.
There are now twenty-six countries around the world which, like Moldova, recognize IWD as an official holiday. Among these are Uganda, Zambia, Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Mongolia and Nepal, and the majority of countries in the region of the world from which I now write, including Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, and all the “stans,” – Kyrgystan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.
Ironically, despite the political nature of IWD’s roots, the popular expression of this holiday in Moldova has now evolved into a kind of Hallmark-like commercially oriented observance, (just as has Mother’s Day in the US, the origins of which trace back to the peace movement.) Many Moldovans tell me they now think of their IWD as a sort of hybrid between our Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day. In addition to giving flowers to their mothers and lovers, they may cook breakfast or supper for them that day.
I also hear from friends who are old enough to have grown up during the years of the old “Moldavian Soviet Republic,” that this lighthearted take on the holiday is nothing new since the advent of Moldova’s opening to the West, but was already in evidence during the Soviet era, when the holiday had become an occasion for much teasing between the sexes. Despite its noble beginnings, the holiday had largely come to be understood by this last generation of Soviet citizens, as a celebration created for the purpose of balancing the holiday called “Defender of the Fatherland” for men and veterans on February 23rd. That holiday was celebrated with parades and processions in honor of veterans; women gave gifts to men, especially husbands or boyfriends, fathers, sons and brothers, and as part of workplace culture, women also gave small gifts to their male co-workers. Consequently, in colloquial usage, that holiday was referred to as “Men’s Day.” IWD’s became its balancing counterpart, and women were teased with the warning that the gifts they would receive on IWD would be in proportion to what they gave on “Men’s Day.”
In many countries today, IWD may not be an official holiday, but it is still observed as an opportunity to advocate for further actions needed to achieve gender equality for girls and women, and to highlight the achievements of women in every field. This past week on IWD 2018, women in Spain, who are paid 13 percent less than men in the public sector and 19 percent less in the private sector, organized a country wide “domestic strike.” In France, where the gender pay gap is 25 percent, according to the newspaper, Libération, the March 8th’s edition of that paper was sold at a reduced price for women: 2 euros for women and €2.50 for men. (In the USA, the gender pay gap is currently 20% by comparison.) In India, students and teachers marched toward Parliament, demanding action against domestic violence, sexual attacks and discrimination in jobs and wages. Hundreds also marched in Kabul, Afghanistan, calling for actions to give Afghan woman more voice, ensure their education, and protect them from the violence of an oppressive patriarchic system. More than 500 women’s rights activists gathered in Seoul, handing out white roses as a symbol of support for the #MeToo movement, and holding signs that said, “Stop at 3 p.m.” The wage gap between men and women was so wide in South Korea, they said, that women should stop working at 3pm in order to break even. The Korean Women’s Associations United called for reform in the country’s “patriarchal social structure that breeds gender discrimination.” “We see a revolution afoot,” it said. “And the leader of this revolution is women.”
Here in Chisinau there was an IWD march as well. A number of nongovernmental human rights organizations staged the event, in order to promote gender equality, to demand that the rights of women be respected by state institutions, and to sensitize society to the problems faced by women in the Republic of Moldova, such as violence against women. The following link connects to news coverage of Chisinau’s march:
(photo of Chisinau march taken from an article by Arina Livadari in Moldova.org)
The march was just one part of a “Festival of Women’s Solidarity,” organized by the Gender Equality Platform and Gender Doc-M in Chisinau between March 6-8. The Festival included an open public forum to promote solidarity between women of varying circumstances and to urge women to fight against stereotypes. An invitation to the event read: “In 2017, women filled the Moldovan media space, being the protagonists of two types of content: either perfection and beauty to the superlative, or the victim of domestic violence, rape, and inhuman attitudes in some maternity wards. Otherwise, women’s lives remain in the shadows. In order to change this, we set out to organize the “Solidarity between Women” forum, a night of discussion where women from different groups will tell about the challenges they face day by day. The purpose of this event is to bring the woman and the problems she faces into the center of Moldova’s social and political agenda. We invite you to participate in this event to listen to the stories of active women, to create new partnerships and to discuss what and how we can change to improve the lives of women in the Republic of Moldova. Solidarity between women does not have a social status, skin color, religion or party. … Solidarity between women means being here for those who, day by day, strive for a better life, for equal opportunities, for decent conditions of childbirth, for the right to express their opinion, for the opportunity to educate their children in a state in which the respect for diversity and freedom of expression exists not only on paper, for the right to privacy and sexual identity, for the right to conscious and deliberate choices that go beyond the limitations of family or society.”
Women representing different social groups took part in the forum, sharing their experiences on: “being a woman with disabilities who has moved into business;” “age discrimination in our society and how invisible it is;” “lesbian experience in a society where tolerance is not yet a value;” “what it means to be a Roma woman and face the prejudices of origin;” and “what it is like to be the working mother of a young child;” A municipal councilor also talked about what it is like to be a woman of public authority. Others gave motivational speeches about “how to insist on the use of feminine form in the names of professions, the importance of this approach, and how women themselves react to it;” and about “how to get out of the vicious circle of family violence and how important is other women’s solidarity towards the victims of violence.”
The UN’s most recent “Moldova Country Team Gender Scorecard” includes the following summary about the current status of gender equality in Moldova: “While the policy foundation for gender equality laid out by the Government of Moldova is laudable, patriarchal norms have proven resistant to change, and policies and laws aimed at enabling gender equality have not been sufficiently backed by resources required for full realization. Women have an unequal status in health, education, economy, and representation in public life and decision‐ making. Patriarchal attitudes are also the root cause of violence against women…”
A great new resource for statistical indicators about gender issues, called “Gender Pulse, was launched about a year ago through a partnership between the UN Development Program and the National Bureau of Statistics. According to this site, and the CIA Fact Sheet on Moldova, women’s literacy is 99% in Moldova, and more women than men get a tertiary education. The Gender Pay Gap in Moldova is 10.7%, (better than in the US.) But while approximately half of the population is female, only 25% of government ministers are women and only 21% of the members of Parliament are women.
The office of UNDP Moldova also reports that approximately two out of three adult women in Moldova have experienced at least one form of domestic violence at some point throughout their lives. A UNDP Resident Representative in Moldova, noted: “For many years, the United Nations Organization in Moldova, in partnership with the Moldovan authorities, civil society and development partners, have been working hard to raise public awareness, break the silence and break this vicious circle of violence against women and girls. We remain firmly committed to continuing the same course in the years to come.”
The loss of IWD’s original focus in the popular mind here in Moldova, does seem not only a bit ironic, but definitely lamentable as well. In ESL class this week, I presented a brief bio of an American woman whom I admire, Eleanor Roosevelt, and we re-read together Malala Yousafzai’s 2014 acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. When I asked my students about the achievements of historical or contemporary Moldovan women who were being remembered and honored this year on International Women’s Day, they mostly come up with a blank. “We don’t know about the historical achievements of Moldovan women,” they told me. “They are not included in our curriculum in school.” Today they learn about women deemed newsworthy from the internet, which is heavily weighted with a focus on entertainment celebrities. Among the international women admired by one group of students were: Angelina Jolie, Princess Diana, Oprah Winfrey, and one politician, Margaret Thatcher, “the Iron Lady.” They did come up with one celebrated Moldovan woman with whom they were all familiar: Doina Aldea-Teodorovici, (1958-1992) a Moldovan composer and singer who, along with her husband Ion, were known for their patriotic songs celebrating Moldova and its historical Romanian identification.
At the IWD march in Chisinau this week, one of the messages displayed on the banners and chanted by the participants was “We do not want flowers, we want equal rights.” I sympathize with that sentiment; I fully support the goal of gender equality and I recognize that it is going to require a lot of serious cultural reform. And I like flowers. I do not wish to pit one against the other. I would like to have both. I think it wonderful to give your mother and grandmother flowers on IWD, to go to their homes and visit them if you no longer live with them, and to cook for them if they normally do all the cooking. I’m all for these expressions of love and affection, and I love receiving flowers.
(The rose given to me at a Filarmonic concert in Chisinau this Friday. Roses were handed to each woman at the entrance in honor of International Women’s Day.)
But I will also make it a goal to learn what I can, over the coming year, of the achievements of notable Moldovan women. While past eras of patriarchy in this region, as in every region of the world, have no doubt repressed multitudes of women who never had the opportunity to develop their potential, I am sure there must be many contemporary and historical women of whom Moldovans should be proud, who have in fact contributed to Moldova’s progress toward a more humane society via the arts, sciences, education, and politics, but who have been buried in a patriarchal interpretation of history. I hope to share some of what I learn in this blog.