50.50: Opinion

Why I no longer celebrate International Women’s Day

Instead of collective and confrontational resistance, we now celebrate individual women’s achievements in capitalist, neoliberal ways

Jackline Kemigisa.jpg
Jackline Kemigisa
8 March 2022, 2.32pm
Women and children working a field with hoes in Burkina Faso
imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo. All rights reserved

Today, 8 March, International Women’s Day, happens to be my birthday. As I write at my desk in Uganda, a stream of messages from the makers of all manner of products is pouring into my inbox. “We wish you a happy birthday/women's day. Here is a discount.”

This sales-driven recognition of my existence is a pale way to celebrate my birthday, but it’s especially galling in regards to International Women’s Day (IWD). Well beyond my inbox, these capitalist festivities on 8 March have so fully decoupled this day from its radical origins that attempting to retrieve the day’s socialist spirit would be akin to summoning the dead.

In 1910, in Copenhagen, Clara Zetkin proposed the idea of International Women’s Day to more than 100 women representing unions, socialist parties and working women’s clubs in 17 countries. It was the second International Conference of Working Women. The day, she proposed, would be one for women in every country to “press for their demands”. The conference unanimously approved the proposal.

Two years earlier, in 1908, socialist resistance in New York saw 15,000 working women march through the city demanding better pay, shorter working hours and voting rights. That protest created the first national women’s day in the US.

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The history of women’s day celebrations in Africa dates back to a march in South Africa in 1956 during the racist regime of apartheid. Some 20,000 women marched to the Union Buildings in Pretoria, in protest against the pass laws, which required Black South Africans to carry an extra identification pass in order to be allowed to work and travel. South Africa now celebrates National Women’s Day on 9 August as well as, along with the rest of the continent, today’s International Women’s Day.

But we celebrate 8 March in capitalist, neoliberal ways. Instead of collective and confrontational resistance, we see awards, narratives celebrating ‘the first woman this or that’, and other praise for singular people outside of their communities. Instead of confronting capitalism and its continued exploitation and undervaluing of women’s labour, we get an endless list of companies taking up space as they ‘celebrate’ the female workers whom they exploit and underpay throughout the year. Worse still are shops and services bombarding women with adverts, selling merchandise with slogans such as ‘women are strong’, turning our freedom struggle into a sad excuse for consumption.

The African Union – through its gender equality agency, the Pan-African Women’s Organization (PAWO) – has tried to ‘Africanise’ women’s day celebrations by creating a spin-off called Africa’s Women’s Day on 31 July. But even this retains the practice of individualising the collective by highlighting outlying individuals (many of them not even women from continental Africa). This individualisation, of course, goes against the very nature of how African women organise.

These capitalism-laced messages signal to women that they should aspire to acquire power and prestige as rewards, to make it on to lists such as ‘the most influential women in Africa’ instead of desiring freedom for all women, as feminist poet and writer Audre Lorde taught us: “I am not free while any woman is unfree.”

Turning confrontation into negotiation

In Africa, at least, non-governmental organisations deserve a large share of the blame for this deradicalisation. Writer and activist Arundhati Roy, in her article The NGO-ization of Resistance, considers how NGOs neutralise resistance by turning confrontation into negotiation. Their budgets partition oppression into ‘projects’ with inputs and outputs that do little to change the suffering of women as a collective.

Indeed, even today, on a continent where nearly all indicators of women’s collective well-being remain dismal, despite a staggering $53bn in aid spent to support gender equality and women’s empowerment, NGOs still spend time making lists of women to invite to festive events and give awards to on 8 March.

In countries like Uganda, poor women will be ferried from villages to towns to provide an audience for this day of celebration before returning to those villages, where they live in poverty. Why not simply redistribute the money for such events to these impoverished women? Why wasn’t that $53bn put directly into such women’s pockets in the first place?

What if institutions celebrated women by supporting the numerous local, women-led initiatives without requiring them to write funding proposals that narrow their lives into grant-thematic areas? They could, for example, redistribute the money allocated to IWD events to savings and credit cooperative societies, one of Uganda’s biggest financiers of agriculture.

Architects of neoliberalism such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund – heavily criticised for forcing governments, especially in the Global South, to defund feminised welfare sectors such as health and education – will also latch on to the 8 March celebrations. It’s a guilt-free day to pat their own backs, with the consent of women’s NGOs.

There is no freedom for women in this neoliberal capitalist takeover of International Women’s Day

There is no freedom for women in this neoliberal capitalist takeover of International Women’s Day – and by extension the women’s movement. Indeed, such celebrations are themselves part of the deradicalisation of 8 March. It is understood as an opportunity to repackage women’s blood, sweat and achievements, despite oppression, into bite-size and commodified ‘inspiration’ that can be assigned a market value.

This is why I no longer celebrate International Women’s Day. It no longer criticises the system of oppression facilitating the torment that women face – that is, “Cis-hetero white supremacist capitalistic patriarchy”, as recently departed Black feminist writer bell hooks clearly names it.

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