I am writing this on International Women’s Day. I know from living in three different countries what different faces this day can have. And I can see how these different perceptions are informed by each country’s history and political situation. This is a Buddhist principle of dependent co-arising: nothing exists in separation from anything else, all phenomena arise in dependence on everything else.
For instance, the Soviet 8th March was a public holiday and culturally it was a day to celebrate femininity, and – separately but connected – awakening of nature in spring. In the US, International Women’s Day was next to non-existing when I lived there in mid-1990s, apart from for hardcore Communists and Socialists, who celebrated it as a milestone on the road to Socialist equality. In the UK nowadays, International Women’s Day takes on a shape of a women-only day, a statement of women’s independence and very often celebration of same-sex love between women.
When we look at the history of International Women’s Day, it did arise in the context of Socialist struggle for workers’ rights, autonomy and ultimately, political and economic sovereignty. What do we want to celebrate on this day now? What is the message of this day for us?
For me, International Women’s Day reason for celebration is two-fold: firstly, it is to honour my Soviet upbringing and to honour the Soviet women in my life whom I love and who shaped me: my Grandmother and my Mom. To them, I sent an electronic card with traditional Soviet symbols of this day: bright yet tender tulips weaved into number 8.
Secondly, International Women’s Day for me now is a chance to reiterate the message of feminism as I understand it, that is, equal rights for women and better life for everyone: women, men, children, the elderly, animals and the planet. And in this aspect I feel that it is important to include, rather then exclude men from the celebrations.
When I was growing up in the 1980s in the USSR, the heat of the Bolshevik Revolution, the horrors of Stalin’s purges, the heroism of WWII both at the front and at home have all become history, and the Soviet people enjoyed the last warm rays of the setting sun of the Soviet regime. Life was stable, life was good and the Socialist message of International Women’s Day had been all but forgotten. In Tomsk, my hometown, there is a Rosa Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin Streets, but neither I nor any of my friends ever linked them to the 8 of March celebrations. The cards for 8th of March were bursting with spring flowers, flowing forms and of course the Great She, the Great Feminine images: a woman as a Spring Maid, a woman as a Gentle Mother.
Practically all women had daytime jobs in the Soviet Union, and, although men still held top positions in all industries, there was no industry where women were not employed or did not hold key positions. Nevertheless, the 8th of March was not about celebrating a woman as a equal worker. It was about celebrating women in their roles as givers of life, sustainers of life, as embodiment of creative forces, and kin to Earth herself as she was waking up from her winter slumber. It was an earth-based holiday, and men were encouraged, culturally almost forced to literally workshop women on this day: to bring them flowers and to do all housework for them on this day, to feed them dinner. I hear you say one day is not enough. And it is not. But it was one step forward in the right direction.
Recently I went to a celebration of International Women’s Day in my Town Hall in England. To my Soviet perspective, it was a strange affair. No men were allowed. Most non-trading stalls represented Lesbian organisations. I am all for Lesbian organisations and for representing them on an International Women’s Day event. I am just asking why the feel for International Women’s Day in the contemporary UK should be that men are not allowed and that non-Lesbian women organisations were not present?
The UK has experienced a different history when compared to the USSR. The British image of a “woman” can be highly polarised. As women did not have daytime jobs as a matter of norm until the 1980s, a “woman” is either seen as a Monty Pythonesque housewife wearing an apron, with rollers in her hair, OR as a Lesbian plumber. There is a third option – what people call here “honorary men” – women like the late Mrs Thatcher, who take patriarchal culture on completely and contribute to it. Consequently, in the British culture, when faced with these three images, a woman might opt for women-only events, as there she will not risk running into housewives with rollers – an embodiment of an oppressed woman, or into patriarchal female executives who choose to side with the oppression.
It is important to understand however that this set of options is not universal, as I have just demonstrated. It is very much culturally-conditioned and can be changed.
Rita M. Gross writes in “Buddhism After Patriarchy” that currently Buddhism is blind to the fact that gender is one of the crucial components of “ego” that clouds our experience and leads to suffering. An enlightened person, Gross argues, “would not use sex as a basis to organise the world… she would not use people’s sex to limit her expectations of them” (p.166).
As Buddhist practice should include exploration and letting go limitations that gender places on our perception, feminist women and Goddess organisations might want to consider what purpose exactly women-only organisation and events serve, what image of women and men they project and what future they engender. Apart from obvious cases such as women-only shelters where women are safe from abuse, what are other reasons for keeping men and women apart?
Oxana Poberejnaia was an Officer of the University of Manchester Buddhist Society while studying for a PhD in Government, and has been involved in organising the Manchester Buddhist Convention, now in its 9th year. Oxana is now exploring the Sacred Feminine through marking seasonal festivals, working with her menstrual cycle, frame drumming and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Oxana is an artist and an author. She teaches frame drumming and meditation. Her works can be found on her blog.