faculty & experts
02 March 2023

Towards a Politically Textured International Women’s Day

Asanda-Jonas Benya is currently a Visiting Lecturer in Anthropology and Sociology at the Geneva Graduate Institute and is based at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Here, she looks at International Women's Day and the ways in which it could gain back its political edge, which some believe is lost. 

It has been said that International Women’s Day (IWD) has lost its political edge. Others have said the agenda for IWD has been adulterated by neoliberal invocations of womxn’s issues and that the politics that once animated IWD activists and movements have been lost due to dominant apolitical currents in different structures that are “championing” the IWD agenda. What then could a productive critical engagement with International Women’s Day look like at this current juncture? Are there possibilities that activists in local structures could use IWD to build a momentum for organising around womxn’s issues and connect the dots at a global scale?

The history of International Women’s Day is both politically radical and historically fraught. It is radical in that it came to be marked at a time when womxn’s rights were a taboo and not a priority. It was thus a product of struggle, not benevolence. It was fraught in that it focused on struggles of some womxn, to the exclusion and marginalisation of other womxn. While it has historically been marked in the "Global North", in the "Global South" it was often unmarked and unknown until the Beijing conference in 1995. Still, it remained on the political fringes. 

In the mid-2000s, momentum on marking the day seemed to pick up globally. Politically, however, the current seemed to have shifted significantly. Instead of reinvigorating the womxn’s movement, it seemed, mobilisation around the day has been appropriated by liberal and apolitical discourses with slogan of “empowerment” and “equality”. These agendas seemed to be driven from above with no critical mass base. 

What then can we do to reinfuse the Day with its historical political edge, albeit, more expansive and inclusive? To answer this question, a lot can be learnt from the World March of Women which has an explicitly political agenda; “we resist to live, we march to transform” and with strong local structure – even if dysfunctional at times.

Part of it must be a real reckoning with the inner workings of power and patriarchy. There is a need to contend with and undo legacies of violence against womxn, and the marginalisation and exclusion of womxn; to deliberately uproot recalcitrant patriarchal cultures that reinforce womxn’s position in society. There is still much work to be done, inequalities are deepening, crises proliferating and womxn, especially working class womxn in the "Global South", bear the brunt of it all.

The improvements that some often talk about are being rolled back. We have seen this roll back with the elimination of the federal right to abortion in the US, girls' education in Afghanistan, and in figures of vicious and variegated patterns of violence against womxn and girls that are on the rise globally. The need to politically reckon with womxn’s issues, therefore, is both urgent and necessary at every opportunity, including on IWD, and it can neither be directed from above by those in power, nor dependent on the "generosity" of institutions and systems. 

While IWD is but one day, it has the potential to be a day of mass mobilisation, a day around which activists globally can restate and reaffirm these urgent demands by womxn. It can be a day where we have global dialogues about the issues we need to collectively organise around, build strategic global alliances around, while remaining rooted in local contexts and structures. It can be used to build a consistent and annual momentum for “reimagining our futures”; for sharpening our strategies, our organising methods, our political tools and tactics for reasserting our demands. It need not be as meaningless politically as it currently is.