I discovered the existence of International Women’s Day in 1990, while I was working at the Ministry of the Environment in Jerusalem. On March 8, the Ministry invited all the women to a “spa day” at the Hyatt Hotel on Mount Scopus. The facial scrub and a slap-up lunch were fun, but seemed off-the-point to me. The following year, 1991, International Women’s Day arrived just after the end of the Gulf War. A little gathering was organized in place of the spa day, at which the Minister of the Environment (a man) and the Director-General (a man) addressed the women. I asked if I could say a few words, as an actual woman. “No longer than five minutes,” I was told. I stood up and listed some statistics on the status of women in Israel. Thus my personal observance of International Women’s Day was born.
Growing up in England, I had never heard of International Women’s Day, but in Israel it is embraced, most likely originating with the country’s socialist roots. International Women’s Day was first celebrated in 1911, a year after it was first proposed at an international women’s conference in Copenhagen by German Communist Clara Zetkin, a fervent campaigner for women’s rights and universal suffrage. (She represented the German Communist Party in the Reichstag from 1920 to 1933, and opened the 1932 parliamentary session with a 40-minute attack on Adolf Hitler.) In 1917, Russian women chose to strike for “Bread and Peace” on the last Sunday in February (March 8 in the Gregorian calendar). Four days later, the czar abdicated and women won the right to vote.
In the Soviet Union and other Eastern European communist countries, though, the holiday “veered far from its radical roots,” celebrated as a kitschy mishmash of Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day, where bosses would give red roses to female employees and spas and boutiques now offer deals to women. A similar routine seems to have been adopted in Israel.
When I moved to the United States in 1992 to study journalism at New York University, it seemed to me as if few people had heard of or cared about International Women’s Day. So I started my own tradition: I began sending out a poem each year on March 8 to all of my women friends. Over the years, the poems have ranged from “Three Meditations” by Denise Levertov (“Breathe deeply of the/freshly gray morning air, mild/spring of the day”) to “I Stop Writing the Poem,” by Tess Gallagher (“I stop writing the poem/To fold the clothes/No matter who lives or dies, I’m still a woman.”) to “Requests” by the Hebrew poet Esther Raab (“I want beautiful trees–/ and not wars!)
Why celebrate International Women’s Day in this very personal way? Possibly in memory of my grandmother Amelia Harris, who was 5-years-old in 1911 and had to leave school at 14 to train as an apprentice seamstress. She had won two scholarships, but her mother could not afford the school uniform; many decades later, she told me, “It would have been lovely to have had an education.” I was fortunate to have had that education, but even so, in my own life I’ve seen and experienced how sexism and discrimination can hold women back.
When IWD was first celebrated in 1911 — on March 19 that year — the only countries where women had the right to vote were Australia and Norway. Today even women in Saudi Arabia can vote in municipal elections and stand as candidates, albeit that they have to speak behind a partition or be represented by a man. Nevertheless, more than a century after the first International Women’s Day, a mere 10 women are serving as head of state and nine are serving as head of government, including the chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila, the prime minister of Namibia. Only two countries have 50 percent or more women in parliament, even though evidence shows that women’s political leadership improves decision-making, especially in the areas of gender-equality laws, parental leave and childcare, and electoral reform.
A raft of discriminatory laws remain on the books in many countries, despite the fact that the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action — a roadmap agreed upon at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women — required signatories to “revoke any remaining laws that discriminate on the basis of sex.” In Afghanistan, a man can legally restrict his wife’s right to leave the house. In India, there are no criminal penalties if a man rapes his wife, so long as she is over 15 years of age. In Malta, a man who abducts a woman can avoid conviction and imprisonment if he agrees to marry the victim. In Saudi Arabia, a 1990 fatwa prohibits women from driving, “as this is a source of undeniable vices.” In Tunisia, the law states that a son inherits twice as much property as a daughter. In Israel, where rabbinical courts have jurisdiction over Jewish marriages, a Jewish woman cannot be divorced without the consent of her husband, and a man cannot be forced to give his wife a divorce.
In Israel, women have made “noticeable gains” in recent years, says prominent feminist scholar Elana Sztokman. There has been a steady increase in the number of women members of the Knesset — now 33 in total, a historic high. The Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality is “vocal and active,” Sztokman says, and for the first time is led by an Arab woman MK, Aida Touma-Sliman of the Joint List. Currently, there are some 80 women rabbis in Israel, according to Rabbi Dalia Marx of Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. In 2015, Dr. Meesh-Hammer-Kossoy and Rahel Berkovitz were the first Orthodox women to be ordained as rabbis in Israel, and last summer Karmit Feintuch became the first woman “rabbanit” to serve as spiritual leader in an Orthodox synagogue. And the number of women serving in IDF combat units has doubled in the past four years.
Nevertheless, the day is short, and the work is much. According to data gathered by The Center for the Advancement of Women in the Public Sphere at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, women’s average monthly pay in Israel is 32 percent lower than that of men. The Center’s 2015 Gender Index notes that while women in Israel are more highly educated than men (48.3 percent of women in Israel have 13 or more years of education, compared to 45.4% of men) less than a third of senior faculty members at universities are women. Women are now in the majority in medical professions (doctors, dentists, pharmacists and veterinarians) — 58% in 2013. But only slightly more than a third of all hi-tech employees are women, and only one in seven corporate executives are women. Of 256 municipalities in Israel, only 2% are headed by women.
This year, 2017, would not seem a banner year for women’s rights. Within days of his inauguration as US President, Donald Trump re-instated the Mexico City policy, also known as the global gag rule, which bars any health organization that receives US funding from performing or even mentioning abortion. The consequences of this rule will certainly endanger the lives of women, according to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières.
Yet Trump’s inauguration was followed, the day after, by women’s marches around the world, protesting his policies. Some four million women marched in cities across the US, with solidarity rallies in at least 60 countries, including Antarctica and the tiny Scottish Isle of Eigg. My own town of Modiin is holding special events for International Women’s Day this year, with a special weekend devoted to the entrepreneurial women of the town. When I joined our own Pantsuit Nation Israel rally in Tel Aviv on January 21, I held up a poster I had drawn and decorated with the help of my children. On it were written the words of Hillary Clinton that she had spoken more than two decades ago at the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing: “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights, once and for all.”
Josie Glausiusz is a journalist who writes about science and the environment for magazines including Nature, National Geographic, The American Scholar and Hakai. Her article Land Divided, Coast United won the 2015 online media award from Amnesty International Canada. She is the author of Buzz: The Intimate Bond Between Humans and Insects. Follow her on Twitter @josiegz