When candyfloss commercialisation shoves away the robust origins of Women’s Day

2013 was the year of rage-inducing feminism. And rightly so. After the Delhi gang rape, it seemed, everything had changed, yet nothing at all was different. So when Women’s Day rolled along on March 8, the marketing attempts at its so called celebration of women, made me so angry that I threatened to slap people who wished me Happy Women’s Day. It seemed to me an easy way to trivialise these real issues of equality (lack of), safety (lack of) and misogyny (plenty of). And nothing annoyed me more than how quickly marketers had jumped on the bandwagon and managed to make it all commercial and no substance.

The communication frenzy around Women’s Day starts at least a fortnight prior. For some reason, technology companies seem to be the earliest assaulters. Last year, Microsoft sent me a mail on February 28, wishing me an “Appy” Women’s Day (quotes theirs). “Mother, sister, girlfriend, wife, daughter — it’s almost impossible to decode their ‘want’ DNA, isn’t it? However, Windows gives you a shot at flooring her. There’s a variety of apps you can choose from in making her feel good about herself and her world” it said. Maybe it was me; maybe it was the general sense of gloom prevalent then, but giving anyone “a shot at flooring her” seemed so wrong that it set the mood for the teeth-gritting week that was to follow.

The celebrations of “womanhood” came in waves. Discounts on diamond jewellery and diamanté sandals. Free diet plans and mega saver coupons on cord-blood storage. Invitations to seminars on work-home balance and whether investment banking is an ideal profession for women. The poor PR professional who made the mistake of calling me, in order to enquire if I’ve received the email offering up her lone woman CEO client as an interview prospect (standard industry practice, no one distrusts email services as much as PR professionals do) got such an earful from me, it is entirely possible she switched careers.

What irks me about this whole celebration is that when it began, Women’s Day was a revolution, not an excuse to shop. In 1910, at a conference in Copenhagen, 100 women delegates from 17 countries decided to observe Woman’s Day (sic) as a strategy to promote equal rights for women. Equal rights. Not free gym membership. For the next few decades, Women’s Day was a day of protest, of organising marches and speeches, inspiring women to ask for the right to vote, equal pay and an end to the violence targeted at them.

It seems to me in the last few years, we have taken the short slippery road down from the Day’s idealistic and aggressive origins to candyfloss commercialism. We are not just trivialising the issues that brought forth this revolution, but in a race to buy discounted designer wear, we don’t even see that more than 100 years after the first Women’s Day was marked, notions such as equal pay and prevention of violence against women are as absent now as they were then. In real terms, when you take into account education and social evolution, the state of women around the world now is perhaps worse than it was in 1910. Yet, we don’t care. We would rather grab our discounted liposuction coupons that help us get into our discounted little black dresses and head out for a Women’s Day special event at the local hip bar, where we hope someone interesting — ideally richer and taller than us — will come over and strike up a conversation by telling us that no matter what, to him, every day is Women’s Day. There is nothing more vacuous than this. Yet the Kim Kardashianising of Women’s Day is perfectly legit and seems to be perfectly approved by even perfectly intelligent seeming women.

Angst-ridden and frustrated by this loss of a cause, by the time it was actually Women’s Day, I couldn’t even bear to be social and polite. When I told people off for annoying me by wishing me Happy Women’s Day, they looked at me with the kind of revulsion ‘proud Hindus’ seem to have for Wendy Doniger’s books. “Geez, relax, we are only celebrating the uniqueness that is us, okay,” one said with no trace of irony at all.

Now a whole year has gone by and here we are again. You may have popped out a dozen times as you were reading this page to check your phone for messages of love, support, and that most irritating of words applicable to this day, celebration. Nothing much has changed. Just this week, newspapers reported that the Nirbhaya Fund — set up after the Delhi gang rape — is lying unutilised. Even the 24-hour women’s helpline that was set up in the Capital — where more than 1,500 optimistic women call in and seek help every day — is in imminent danger of being shut down as staff salaries have not been paid since December.

Every day there are reports of multiple rapes and monstrous molestations. After the case of the editor who was arrested for what he did to a young journalist in an elevator ride that lasted 196 seconds went public, human resources heads of companies say in private, that hiring women employees is now often not worth the trouble. Forget equal pay, truth is, there aren’t even equal jobs anymore.

And yet again, the emails extolling the celebration of women have started pouring in. This year though, I am more sanguine about my anger about the day and everything it now stands for. It is a determination borne of defeat, certainly. Even if we give it a 100 more years, it seems to me, not much is likely to change. What’s the point fuming then? May as well enjoy the free cocktails.

(Veena Venugopal is editor BLink and author of Would You Like Some Bread with that Book. Follow her on Twitter @veenavenugopal)

(This article was published on March 7, 2014)
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