Flowers and praise – these are not rights: how March 8 builds on gender stereotypes
Certainly, the gender situation in Ukraine is not as critical as, for example, in theocratic Iran, where women are sent to prison for taking the hijab off in a public place. Or as in Saudi Arabia, which has recently announced the transition to moderate Islamism: now women are allowed to watch football matches at the stadiums and drive a car (if husband allows).
Nevertheless, the situation is absolutely unacceptable if we compare Ukraine with the countries-samples of a balanced gender policy (first of all, with Sweden, where men have the right to maternity leave, Iceland, Norway). In such countries, resources (power, money, time) are distributed fairly, since women have an equal level of representation in all socio-political spheres.
Paradoxically, the holiday of March 8 (in its current status), beloved by all women, in our country is a destructive factor on the way to gender equality in addition to a weak legislative and institutional framework for managing gender issues.
The Center for Political Analysis “Observatory of Democracy” has analyzed the political and symbolic significance of the International Women’s Day in the national and regional context, and also why, in its present form, this holiday bears “anti-gender” meanings and, instead of the declared emancipation, builds on and reproduces gender stereotypes only.
Depoliticization of March 8: side effects
From the point of view of macro-historical chronology, the “custom” to celebrate Women’s Day every year is quite new, since it has a little more than 100 years. Nevertheless, just the American and European “tradition of March 8” has managed to preserve the “original” meaning of the holiday as a certain point of no return, as a result of which women have obtained the fullness of civil and political rights.
International Women’s Day in the Soviet and post-Soviet realities has undergone a variety of semantic metamorphoses – from anti-bourgeois and proletarian to anti-proletarian and openly gender-discriminating. As a result, in the post-Soviet territories, flowers, wishes for women to “be as beautiful as flowers” and “legitimacy” of any women’s desires exclusively on this festive day are just remained from March 8. But first things first.
Initially, the “social request” for the upholding and protection of women’s rights arose in the United States, in New York in the middle of the XIX century. On March 8, 1857, “women’s tailors” – women who sewed clothes in factories, took part in a protest action, speaking out against inhuman working conditions and low wages. The action did not succeed. However, two years later the significant result was the creation of the first women’s trade union.
The next key date in the development of the movement for the struggle for women’s rights was March 8, 1908. The demonstration took place in New York then, where 15,000 women came out with demands to reduce the length of the working day and increase wages. For the first time, women demanded the right to participate in elections and the abolition of the exploitation of child labor. It is interesting that it was during this demonstration that women made the famous slogan “Bread and Roses” (bread is a symbol of economic security, roses are the best quality of life), which were subsequently “picked up” by women from other countries, especially the USSR. In May 1908, the last Sunday of February was declared the National Women’s Day by the Socialist Party of America.
In Europe, the International Women’s Day has been celebrated since 1911. An initiator of the introduction of this holiday as a sign of solidarity with the American women’s tailor was the German socialist Clara Zetkin at the International Conference of Socialist Organizations of the World, which was held in Denmark in 1910. In her statements, Clara Zetkin stressed that the International Women’s Day is primarily a symbol of electoral rights, which socialist women in each country must have.
In the Russian Empire, the celebration of the International Women’s Day (from February 1913) became the part and the consequence of the peace movement that arose on the eve of the First World War. In Kyiv this date was celebrated in 1914 for the first time. An important feature of the history of March 8th development in tsarist Russia was that the February bourgeois revolution began precisely with a mass street demonstration of women who demanded “Bread and Peace” in times of war. This event occurred on 8th of March according to the Gregorian calendar, so the Bolsheviks, when they came to power, fixed this date as a holiday of the formation of a new Soviet woman.
However, from the first years of the existence of the USSR, officially fixed, the state holiday of the day of women workers’ solidarity had been used as an ideological instrument of organization and, in fact, exploitation of women’s potential. To build a bright communist future, the state needed a promotion of the image of a proletarian woman, who is equal in status and in duties to the proletarian man, and therefore any signs of femininity were condemned as “bourgeois relic”.
The crystallization of the modern “post-Soviet” understanding of March 8 has begun since the 1930s. A special role in the stereotyping of women was played by the demographic factor (political repressions, World War II), under the influence of which the state was forced to promote the image of the mother and the cult of female motherhood. Later, since the 1960s March 8 has transformed from the official date of praising the achievements of women to a private, family holiday. And the liberalization of public life and the return of “bourgeois attributes” gradually have led to the polarization of gender roles, the delineation of truly “male” and “female” spheres.
In this way, step by step, in parallel with the proclamation by the UN General Assembly of the Day for the Struggle for Women’s Rights (1977) and its appeals to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women (the 1979 Convention), March 8 has got the meaning of “the day of praise” of thoughtful (and very feminine), loving and faithful woman-mother in our socio-political conditions. The holiday that was designed to struggle with gender stereotypes has become an effective tool of their strengthening and reproducing.
Reporting for everything: gender in numbers and facts
March 8 is the most symbolic time to sum up “gender results”. In the summer 2017, experts from The Center for Political Analysis “Observatory of Democracy” presented a substantive research of the gender situation in Ukraine. Let us see what changes have taken place since then.
One of the main ratings on gender is the Global Gender Gap Report, which is annually compiled by the World Economic Forum. The latest data from the gender gap index indicates that, in general, in 2017 in comparison with 2016, Ukraine has improved its position slightly, and has risen by 8 positions in the global rating.
Ukraine demonstrates the maximum possible high rates in education (1.0 points) that indicates the absence of a gender gap – that is, men and women have equal access and coverage of educational services. The situation in the healthcare system has not changed significantly as well.
The asymmetry of the representation of women and men in the political sphere has decreased at 0.009 points. Although this indicator is still very low (Ukraine is 103 out of 144 countries). And even in cases when the rate of representation of women in political institutions is quite high (for example, the rate of UTC’s councils of Kharkiv region), their real impact on the political decision making process remains minimal, if we consider the number of leadership positions occupied by women.
Moreover, it is necessary to highlight positive changes in the sphere of economic participation and opportunities. The introductory part of the Global Gender Gap Report emphasizes the fact that in 2017 Ukraine demonstrated the greatest improvement in the economy, due to the tendency to equalize the wages of men and women.
|Result of Ukraine (2016)
|Result of Ukraine (2017)|
|Place in the rating||Points (0.0 – complete inequality, 1.0 – complete equality)||Place in the rating||Points (0.0 – complete inequality, 1.0 – complete equality)|
|Scope of education||26||1.000||28||1.000|
|Health and Survival||40||0.979||51||0.978|
|Economic participation and opportunities||40||0.722||34||0.736|
|Total score||69 of 144||0.700||61 of 144||0.705|
Since we are talking about the difference in income, we are citing the data from the State Statistical Service of Ukraine (the latest results for regions are available for 2015). On average, in Ukraine, men earn 25-30% more than women. However, depending on the region, the situation may radically differ. 29% is the difference in income (in favor of men) in Kharkiv region. The same rates are for the Lviv and Khmelnytsky regions. The minimum gap is shown in Chernivtsi, Kherson, Ternopil regions – these are 12%, 15%, 16%, respectively.
An important factor in analyzing the “gender” difference in income is the employment sphere. Thus, according to the State Statistics Service of Ukraine (the average salary of men and women in UAH for 9 months of 2017), the largest gap (39% in favor of men) is observed in the field of art, sports, entertainment and recreation. Almost equal wages for men and women are in the transport sector (difference is 2%), public administration, operations with movable property (8%). There is no gap in income in the administrative and support services.
Source: infographic of website of the project Update (data are given in UAH)
The gender component is also assessed in the framework of a large-scale research of the level of freedom in the world that is conducting by Freedom House. According to the indicator “personal autonomy and individual rights”, which includes the indicator of gender equality Ukraine received 10 out of 16 points in 2017. The report on Ukraine indicates that, despite the prohibition of gender discrimination in the Constitution, human rights advocacy groups report that employers openly discriminate workers on the base of gender, appearance and age, while official authority demonstrates a low level of interest and understanding of the problem.
The reports reviewed provide information on the degree of “inclusion” of women in various socio-political spheres, but they do not include indicators of the status of women’s safety, aspects of domestic and sexual violence. In this regard, it is important to refer to the Women, Peace, and Security index, presented at the UN in October 2017. This index also examines women’s access to different spheres of life and justice towards women (the degree of discrimination within the legal system). At the same time, it also assesses the safety of women at the level of the family, community and society. In general, according to the results of this research, Ukraine ranks 103 out of 153 countries (with a score of 0.664 out of 1). This one, in particular, indicates a high level of probability for a woman to be subjected to violence (only 42% of Ukrainian women feel safe in society).
The adoption of the Law of Ukraine “On Prevention and Counteracting to Domestic Violence” is one of the important legislative innovations that occurred during the analyzed period. As a tradition for the Ukrainian legislative process, the adopted law has both positive and negative sides. Among the positive sides it should be stressed the definition of the concepts of “sexual” and “psychological violence”, as well as the introduction of criminal liability for domestic violence. A particularly negative aspect is the removal from the text of the law of the concepts like “gender”, “gender identity”, “gender stereotypes”, “gender-based violence”. The lack of such a terminology in one of the key gender laws contradicts Ukraine’s international obligations, which Ukraine has assumed by signing the Istanbul Convention in 2011 (which, in fact, has not been ratified yet).
“The Sacrament of Celebration” March 8: political and symbolic meaning
Having considered the factual content of the gender perspective and the current status of gender policy in Ukraine, let us turn to the level of political and symbolic significance of the practices of celebrating the International Women’s Day.
Let’s begin with that March 8 is perceived as “one day of courteous praise” in the mass Ukrainian consciousness in relation to the female sex, without any socio-political significance and context. For example, according to the online survey of Kantar TNS Online Track, which was conducted during January 23-29, 2017, only 19% of Ukrainians consider this holiday important, that is intended to remind of the women’s rights, while the majority of respondents (47%) see this holiday as a good reason to do something nice to close women.
At the same time, often women themselves “cultivate” this approach of March 8 by “pre-ordering” gifts, postponing the most intimate (and often the most difficult/expensive to implement) desires for men on this special date, because it is the one “legitimate” day, when they “have the right” to do so in their understanding. Thus, the International Women’s Day has turned into a gender-female celebration of women’s whims (paired with a gender-male holiday of February 23, which has been abolished at the official level, but “exists” at the level of long-term habits and customs of many Ukrainians).
Moreover, this “logical line” is supported and redistributed at the level of the state public policy. Let’s consider, for example, Petro Poroshenko’s festive greeting to the Women’s Day of this year. Obviously, goal number one for the President is to distance as much as possible from the perception of the communist heritage of March 8. Therefore, he says that “there is no political coloring of the holiday … we do not remember either Clara Zetkin, or Rosa Luxemburg”, although it would be more correct here (of course, from a gender-civilized position) to emphasize the political significance of the activity of activists-socialists, who fought for the empowerment of women. “Half of my achievements – this is my Marina, who gave me four children …” – is again a direct reference to the traditional role of women like woman-mother, family pillar and support.
In addition, the festive meeting and congratulations of March 8 by the President of women-soldiers of the Armed Forces, volunteers, representatives of art and culture, doctors, teachers and scientists is no different from the “official” meetings of labor collectives and the “review” of the achievements of women during the Soviet period.
And if Petro Poroshenko has showed some creativity to publish together with congratulations a photo of the girl in military uniform, then the Kharkiv Head Gennady Kernes, apparently has decided to act on the “play safe” principle (use proven methods), he has limited to a laconic picture with tulips, briefly listed the main stereotyped social roles of women (“moms, beloved, daughters”) and wished health in families, peace and harmony at homes.
Among women politicians, the acting minister of health Uliana Suprun demonstrated her gender awareness by having asked to do not congratulate her on that day, do not give flowers and other gifts, because March 8 is “not an occasion to congratulate a woman with the fact that she is a woman”. On her Facebook page on the 8th of March, 2018, Uliana Suprun also demonstratively posted – “today is the World Kidney Day”.
On the contrary, the first female governor, the current head of the Kharkiv regional state administration Yulia Svetlichna has refrained from any congratulations, and has published only the next report on the effectiveness of her activities: on the eve of the International Women’s Day, the head of the Kharkiv regional state administration has awarded the mother-teacher of the family-type children’s home with state award.
Analyzing the “sacrament” and the practice of celebrating of March 8 at the national and regional levels, it can be concluded that the civil sector only is still the source of a “breath of fresh air” in terms of retransmitting the main social and political significance of the holiday. So, in many cities of Ukraine on the 8th of March, 2018, there were various marches and actions: in Kyiv it is March of women “That’s enough to suffer!”, in Kharkiv it is March of women’s solidarity “We are all different. We are all equal”, in Mariupol it is March of rational wives “More than wives”.
At the present time, Ukraine demonstrates quite average indicators of the effectiveness of the implementation of gender policy, according to the international studies (Global Gender Gap Report, the Level of Freedom in the World, Women, Peace and Security index). The low rates of representation and participation of women in the political sphere, a significant income gap (in Kharkiv region there is a very high level of income difference compared to other regions – 29%), as well as a high level of violence against women are remained the main “hot spots”.
The Law of Ukraine “On Prevention and Counteracting to Domestic Violence” that is adopted in December 2017, on the one hand, provides effective measures against violence towards women in the family (criminal liability has been introduced). On the other hand, it does not comply with international legal standards in the field of gender policy, because it does not contain such key concepts like “gender”, “gender identity”, “gender stereotypes”, “gender-based violence”. This, in turn, once again prolongs the process of ratification of the Istanbul Convention by Ukraine.
Despite the 27-years existence of the independent state of Ukraine, the traditional (archaic, patriarchal, post-Soviet) perception of the holiday of March 8 predominates in the minds of the majority of Ukrainians from the point of view that this is the only “legitimate” day when women “have the right” to be heard and valued. As a result, in Ukraine the “alternative reality” of the International Women’s Day – a holiday with an emasculated social and political meaning – is steadily reproduced.
This logic of “courtesy” of March 8 is also distributed through the sphere of public policy, when its high-ranking representatives, both women and men, with their own rhetoric and actions strengthen the image of the perception of the Women’s Day as the mother’s day and the woman-guardian of the family, the home, but not the woman as an equal partner. Within the framework of this discourse for the public consciousness, obviously, March 8 bears “anti-gender” meanings, because, on the contrary, it only fixes gender stereotypes about the traditional “destiny” of women and men.
- It is impossible to promote the introduction of European values at the institutional level, if there is no consolidation of basic international concepts and terms at the legislative level. For that reason, the Law of Ukraine “On Prevention and Counteracting Domestic Violence”, certainly, is required revision and amendments, in order to be harmonized with similar European regulations in the field of gender policy.
- The problem of the traditional perception of March 8 as a depoliticized holiday is directly related to the existence of gender inequality, primarily in the political and economic spheres. However, inverse relationship is also appeared here: the low level of representation of women in politics is not only the result of institutional barriers (the higher the level of the representative body – the higher the “price of the mandate”), but also the political passivity of the women who are uncritically perceived gender stereotypes imposed by the traditional society, and also act as their bearers and translators as a result.
- In this context, it is especially important to raise the level of gender awareness among both women and men through online courses, various trainings, etc. Because in the Ukrainian society the gender is continued persistently to be associated with sex, and not with social roles imposed by society. This often involves confusion in terms when, for example, gender equality is identified with same-sex marriages.
- Based on the above factors, the so-called “gender sensitive” media is becoming particularly relevant, and they should become the main tool for both the gender literacy campaign and the channels that facilitate the transformation of the existing gender discourse.
Center for Political Analysis “Observatory of Democracy”
The paper was prepared with the support of the European Endowment for Democracy (EED). The content of the publication does not necessarily reflect the views of the EED and is the sole responsibility of Center for Political Analysis “Observatory of Democracy”.