New Delhi, (WFS) - Back in 1910, when the German socialist-feminist Clara Eissner Zetkin first proposed that March 8 be International Women's Day (IWD), she may not have realised that she was creating world history. Commemorating a strike by women workers in an American garment factory, this day came to stand for women's collective protest and celebration, their demand for "bread and roses" as a famous song of that era said.
It may sound odd to our ears, but that, too, was a globalised world, with ideas of revolution and international solidarity circulating widely. Decades later, during the Long March in China, IWD was celebrated in remote rural areas. Peasant audiences watched plays written for the occasion, vividly depicting women's hardships in a feudal culture and promising a liberated future even for illiterate village girls.
• Workplace Sexual Harassment Bill
• Sania's sisters
Today, long after the wave of women's struggles that transformed public life during the 1960s and '70s, we are in a different historical moment. India has witnessed a long and extraordinary women's movement, and groups across the country will be celebrating women's day this year as well. But for many, IWD has become another annual ritual, routinised by women's organisations and trivialised by the media.
These are difficult times for feminism. What, we might sometimes wonder, is there to commemorate? Looking back at the past year, it is hard to name any major issue that women's organisations have been able to advance significantly. We are still struggling to understand, let alone redress, the declining sex ratio and millions of "missing girls", still debating the purpose of one-third reservations for women in state assemblies and parliament.
Nonetheless, March 8 remains a valuable vantage point, a time to take stock and look ahead. In fact, significant events over the past year-and-a-half invite fresh thinking on women's issues. The national and state elections of April and May 2004 produced results that upset all predictions and installed a new government in Delhi. In all the understandable excitement about the people's mandate for change, the unprecedented number of women elected to the highest political posts (at the state level during the preceding months) received less attention than it deserved. While one woman turned down the chance to become Prime Minister, five others were Chief Ministers in major states.
Consider women like Vasundhara Raje, a daughter of the Scindia royal family, BJP leader and now Chief Minister of Rajasthan. Jayalalitha, film star and companion of the legendary MGR, now undisputed heir of the AIADMK and the Chief Minister of Tamilnadu. Rabri Devi was catapulted from being "housewife" to "proxy" Chief Minister of Bihar and Rashtriya Janata Dal leader.
Uma Bharati, the constantly controversial, rebellious sadhvi and committed Hindutva ideologue, became Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh. Sheela Dikshit, the seasoned Congresswoman, became Chief Minister of Delhi for a second term. And the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, daughter-in-law of one prime minister and wife of another, resisted enormous pressure from a sycophantic party to decline the prime ministership. Of course, one must not forget the former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh - Mayavati, a Dalit - holding together the precarious fortunes of the Bahujan Samaj Party.
The astonishingly wide social and political spectrum spanned by these "women in power" challenges popular assumptions. What difference does it make that they are all women when they neither identify with women's issues nor share a larger politics?
A frequent feminist response is to individualise such women and dismiss them as 'bad role models'. Instead, we could treat this as an opportunity.
Traditionally, feminists have been preoccupied with the powerlessness of women, and we have little experience with analysing how women handle power. Why not use the unprecedented number of "powerful" women to think seriously about what is involved in bringing women into politics or public life? Why not, for example, argue for even more diversity among women in power - more housewives, more single women, more women from lower or middle castes, and so on? We could also utilise this chance to analyse the political space offered by different party organisations for an alternative politics.
But, if the last year or so presented us with "empowered" women, it also gave us new victims. The infamous "MMS case", as it has come to be known, occupied headlines for days on end. Young students, it would appear, were perfectly capable of generating their own pornography, deftly negotiating the techno-maze of cell-phone cameras, VCDs, web-sites, and e-commerce.
In the midst of sensation and scandal, both the Delhi schoolboy who made the clandestine video and enabled its sale, as well as the girl who was photographed were thrown out of school. No questions were asked about the differences in their circumstances: Was this (the filming) a consensual act? Did she have any role in the sale of the video? Which aspect of her actions merited her summary dismissal?
Creating and selling explicitly sexual images may seem more obviously problematic than beauty contests, sexist ads, or obscene film songs, and this is already covered by stringent criminal laws. But the MMS case also raises fundamental questions - about youth and coming of age, about the changing relationship between gender and sexuality - that cannot be confined within the restrictive framework of criminality or pornography.
How do women's organisations relate to the concerns of the young? While it is true that most social movements have been led by young people, and subjects like women's studies are now being taught in universities, the links may be more fragile than we realise. As teachers or parents, adults are dimly aware that children 'grow up faster' these days, but we know incredibly little about their world and their struggles. Power, adolescence and youth could be fresh areas for feminist exploration.
To be truly inspirational, a day like March 8 must not only celebrate the past but also engage with possible futures. Clara Zetkin would have agreed.