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The Commercialisation and Corrosion of International Women’s Day


I N T E R N A T I O N A L – G E N D E R  


Koushin Unber


“Enjoy a 10% discount on all makeup products in celebration of International Women’s Day!”

“Pamper yourself with our exclusive collection of bath products because you deserve to feel special today!”

“Happy Women’s Day! Celebrate your day by using this gift card for a free facial massage at X Beauty Parlour!”

Lara’s phone had practically blown up from all the messages and Facebook notifications by now. She’s 23, and she works for a local advertising firm in Dhaka. Never having left the country, she spent every Women’s Day under the misbelief that this day is to be celebrated by going on shopping sprees, getting new makeovers, and receiving text messages from different men wishing her a happy women’s day. Lara grew up in an average home with very conventional Bangali values and policies. The media and the society around her never provided an opportunity to understand what women empowerment actually is about. To her, International Women’s Day was and had always been about receiving promo codes at best, and hearing her male coworkers complain about how there is no International Men’s Day (19 November). And today was going to be no different. Surrounded by incredibly commercialised and product-promoting media, Lara has never been able to fully grasp what it means to be a woman. And 8 March, a day that is supposed to bring to the limelight the struggles women faced over the century to obtain equality, has been reduced to an opportunity for malls and markets to attract customers in the guise of being “progressive”. Yet Lara is not the only woman blinded by our consumerist society.

The first National Women’s Day was observed in the United States on 28 February. The Socialist Party of America designated this day in honour of the female garment-workers who had protested against unfair working conditions. Women took to the streets to demand civil, social, political, and religious rights. A movement was born. Soon after World War II, a number of countries started to recognise 8 March as International Women’s Day. Since then, the United Nations and its agencies have worked tirelessly to secure gender equality worldwide with great outcomes achieved.

Over the years, however, the methods of celebrating Women’s day have far swayed from their roots. What was once a day of fight for equality, a day of showcasing and encouraging more women to step up and partake in society’s progress, has changed into an opportunity for brands to give out offers and discounts, organisations to post minimal and surface-level “mandatory posts”, and simply a reason for women and men alike to throw parties and gatherings. Whether it’s poorly planned sexist tweets formulated to grab attention, or clickbait-y social experiments done by large corporations that prove a repetitive point, International Women’s Day has become a perfect opportunity for brands to resort to regressive tactics to endorse societal headway.

A perfect example of how counterproductive mass media has made IWD is seen in the sexist tweet which was made and later deleted by Burger King. In their campaign to encourage more women to pursue a culinary career, Burger King tweeted “Women belong in the kitchen”, for which they faced expected backlash. Pepsi-Co, for a brief moment, promoted the idea of the ‘Lady Dorito’ which would provide a softer crunch for women to consume in public spaces without the deadly embarrassment of producing the crunch effect while biting down on a chip.

For many retail outlets, IWD is a perfect opportunity to gain customers by offering various discounts, sales, and clever marketing strategies. This is just a testament to how little such multinational corporations care about women’s progress in society and actually have an increase in sales in their best interests. Brands jumping on the Women’s Day hype wagon rarely look into the gender equity policies of their own. 81% women face harassment in workplaces, and it still remains a struggle for a woman to climb the corporate ladder in Bangladesh without facing the slings and arrows of conservative critics. 

It is not uncommon to receive countless SMS on 8 March from an array of retail shops, businesses, and firms wishing you a “Happy Women’s Day! Enjoy 50% off on our mani-pedis because a woman needs to feel special”, or seeing a Facebook post by a retail company saying “Women’s Day — BIGGEST discount offer on kurtis, saree, kameez (imported from Pakistan)”, followed by a poorly written quote that describes how you as a woman deserve to buy luxury goods to celebrate a day JUST for you. All these announcements use the special occasion of women’s day to promote the culture of consumption by alluring men and women to spend lavishly on luxuries as they “deserve” the opulence.

What many of these brands are getting wrong is that the core idea of IWD is to not only celebrate socio-political and cultural achievements made by women, but also to advocate for equity causes, such as creating a better workplace environment for women, making it easier for women to climb the corporate ladder, continuing to press for gender equality in the community, and making it easier for women to join part of the workforce that isn’t working in a garment factory or in retail, especially in a country like Bangladesh, where 28.4% of the total number of employed people are women. And while there are certainly organisations/businesses that produce various types of informative TVCs on gender equality that are broadcasted on national televisions, that is almost all they do.

International Women’s Day is not yet another sales opportunity. While it’s perfectly okay to celebrate the progress of women in society, it is not okay to use the day as an excuse to throw parties and binge-shop on all the aforementioned sales, while being completely oblivious to the mistreatment of women that STILL goes on behind the curtains of most of these workplaces. This capitalistic approach to celebrating Women’s Day is a caustic materialisation, and it promotes a culture that endorses the idea of ‘ideal’ housewives, home-makers, and office-goers who still fit into the standard of beauty that the media so vehemently forces on them, thus fostering not double, but triple standards for women.

The concern here is not the promotion of consumer culture by the use of repressive trends and regressive practices per se, but the manner in which these are promoted while using the occasion of IWD, which depoliticises the very concept of Women’s Day celebration. It dampens and dilutes the very spirit with which it has been created. The message with which IWD started out often gets lost in the bevvy of parties, music programmes, fashion shows, and ceremonies that take place on 8 March. These festivities are not harmful on their own, but they corrode the meaningfulness of the day once it starts to become all about dressing up and going out with your gal-pals, but not about educating your children about the contributions to the world made by women or for women; and when “celebrating IWD” becomes all about posting a lovely status on Facebook for your wife, sending her gifts equivalent to those sent on Valentine’s day, but not about improving and promoting the improvement of policies geared towards women (such as paid maternity leave, seminars on workplace harassment, reducing gender pay gap, etc.) at your workplace.

What can you as a company/individual do for International Women’s Day?

It is easy to fall into this loophole of marketing strategies that promote sales more than the education of women’s progress, but you as a company can do more than offer sales and discounts to show that you care about IWD. At the very least, start recognising accomplished, as well as impoverished women. Shed light on your best female employees, and make it easier for them to climb to the top. Programmes that fund needful minority groups in third world countries are also extremely successful and crucial in the development of the young female population. And if you’re going to be promoting your programmes or causes on social media, please do not make the mistake of launching it off with a sexist tweet to attract attention (I’m looking at you, Burger King).

An example of a Women’s Day celebration done right in Bangladesh is the way Nestlé marketed their campaign for IWD 2021. A social experiment about the judgement of women was filmed and done on a handful of ordinary citizens, where they had to name a few characteristics of a group of women standing in front of them. All of them went for words such as ‘docile, creative, housewife, homemaker, etc’. In the end, the TVC showcases these 3 women for what they truly are: A national surfing champion, a female coach, and a gold medalist.

Boishakhi TV made unbreakable strides this year on IWD by appointing the first-ever transgender newscaster in Bangladesh. 

As an individual, parent, or teacher, start celebrating this day by shedding light on the things that made the day what it is, whether it is through open discussion about women’s lives, or by supporting them by watching films directed by women or supporting local businesses owned by them.

It is important that we don’t forget or corrode the integrity of International Women’s Day by turning it into a saccharine festivity of female vitality. It’s not just another holiday to sell T-shirts with Rosie the Riveter pictures on them. It should be a day when companies and business owners publicly declare that they are doing something to support their female staff and consumers. Let’s keep the T-shirts and sales for Black Friday, and not sully 8 March.

 


Koushin is a certified bruh girl with the emotional capacity of a brick. Rattle on about schools of philosophy or film theory to her at [email protected]

 

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