Amreeta Lethe Chowdhury
Every Women’s Day, something that almost inevitably shadows the day’s celebrations is a barrage of whataboutery along the lines of “But what about Men’s Day” and “But what about men’s rights”. The case is no different for celebrations of other marginalised communities; pride parades are countered with cries for straight parades, and Black History Month is countered with cries for a white history month.
Contrary to the latter two counters, which don’t and definitely don’t need to exist, International Men’s Day does actually exist — November 19 — and men’s rights absolutely need to be the topic of discussions. However, as many now point out whenever this argument is made, if the only time you choose to cry men’s rights is when the ongoing conversation is about women, you don’t care about men’s rights; you care about undermining women.
Systemic sexism and gender disparity are still very real threats that women face in Bangladesh. In a book release event that I recently attended, the author had decided to elaborate on the theme of violence in his work, particularly the violence that women in Bangladesh are subjected to. He had said that while it was true that we were gradually seeing greater empowerment because of more women voicing their demands and even achieving them, this was only still a reality in the more developed, urban areas of the country. This progress and empowerment would still take years to reach women in rural areas, which is a harsh and painful reality to accept. But it is the reality.
In rural Bangladesh, and even among working class women in urban areas, horror stories relaying the kinds of violence they are routinely subjected to are not uncommon. They are too common, in fact. This is not to say that women in the more “educated” or well-off parts of society are all that better off. Sure, they may not generally be put through the same extent of violence, but is that really the standard to which we want to hold ourselves? That we abuse and exploit and violate our women less than other parts of our society? That should not even be the bare minimum.
At every step of the way, our women are subjected to inequality. The economic inequality is apparent every time a woman is forced to stay in a toxic marriage or relationship because she is not financially independent, as well as in the gender wage gap that continues to exist. There is an inequality of resources every time a woman is forced to withdraw from her education or career because of societal pressure. The inequality in freedom of expression is perhaps most relevant to a lot of us; we are held to drastically different standards than our men in regards to how we are allowed to dress, where we are allowed to travel, and how we are allowed to behave. Above all, the all-encompassing disparity which can be considered representative of how systemic the issue is, is symbolic inequality, as a result of which we do not offer our women the respect and recognition that they are due.
There is often a lot of advocacy for how we no longer need feminism or Women’s Day celebrations because things are better than several days, months, years, decades, and centuries ago. We’re not burned at the stake for being witches anymore, and we’re “allowed” to go to school, get jobs, and even vote now. Shouldn’t we be grateful that we lucked out and are finally allowed to have some of the rights we should have been given from the beginning as equal citizens?
The answer, in case it isn’t painfully obvious, is no.
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day was Each for Equal, which echoes the idea of collective individualism. It encourages each person advocating for the rights of women, regardless of their race, class, sexuality or circumstances, to celebrate the women around them and push for the empowerment that benefits them and their communities. It does so in hopes that this, in turn, will lead to significant global change.
It may not be true to say that celebrating Women’s Day is more important than ever, but that in no way devalues its importance. Advocating for women’s rights has been crucial for as long as gender disparity has existed, and it will be just as important to do so as long as the disparity exists, regardless of in what form, and under what circumstances.