International Women’s Day is a time for recognising women’s achievements and pushing for gender equality. But how do different countries mark the day?
Every year on 8 March, the world celebrates International Women’s Day. The event, which has its roots in the socialist feminist movements of the early 20th century, is now a United Nations-recognised celebration – a day designed to shine a spotlight on women’s achievements and bolster campaigns for gender equality.
But while International Women’s Day is recognised around the world, the way it is celebrated looks different from one nation to the next. In some countries, the occasion is treated as an opportunity to praise and honour women – although often this admiration is reserved for women who fit within a narrow and traditional feminine ideal. In other countries, International Women’s Day is still a time for activism and protest.
From Russia to Nepal, this is how countries across the world celebrate International Women’s Day.
International Women’s Day has deep roots in Russia. It has been an official public holiday since 1965, but women in Russia actually celebrated their first International Women’s Day in February 1913 – and have marked the date on 8 March every year since 1914.
There is also a long history of Russian feminist activism on International Women’s Day. On 8 March 1917, women-led demonstrations from Petrograd to Saint Petersburg were a key part of the Russian Revolution and helped secure women’s suffrage.
But today, there is little tolerance for feminist activism in Russia. Instead, International Women’s Day is widely treated as a cross between Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day. It’s not uncommon to witness men running around buying gifts for the women in their lives before 8 March, and the cost of bouquets leaps before the holiday hits. In 2019, the Russian newspaper Kommersant ran a story with the headline: “Thank you for the flowers, but I demand respect.”
International Women’s Day, or Festa della Donna, is celebrated throughout Italy by the giving of mimosa blossoms, a tradition believed to have originated in Rome after World War II. The flower holds the same symbolic gesture of love as a red rose on Valentine’s Day.
International Women’s Day was first celebrated in China in 1922, following the lead of other communist countries. It has been a national holiday since 1949, but attitudes towards feminist activism in China are not permissive: in 2015, eight women were arrested for planning a protest against sexual harassment on International Women’s Day.
Instead, the Chinese authorities have tended to focus on women’s beauty, thanking them for their “selfless” contribution to their family, society and country on International Women’s Day. Women can theoretically be granted a half-day off work on 8 March – but many businesses fail to offer this perk.
To mark International Women’s Day 2021, zebra crossings in Changsha in central China were painted pink and daubed with red hearts. More hard-hitting was a video that went viral on social media for critiquing traditional Chinese gender norms and prejudices – from the expectation that girls are innately bad at maths to the belief that “real men” shouldn’t cry.
The clip was a collaboration between a Chinese skincare brand and China Women’s Daily, the official publication of the state-run All-China Women’s Association. CNN describes the video as “surprisingly progressive for a state-run publication”, and “all the more remarkable considering some of its lines are a bold contradiction – and seemingly thinly-veiled criticism – of the Chinese government’s recent efforts to entrench certain gender norms”.
Attitudes towards abortion remain oppressive in Poland, prompting International Women’s Day to become a day of pro-choice protest. Actress Jessica Chastain joined women on the streets of Warsaw in 2017, while women marched across Poland on International Women’s Day in 2018 and 2019.
The Polish government first imposed a ban on abortion in 2016, then backtracked after thousands of women took to the streets in protest. But at the end of January 2021, the government reinstated a near-total abortion ban. As a result, activists have called for a fresh wave of protests on International Women’s Day 2021.
In Turkey, International Women’s Day has been marked in recent years by women protesting against gender inequality, domestic violence and sexual abuse – demonstrations that have often received a heavy-handed response from authorities.
Riot police forcibly broke up an International Women’s Day protest in 2016 by firing rubber bullets into the crowd. Tear gas was also used on feminist protesters on International Women’s Day in 2019 and 2020.
Ahead of International Women’s Day 2021, Turkish women held protests and marches across the country – led by Turkish women’s rights group We Will Stop Femicides Platform (KCDP). Large-scale protests were planned for 8 March.
In Argentina, International Women’s Day has been celebrated since the early 20th century. Much like Russia and Italy, the country celebrates women by giving and receiving flowers and other gifts.
However, protests for gender equality have also taken place in Argentina around International Women’s Day over the last five years, with women marching for gender equality, an end to femicide and reproductive rights.
On 1 March 2020, it was announced that Argentina would finally legalise abortion – making it the first major Latin American country to do so. Women in Buenos Aires planned to hold work stoppages on International Women’s Day 2021 in support of equal pay and legislation aimed at fighting violence against women and lowering barriers to abortion.
International Women’s Day in Nepal is marked as an official holiday, so women actually get the day off work.
In 2017, a rally was held in the country’s capital of Kathmandu to “send a message that women can become what they want”. People took to the streets in their work uniforms to protest women earning on average 24% less than men across the country.
In Armenia, International Women’s Day is a national holiday that’s also referred to as the ‘Day of Protection of Your Rights’. It marks the start of an unofficial ‘Women’s Month’, culminating in the queasily-titled ‘Motherhood and Beauty Day’ on 7 April.
A statement by Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan for International Women’s Day 2021 suggests that the country’s ruling party sees 8 March as a time to venerate certain types of women: specifically servicewoman, mothers and the female relatives of men in the military.
According to Armenian Weekly, Armenian streets are “adorned with colourful balloons and decorations” on International Women’s Day, while “several public events are planned in the various cities and towns across the country… and florist shops are stocked with seasonally overpriced inventory”.
Yet these are “insincere – even superficial – displays of honour and respect in a country where women’s rights are at a deplorable – even disgraceful – state,” writes journalist Rupen Janbazian.
A version of this article was published on 8 March 2017. It has been updated throughout.
Images: Unsplash / Twitter
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