The call for observing an International Women’s Day was first made by Clara Zetkin, leader of the women’s office for the Social Democratic Party in Germany, at an international conference for working women held in Copenhagen in 1910 to “press for the rights of women”. Her idea received the unanimous support of the over 100 women from 17 countries who were participating in the conference. The day that began to be observed the next year turned out to be a success beyond all expectations. Nearly 30,000 women chanting slogans, when accosted by the police, refused to budge from their place or surrender their banners to them; the intervention of Socialist deputies saved the situation that threatened to go out of hand. That massive backing was enough to provide the required encouragement to women elsewhere in the world and the International Women’s Day, March 8, became a norm every year. It now has UN mandate.
It must be recalled that the movement for the rights of women has its origin in the growing industrialisation of the West and it was in the early 1900s, to be precise, in 1908 that, for the first time, 15,000 women marched through the streets of New York demanding “shorter (working) hours, better pay and voting rights”. From the next year the National Women’s Day began to be observed across the US. The call for women’s suffrage, though, dates back to 1869 when John Stuart Mill, the famous exponent of the rights and freedom of the individual, pleaded in Parliament for the women’s right to vote. But New Zealand was the first country to grant that right in 1893.
The developed countries have gone a long way in achieving the purpose behind the day, with women enjoying equal rights with men in the various spheres of life, and the day is celebrated to highlight the achievements they have made. Yet, a lot of ground has still to be covered. In countries like Pakistan there has been a growing awareness of women’s rights and the need to study and work over the past two decades when the information explosion started having its impact on the country. As a result, girls have now higher enrolment rates than boys in higher disciplines of studies, the road for medical profession is being increasingly traversed by women, and gradually more and more of them are entering civil services and occupying positions of authority in firms, banks and offices. It has been made mandatory to have 17 percent of seats for them in Parliament and provincial legislative assemblies. We have had a woman Prime Minister (Benazir Bhutto) and have at present women holding the offices of Speaker of the National Assembly, Foreign Minister and Information Minister. But, unfortunately, the lives of ordinary women continue to be encumbered with crippling disadvantages and incidents of bride burning, acid throwing, harassment at workplace and other forms of torture keep happening, despite laws on the Statute Book against them. Let us hope that the International Women Day this year marks a turning point in the medieval mindset of those who are trying to thwart the women’s march to equality.