The idea of a day devoted solely to celebrating and recognizing women’s achievements, International Women’s Day, was first proposed a hundred years ago by Clara Zetkin at the second International Conference of Working Women in Copenhagen, Denmark. This was in the midst of an era of turbulent and changing times in a rapidly industrializing world. Increasing oppression and inequality were moving women steadily towards finding their voice and mobilizing and campaigning for change. Thus, in the conference of over 100 women from seventeen counties, Zetkin’s idea was met with great enthusiasm and International Women’s Day was launched. It is now an official holiday in 15 countries. In some, it enjoys the same status as Mother’s Day, complete with the tradition of giving gifts to mothers, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, etc.
Despite having progressed enough so as to have an entire day dedicated to recognizing their worth, women today still have a lot of issues and concerns to address. For example, more than two thirds of the people who live in poverty are women. This phenomenon is a direct result of the discrimination and gender bias that are built into the state infrastructure and closely intertwined with societal norms. Women are not paid as well as men for equally substantial work – indeed, women earn only 10 percent of the world’s income although they do two thirds of the world’s work. This poverty forces them into illicit and often illegal forms of employment that are mostly gender segregated, such as domestic service, grueling work in manufacturing ,or the sex industry.
Moreover, three quarters of the world’s illiterate adults are women. That is because oftentimes, even in so-called developed countries, far greater importance is placed on the sons acquiring a good education. They are seen as the future breadwinners, whereas the daughters are expected to share the household work with their mothers until they start running households themselves. This illiteracy and general lack of education lead to limited financial independence, which means that women have fewer choices available to them outside the realm of an overwhelming dependence on their fathers/husbands.
Thus, confronted with these statistics and disheartening realities, it’s not surprising that women are still grappling with questions of independence, dignity and identity in today’s world. Muslim immigrant women especially have to figure out how to balance their lives between two opposing paradigms – Eastern AND Western. We are confronted with different theories of what it means to be a woman, what constitutes femininity, and more fundamentally, what exactly feminism entails. What does it mean to agitate for women’s rights – indeed, what rights do women have?
I propose a simple solution to this conundrum. Too often women define themselves according to how society perceives their role. Independence is either black or white, it’s either donning the headscarf or doing away with it. In honor of International Women’s Day, I think that women should instead start thinking for themselves – come up with their own definitions of what it means to be a (phenomenal) women. Don’t let people label you. Be well aware of your own limitations and abilities. Do not just go along with or accept shifts in thought paradigms, trends, or especially age-old cultural dogmas (that happen to be the antithesis of your very being) unless you evaluate and process them according to what you believe in and the type of person you are.
Furthermore, when coming up with your own definition of an ideal woman, it is important to remember to filter it through the scope of Islam, a religion which which perfectly balances the rights of men and women. Islam gave rights to women centuries before the women’s suffrage movement in the west. It is also important to look at the examples of some of the greatest women of all time such as the first wife of the Prophet, Khadijah. Known as the princess of Arabia, she became the richest tradesperson of her time. After marrying the Prophet, she willingly donated her wealth in order to spread a religion which gave herself and other women the right to become educated, work, and take leadership positions. Let us remember these powerful women in Islamic history in order to show the world that it is the Muslims who are at the forefront of women’s rights, a movement which not only treats females as human beings endowed with the right to liberty, but as women endowed with a inner nature capable of a gift unique only to them: motherhood.