That morning, I came to work as usual and realized that it was March 8th, the date celebrated as the international women’s day. When I entered the office, one of my office colleague, a public health doctorate from Srilanka, was coming after me and then I greeted her saying “Happy International Women’s day, doctor’.
She gave me a brief laugh and then she replied me “thank you so much, but for me, every day is women’s day’. She said so with a sweet smile carved on her face, a figure that already entered the age of sixty yet she remains energetic as a fifteen years old teenager.
After that, we parted to do our daily office duty, but I kept thinking about her last soft sarcastic words ‘For me, every day is women’s day.’ That simple phrase has hit my perception towards the celebration of international women’s day, which celebrated worldwide in various ways.
Historically, the celebration of international women’s day begun in 1909, when the United Nations observed the first National Women’s day on February 28th in America. That time, the Socialist Party in America decided to celebrate the day in order to honor the women garment workers strike in 1908 for their act of protest against the working conditions provided to them.
Later, in 1910, a meeting of International Socialists in Copenhagen established the International Women’s day to honor the women rights movement and to build the support for women’s suffrage. The proposal gained unanimous approval from nearly 100 women members from 17 countries at the conference but the fixed date was therefore not determined.
In 1911, as the result of initiative in Copenhagen, the international women’s day was marked for the first time on March 19th in Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland, which celebrated with a rally participated by almost one million people of men and women. The rally insisted for the right to vote, hold public office position, right to work, to have vocational training and to end the discrimination at the workplace.
However, in 1913-1914, the international women’s day also becomes a means to protest against the First World War and other wars, while in 1917, in protest against the war, the women in Russian held a protest and conduct a strike for the Bread and Peace act thus made the Russian Czar, who soon approve the women’s rights to vote. In 1975, the United Nations started celebrating the International Women’s Day on March 8 which later followed by various agencies and cooperation body continues supporting the celebration with various objectives and goals.
Back to the day, the celebration of International Women’s Day throughout Timor-Leste is generally identical with ceremonial acts lead by the government institutions, civil societies, and the international cooperating bodies. The ceremonial act would be filled with official discourse, which later ended with various festivity means. Meanwhile, the TV news, newspaper, and social media or the internet displayed the beautiful messages and quotes about women as well as in the social media timelines, TV screens and on the billboards and banners all around the city.
On Friday 9 March, there was an interesting event held at Timor-Plaza called #HeforShe, which organized the cooking competition participated by men representatives from agencies and government institution. The competition demonstrated cooking the meal as an advocacy to the Timorese men that cooking task is indeed not only the women’s domestic task but also can be men’s task since men can also cook. The concept for this event indeed has become an anti-thesis to the patriarchal system in Timor-Leste, which emphasizes that cooking is only women’s task. In participating this event, I had a conversation with an activist male friend from Indonesia. He described that normally during the event of international women’s day, the women movement in some countries would organize a strike on that day or held a march to insist the rights they felt the government has not provided them yet.
Comparing to the events in Timor-Leste that mostly celebrated in ceremonial ways, a question then rose in my mind. Do the women felt the true meaning of this celebration? On the other hand, perhaps the celebration is only an event with cliché significance while in Timor-Leste the issues on women continue to increase. These includes issues such as the domestic violence issues, sexual harassment, and abuse both psychological and physical, lack of security for women when going out at night from school, offices or homes and lack of access to education and information for women to develop their capacity and so on. However, the campaign to eradicate and improve these issues may continue going on but if we meet these women directly or read the news from the newspaper, we would continue to hear the laments on these issues.
From these issues, the involvement of men (and as well as the women) as perpetrators is high thus there should be a question to the men on how do they feel the importance of the international women day? Generally, when we walk along the street, we will continue to find out how the boys like to disturb girls, abuse and tease them when these girls walk along the street, instead of talking to these girls with respect. Some girls have to drop out from school due to early pregnancy because of lack of information on sexual education that still becomes a taboo material or because of unsafe sex practice. The women, who become victims of sexual abuse or domestic violence in the family or society, have not obtained the proper treatment. Some women have to stop working when there is no enough support to take care of the children, whereas some other women, also have to trade off their time to work and leave their children at home in order to support the husband or family to earn money to meet the family’s economical needs since nowadays in Dili, life become more expensive and prices of commodities continue to rise.
These problems may seem superficial while the more deep issues may still lie underneath and are undiscovered yet. The slogan ‘Strong Women Strong Nation’ may need to be reviewed and reflected deeply whether the Timorese women so far has been that strong. How can the government, society and the individuals contribute to empower and strengthen the women?
Thinking about my Indonesian activist friend’s story, I realized that on March 8 I supposed to take a whole day leave and staying at home but instead I continue went to work at the office. I was thinking that on that day, supposedly the Timorese women who work at the office should be allowed to leave for the whole day. However, in the context of Timor-Leste, I have a sense that even if the government does allow the women employees to take leave, these women will still continue to work at home doing the household chores and run other family and social responsibilities tasks. Since Timorese women hereby have a crucial role in the family and society, regardless of their engagement at office work, at the end of the day, they would never be separated from their role and will continue to undertake the domestic responsibilities, which are higher compared to men. Consequently, perhaps as according to my Srilankan colleague has said maybe it is true, ‘Every day is women day!’
Finally, yet importantly, I would like to extend my congratulation for all the women fellows all around the world and I hope that you continue to be strong!