The Ongoing Struggle for Bread and Roses

This article revisits the History of Women’s Day in the world and the MENA region and calls for the re-politicization of IWD.

History of International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day (IWD) has its roots in the early 20th century socialist movements in Europe and North America. While the primary goal of its founders was to win universal suffrage for women, they also aspired to achieve more radical social changes, such as abolishing the wage slavery of workers and the domestic slavery of women.
In 1909, the Socialist Party of America announced the first National Woman's Day to be observed across the United States on February 28. Large demonstrations and meetings took place all over the country.

Soon after, in 1910, at the second International Conference of Working Women – Copenhagen, Clara Zetkin, the Leader of the 'Women's Office' for the Social Democratic Party in Germany, brought forward the question of organizing an International Women's Day. The conference resulted in a unanimous decision that every year, in every country, there should be a celebration on the same day - a Working Women's Day - to press for women’s demands.

International Women's Day was commemorated for the first time in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland on March 19, 1911. More than one million women and men attended meetings and protests campaigning for women's rights to education, work, voting, and the ability to hold public office. Later in 1911, International Women’s Day was changed to March 8 by women workers in the United States, Switzerland, Denmark, and Austria. Many European countries followed suit afterwards.

Celebrating International Women’s Day on March 8 grew to become a worldwide practice by its fourth celebration in 1914. The image symbolizing the moment was a woman dressed in black waving a red flag under which “Forward with Female Suffrage - Women’s Day / March 8, 1914” was written. The fourth International Women’s Day turned into a mass action against the First World War, which would erupt three months later. To socialists (and social democrats), the war was a conflict between empires rather than a war for equality and justice.

History of Arab feminist movement and women’s day in the MENA Region

The struggle for women’s liberation and democratic rights in the MENA region occurred in the context of colonization and liberation struggles. Arab women’s movements had been rooted in existing struggles against imperialism before rights specific to women rose to become political causes of their own.

Egypt offers an insightful example here. Huda al-Sharawi, one of the activists who founded the Egyptian Feminist Union in March 1923, had been shot at four years earlier by British soldiers while protesting against colonial occupation along with 300 other women comrades. The date of this protest, March 16, has been remembered by Egypt as its own National Women’s Day.Around the same date in 1956, Egyptian women gained the right to vote and run for office following Egypt’s independence from British rule.

The participation of women in these national liberation movements helped to legitimize women’s demands within their societies. However, in many countries in the region, such as Algeria, this proved to be a poor bargain for women when it came to achieving their demands after independence. Despite Algerian women’s significant role in the struggle against French colonialism, once independence was gained in 1962, the conservative government that took office ignored most of women’s demands and established a discriminatory family code. On March 8, 1965, Algerian women were back on the streets to commemorate the International Women’s Day as well as fight against cultural oppression, economic exploitation and social marginalization.
Tunisia, unlike other countries in the region, took women's demands into consideration when it drafted its personal status law the same year it took its independence. Tunisians celebrate their own National Women’s Day on August 13, as it marks the day when the Tunisian Code of Personal Status was introduced in 1956. The Code abolished polygamy, created a judicial procedure for divorce, and dictated that marriage could only be performed in the event of the mutual consent of both parties.

In 1975, the United Nations General Assembly began celebrating March 8 as International Women’s Day and designated 1975 as International Women's Year.  As part of the activities of International Women’s Year, the Lebanese Democratic Party held a meeting for representatives from all Lebanese political parties to discuss women’s rights and agree on common demands. The outbreak of the Civil War later that year made any policy convergence between the country’s leftists and liberals impossible, and social questions related to family laws and gender discrimination were sidelined to facilitate political and military alliances.

As the above examples show, countries in the MENA region have not associated themselves with or celebrated International Women’s Day to equal degrees. Today, more than 150 countries (including those of the region) celebrate the holiday, but commemoration has largely been stripped of its radical roots.

For the last 50 years, under the auspices of the United Nations, IWD has been recruiting corporate sponsors and adopting non-politicized themes. IWD’s website promotes a partnerships’ page for corporations seeking to enter into a “fee-based” relationship in return for agreed deliverables. 1 IWD is also celebrated by patriarchal governments and institutions which extract profit from women’s unfairly compensated or unpaid work in the market and at home. In the MENA region, corrupt governments often partner with UN organizations to hold conferences ostensibly dedicated to the needs of women in the region.  In some cases, the conferences have ended with women participants receiving gifts of flowers.  Meanwhile, women refugees, transwomen, and migrant workers are largely excluded from the conversation, and their concerns receive minimal attention.

Women rights’ groups demands in the MENA region

Accordingly, feminist movements in the MENA region have been aspiring to a more gendered understanding of their complex national situations. Many Arab feminists today are adopting an intersectional approach, linking their everyday experiences to larger social questions regarding political economy, gender and race.

Women are still doing the majority of the world's exhausting reproductive labor at home without any compensation, and they are now expected to find paid work and build an independent career, in addition. More is spent on empty “women empowerment” slogans every day, while mothers are denied paid leave and affordable childcare. Many young, working women cannot afford education and a healthy diet, even in wealthy countries.

Global capitalism has succeeded in furthering the exploitation of women’s time and labor, treating them as new consumers of cheap goods and services without offering any real “economic liberation”. However, capitalism is not solely to blame for women’s miseries, as it grew out of an already deeply patriarchal reality in which women had lost individual and social privileges with the rise of agriculture-based civilization and the establishment of feudal rule and inherited property.

In light of the above, many feminist groups in the MENA region have called for the re-politicization of IWD, arguing that the social, economic and political conditions of women have not fundamentally changed since the declaration of International Women’s Day in 1911. The evidence gathered from the past decade of Arab feminists’ protests, campaigns, and reports corroborate their claims.  Because of this, we call for:

  • Family laws (personal status codes) that give women improved and equal rights in marriage, divorce, custody, inheritance, etc.;
  • Abolishing laws that discriminate against women, including penal, labor and social security laws, among others;
  • Recognizing the independent right of women to security of tenure, irrespective of their family or relationship status, and guaranteeing equal access to housing;
  • Payment of equal wages for work of the same and similar nature without any discrimination against women employees in the matters of salaries, transfers, training and promotion, etc.
  • The abolishment of the Kafala system and the inclusion of migrant workers under the labor law and its protections;
  • The adaptation and enforcements of appropriate laws and policies that respect, protect, and fulfill reproductive and sexual health and rights for all;
  • More progressive work hour policies and flexible conditions for working mothers;
  • An end to all types of gender-based violence and trafficking;
  • Strict laws against sexual harassment in the workplace;
  • Ensured and enforced rights for the LGBTQI community;
  • And freedom from oppression and violence for all.

1 This year’s prime sponsor of IWD is an American corporation that manufactures agricultural machinery, heavy equipment, forestry machinery, diesel engines, drivetrains and lawn care equipment. Interestingly, this company is currently being sued by the National Farmers Union and other repair advocacy groups for violating the Clean Air Act (CAA) by monopolizing the equipment repair market and preventing farmers from repairing their own equipment.

Samantha Elia is a Program Manager at Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s Regional Political Feminism and Gender Project in the MENA-region.

The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.


Gender and Feminism Office

+961 1 202491
+961 1 338986

About us