What does women’s empowerment mean? Can giving women gifts of flowers and chocolates “empower” them in any way at all? Is sending greeting cards an adequate way to show your gratitude to mothers or wives for giving up their aspirations and cooking, washing and cleaning for you so you can fulfil your dreams?
And then there is the other side of the coin – women aspiring to be beauty queens and a career in modelling. Last year India was celebrating that an Indian woman, Harnaz Sandhu, was crowned Miss Universe. She said such beauty pageants empower women. She said this on the basis of the fact that she had to work so hard to achieve the goal and because in the end, she felt transformed.
A lot of women also say the daily grind of housework and bringing up children “transforms” them and some would even argue it empowers them.
Pageants and empowerment
When Sandhu was asked in an interview: “A lot of feminists are against the idea of beauty pageants. What do you have to say about that?” She replied: “I think everybody has their own perspectives regarding that. That is up to their expectations. But I never see beauty pageants against any issue because through this platform we are empowering women…..Trust me it takes a lot of guts and courage to talk about something that you believe in...”
Yes, it does take a lot of courage to speak out on what you believe in, especially if those views do not coincide with the views of your family, the society around you. But is that what Sandhu was doing?
In the last round of the beauty contest, Steve Harvey asked Sandhu about her accomplishments: “I hear you do some pretty good animal impersonations. Let us hear your best one.”
When people called out Harvey for embarrassing Sandhu for what seemed like a humiliation Sandhu said she went along with the impersonation because it was her time “to shine and showcase my great talents”.
“I wanted to make the most out of it,” she added. “I think everybody was in the moment and everyone enjoyed it, and that is what really matters at the end of the day.”
It may take guts to impersonate a cat on a global stage, but it does not empower women and it makes a mockery of the idea of empowerment of women. Especially, when you remember that the beauty pageant was taking place in Universe Dome in Eilat, Israel. Many people, women and men called for a boycott of the beauty pageant as a protest against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.
Platform for protest
Greek contestant Rafaele Plastira withdrew from Miss Universe in solidarity with Palestinians after Israel’s hosting was announced. Plastira, selected as Greece’s representative, said she had “waited so many years to make [her] dream come true” but “can not go up that stage and act like nothing is happening when people are fighting for their lives out there”.
She added, “I am disappointed in Miss Universe for this ... It was a childhood dream for me but I really don’t care … Humanity above beauty pageants!”.
The South African government also withdrew its support for the country’s representative, citing Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who said, “[Palestinians’] humiliation is familiar to all black South Africans who were corralled and harassed and insulted and assaulted by the security forces of the apartheid government.”
The US-based Palestinian Feminist Collective called “on feminists to stand with us against Miss Universe’s explicit endorsement of Israel as it appropriates women’s and queer rights discourses to mask the colonial project of dispossession and violence that the state inflicts upon Palestinians … As a feminist collective committed to women’s freedom and liberation, we believe in celebrating the will of women’s collectives across the world that fight for freedom and justice through steadfast displays of resilience”.
In the past, many beauty queens have used their position to protest against wars, conflicts and state violence. Beauty queens from the Philippines such as Nelia Sancho who spoke out on many issues and was jailed for her sympathies for the communist movement; more recently Han Lay, Miss Grand Myanmar, spoke out against atrocities committed by her country’s military.
“Today in my country Myanmar ... there are so many people dying,” she said at the Miss Grand International 2020 event in Thailand. “Please help Myanmar. We need your urgent international help right now.”
And then there is Miss Ukraine. Former Miss Ukraine Anastasiia Lenna took to Instagram to share a post saying “I am not a military, just a human who has picked up a gun to fight for her people in the war against the Russian invasion of her country.
Commercialised Women’s Day
On March 8, women must launch a movement to recover the meaning and political significance of the day. International Women’s Day is not celebrated officially in the United States. Representative Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California, tried to introduce legislation in 1994 to make International Women’s Day a holiday, but it never made it out of committee.
Kristen R Ghodsee author of Why Women Have Better Sex Under Socialism and Other Arguments for Economic Independence (2018) said “In the US, you do not get any recognition if you are not a mom, but I think it is way better to celebrate all women rather than just mothers. That is what International Women’s Day does.”
Ghodsee explains how Women’s Day has been hijacked by corporations such as McDonald’s, which turned its “M” logo upside down to make a “W” at some locations in honour of the day, and Benefit Cosmetics that shut down its whole website for a day. Corporations are trying to “convince people it is a day to celebrate now that they have embraced it in the same way Gay Pride events have been embraced by big banks”.
Kristen notes: “In one way the day will increase its stature as corporations work to commercialise it, but I sort of fear it will lose its progressive roots. The way to prevent that is to mark the holiday as it was originally intended, to plan protests and celebrate it as the progressive holiday it was.”
The political significance and content of International Women’s Day have been systematically undermined. It is time to take it back from the chocolate and greeting card industry onto the streets to demand the collective rights of women.
It is time to honour women in New York, Chicago and Russia, who fought for their rights and dreamt of a world where there would be justice and peace. Their socialist vision was encapsulated in Bread and Roses, a song that became an anthem for women.
Nandita Haksar is a human rights lawyer and author, most recently, of The Flavours of Nationalism.