In our contemporary times, it is precisely the complex histories of militant anti-capitalist women’s movements that are erased with the easy utterance implied in the phrase “Happy Women’s Day.” To put it simply, the overused “Happy Women’s Day” has become a symptom of a political erasure – the erasure of complex histories of women’s participation in class struggles throughout the world. It would not be an exaggeration, then, to say this erasure works hand in hand with the corporate appropriation of the day, writes Nandini Dhar.
It’s March 8, and my inbox is full of Happy Women’s Day messages. Most of them are from men. But, quite a few are also from women. In fact, there are way too many women on my feed whose status messages include the phrase “Happy Women’s Day” in one way or the other. Ordinarily, this showering of love and attention would make me feel more than content with myself. But, each and every time I am wished Happy Women’s Day, I feel queasy. I don’t admit this to those who wish. Because, it wouldn’t be right. There is a well-meaning gesture that lurks behind each and every one of those wishes. A well-meaning gesture that wants to “respect” women. A well-meaning gesture that wants to remember a special day. There is also often a gendered awareness that women aren’t appreciated enough, and this is their day. I want to respect such emotions. Yet, only a day’s appreciation, seems a gross trivialization of what this day should have stood for.
In spite of all the hoop la, I will have to admit, the phrase “Happy Women’s Day” comes to me primarily as a form of amnesia. Political amnesia, to be precise.
Happiness is an affect. A deeply intangible and personalized affect, if I may add. What makes one happy, might not make another happy. Like most things, this is also reflected in our everyday language. “Whatever makes you happy”, we say to our friends and acquaintances. In this iteration, there is an understanding of the deeply personal nature of the very emotion of happiness. To wish someone a happy whatever-day, then, is to personalize time. Such a personalization of time can have very different implications in some of our social practices – such as marking a calendar in a very specific kind of a way through singling out our own birthdays or the birthdays of our loved ones. In case of some other days – such as a nation’s independence day – time appears as a work of collectivization, and often, politicization.
Women’s Day happens to be one such example of collectivization. To wish someone Happy Women’s Day, therefore, or, for that matter, Happy Independence Day, is to personalize the collectivized time. There is an obvious simplification in that act. Domestication too. A simplification and domestication that together make messy, contradiction-ridden histories palatable, safe for our individual interpretations and consumption.
There is a smugness in the very word “happy”. The word “happiness”, in its most commonsensical usage, connotes a feeling of contentment. A state of being somewhat complicit with the status quo. In a very precarious kind of a way, thus, the adding of the sentiment of “happiness” to Women’s Day, performs a work of political obscuration. And, that obscuration happens through the very erasure of the political effect that leads to the events that would ultimately culminate in the institution of the Women’s Day.
And, that affect happens to be rage. A pervading sense of dissatisfaction over what exists. A kind of restlessness. A kind of anti-status quoism. To be precise, a feeling that resides far away from the state of being “happy.”
It is difficult to chart a definitive historical account of the International Women’s Day. Indeed, it is difficult to construct a linear chronology of the day. By all means, the history of the day remains spatially diffused and cannot be tied to a specific set of events or to specific geographical locations. Yet, if one sweeping generalization can be done about the day, it is this: International Women’s Day cannot be separated from its deep association with socialist and communist histories of mass mobilizations. To put it simply, International Women’s Day is a day of class rage. It is a day of women’s class rage. And, hence, within the socialist and communist political discourses, what the day should be called – International Working Women’s Day or a mere International Women’s Day – has often been vociferously debated. In our contemporary times, it is precisely this complex history that is erased with the easy utterance implied in the phrase “Happy Women’s Day.” To put it simply, the overused “Happy Women’s Day” has become a symptom of a political erasure – the erasure of complex histories of women’s participation in class struggles throughout the world. It would not be an exaggeration, then, to say this erasure works hand in hand with the corporate appropriation of the day.
In fact, there is a kind of corporate keenness to appropriate the day. This is often times felt in the urgency with and through which the companies put out ads every year around this time. Some make Women’s Day their very own, by adding their own name to it (like “Pond’s Women’s Day), thus declaring a strange kind of ownership, that not only erases the history of the day, but also mis-represents it. It makes us feel, we get this day, and the implied history of women’s political militancy and acquisition of rights, precisely because of corporate benevolence.
As it is, an advertisement is a queer kind of a text. There is an honesty that underlies the very form. An honesty that often documents the very nature of social relations within a capital-driven society without zero abashment. The advertisements often center around an admission that commodities, after all, mediate our lives. Yet, the advertisements also often reveal an anxiety. In the narrative that the advertisements bring forth, the object in question – the advertised commodity as such – has to be made both conspicuous and concealed. The concealment naturalizes the existence of the commodity in the social life of the characters in the advertisement, whereas the visibility trains the viewer’s aspirations, thus often creating a tension within the very narrative through which the commodity is being advertised.
Most of the Women’s Day ads reveal this anxiety in a very delicate kind of way. Part of the anxiety resides in the fact that along with the naturalization of the commodity, the narrative also needs to reclaim the Women’s Day. It needs to lay claim on Women’s Day in a way that suits its purpose. And, for that purpose, two things must be foregrounded. One, the market is gendered. The commodity-culture is gendered. Consumption is gendered. It is not surprising, therefore, Women’s Day ads are brought out specifically by companies who specialize in products that cater specifically to women. Two, capital is perfectly able to ensure happiness and liberation for women.
Broadly speaking, what the Women’s Day ads attempt to achieve, then, is an erasure of the association of the history of the day with anti-capitalist feminist politics. Consequently, most of these ads survive on two crucial forms of obliteration – the overwhelming non-representation of working class women, and an equally overwhelming silence on female/feminist political rage.
Let’s take the advertisement released by Prega News on March 2018. In some ways, the ad falls into the category where the presence of the commodity in question, has been concealed, removed from the viewers’ eyes. Prega News specializes in pregnancy testing kits, and thus, the assumption here is, the woman in the story, who is a new mother, has indeed used the kit. The narrative that the ad film shows, records what happened after the commodity has been used – successfully, of course.
The narrative opens with a shot of a young female executive inside her office chamber, looking wistfully at a photograph on the table. The photograph is of a woman with a baby, and the woman in the snapshot happens to be the executive herself. We get quick shots of her – somewhat listless, somewhat alienated from what is going on in the rest of the office. She is often late for crucial presentations, because of the baby. The team she supervises, we are shown, does perfectly well without her. Here is a woman who is juggling between motherhood and her job, we understand. And, she is struggling. Her struggles are making her sad, somewhat depressed.
The ad represents an interesting trend in the advertising world in India—a desire to represent more and more professional women. In other words, it represents a woman in the midst of the social spaces of production, and in doing so, it shows not only a woman whose relationship with the public spaces of production are somewhat unmediated, but also how the pressures of her gendered existence keeps intervening in her efforts to establish an unmediated relationship with capital. This desire to represent more professional women makes sense, given the group represents an emerging, lucrative market, who must be lured into believing that their buying power can solve many problems that being a woman will throw on their way. Quite interestingly, then, the protagonist of the ad does not feel any anger towards the system. What she feels, is a deep sense of personal failure, and sadness.
Yet, there is a moment when she erupts in anger. And that happens to be the occasion when she yells at the office help for serving the wrong kind of coffee. A moment when class trumps over gender, the sequence demonstrates that the privileged, upper middle-class woman’s rage can be contained by letting her yell at the working class man. The ad, thus, naturalizes the class inequality at the workplace. And, it does so by letting the professional woman inhabit and embody class power.
In fact, if there is anything that defines liberation for the woman in the ad, it is learning how to inhabit class-power in spite of the difficulties and challenges that motherhood brings with it in her life. Consequently, we see her in a meeting with her staff. Even as she is in the meeting, her phone keeps ringing. She ignores it for the first few times, then finally picks it up, unable to resist its insistent buzzing. Her team of staff makes space for her to take the call, pretending that they all need the break. In some ways, then, the ad registers the “new” corporate workspace, where a certain kind of “gender sensitization” has been institutionalized. Consequently, her staff suggest to her that she work from home, because they know, being a mother is hard. They promise that they would send the presentation to her by 10 am. The woman smiles, raises her index finger, and says, “10 means 10.” One of her staff affirms her gesture. “That’s more like you, ma’am.”
The narrative, then, ends in the resumption of her class authority. And those over whom she would lord (lady) over, seem happy at such a resolution. In other words, class discontent as a category does not exist within the entire narrative. Along with it, has been erased the possibility of class conflict from the sanitized spaces of a corporate workspace. The assumption of the professional woman’s class power, authority and hierarchy, we are told, contains everyone’s consent, even those who would stay beneath her.
There are certain absences within the narrative. Figures of working class women, for example, are completely absent. Although, we are left to wonder, who is the protagonist talking to over the phone, giving instructions about where she has left her baby’s stuff, when she leaves the meeting to pick up the call? Is it a domestic worker – a poor woman – over at the other end of the phone? We do not know. Neither is there any reference to the actual benefits – such as maternity leave – that her firm might offer for the women employees. Instead, what is there, is a more personalized arrangement amongst the employees, that succeeds to secure certain forms of temporary respite (such as the one shown in the film), but cannot grant any long-term, sustained systemic changes.
Needless to say, none of the things I observe here, makes me very happy. What it makes me feel, is a kind of rage. The emotion upon which all political action is based, and whose representation is so markedly absent in the marketized narrativization of the day, such as the one I have discussed above. As such, what the day brings to me, and has brought especially this year, is a feeling of massive sense of failure. Our collective failure to build up a strong resistance against the global emergence of fascism, the failure of the feminist movements worldwide to launch a severe critique of the neoliberal capital, the failure of the urban, privileged feminists in India to perform anything other than a shrill sadness, a representation of which we see in the ad under discussion.
So, the next time you want to wish me “Happy Women’s Day”, please swallow back those words. The legacy of International Working Women’s Day cannot be kept alive by wishing each other happiness. If the day has to be kept alive in our memories and active historical imagination, it should be done through the difficult political work that our current moment demands.
The author is a writer and teacher.
Cover Image : A rally by Jan Sangharsh Manch Haryana, on 8th March, 2020.