A history of the century-old celebration of female rights and empowerment


  • March 2, 2015 11:32 GMT
International Women's Day
10th March 1973: Women take part in a march to celebrate International Women’s Day in London(Getty)

From campaigning for women’s suffrage to equal representation in politics, International Women’s Day has celebrated the social, economic and political achievements of women for more than a century. Observed annually on 8 March, the day is an opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of women while calling for greater equality and drawing focus on women’s rights.

The day has manifested itself in many different forms in the last 100 years, from its beginnings in women’s suffrage to highlighting violence against women in the 21st century. Yet the aim of the date has endured – to push governments to recognise the necessity of sex and gender equality in law.

“International Women’s Day is a great opportunity to highlight the continued challenges faced by women and girls across the world – at home and abroad,” Antonia Kirkland of the international human rights organisation Equality Now tells IBTimes UK.

“The day is a key moment to help ensure that both international and national-level policy makers recognise the importance of equality in the law to end all forms of violence and discrimination against girls and women through good laws that promote the human rights of women and girls, including legal, social, economic, civil and political equality.”

Thousands of events now take place around the world for IWD. But where did the day come from?

8th March 1984: Feminists demonstrate on the streets of Madrid(Getty)

Earliest demonstrations

Although there have been women-led marches, strikes and other protests since 1909, none happened on the 8 March. The earliest Women’s Day observance was held on 28 February 1909 in New York, organised by the Socialist Party of America in remembrance of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union.

In August 1910, an International Women’s Conference was organised to precede the general meeting of the Socialist Second International in Copenhagen, Denmark. German socialist Luise Zietz, inspired by the American socialists, proposed the establishment of an International Woman’s Day to promote equal rights and women’s suffrage – which was seconded by fellow socialist Clara Zetkin.

On 19 March 1911, IWD was observed for the first time by over a million people in Denmark, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Women demanded that they be given the right to vote and hold public office and protested against employment sex discrimination. The day was first observed by Russian women in 1913 on the last Sunday in February.

Russian revolution

The first observance of IWD on 8 March was in 1914. British suffragette leader Sylvia Pankhurst was arrested in front of Charing Cross station on her way to speak in Trafalgar Square in London, amid a march from Bow in support of the right to vote. Three years later, IWD demonstrations in Saint Petersburg initiated the February Revolution.

Russia had been suffering from a number of economic and social problems, compounded by the impact of World War I. Russian women went on strike on IWD for “bread and peace” – demanding the end of the war, an end to food shortages and the end of czarism.

Soldiers carry a red flag on their bayonets during the 1917 February Revolution in Russia(Getty)

Mass demonstrations and armed clashes with police and gendarmes, the last loyal forces of the Russian monarchy, eventually led to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II at the end of the Romanov dynasty and the Russian Empire.

Following the October Revolution later that year and the establishment of the Soviet Union, an official day was adopted and celebrated in communist and socialist countries – from 1922 in China and by Spanish communists from 1936. In the West, IWD was first observed as a popular event after 1977 when the UN General Assembly invited member states to proclaim 8 March as the UN Day for women’s rights and world peace.

Modern observance

Since the earliest celebrations, IWD has grown into global movement in both developing countries and wealthier states. The theme for 2015 is “Make It Happen” – calling for further action for advancing and recognising women, from ending the violence that affects one in three women worldwide, to increasing the global number of female parliamentarians from 22%.

Strengthened by four global United Nations women’s conferences, the commemoration of IWD is a rally point to build support for women’s rights and participation in the political and economic arenas, while reflecting on the acts of courage and determination made by women in the fight for equality so far.

Women Empowerment: Taking on a New Role

By Wishaal Khalid

Pakistani women venture into fields that were previously considered to be a ‘man’s domain’

Revolutions are, by their inherent nature, loud and fearless. But in Pakistan, a silent revolution is slowly and noticeably reshaping the structure of society – redefining pre-existing attitudes towards gender roles. Women, who were once expected to be seen and not heard, are now stepping outside the comfort of conventional or safe career paths, such as teaching and nursing, to cement their role in professions they were once alien to.

Experimenting with science

When it comes to women in science, the West has always stood out with prominent names such as Madam Curie, a pioneer in conducting radioactivity research. While Pakistan may not top the list, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics’ ‘Employment Trends 2011’ report only 24.4% of women in the country are classified as working women, it is making headway in this field.

Standing against all odds, Dr Mariam Sultana, who is the first Pakistani woman to earn a PhD in astrophysics, is now a lecturer at the mathematical sciences department of the Federal Urdu University of Arts, Science and Technology.  “Gender inequality is a primitive concept in the cities now. It may still be prevalent in rural areas where women [continue to] face many challenges, but there is no such thing in Karachi,” she says assuredly. Although Sultana’s challenges did not stem from deep gender biases, she faced a great deal of disapproval from her students and their parents, who confused astronomy with astrology and declared the subject ‘haram’.

While engineering is another perceived no-go area for women, the classroom dynamics are now changing with more and more female students filling the seats at engineering universities across Pakistan. Nida Farid, who studied aerospace engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in United States, is now a renewable energy consultant, specialising in wind energy, in Pakistan. She even played an active part in the construction of electro-structural components for the Airbus project in Switzerland and continues to shrug off filial and social pressures to switch to a more conventional job.

Driving through barriers

Pakistani women have taken to the roads as well and are making headway in the transportation sector.  Many women from Lyari, Karachi, in a bid to lead independent lives, have taken up driving to earn an income. Forty-year-old Shabana Parveen, from Surjani Town, Karachi, who has been in the pick-and-drop business for primary students for the past 10 years, says that although she’s always been passionate about driving, she only recently took up the profession. After marrying a low-wage factory worker, she had to contribute to the family income to make ends meet. “I took a taxi on rent to support my family,” she says.

Stories of women taking charge of the wheel are plenty. Wajeeha, a 12-year-old from Charsadda, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has been riding a rickshaw since 2010 after her father, a soldier, was severely wounded in a clash with the Taliban and was no longer able to financially support his family. She also never let her work get in the way of her education and simultaneously completed her schooling.

Dodging the bullet

A surprising number of Pakistani women have also joined the military and police forces since 2006 and Ayesha Farooq became Pakistan’s first female fighter pilot in 2013. Along with defending the country, Pakistani women have entered the field of security to claim their right at equal employment opportunities. Shahnaz, heading the female wing of a private security service, is currently employed as a security head at the Karachi University. She arrives daily before students to make sure no outsider enters the premises without prior permission. “I did not want to get married and that made survival [in society] quite [difficult],” she says, adding that she took up the job so she could be independent.

Rebranding the word ‘woman’

While women across the world have proven to be convincing in sales, Pakistani women have only recently realised their potential in the field. With a number of boutiques and supermarkets springing up in city centres, women have taken up the opportunity to earn a steady income by selling wares and assisting customers. Sumaira, who runs her shop for ready-to-wear clothes in Hyderi market, Karachi, is an ideal example of women who’ve excelled in the field. “It is a constant struggle to ignore comments and focus on your work,” she says, adding that despite the negativity she hasn’t stopped going to work.

While Pakistan may still be light years away from complete gender equality, its women have surely set out on the right foot. Their relentless efforts are not only bridging the gender gap but also motivating others to follow suit.