International Women’s Day is almost over, another March 8 come and gone. Last year I was in Chiang Mai and feeling rather bedraggled, just back from a trip to Burma. About twelve years ago, I remember another March 8. I was in northern Laos, in the small market town of Muang Sing. Someone in the local government had decided that International Women’s Day should be marked by a formal celebration. Word had gone out to the villages all around and the women had responded.
The market in Muang Sing happens early in the morning. People walk in from far and wide in the dark, carrying produce to sell, then return home on foot in the middle of the morning. That day, instead of heading back out to their villages in the hills and nearby valleys, the women stuck around. As noontime approached they checked out their hair, rewound their turbans, adjusted their skirts and jewellry. Finally they all walked over to stand in the open area by the local hall.
They were a glorious sight. There were Tai Dam women in indigo, their turbans finally embroidered, their jackets tight-fitting and elegant; there were Akha women in heavily decorated headdresses, beautiful leggings, pleated skirts, and elegant elaborate jackets; there were Hmong in indigo, not as proud, because the local Hmong village was a very poor one, made up of newly arrived refugees; there were Yao women in finely embroidered trousers and long elegant indigo coats trimmed with red, with turbans rivalling those of the Tai Dam.... and then there were others, lowland Lao and Kamu and people I could only wonder at but not identify. It was a bit of a letdown to see the rather dull man who stood before these strong women to talk to them about the significance of March 8! He went on and on talking in that government officialese way, as we all stood in the bright sun.
And the scene made me ask myself: who is this “Women’s Day” designation for? Many women know that they are powerful and necessary, the glue and the hard-workers that hold the family together. So they don’t need telling that they are special. Is it for the men who rely on them? Or is it for women who may not realise their own strength and need to be told? In the end I think that its value may lie in reminding all of us that all around the world women struggle for education and respect, for acknowledgement and political equality. Like other struggles, this one needs celebrating.
And on a more basic level, it’s important, I think, to pause for a moment to contemplate the achievements of individual women we know and to be amazed at women’s tenacity generally.
When I talk about achievements, I’m not talking about gold medals or fame and fortune. I’m talking abut the strength and tenacity it takes for a young mother to get through a day with small children gracefully and with positive equilibrium, or for a middle-aged woman to care for an ailing parent or a partner with Alzheimers; or for any woman who is relied upon for support day in and day out. These women often get very little appreciation, for their achievement is a quiet day to day effort, with no clashing cymbals to announce it.
So let’s remember as March 8 passes for another year, to appreciate each other, and also to pause and appreciate ourselves for ourselves.