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“Women’s Rights are Workers’ Rights:” Kavita Ramdas on History of International Women’s Day and Challenges Women Face 100 Years Later

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Thousands of events are being held worldwide to mark the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day. A handful of European countries first marked the day in 1911 following a declaration by the Socialist Party of America. The United Nations has recognized March 8th as International Women’s Day since 1975. Kavita Ramdas of the Global Fund for Women joins us to discuss the history of International Women’s Day, the most pressing issues women face today, and the connection between women’s rights and the fight for workers’ rights in Wisconsin. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Thousands of events are being held worldwide to mark the hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day. A handful of European countries first marked the day in 1911 following a declaration by the Socialist Party of America. The United Nations has recognized March 8th as International Women’s Day since 1975.

International Women’s Day celebrates ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities. It’s also a time to reflect on the progress made for women’s rights and to call for change.

And it’s a time to call attention to a number of issues facing women, including discriminatory laws, the high rate of pregnancy-related deaths and the disproportionately high number of women killed and victimized by wars.

AMY GOODMAN: Here in the United States, the focus includes the Republican-led campaign against women’s reproductive rights, the comparatively heavier burden of poverty on women, high domestic violence and maternal mortality rates, and the disparity between men and women in available employment and wages.

Joining here in New York is Kavita Ramdas. She served as president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women from 1996 to 2010, currently senior adviser at the Fund and visiting scholar at Stanford University.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Kavita Ramdas.


AMY GOODMAN: On this hundredth anniversary of International Women’s Day, would you share with us the history?

KAVITA RAMDAS: Yes. Well, I was sharing with a friend yesterday, who said, “Oh, do you know it’s International Women’s Day?” And I said, “Yes. And do you know that we should be standing in solidarity with the workers in Wisconsin?” And she said, “What do the two have to do with each other?” And I said, “Everything.”

And you mentioned that the Socialist Party of America was the first organization to really call for a celebration of a National Women’s Day, which was then adopted by the Socialist International. I think the connection between women’s rights and workers’ rights has always been a very key part of this, a recognition of women’s productive contributions to society, not just their reproductive contributions to society. And I think that that’s one of the arenas in which suddenly those of us who grew up in the rest of the world grew up sort of marching and celebrating International Women’s Day, with a view to this joint goal of having women be full and equal participants in all aspects of their societies.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And the labor movement has been tied in with International Women’s Day. Talk about that connection.

KAVITA RAMDAS: Well, I think, you know, as you mentioned, in 1911, the Socialist International adopted International Women’s Day, celebrated it in February. But in March of that year, a very tragic fire that happened right here in New York City that killed 140 primarily women workers, most of them immigrants, Italian, Jewish immigrants, from different parts of the world. Ever since then — and actually, again, as I said, around the world — it has been tied to a recognition that these were women who were fighting for their rights as workers as well as women.

And I thought of that when I was in Pakistan this January, meeting with home-based workers in their homes in Karachi and Peshawar. As a young woman, I think barely 20 years old, said to me — I said, “How do you find the courage to continue to go out into these big marches?” They had just held a march, over 600 women in the streets of Karachi. I said, “You know, when you’re restrained in so many ways from being able to be public?” And she said, “Because women’s rights are workers’ rights, and we are workers.”

And I think that that’s a tradition that the United States doesn’t necessarily like to celebrate, much as in the same way I think you don’t celebrate May Day with the rest of the workers around the world. You have your own Labor Day in September.

But I think it is important to recognize that at a moment when the world has heard a lot about investing in women, we also have to remember that these progressive movements for women’s rights were not in isolation. They were really very much seen as something contextualized, in the context of larger struggles for justice.

AMY GOODMAN: Kavita Ramdas, you mentioned the — this is the hundredth anniversary also of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and there are a lot of preparations being made for that anniversary on March 25th.

KAVITA RAMDAS: Yeah, I think there’s also some wonderful work being done. I just saw the New York Times story of the reporter who actually found and tracked down the names of some of the women who had died, who actually nobody actually knew who they were.

I think there is a need for us, I think, at this moment, particularly as there’s an effort to marginalize the rights of workers, as you see across many of the states, particularly Wisconsin, Indiana, an attempt to kind of roll back some of the achievements that workers have fought for so hard. You see that happening simultaneously, Amy, as you mentioned, with the attempt to sort of roll back women’s rights. And this is happening exactly at the moment that globally, the voice says, “Oh, you know, the way to have development and democracy is to invest in women.” So, on one hand, you have what’s right for the rest of the world; on the other hand, you actually have a situation in which people are losing rights, in the context of the country where those rights were fought for, you know, to begin with.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the issue of reproductive rights here at home? In Congress right now, while the Republicans are talking about jobs, jobs, jobs, that that is the main thing we have to deal with, behind the scenes, in the various hearings, it seems to be largely about reproductive rights and the issue of large government being attacked. But when it comes to government intervention in women’s lives and healthcare, there is an equally large push by the Republicans to call for large government.

KAVITA RAMDAS: Yeah, it’s one of those very interesting contradictions that I find quite amusing, that the same party that’s calling for a reduction of government in almost every sphere of our lives in the United States seems to have no problem intervening in the lives of women’s bedrooms and in the very private decisions that are made about a woman’s sexuality and a woman’s body.

I was at a Planned Parenthood event just last week in Menlo Park in California, you know, a very privileged community. It could not be publicized. People did not know where the meeting was. There were K9 patrols. There were undercover officers all across the venue, because it had received threats from people who really believe that Planned Parenthood is not what it is, which is, namely, one of the primary providers of healthcare in the state of California and in many other states, but really conflating the work of Planned Parenthood with a very narrow understanding of one aspect of their work, which is providing contraception and access to legal abortion. So I think we are really facing, Amy, as you said, a real challenge in terms of being able to hold onto even the rights that I think we’ve held for granted, and I fear that there is an invasion of the church back into arenas that I think we had fought so hard for, in terms of the separation of church and state. That’s something you see women fighting for in the rest of the world. And here, actually, I think we’re losing ground.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The White House recently put out a report on women in America. It’s being described as the first status report on women since 1963. What does the report reveal about women’s rights here in America?

KAVITA RAMDAS: Well, it’s interesting in many ways. I mean, you know, if you look at the sort of headlines, I think you would see absolutely unquestionable advancement. There’s a lot of talk about the fact that women are now the majority of who’s in higher education. There’s a lot of conversation about the fact that women have made significant gains in terms of their leadership positions. And certainly we see that in, you know, lots of different fields, not just at the State Department, where Hillary Clinton heads the State Department, but in many other aspects of — even in the private sector.

Just go a little bit below the surface, however, and I think you have a very different set of realities that I certainly ran into just, again, two weeks ago. I was in Alabama at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, speaking to young women there, listening to the ways in which they have been essentially taught in the Baptist Church, where most of them sort of grew up, that it is women who are to blame for violence against women. And when I said, “Well, what does that mean?” they said, “Well, pastors teach us that it is our behavior that incites men to violence, and therefore we have to be careful to cover up the three Bs: breasts, belly and buttocks. We must cover up. We must not incite men to think impure thoughts.” They even cited to me dorms, where girls’ dorms close at 10:30, and boys dorms are open until midnight, because the belief is, is that if you keep girls away, boys can’t get into trouble. I say that because I think it’s easier for us in the United States to look outward and to talk about those poor women in those other parts of the world that we are going to save, whether it’s Iraq or Afghanistan or Pakistan, or, you know, you pick the place.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting, in light of the radicalization of Islam hearings that are about to take place in Congress.

KAVITA RAMDAS: I know. And I found it actually very strange. I bet if you would put those Baptist pastors in the same room with the imams of Wahhabi Islam, they would find that they have a great deal more in common with each other than they do, you know, differences. So I think we do have a situation in which there is steady erosion of the separation of church and state, and it’s actually a separation that people in this country take for granted. But I think what’s much more disturbing to me about the right wing is not that they want to fight taxes or that they want to roll back specific rights, like the rights on reproductive health, but that there is actually this argument that is being made, and it’s being made in a very cogent and cohesive way, that in fact this is a Christian country and that, in fact, the values of Christianity should and must infuse all aspects of the Constitution and all other law.

AMY GOODMAN: Kavita Ramdas, Sharif and I and the Democracy Now! team were just in Madison, Wisconsin, broadcast from the Capitol there. The people who are being targeted right now — the nurses, the teachers, those unions, largely women — the police, the firefighters are not targeted, though they have joined with the nurses and the teachers, because they feel if one is targeted, they are all targeted — and the Governor is saying it’s because of the deficit. And we’re hearing that all over the country. But if you look at the deficits of, what, put together like 46 states, and you compare what that deficit is — around $126 billion — to the war costs in Afghanistan alone — something like $2 billion a week — we could deal with these deficits in the states by simply not investing in a state of war, but investing in the states at home. Could you talk about the military budget of this country, larger than all the rest of the world combined?

KAVITA RAMDAS: I think the military budget of this country has profound implications not just for the workers in Wisconsin, but indeed for the well-being of women around the world. And I think it’s fitting that on International Women’s Day we should begin to raise some real questions about the continued investment in a war machinery, right at the moment that we’re arguing that in fact our presence in Afghanistan is needed in order to protect women in Afghanistan. We hear stories like the nine children who were just killed, and most of whom were actually the primary providers of their families. There are just far too many stories like this that abound across Afghanistan. And I think Afghan women have been put in this kind of terrible dilemma, you know, of basically being told, “Well, either you have to choose between the Taliban, who will come back and reimpose a state of gender apartheid, or you have to choose between the presence of over 150,000 foreign troops.” And we certainly know from the Congo, where the heinous violence against women is primarily carried out by soldiers and by armed militias of different forms, that the presence of troops and the presence of weapons does not actually increase women’s security on the ground; it actually decreases women’s security. And how long are we going to continue to make up this, you know, myth that in fact American soldiers are in Afghanistan to protect women? American soldiers are in Afghanistan for a whole set of reasons that happen to suit American interests and actually has ebbed and waned. I mean, in 2003, when I was in Kabul, people actually had real expectations that there would be some consistent investment.

So, I think on two fronts, Amy, both the domestic front and the fact that we have so few resources to invest in critical infrastructure — I mean, it’s ironic to me that it’s teachers and nurses, in particular, because everything we’re being told, if you’re in a developing country, every message that we’re being given from the World Bank to the U.N. to every development model is, you must invest in the human capital of your countries. And then here you’re watching sort of an evisceration of, you know, the human capital. And I find it really odd that Tom Cruise — I just heard you were mentioning, the headlines — Tom Cruise pays, whatever, $400 a month or $400 in property taxes, and yet we think a teacher who’s making $35,000 a year is somehow living the cushy life. We live in strange times, indeed.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Today, organizers in Egypt are calling for a million woman march. And we saw in this uprising in Egypt women stand alongside men, facing off with state security forces, being tear-gassed, and dispelling a lot of these myths about the role of women in the Middle East. Can you talk about that?

KAVITA RAMDAS: Yes. I think my favorite comment was reading an op-ed by Nick Kristof in which he sort of expressed his amazement that these two sisters who were both wearing hijab had such firm resolve to be in Tahrir Square. And I think, you know, he and others have made the point well that our obsession with what women wear is not necessarily in any way an indication of the bravery or the courage or the guts that they show in terms of being able to take on really major issues.

I also think that it’s important — there’s been a lot of discussion as to whether the democratization of Egypt could challenge the gains that women had under a regime like Mubarak’s. That’s often echoed, for example, in Pakistan. You know, people in the women’s movement say, “Well, sometimes we’re nostalgic for Mubarak — for Musharraf in Pakistan.” And I think it’s very important to distinguish women’s role in larger political processes and their commitment to democratization and not to again use this sort of — use gender equality as a mask for other forms of inequality.

I think certainly women in Egypt, groups that the Global Fund for Women has funded over the years, such as the Women’s Memory Forum, such as the Egyptian Center for Women’s Legal Rights, have been at the forefront of building a strong civil society. And I believe that they will continue to do that, whether or not there are actually a million women in the streets today in Cairo. I think, as Shirin Ebadi once said, you know, when I asked her — I said, “Is there a office for the feminist movement in Iran?” And she said, “No, but there’s a chapter in every household.” I think that’s true. I think that’s equally true in Egypt.

SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: You have on the website of the Global Fund for Women a list of accomplishments over the past year, the top 10. Can you list some of them?

KAVITA RAMDAS: Well, I think we’ve — you know, we’ve been really excited to see some of the incredible gains, some of the things that have happened in Mexico, the changes in the laws that we’ve seen in places like Nepal, the use of CEDAW to successfully challenge a rape case in the context of the Philippines.


KAVITA RAMDAS: CEDAW being the — what I like to call the women’s rights treaty, the Convention for Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. And of course, I think, you know, lastly, we see the protests in Tahrir Square and the mobilization of women being a part of that activism on the ground as being very much one of the gains that we can claim for women’s rights, because if we say women’s rights are human rights, then indeed it works the other way around, as well. It’s not that women are only concerned about their own rights; they’re also concerned about the well-being, equality and justice that affects all their fellow human beings. And I think that’s actually one of the great advantages of the women’s movement and something that goes back to our earlier comments about women and workers, in terms of the origins of this day.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Kavita Ramdas, we want to thank you very much for being with us. She was president and CEO of the Global Fund for Women ’til 2010, now a senior adviser at the Fund and a visiting scholar at Stanford University. Thank you.

KAVITA RAMDAS: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we’ll be joined by the great Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif. Stay with us.

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Novelist Ahdaf Soueif on Egypt’s Revolution: “People Were Rediscovering Themselves”

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