Published March 9, 2016 in Episode 43
March 8 is International Women’s Day, or Ngày Quốc tế Phụ Nữ as it’s known in Việt Nam. It's a day to celebrate women’s contributions to society, but it is also a reminder that the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements happened despite a lack of parity. That’s a lot to celebrate, and the people in Việt Nam are especially enthusiastic about it.
But what do the words “Women’s Day” mean to you? A celebration of women and their accomplishments? A celebration for women, because we don’t recognize them enough the rest of the year? Or just another day?
According to Tăng Duyên Hồng, from Hà Nội, the answer generally varies depending on where you stand.
“It’s not a day, it’s a crazy week, where people are crazy buying gifts and flowers,” she tells Loa. “It’s a kind of showcase of your love and caring for the women, and girls, but mostly for it’s young girls, and women who have good positions in the society. [They] will be taken care of during the day, like teachers or board leaders of some company, or some organizations. The staff will give them a lot of gifts and flowers. But Womens’ Day means nothing for the workers, for the farmers and the poor people.”
As founder of Coins for Change, an organization that works to empower women, especially disadvantaged single mothers in Việt Nam, Hồng speaks from her own experience. On the surface Women's' Day in Việt Nam is a happy day, full of flowers, good feelings, and a goodwill towards women. The whole country throws a big party for its fairer sex, usually lasting a week.
The women will also go out to celebrate. A worker at the Women’s Museum in Hà Nội tells Loa, she and her friends will organize a get-together when they are free, for a bit of fun and to celebrate. She shares that one of her girlfriends throws a party every year to chat, drink coffee and do something fun together.
The origin of Women’s Day are rooted in the suffrage movement in the United States in the early 1900s. It has been linked to socialist movements since its early days. Throughout the years, countries like Russia, began designating March 8 as Working Women’s Day, and then just Women’s Day. Other socialist countries began following suit, Việt Nam being one of them.
Eventually, in the the 70s, it became recognized officially around the world.
Today, in Việt Nam, parades and festivities like in Sài Gòn honor the day, but most of the political connotations are lost. The Vietnamese honor the women in their lives, rather than taking advantage of the day to advance a women’s issue.
State media, meanwhile, can be counted on to proclaim that women are highly celebrated in Vietnamese culture. Through much of its history, Việt Nam was steeped in war and boasts stories of women strapping babies to themselves and going off to fight.
An old saying, “Giặc đến nhà đàn bà cũng đánh”, translates to “When the enemy is at the gate, the woman also goes out fighting”, and reminds us of the days the Trưng sisters led a rebellion against Chinese occupation, after the husband of the elder Trưng sister was killed by a Chinese governor.
So does all this grandstanding about treating women right the reality when it comes to gender equality?
Hồng says that when the women were asked in interviews for Women’s Day why they want gifts and flowers for that day, they often answered, “At least we have one day to be cared for by men”, even when she explains that having such a day means that they don’t have equal rights with men.
With large emphasis on giving female bosses and teachers gifts during Women’s Day nowadays, the holiday has also become a large social burden that affects the poor disproportionately. The event seems to get bigger every year, says Hồng.
“For me it became a kind of crazy day that people have to spend lot of money for no reason,” she laments. “And nobody really understands why we have the 8th of March as International Women’s Day, if you ask a normal women.”
Without a doubt that, at least in Việt Nam, Women’s Day has become commercialized.
So for this March 8, why not take the money aspect out of it, forget about the flowers and chocolate, and instead inject the day with meaning. Encourage a woman in your life to follow her dreams. Compliment a girl on her courage to be different. Or, speak up for gender parity in the workplace. And by all means, go and celebrate at the end of the day!