Mixed emotions on Women’s Day in Eastern Europe

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Many people, especially those above 35 living in Eastern Europe, still associate 8 March with the old official Communist celebrations, with faded red cloves and drunken men 'celebrating' Women's Day. But gradually the day, which symbolises female emancipation, has gained new legitimacy, a tour of the EURACTIV network reveals.

In the Czech Republic, Women's Day has still many opponents as it was misused by the former communist regime as a propaganda tool. Many still recall tragicomic scenes in which men used the day as an excuse to enjoy a tumultuous night, while women employees received boxes of sweets or soap as their bosses were obliged to give presents to every female staff member.

After the regime disintegrated in 1989, 8 March was replaced by other celebrations such as Mother's Day or Valentine's Day. Those, however, never acquired the same popularity in the Czech Republic as many people saw them as artificial or commercial.

In 2004, when the Social Democrats were on power, a law on public feasts was passed in parliament and confirmed the 8 March as a day to celebrate, despite the protests of the centre-right majority in the Senate, the upper chamber of parliament.

Nowadays, things are slowly changing as the younger generation has no memory of former times. What is certain is that florists' sales are high on Women's Day, with some recording even higher takings than on Mother's Day or Valentine's Day, EURACTIV Czech Republic reports.

Prime minister recites poems

In Slovakia, which formed one nation with the Czech Republic until 1 January 1993, the celebration of 8 March was quite politicised at first. Centre-right parties, for example, have demanded that Women's Day be replaced by Mother's Day as the official holiday.

Nowadays, both days are considered festive, although neither is a 'state holiday'. The ruling party, social democrats SMER-SD, is pushing for Women's Day to be upgraded to an official celebration.

Party-sponsored celebratory events have taken place across Slovakia in recent days. According to this weekend's media, Prime Minister Robert Fico recited poems and cracked jokes about male-female relationships on a tour of the country. It soon became apparent that it was mostly elderly women gathered at such events.

The SMER events are also seen by many as being part of the election campaign, since elections are slowly looming in Slovakia (June 2010). On the defensive, Fico rejected any link between Women's Day and communist times and insisted that it was in fact in remembrance of New York female movements from the beginning of the 20th century (see 'Background'). He insisted that Women's Day was also celebrated in Czechoslovakia before World War II.

Tights no longer offered as presents

In Poland, as Women's Day is no longer institutionalised, the celebration is even more prominent today than it was in the past. Many people remember the poor quality red carnations offered to women in the totalitarian days. However, nowadays it is much appreciated that men give flowers to women that day, or simply behave nicely by inviting them for a coffee or a piece of cake.

At school and in companies, it is normal for men to give their feminine colleagues a small present. But one thing is certain: nobody offers tights or coffee beans any more. Both were in short supply during the communist period. 

Despite having suffered from perhaps the toughest communist regime under Ceausescu, Romanians today happily celebrate Women's Day without thinking about the past. Although 8 March is not an official celebration, many companies allow their female employees the afternoon off. The move is hardly seen as sexist, despite the fact that many women use the time available to cook a festive dinner.

In Bulgaria, 8 March is a celebration loved by many, and political connotations play a marginal role. The country has several holidays in the first days of March – 1 March is the day when everybody offers their relatives and friends martenistas – symbols of spring as ancient as pagan times. 3 March is the national day, marking the end of five centuries of Ottoman domination. Women's Day comes in handy for continuing to celebrate, many Bulgarians confirm.

European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek, in a special address for International Women's Day, said that "8 March is not about offering flowers".

"International Women's Day exists so that we celebrate those who have the biggest, but sometimes, quietest influence in our lives. Women are, after all, a majority in this world! 8 March is not only about offering flowers. Today is about debating equal rights and equal opportunities," he said. 

"I strongly support, for example a tax system where the more children in a family the less tax there is to pay. This is necessary from the point of view of European demography," he added. 

"The European Parliament is actively involved in these debates, including passing legislation on equal opportunities and non-discrimination. The Committee on Women's Rights is an important committee in this House." 

"In a rapidly ageing Europe, women need to have equal access to take on jobs and to remain professionally active in all economic sectors. To make it possible for all women to fulfil their professional ambitions and at the same time raise a family, we need more and higher quality childcare services. Equally, we need equal pay and equal treatment," Buzek said. 

"Violence against women is still so depressingly common in Europe. At the end of the last year the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the elimination of violence against women. Violence against women is the violation of fundamental human rights. A society which allows violence to exist becomes a brutal society, and is not the type of society we wish to live in."

"A long journey starts with a small step: today, let us take that first step and develop this action plan on tackling violence against women," Buzek concluded.

Turkey celebrated Women's Day for the first time on 8 March 1975. Influenced by the United Nations Women's Decade, Turkey held a convention called 'Turkey 1975: Women's Year'. Following the 1980 military coup, the 8 March Women's Day was not observed for four years. Since 1984 Women's Day has been celebrated by various women's organisations, EURACTIV Turkey reports.

Women in the 1980s failed to observe this special day and hold meetings or festivals, and only small groups kept celebrating the day with modest activities.

As the number of women's organisations increased in the 1990s and later, Women's Day has been claiming bigger audiences for numerous events.

The first International Women's Day was observed on 28 February 1909 in the United States following a declaration by the Socialist Party of America. Soon, it became the occasion to commemorate the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, one of the largest industrial disasters ever at that time, which caused the death of 146 garment workers, most of them female. The disaster helped spur the creation of the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union and women's rights movements in general.

In Russia, demonstrations marking International Women's Day helped accelerate the dramatic events which led to the 1917 October revolution. Soon after, Alexandra Kollontai, an activist who became the world's first female ambassador (in 1923 she was appointed Soviet ambassador to Norway), persuaded Lenin to make 8 March an official holiday in the Soviet Union.

All countries from the former Soviet bloc celebrated 8 March lavishly, with their propaganda machines stressing that only in socialist countries did women enjoy equal rights to men.

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