Anna Zhyn characters

You are not alone, Sista!

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“You are not alone, sista!” is what I heard at a rally dedicated to 2012 International Women’s Day (IWD) in Toronto. It sounded very important to me, because the world is still on an unfinished road towards emancipation and women often feel they face problems, discriminatory acts and/or violence alone.

Since the birth of this celebration in 1918, the event has spread throughout the world. In 1975, IWD was officially recognized by the UN. Some would say “Why bother to celebrate now that equality has been achieved?” It is not so true. Despite the fact that women can now vote, study and work, many questions and issues remain unresolved with worldwide statistics to prove it.1

In this documentary photography project I compare how the IWD is celebrated in two countries with different cultures: Canada and Belarus. The way IWD is celebrated in each of these countries is profoundly different. You can make this comparison yourself by googling "March 8th" in English and Russian. In the first instance, the query results are mostly related to women’s rights, their problems and approaches to solving them. The Russian results, on the other hand, only include websites with toasts and greeting cards.

This year I attended several different events in Toronto dedicated to IWD which I discovered on an official UN website dedicated to this date. There were 192 registered events in Canada and 29 of them took place in Toronto.2 On the long list of countries, I was unable to find a single listing for Belarus. I did an online search to locate IWD events in Minsk, Belarus and all I found were sales and romantic concerts, even though this national holiday affords a splendid opportunity to run events.

The following is a description of a typical IWD in Belarus: pleased by their own courtesy men rush through the city in search of flowers, chocolates, cakes and champagne. In the workplace, male staff organize performances and receptions and offers flowers and gifts to their female colleagues. At home a woman recieve flowers, gifts and complements as well. She does not need to cook or wash dishes on this day as part of her gift since a woman in an average Belarusian family has numerous household duties in addition to her fulltime job. In my point of view in Belarus the day is a wild mixture of Saint Valentines, Mothers’ and Family Days. They call it the Day of Spring and Beauty. Belarus and other former Soviet countries have gradually degraded IWD to the level of champagne spray. Once a year a male employer and his colleagues pay attention to female employees by only focusing on their biological characteristics while many obvious social, civil, family, political and financial problems go unnoticed. And the most popular toast at these receptions would sound like this: “For our lovely ladies! What would we do without you?! You beautify our life!” In other words, women are designed to embellish men’s life, be beautiful and not compete with them. This is the message of the whole celebration. Moreover, in many families the duty goes once again to a woman to prepare dinner, buy flowers for her mother, mother-in-law, sisters, kids’ teachers, colleagues and take care of her husband since they are often quite uptight by the end of women’s day.

One might argue that in Belarus IWD has transformed into a celebration of female beauty and spring harmony and there is no reason to change it. I wouldn’t see any problem with another Saint Valentine’s Day if an official day existed when women could voice their problems and be heard, when the government would give a summary of what has been done to improve women’s lives in the country and identify objectives for the future. That’s how it happens in other parts of the world on March 8th. But there remains no such day in Belarus.

The IWD in Belarus has a reciprocal Men’s day which was originally the Day of the Red (Soviet) Army. Since the USSR ceased to exist, it has been changed to Defender's Day and remains an official Army’s day in spite of the fact that women felicitate men and give them presents as well. Unlike Women’s Day, Defender’s Day still maintains its original meaning. People discuss the army’s problems, needs and achievements, and there is official conferment, marches and military propaganda. Why such a difference, then, between two dates that serve a related purpose? Maybe it is because Belarus is a patriarchal military state where women should know their place? It seems that women have forgotten themselves and that they have rights that must be respected. It's nice to get flowers so why deny the gift? Especially in the case of 'lovely ladies' who only get flowers twice a year for their birthday and for IWD. The problem lies far beyond flowers of course and demands in-depth study; and the answers are profoundly embedded in the patriarchal culture of Belarus.

This photo project, a collaboration with photographer Alexey Naumchik who has been working on the theme in Minsk, Belarus, aims to identify the problem of women’s voicelessness in terms of their rights which are also humans rights. Alexey and I have prepared two groups of photographs which document the ways in which IWD is celebrated in Belarus and Canada, by placing emphasis on the details and cultural traits of this celebration in each context. On the week of IWD, I attended events such as Skills for Change’s official launch of a project entitled: “Gender Consideration When Developing Programming for Immigrant Women”; poetry readings from an anthology entitled “Holla!” created by young mothers who participate in Literature for Life's Women’s Words Reading Circle; and an opening evening of an exhibition in the East Gallery called “Gender at the Crossroads: Women and Culture at the Centre of a Changing Southeast Asia”. Alexey took pictures on the streets of Minsk in different workplaces and stores. We consider this to be our first step in a long-term project that explores this subject.

For those who believe there is nothing to stand for and nothing to articulate, I would like to draw attention to some revealing statistics3. 4 out of 5 women in Belarus aged 18 to 60 are subject to violence, 22.4 per cent and 13.1 per cent endure economic and sexual violence by their husbands or permanent partners, respectively; Belarus has a high divorce rate: during the last decade every second marriage ended in divorce; only 6 per cent of women consider their economic situation to be a good one, 56.8 per cent assess it as average and more than a third – 33.8 per cent – as bad or very bad; women’s average salaries in Belarus are 78.4 per cent of an average male salary; gender differentiation in economic sectors can be traced back to the Soviet period in Belarus which led to the feminization of lowpaid jobs; job applications by women, especially young women, with children are often refused and if they do not have children the attitude is that they soon will, and thus, the employers preference is to hire a man for the job; Belarusian institutions of higher education lack special courses devoted to issues of gender equality and women’s rights etc.

To be continued...

1Fact sheet of UNIFEM: Violence against Women Worldwide

2International Women's Day Events by Country (last seen on March 2012)

3Alternative Report On the Implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women / The Republic of Belarus – 2009: download