Every year, March 8 marks International Women’s Day, which draws attention to social and institutional gender inequalities across the globe. In Montreal, the day is celebrated with citywide events and demonstrations, such as the annual march, which has been organized since 2002 by the March 8 Committee of Women of Diverse Origins.
“There has been a very strong tradition of celebrating Women’s Day in Montreal,” Dolores Chew, President of the South Asian Women’s Community Centre, told McGill’s community radio station CKUT after the march. “We started organizing [the March 8 demonstration] because we felt that minority women – [meaning] women who were minorities either because of race, of language, age, any reason – were not getting out [to the demonstrations].”
Despite Montreal’s strong participation in International Women’s Day, for some it has not been without skepticism. “I think that [International Women’s Day] is often a thing that is co-opted by a lot of white Western women,” McGill student and staffer at the Union for Gender Empowerment Nicholle Savoie told The Daily.
“There’s this idea of solidarity in a woman’s experience, but this idea of a woman’s experience really often means a white, middle-class, Western woman’s experience,” Savoie said. “I’m not totally convinced of this idea of women as a whole, because I think that can often really [hide] difference of oppression.”
The theme of this year’s March 8 demonstration in Montreal was solidarity against precarity. According to Chew, the theme was meant to encompass the structural barriers that women, particularly minority women, face.
“It’s about the precariousness and insecurity of the lives of many women. [These can be] caused by things like economic austerity measures taken by governments that hit hardest the most vulnerable populations, [which are] usually women and other minorities.”
“The theme is on precariousness with regard to issues of health, reproductive health, [and] sexual violence,” Chew added. “We felt that more than ever we needed to draw attention to the precariousness of women’s lives.”
The day’s events began with a public meeting held at Dawson College, followed by the march. The march hosted speakers from different community organizations in Montreal, including the Filipino Women’s organization PINAY.
“[Since the typhoon] many women are still living in migration centres, or makeshift tents in their communities, which exposes them to greater health risks and gender-based violence,” a representative from PINAY told the crowd of demo attendees. “After the aftermath of the typhoon, a number of rape incidents were reported, and because of the lack of work and livelihood, many women are prone to [being trafficked].”
The subtitle of this year’s theme was “smash the glass cage.” Chew explained that despite people believing that there is legal equality and the public recognition of official women’s rights, in many parts of the world, there “are so many factors that keep women down, keep them back. So it’s a glass cage; it’s there but it’s not always as evident.” She added that often people’s experience was very different than legal forms of equality.
This year’s Women’s Day event also drew attention to the Charter of Values proposed by the Parti Quebecois (PQ), which seeks to ban all religious symbols for public employees in Quebec.
“The PQ’s Charter of Values was topmost on the minds of many of us [on the committee],” Chew said. “Not because we felt there is a problem with secularism, but we were really opposed to the way the government was using the notion of secularism to target vulnerable populations, particularly Muslim women and making an issue where there wasn’t and generating so much racism and xenophobia.”