March 8, afternoon. I am sitting in a Dablby café (hopefully a deliberate misspelling of “Double B”), enjoying my overpriced strawberry tea and the manicure I just got, because it’s Women’s Day and I am a woman, so I deserve to treat myself. As you are reading this, nine out of ten French feminists are throwing their laptops at the wall, getting ready to destroy me in the comments for compromising the real meaning of the holiday. Meanwhile, the Russian girl next to me is freaking out over the phone, because her boyfriend got her the wrong type of flowers. I’m starting to sense a bit of a cultural difference here. Let’s investigate.
Wait, so…Women’s Day is not just about the flowers?
Growing up in Bulgaria, I never reflected much on the origin or the significance of International Women’s Day. In fact, I didn’t even know it was international. The 8th of March for me was merely the second relatively important spring holiday, exactly one week after “Baba Marta”. And if the latter consisted in giving each other martenitsa (red-and-white bracelets and charms meant to bring good health and celebrate the beginning of spring), then Women’s Day was all about giving flowers and gifts to close female relatives, girlfriends and teachers. While in Bulgarian discourse, there was no specific association of the holiday with feminism or women’s rights, it did implicate a profound gesture of love and respect for women and womanhood as a whole, and a special consideration for the role of the mother. I can’t say for sure to which extent my young self was aware of these meanings, but she certainly liked this once-in-a-year opportunity to receive flowers for no other reason than being a woman.
This last notion is exactly what got me in trouble a year ago, when the 8th of March came around while I was studying in France. We were having casual drinks at a friend’s house, cause what else would a Sciences Po student do on a weeknight before midterms? As it often was the case, I was the only non-French person in the group and when someone distractedly mentioned that Women’s Day was coming soon, it instantly drew my attention. “Oh, you guys celebrate it too? With flowers and all?” Big mistake.
My seemingly innocent question was a mix of genuine curiosity and surprise, since I hadn’t seen more flowers and flower shops than usual on the streets, and those would have been hard to miss in a town the size of Dijon. As it turned out, no, they didn’t celebrate the 8th of March “with flowers and all”. International Women’s Day, as my French friends were eager to lecture me, was not some macho holiday whose only purpose is for men to once again objectify and reduce women to movie clichés by giving them flowers. No, the correct name was actually International Women’s Rights’ Day, a holiday of communist and feminist origins, and if it was to persist today, then it is for us to celebrate and promote women’s rights and speak out against gender inequality and stereotypes. So much for the flowers, then.
You and your roses can’t sit with us
Just to make things clear, I was not at all against this newly introduced to me interpretation of Women’s Day. As a feminist, I do identify with and support women’s rights causes such as fighting for gender equality and against discrimination. I even felt a bit ashamed that I had never heard of International Women’s Day in the context of feminism and that this was not at all a thing in Bulgaria. After all, we could really use a Women’s Rights Day in our current political and social climate (*cough cough* the Istanbul Convention). It was simply not what I had grown up with.
This, I assume, was also the case for about half of our campus population, who come primarily from Eastern and Central Europe. This is why for the 8th of March, I had successfully convinced the Student Union to offer a flower to every girl on campus, in respect with the Eastern European tradition. It was a moderate success: many girls refused the flowers, even when it was me, a girl, giving it to them, citing feminist convictions as the reason. On the bright side, some of the guys accepted them, so that was one point for equality.
That, or my cleavage game was on point that day. On the opposite side of the lounge, one of our feminist associations was taking pictures of people with printed out slogans such as “Je suis féministe”. Having just gotten a yellow rose each from the Student Union, my best friend and I wanted to support the other initiative too by taking a picture…with our roses. Naturally, we were not allowed to do so. Apparently, flowers did not go too well with the feminist brand.
This came as a disappointment to me, because while I was ready to embrace what for me was a completely new, feminist dimension of the holiday, I could not accept stripping it down from the inherent cultural context in which I had come to know and celebrate it, and flowers were part of it.
We take our petunias seriously in Eastern Europe
The tradition of offering flowers to women as a gift for birthdays, anniversaries, graduations and especially Women’s Day is deeply rooted into Bulgarian and other Eastern European countries’ culture. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a man giving the flower to the woman, it can be another woman or even child as well. Depending on the country and region, different sorts of flowers have different meanings and are used for different occasions, and sometimes there are additional rules and superstitions. In Bulgaria, for instance, giving a bouquet of six roses would be a major faux pas – even numbers are for funerals only, celebrations require an odd number of flowers.
My great-aunt giving me a flower for my high school graduation
The custom of giving flowers is even more present in Russia, where it has been given a quasi-cult status. One of my neighbors at the dorm, an Austrian, complained to me once over dinner that a girl he had met on Tinder was mad at him, because he hadn’t greeted her with a bouquet on their first date. I was not even remotely surprised. Being extra and traditionalist is a discipline the Russians could easily win without any doping whatsoever.
But back to my feminist dilemma. I could see how to someone who hasn’t grown up with this cultural heritage would see the gesture of giving a flower to a woman as an outdated patriarchic tradition, a display of macho male dominance even. It’s what the slick alpha male lead would do in old movies to win the heart of the gentle leading lady/damsel in distress with no personality. Or, in a much more despicable to me French perspective, it’s what people “de droite” do (literally “of the right”, people who are thought to have right-wing or conservative political views). In the end, isn’t Women’s Day just another capitalist invention, much like Valentine’s Day, only created in order to sell flowers and greeting cards under the pretext of respecting and celebrating women?
Okay, that last statement was purely satirical (even though I have heard people seriously entertain the idea). But for all the cases against giving flowers on Women’s Day, I could not be convinced. To me, the tradition remains an important aspect of the holiday, and a beautiful gesture in the context of any other personal celebration. Apart from their cultural significance, what I like about flowers is that they are a universal gift, regardless of the social situation and income of the giver or that of the taker. A flower is always appropriate and well-received, be it a pot of petunias for your family friends’ new apartment, a last-minute rose with an attached envelope containing a banknote for your distant cousin or a bouquet of tulips stolen from your neighbor’s garden for your best friend’s name day you almost forgot about.
Flowers vs. feminism: Why not both?
But what about women’s rights? Here, I admit, Eastern Europe has a bit of catching up to do. Indeed, the 8th of March shouldn’t be limited to buying bouquets for your mom and girlfriend. We should use this day to draw attention to feminist issues and causes around the world, from demanding equal pay to fighting against slutshaming, verbal, physical and sexual abuse and all forms of discrimination. I believe that in Bulgaria and even in Russia some baby steps are already being taken in the right direction. Last year, for the first time I stumbled upon a Facebook event for a standup comedy/debate on feminism in Sofia for the 8th of March. This year, Bulgarian celebrity women along with the Bulgarian Women’s Fund made a video campaign destined to empower young teenage girls, touching on topics ranging from reproductive health to career opportunities. Even in Russia there is some activism. The Moscow Museum of Modern Art for example is having an exhibition of feminist art from the 2000s.
This year I am spending the 8th of March in Moscow. I woke up to champagne and flowers, bought by our Uzbek neighbor as a Women’s Day gift for all the girls on our floor. Then I got my nails done, so it wasn’t exactly a day full of feminist action for me. But two days ago, I took part in a video made by a group of international students which aims to promote women’s rights around the world, so I guess that counts for something.
My personal take on International Women’s Day? You can fight for rights and have the flowers. And while we’re at it, keep the champagne, too.