Is Giving Flowers on Women’s Day Sexist?

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.

Eastern European Tradition Giving Flowers for Celebrations

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.

 

From Saint Petersburg with Apathy and Indifference

“From Petersburg with apathy and indifference” („Из Петербурга с апатией и безразличием“) is what many hip-looking postcards in the famous House of Books (Дом Книги) read. Yet, while I was seeking temporary shelter from the freezingly humid February wind inside the antique bookstore, getting lost amidst rows of shelves with books old and new, foreign and Russian, surrounded by the mingling crowds of tourists and locals, I felt neither apathy, nor indifference.

It feels a bit like treason to start off my blog with a love letter to Saint Petersburg, when my home for the past six months has been Moscow, and you don’t need to live in Russia to know that the rivalry between these two cities goes back centuries. And yet, when I think of “travel blog”, the first thing that comes to mind is not my journey of getting to know and learning to love this cold, strange, magnificent city that is the Russian capital – rather, it’s my latest opportunity to get away from it.

 

Off to a rough start

My four-day trip to the Venice of the North was hardly love at first sight. To be precise, it was love at second sight, my first visit to the city having been only four months ago. Our first encounter had been a sloppy one-night stand, too quick, too brisk, too much alcohol involved for it to be truly enjoyable. In the three days I spent in Saint Petersburg back in October, along with a huge group of Erasmus students, most of it consisted in rushing from one guided tour to another, complaining about the non-stop rain and hopping from shitty touristy bar to shitty touristy bar all the way to an aborted attempt at a boat party (hint: there was no party; it was just a boat).

There were, of course, a few positive highlights, such as the Hermitage, which is always stunning and luckily big enough to escape from your tour group, as well as a few artsy cafés, revealed to us by our friends who live there. But overall, my first trip to Saint Petersburg had been a disappointment, not with the city itself, but with the way I spent my time there, and I was looking forward to correcting that.

 

It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey…or is it?

Come my second trip, I had learned from my mistakes. This time, I was to travel with only a small group of trusted people – my best friend Rachel and three other girls from our university, all of us internationals. In other words, a solid girl squad hopping on the night train and heading towards a long weekend full of crazy adventures. You can already imagine how it all began – sipping vodka, sharing embarrassing stories, Britney Spears blasting in the platzkart…AS IF. Nope folks, don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise, the night train from Moscow to Saint Petersburg is basically a nine-hour sleeping contest with obstacles such as fitting in a sleeping cot half your size, ignoring the snores of the fat Russian dude above you, as well as the smell of the toilets next to you, cause you just had to save those 800 rubles, didn’t you?

And so we arrive at Moskovskiy Vokzal (they named the train stations in Russia after their main destination, isn’t that cool?), tired and in intense need of a shower, but happy to have gotten here in one piece. But what to do now, where to go, the opportunities are endless! So how did we spend the rest of the day? You’re damn right, we stayed in and chilled at Boris’s house, who was hosting three of us in his nice urban apartment, far away from the center.

Now, I see how it might seem regrettable to spend the whole first day in a new city closed inside a boring apartment, but you have to take into account our living situation back in Moscow. Rachel and I share a 12-square-meters double room in a typical ugly Soviet dorm, our window facing another typical ugly Soviet dorm. Therefore, being able to sit and sip tea with our friend in a real kitchen, looking at the snow fall down on an equally Soviet-looking, but somehow noticeably livelier and cozier street below, was a much-needed sense of home that we couldn’t get in our own living space.

 

Food, fashion and biopolitical art

Another thing that was harder to find in Moscow and that we were eager to try out here was good restaurants. Russians aren’t exactly famous for their amazing food culture (which can be essentially summarized with the words “mayo and whipped cream on everything yay!”) and Saint Petersburg is no particular exception, but due to its geographical and cultural proximity to continental Europe, it had become more cosmopolitan and was now competing with some European capitals in number and diversity of restaurants specializing in international cuisine.

Our choice for the night was “Meat Bar”, a minimalist stylish place serving an overpriced, but nevertheless exquisite variety of finely cooked meat and equally fine French wine. Even more than the food, I fell in love with the interior and overall aesthetic, which I’m already planning to steal for my Paris studio next year.

Wining and dining at Meat Bar

Above all, Saint Petersburg is a stylish city. You can see it in the people walking down Nevsky Prospekt, from the teen fashionistas with their faux fur and bathrobe coats, to the techno hipsters, sporting statement fanny packs (yes, you read that right) with black Adidas sportswear from head to toe. We too tried to be fancy. We risked hypothermia while doing a coatless photo shoot on top of the Saint Isaac Cathedral. We strolled down a small street rounding up a dozen designer stores, fell tragically in love with a Gucci bag and finally found our way back to Nevsky, where we came upon a four-story 17th-century shopping center with floor-to-rooftop display windows called “Дом Мартенса” (the House of Martens).

It was not the first time we spotted a very French-looking and French-sounding place in Saint Petersburg (I guess we have to thank Peter the Great and the entire two centuries after him for that). This is probably the only city I’ve seen so far that has actually beautiful malls. And that one was just a small shopping center, wait till you see the Galeria Mall! Built in 2010 in classical Greek style, a true contemporary pantheon of consumerism, it would have been incredibly tacky, if it wasn’t stunningly beautiful.

Not everything in the city was beautiful, of course, but even the occasional ugliness seemed to serve its specific purpose. Once, while crossing a bridge above the fully frozen Neva river, we stumbled upon a curious piece of urban art. Just next to the bridge, in the few inches of snow that had fallen on the frozen river, there was the name of the Russian president, spelled in capital letters, each one roughly the size of a car. Just below it, a large male reproductive organ. It was unlikely that the drawing had been the creation of an innocent, perhaps bored, group of teenagers on a casual day after school. Rather, we decided, it must have been that Petersburg-based oppositionist street art group that we talked about in one of our classes just a week ago. Anyway, this version seemed way more exciting and we were happy to have been at the right place in the right time to see the controversial political statement before it was covered by the snow.

Biopolitical Street Art in Saint Petersburg

Street art with a politically dangerous message

 

Peterhof is where the world ends

Having mentioned the frozen river, we now get to the part of the trip that left the biggest mark in my memory. It involves another frozen natural water source, but before that, a castle. More precisely, the famous Peterhof Palace, often referred to as the “Russian Versailles”. Now, I’ve never been to Versailles, but from the front entrance, Peterhof looked very much like the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, only with more snow. It was behind the palace, in the royal gardens, that the real fun began.

First of all, I don’t think I had ever seen that many golden statues in one place. The contrast with the shining white of the snow cover made the non-functioning fountains look kind of surreal, like something out of an Andy Warhol painting. Most of all, it gave me the creeps, because it made me think of the weeping angels from Doctor Who.

Peterhof Palace Garden Statues

The Weeping Angels: Royal Edition

However, we were still about to experience the most surreal part of it all. As we were walking around the palace gardens, we suddenly reached the end of the world. And no, I did not do drugs the previous night. Not knowing that the Peterhof was built right at the shore, we had reached the Baltic Sea without even realizing that it was there. The best part? It too, it was frozen! Covered by a thick layer of snow, the surface of the sea had blended in with the white sky and I swear, for a few mesmerizing seconds, it really felt like we had reached the end of the universe. It wasn’t until we walked a couple hundred meters in on the frozen salt water, that we became fully aware of where we were and what we were doing.

It was in that moment, while we were walking on the sea into the white nothingness, that I thought to myself, during this whole trip I had felt everything else but apathy and indifference.

Where the universe comes to an end

Walking on frozen water