A group of students and faculty. Seven stand in the back row. Four kneel in the front.

Professors challenge corporate takeover of International Women’s Day

March 15, 2023
By: Rebecca Cross

A series of striking black-and-white images passed across the screen, showing a variety of famous women, including Lady Gaga and Malala Yousafzai, working on their Apple laptops in home offices, recording studios, and luxurious apartments while Beyoncé sang, “Ladies, tell them, ‘I woke up like this.’” This video—an Apple commercial made for International Women’s Day in 2020—was followed by a news report of low wages, circumvented labor laws, and substandard living conditions leading to hospitalizations at an iPhone factory employing 17,000 women in Bengaluru, India.

These were two videos Worcester State University Associate Professor Nafisa Tanjeem showed during her half of the March 7 event “Queering International Women’s Day,” co-presented with Assistant Professor Rita Mookerjee. The two professors—faculty in the Department of Interdisciplinary Studies—challenged a room full of Worcester State students, faculty, and staff to reconsider the messages sent out by corporations on International Women’s Day.

Corporations are running public relation campaigns, Tanjeem said, something that stands in stark contrast to the holiday’s beginnings, rooted in activism. The holiday was started in 1901 by two separate groups of women activists—labor organizers and voting rights organizers. “Many corporations have found out that it’s actually profitable for them if they express their commitment towards women.” They establish themselves as “good” brands without having to make any changes to the way they are run.

The appropriation of social justice language by corporations can be used, she said, to distract from practices that the public might find distasteful. In a discussion about Hershey’s 2023 International Women’s Day ad featuring trans activist Fae Johnstone, students applauded the inclusion of trans women in the holiday—something that had prompted backlash from some sectors. They pointed out, though, that Hershey’s use of slave labor to supply its chocolate is what should be alarming to consumers and prompting boycotts.

Corporate systemic inequities tie into one of the main points of both Tanjeem’s and Mookerjee’s presentations: the privilege of role modeling. While it can be helpful for young women to see successful women as role models, “not everyone has that kind of privilege. I may want to be a CEO, but I simply don’t have the social-cultural capital to head Walmart, ” Tanjeem pointed out.

It’s important, Tanjeem said, to think beyond the person and talk about the system. “Individual experiences don’t necessarily determine how our lives will be shaped. We need to talk about sex, but also sexism. Race, but also racism.”

Mookerjee put it succinctly: “You cannot girl-boss your way to freedom.”

In her presentation, Mookerjee set out to “queer” the narrative around International Women’s Day. To queer something, she explained, is to challenge the dominant heterosexist narrative.

She pointed out that there is a dearth of historical knowledge of queer history. Often, these events have not been recorded, she said, and those who have committed violence against queer individuals have not been brought to justice. Many events have been overlooked or intentionally obscured. “We have had a multiplicity of gender, gender identity, and trans existence since before the Common Era,” she said. “The notion that queerness is a passing fad is not just untrue but very, very easy to debunk.”

Mookerjee challenged the idea of giving a voice to the voiceless. “Nobody is voiceless,” she said. “The question is, do you want to listen? Are you emotionally prepared to hear data that might rock your worldview?”

“Here we are in 2023, and we’ve kind of backslid,” Mookerjee said. “It’s a weird time to be an American. There’s a lot of rehashing of conversations we’ve already had.” She was hopeful, though, that joy could help people find a way to confront systems of oppression. “We can dance, we can laugh, we can share, and hopefully, within that communion, we can find a brand of liberation that works a little better for everyone.”

The professors timed their presentation ahead of International Women’s Day so participants would be able to critically examine the messages they would soon be inundated with.

“My interest is always, ‘How can we remove that corporate flavor from this holiday?’” Mookerjee said. She added that she saw an overload of information regarding social justice. People are asking, “Am I doing this right?” and are unlikely to get a helpful answer on social media. “I wanted to take some accountability and do some of that education for my community, not just for my students but for my colleagues, too.”

Given the historical foundation of International Women’s Day, Tanjeem said, “It’s mind-blowing to see how the language and rhetoric of International Women’s Day have been co-opted by corporations, and the day has lost its original meaning, which was far more radical.” 

She stressed that feminism is a “fight” for social justice and, as such, should focus on all marginalized communities, pointing to how the very first Women’s Day was founded by two separate activist groups with different goals joining together in solidarity. “Movements always get stronger if you can fight alongside each other.”

Top image: Professors Mookerjee (back row, second from left) and Tanjeem (back row, fifth from left) with a few of the attendees. Photo by Nancy Sheehan

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