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We mustn’t forget the revolutionary roots of International Women’s Day

Now marked with Google doodles and special shopping displays, in the early 20th century, International Women's Day was a fierce, worldwide campaign for worker's rights.

International Women’s Day: a day, according to the UN, to “reflect on progress made”, to “celebrate acts by ordinary women”. Few would say that it fails to do this. Last year Google marked it with a doodle, and there were events from streets marches to window displ of Selfridges, who marked it with a short film showing famous female designers and presenters.

Yet all this fails to reflect exactly what the day means. Amid pastel Gifs and shop windows full of well-off women, barely a whisper could be heard about those who brought the day into being. Perhaps it’s not surprising: next to them, modern feminists look a little wet. They forged International Women’s Day (IWD) in the midst of fire, bloody strikes, starving workers and revolution.

Luise Zietz and Clara Zetkin were the first to come up with the idea. Inspired by growing numbers of female activists, in 1910 they proposed to the second Socialist International the organisation of a day worldwide dedicated to promoting women’s rights.

Against a backdrop of ambivalence from male unions, women had been organising for decades. Cap-makers, match girls and laundresses had all picketed at the turn of the 20th century, and as Zetkin and Zietz made their proposal, the “Uprising of the 20,000” was drawing worldwide attention. A bloody strike by New York’s garment workers, it was led by Clara Lemlich, a 23-year-old Ukrainian-Jewish immigrant who rallied tens of thousands of women to the picket lines even after thugs hired by her employers broke her ribs.

The first IWD took place on 19 March 1911. Over a million women across Europe took to the streets calling for equal rights. Jubilation at the day’s success was short-lived: less than a week later fire ripped through the sweatshop where Clara Lemlich worked, killing 146 workers who had been locked inside by their employers. Lemlich lost a cousin to the flames, collapsing in hysterics when she was unable to find her body. The tragedy – still one of the worst industrial disasters in US history – brought universal condemnation, focusing future IWD campaigning fiercely on worker’s rights.

IWD was just solidifying into a proudly left-wing tradition when the First World War broke out in 1914, and socialist organisation collapsed in chaos. In 1917, however, IWD took on significance again, when a group of Russian women triggered one of the most monumental events of the 20th century. Marching in St Petersburg, they were unexpectedly joined by workers from surrounding factories, supporting their calls for “Bread and Peace”. Within hours a full scale revolution had broken out. Tsar Nicholas abdicated, a new government was set up, and six months later, the Bolsheviks took control.

We all know what happened next, and it may well be distaste at the system of government that the event kickstarted which is responsible for its revolutionary roots being swept under the carpet. Some historians claim its origins were deliberately hushed up in the McCarthy era, some see it as changing politics – but whatever was responsible, the disparity between what the day was then and what it is now shouldn’t pass without comment.

From being a day devoted to campaigning for the poorest women, to becoming one on which Walmart can claim to promote equality: IWD is a perfect example of feminism’s failure to connect with the poor. Get up in arms about that accusation all you want (and please do, it would be great to see some mass mobs in feminism), but the fact remains that, for all the grasps at intersectionality and the spat-ridden Twittering of recent years, there are still women who find themselves in the same position that Clara Lemlich did in 1910: scrabbling through rubble for the body of a loved one. We consistently fail to connect with the whole embarrassing mess of it.

Sweatshops still exist across the world, as do trafficking, slavery, horrendous working conditions and unsanitary living conditions. On our own doorstep, women are bearing the brunt of the cuts. Single mothers, poor teenagers in inner-cities, ordinary working women who struggle to put food on the table. What do we debate on Twitter, on our much-fought-over platforms in the press? Pink toys, boobs in newspapers and women on banknotes: none of which is unimportant, but which have all risen to the top of the debate because of our reluctance to deal with anything filthier.

International Women’s Day – and perhaps feminism in general – now veers dangerously close to paint-by-numbers protest. Femen have called for an international women’s strike on IWD 2017, which might have been heartening had they not chosen to wait three years in order to coincide with the headline-grabbing centenary of the February Revolution.

When Clara Lemlich died, aged 96, she was organising her care workers into a union. International Women’s Day shouldn’t just be about the poor in order to respect women like her, but because of what she knew to the last: that to make society better for everyone, you have to start with the ones who have it worst. On 8 March, that’s what we should be reflecting upon.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue