There is Nothing to Buy on International Women's Day

I always thought that International Women’s Day was a day of celebration that, like so many others, was arbitrarily selected to be the one day that we officially appreciate a certain subset of the human population so that we can neglect to do so every other day of the year. I lumped it together with Teacher Appreciation Day, Father’s Day, Children’s Day, Second Cousin Twice Removed Day – all of the days that come pre-marked on calendars, so we won’t forget to celebrate the people who have been important influences in our lives.

But this year’s International Women’s Day feels different. Perhaps it’s the sudden prevalence of empowering quotes on social media, the trending International Women’s Day hashtag on Twitter, the video on Google’s landing page celebrating “Doodle-worthy women of the future,” or this year’s gender parity theme, but International Women’s Day seems newly important to me. It’s not really a commercial holiday like Valentine’s Day or Father’s Day. There isn’t a lot of merchandise that says “thank you for being a woman, I appreciate your contributions to my life as well as the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of those who similarly identify with your sex.” There are no products to promote – only the contributions and achievements of women that are often overlooked.

For me, it presents an opportunity to recognize the women who overcame challenges in order to be where they are now – and to be honest, that’s most women in some small way or another. It’s an opportunity to consciously seek out the voices of women who have been silenced. Your social media platforms may be inundated with Maya Angelou quotes, images of Malala Yousafzai, and clips from Emma Watson’s HeforShe speech today. Still, remember that these are the voices of women who struggled to be heard, but who now command the world stage and who have won the freedom to hold and express an opinion.

If this day was intended to celebrate and appreciate the achievements of women as we don’t normally, then let’s indeed recognize and amplify the voices of women who continue to be largely unheard in the international arena. Listen for voices you’ve never heard before, voices that have been stifled but have much to contribute.

Azerbaijan is one of many nations that not only celebrates International Women’s Day, but also has declared it a non-working holiday.

Yet Khadija Ismayilova, an award-winning Azerbaijani investigative journalist, will not be celebrated.

Her many achievements will not be recognized because she remains unjustly imprisoned precisely speaking out about the abuses and corruption in Azerbaijan. Her right to hold and express her opinions will not be honoured.

A woman in a male-dominated field and a journalist in an increasingly oppressive state, Khadija is one of Azerbaijan’s most well-known journalists and government critics. Her commitment to exposing corruption and publicizing the truth was unrelenting – at the cost of her freedom. Khadija reported on politically motivated prosecutions and state-level corruption. This included investigations of the business dealings of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev as well as his those of his family members, and friends. In the wake of Azerbaijan’s crackdown on criticism of its governance, Khadija became particularly vulnerable.

Throughout her career, Khadija faced the same choices many other working women face, but her work also forced her to deal with issues most people never have to think about. Despite recent books like Lean In and Unfinished Business telling us we can have it all, Khadija certainly couldn’t. She actively chose not to have a family because of the unique dangers associated with her work. She was blackmailed and then targeted in a smear campaign with illegally obtained, intimate images and videos in an effort to convince her to cease working. As an unmarried woman in a culturally conservative, Muslim-majority country the impact of these images going public was particularly damaging to her reputation and personal relationships.

Despite this, she refused to give up her work and cause. Even knowing she would likely be arrested, Khadija continued on, never letting her voice be muted. She recorded a video prior to her December 2014 arrest explaining why she thought she would be arrested.

She was sentenced to seven and half years in prison in September 2015.

Khadija’s was a prominent voice in a country where few voices are free to be heard. She and at least fifty other journalists, human rights activists, and lawyers are currently being wrongfully detained in Azerbaijan. When celebrating women and their achievements today, think about giving a voice to the silenced. Celebrate Khadija’s achievements. Before you hit re-share on Hillary’s “Women’s rights are human rights” sound-bite, think about using this day to elevate lesser known achievements of women to the same status.

Since Khadija cannot speak for herself now and cannot assume her place on the world stage, consider sharing her story.

Next International Women’s Day, Khadija Ismayilova should be among the women who command the stage and are free to exercise their rights. 

* this op-ed was written for the Media, Campaigning and Social Change course at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (Spring '16)

© 2016 Daniele Selby