In Western Washington University's Miller Hall collaborative space, wall-length windows frame the room and stream light onto clusters of women sitting at tables.
They craft buttons with messages of women’s empowerment at one table. Another has a large sign that reads “free condoms” with stacks of brochures scattered across it. One more table has students crowded around it, making cards for loved ones.
Western students celebrated International Women’s Day through a series of events on Friday, March 7, sparking discussions of women’s rights and roles in society both in the United States and around the globe.
International Women’s Day, officially recognized on March 8, is a holiday in 28 countries, including Afghanistan and Zambia. The holiday serves to reflect on gender inequality and celebrate accomplishments for women’s rights.
Western groups such as WEAVE (Women’s Empowerment and Violence Education), the office of Women’s Studies and International Student and Scholar Services (ISSS) came together for the first of two events, a daytime discussion of women’s rights during crafts, such as button and card-making.
A second event later in the evening included speeches from Western faculty and students about women’s rights movements across the globe and a showing of the documentary “Apache 8,” which focuses on an all-female firefighting team from the White Mountain Apache Tribe.
Celebrating International Women’s Day at Western served a larger purpose than providing fun and educational events for students. The series of events was meant to make students stop and think.
Vicki Hsueh, the director of the women’s studies program and an associate professor in the department of political science, worked alongside Western’s Prevention and Wellness Services and ISSS in developing the events.
“It actually allows us to reflect on the status of women,” Hsueh said. “There’s a lot to celebrate and there’s a lot that needs to be acknowledged, in terms of inequality, and a lack of political rights, a lack of economic rights [and] lack of reproductive rights. That’s not just internationally, that’s at home, too.”
Abigail Borchert, an international student adviser at the ISSS office, initially brainstormed the International Women’s Day events after remembering the holiday celebrations she experienced while in Finland on a study abroad trip.
“It’s celebrated differently around the world, but I see it as a really nice opportunity to celebrate what women are doing around the world, and to also raise awareness for issues that need to be addressed,” Borchert said. “I think it’s cool to celebrate what has been done [for women’s rights] and what is being done.”
In Finland, the university Borchert attended canceled half of the day’s classes and viewed “Frida,” a film focusing on Frida Kahlo, a Mexican painter famous for her self-portraits and feminism. It was the first time Borchert celebrated the holiday, and the day’s activities opened her eyes to how other global communities celebrate it, she said.
Ghinwa Frayha, a Western senior majoring in finance, is an international student from Lebanon who spoke at the evening event. International Women’s Day is not an official holiday in Lebanon, but Frayha believes it should be.
“A couple months ago, [it] was in the newspaper [that] two women were found dead because they were brutally hit by their husbands,” Frayha said. “It’s so sad to see that now in the 21st century and in such a modern society people are still facing such lives and reality.”
In Lebanon, most women are expected to be stay-at-home mothers and are not offered the same rights as men. Frayha chose to speak to the Western community as a part of International Women’s Day to showcase the realities of women’s rights across the globe, she said.
After spending five months living in the U.S., she has been able to see the stark differences between Washington state and what she describes as her “Arab world.”
“[In Lebanon], they always want to portray the image that the guy is the one who takes care of the girl. He’s the head of family, and he’s the one in control,” Frayha said. “They never let a girl do anything. A guy takes care of everything.”
She doesn’t think this is inherently bad, and misses being lavished on dates, she said.
It’s not just Lebanon where women feel greater oppression than in the U.S. Walid Moulahoum, an international student from Algeria, said his home country also faces extreme gender inequality.
Moulahoum was a participant of the daytime International Women’s Day event and was the only person in the room who identified as male. Although there are women’s rights movements in Algeria and International Women’s Day is celebrated there, the differences between the U.S. and his home country are staggering, he said.
“[Algerians] only see [a woman] as a person who should raise kids, who should stay home, should not do anything else that [will] interfere with what [men] say,” Moulahoum said. “We are all human. Something like this should not be thought of at all.”
In Algeria, women are given a half-day off from work, but they don’t use the time to draw attention to women’s rights issues. Most women use the time to go to concerts or spend time at home. It doesn’t lead to furthering women’s rights movement or making changes in the Algerian patriarchy, so gender equality is more slowly spread than Moulahoum feels it has advanced in the U.S., he said.
“Before I came to the United States, I was influenced by that. It’s in my society, so I was raised through that,” Moulahoum said. “When I came to the United States, I started seeing how women are treated, how they are they are successful [in the U.S.] I correlated [that] to being given the rights, the opportunities. It changed my perspective.”
Moulahoum specifically attributes his change in perspective to taking intro to communication studies with professor Jennifer Hayes. Seeing her success made him rethink his previous views, he said.
He plans to bring his newfound understanding of the women’s rights movement to Algeria when he returns in three months, Moulahoum said.
Moulahoum’s new mindset is what makes throwing events focused on women’s rights necessary, women’s studies director Hsueh said.
“To have a day like International Women’s Day where people are interested in making change and thinking about themselves as a part of a global community [is important],” Hsueh said. “The task of making change means also being aware.”