When I was in elementary school, we used to have special arts projects in school in the days leading up to March 8th, in which we would design cards and homemade gifts with which to surprise our moms on International Women’s Day. Being unimaginably bad at arts and crafts from a very young age, my gift was usually a folded piece of paper that served as a greeting card with one end much longer than the other (for me, folding a piece of paper down the middle was a pinnacle of craftiness not yet within reach). I would scribble a “Happy Women’s Day, I Love You Mom!” on my “card” in handwriting that was so illegible that it sufficiently appalled my elementary school teacher into recommending I spend a few hours after class practicing writing in a neat cursive (to which my super cool, fierce and forward-thinking mom responded “There are more important things to focus on than making your cursive neat and beautiful! Also, who will be writing in cursive in 10 years anyway?!”). The cards were adorable, mostly because of the huge disparity between my sincere attempts to make them look artsy and the utter disarray of the final product. Nevertheless, my mom loved them and still keeps them in a drawer in her room. In those days, Women’s Day for me was a day to tell mom she was special and to surprise her with a well-meaning, even if quite hideous, hand-made card. In that sense, the holiday was and, to a large extent, continues to be Bulgaria’s version of Mother’s Day.
However, there are other ways in which March 8th is approached in Bulgaria that are far from lovely. Women’s Day in my country has always seemed like a chance for a society that largely treats women as two-dimensional sex objects, human incubators and punching bags to collectively pretend to “cherish” and “value” its female members by gifting them with flowers and calling them “dear ladies” for a 24-hour period, before returning to a reality where there are few legal protections against open gender discrimination, domestic violence, sexual assault or sexual harassment and where demeaning women is at the core of almost every joke and pop culture reference. Just to give you a small illustration of the culture I am talking about – a couple of months ago, a video aiming to promote Bulgaria before the country became a temporary host of the Council of the EU Presidency boasted that our country is a land that may not always say what it means, a land where “no may mean yes.” Yup, you read that right – a land where “no may mean yes.” Not kidding! A number of people worked on this commercial, saw this commercial and ultimately decided to approve this commercial and they all decided that using an age-old rapist’s excuse as a promotional slogan for Bulgaria is a creative and brilliant idea. And yes, before someone rushes to point out my lack of a sense of humor and complete misunderstanding of the video’s message – I am Bulgarian and I do know that we nod our heads when we want to say “no” and shake them when we say “yes,” which is allegedly what the commercial was trying to hint at. And yes, I still definitively think using this slogan was a terrible idea.
Anyway, back to the topic of Women’s Day in Bulgaria. I woke up this morning to scores of seemingly well-meaning March 8th wishes on my Facebook wall and across the Bulgarian internet space at large, most of them along the lines of: “Happy holiday to all ladies! I hope you feel cherished and loved today.” Sweet enough, right (the obsession with the word ladies aside)? Except that a decent number (though certainly not all) of these came from men who have privately and publicly made statements showing how little they actually value women. Like an acquaintance who once proclaimed he would love to get married so he can have someone “clean after him” and “give” him children (a not uncommon phrase used in Bulgaria when discussing a man whose wife or partner has recently given birth, a phrase that literally translates to “she birthed a child for him”). Then there was the caricature of a macho guy called Boyko Borisov (otherwise known as Bulgaria’s Prime Minister), who also passionately proclaimed his wish for Bulgarian ladies to be cherished on his Facebook wall. That’s the same guy who just last month withdrew from the Bulgarian parliament the ratification of the Istanbul Convention on Combating and Preventing Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, saying we should just have a referendum on whether or not we should “beat women and children.” The same guy who recently decided to publicly rank women by describing the female members of his party as “higher-quality women” (sorry dear reader, if you are a woman and are not part of Borisov’s party, I hate to break it to you, but you and I are low-quality women in Boyko’s eyes). And the same guy who recently bragged about how many women he has slept with throughout his life and asked a number of female journalists about their number of sex partners, all while on assignment to inspect the safety of a freeway section in Sofia.
I next searched for articles related to Women’s Day across the Bulgarian press. I came across one article that dubbed the holiday “a day for every mom and every lady” (are you now starting to see what I mean by our obsession with the word lady)? Another article looked promising – it discussed Lyudmila Racheva, a commander in the Bulgarian army, though I quickly lost any glimmer of hope that I may have come across a substantive journalistic product when I saw that its focus was exploring the very important question of whether being in the military compromises a woman’s femininity (not to mention that the article’s link called women the “tender part of humanity”). Then, there was an article that started off fine, describing Women’s Day as a celebration of the “economic, political and social accomplishments by women,” though quickly regressed with an embedded video of a woman walking dreamily along what looked like giant rose petals and a link right between its second and third paragraphs taking you to a slideshow of what the “perfect woman” should look like. Can you guess what its title was? Yup, you guessed it – “Happy Holiday, Ladies!”
The most daunting depiction of the hypocrisy of Bulgaria’s March 8th proclamations of our collective love and respect for women was summarized by the following Terminal 3 post, entitled “Happy March 8th, Bulgarian Woman, If You Are Still Alive.” The article recounts the numerous and systemic ways in which women’s lives are devalued and discarded in Bulgaria. It recounts brutal instances of domestic abuse that ended in the death or disfigurement of the victims (like a recent incident of a man who hit his wife with a hot stove, before stabbing her). It recounts instances in which victims reached out to authorities for help only to be disregarded and left into even more dangerous circumstances with no hope of protection. It points to the fact that prosecution of domestic abusers in Bulgaria is rare, and penalties are absurd (for instance, courts warning men to “abstain” from violence or fining them a maximum of 1000 leva, or about $600, for instances of abuse against their partners). And it emphasizes the unbelievable hypocrisy of our political leaders’ abandonment of the Istanbul Convention last month.
Throughout most of January and February this year, Bulgaria was gripped in a state of rabid frenzy over the Istanbul Convention on Combating and Preventing Violence against Women. The social and political opposition that was unleashed against the convention is difficult to explain (though I am gathering the strength to write a separate post about this). People fervently opposed the legislation with scores of extremely sexist and transphobic arguments. Bulgarians had a collective panic attack over the introduction of the term gender in the document. Pleas of a battered and sexually assaulted woman for the government to take a stance again domestic abuse were drowned by shouts from politicians and church leaders about how teaching gender as a social construct will lead to the demise of Bulgarian culture. So excuse me if I have a hard time believing the annual impassioned posts and articles about how much Bulgarian ladies are being loved and cherished. And I’ll continue to have a very hard time believing them until the day we start viewing the murder and abuse of Bulgarian women with even 1/1000th of the terror with which we seemed to react to the word gender.