Today, March 8, will be celebrated around the world as “International Women’s Day.” The question that arises each year at this time is what exactly is being celebrated. There are the historic victories, like the 19th amendment to the United States constitution in 1920, giving women the right to vote, but these are increasingly distant each year. There are the milestones over the years of the first woman to fly solo around the world, the first woman to go into space and many other unacknowledged firsts for women. But these are really about women catching up to roles or activities once reserved exclusively or mainly for men. What can be celebrated on this day about what it means to be a woman in 2012 without comparison to how she fares relative to men?

Recent political events in the so-called “Arab Spring” hold promise for people power, some form of democracy and the end of the line for masculine idol dictators. Gone is Qaddafi, but also his harem of female bodyguards seemingly dragged off the stage of a Fellini film. Gone are the wealthy wives of the dictators. Cries of freedom can be heard from Tunisia to Bahrain. But there is much that is not celebratory. Saddam is gone from Iraq, but women’s rights as women and their overall safety in Iraq are actually less than during the Ba’ath regime. The election, fair and square, of Islamic parties tends to curtail the rights many women enjoyed, minimal as these may have been, in secular regimes. Conservative Muslim women may feel as though there is more to celebrate as they can live an openly religious life, but those who view the conservative trend as both eroding women’s rights and distorting the spirit of Islam have little to celebrate.

In America there is little jubilation at the political rhetoric of Republican candidates that challenges the morality of using contraception and lets the state decide what a woman can do with her body. The ugly rant of Rush Limbaugh comes as no surprise, and there is some cause to celebrate as advertisers withdraw their financial support of his misogynist and racist venom. But the flavor of the day in the lead-up to the presidential election, given the barrage of Republican debates, is thoroughly male. The women who do appear are more likely to be the paramours of the candidates than serious political voices. Sarah Palin milks her Fox status as an unelectable candidate and indelectable pundit to share her profound ignorance of the country she almost came within a heartbeat of leading. The tabloids still trump the sex lives of movie stars and singers. But woe to the single working mothers who cannot pay their mortgages.

It seems as though this one day that women are celebrated is overwhelmed by the other 364 days of the year when we got male. Perhaps we should reverse the trend and celebrate an International Men’s Day just once a year and let women be celebrated the rest. Of course that would not be fair, just paving over centuries of patriarchy with a newly minted matriarchy. So as a compromise why not equal time, half the year for celebrating women and half for men. Or better yet dividing the year in four: a quarter for girls, a quarter for women, a quarter for boys, a quarter for men. This too would be unfair to those of LGBT persuasion, who are not likely to get even one second to be celebrated if any of the Republican challengers take the Oval Office. So maybe in the end, we should not devote any specific day to any specific sex or identity, but celebrate all equally every day of the year. Now that would really be worth celebrating.

[For a commentary on International Women’s Day by UNDP’s director for the Arab States, Amat al-Alim al-Soswa, click here for English and here for Arabic.]

Daniel Martin Varisco