Setting off for the Moscow metro today, I noticed an unusually high number of people clutching bouquets. Some were simple; a few tulips clearly already suffering from the freezing temperatures. Others were far more grand; dozens of roses carefully wrapped and tied with fancy ribbons. Outside the metro station, the flower sellers were doing a brisk business.
I was witnessing the runup to International Women’s Day. Here it is marked with a national holiday. Women are given flowers, gifts and a day to call their own. Someone remarked that it is like Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day rolled into one.
And it is a remarkable contrast to the place where I marked International Women’s Day a year ago. I was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive. I looked for any kind of public commemoration of the day in vain. So I wrote a story revisiting a group of women who had tried to challenge the ban on driving two decades before.
One of them, Fawzia al-Bakr told me she received death threats; she and the others were denounced in mosques across the country. They and their husbands were barred from foreign travel for a year. Some working in government lost their jobs.
Al-Bakr and many other women in Saudi Arabia are still fighting for basic rights but progress is achingly slow.
So what of Russia, where women are celebrated with their own day? Well certainly, they have far more rights than Saudi women. They can vote, drive, work where they choose and run for public office. And yet, even here, many see room for much improvement. Only 14 percent of the members of the Duma, the Russian parliament, are women. There are no female political leaders or senior decision makers in government.
Russian boardrooms are not much better. A recent survey by the business journal Vedomosti suggested 83 percent of employers still prefer to hire a male as a marketing manager, and an even higher percentage prefer men as the financial director or CEO.
According to an article in today’s Moscow Times newspaper, “among 50 major Russian public companies, men hold 93 percent of the board seats, according to a February 2011 analysis by Board Solutions, a Moscow-based executive placement firm. That compares with men holding roughly 84 percent of board seats in the United States.”
So, there is room for improvement in Russia and arguably in the US as well. Still, as women and men mark International Women’s Day in Moscow and other parts of Russia, there is unlikely to be anyone willing to swap places with the women of Saudi Arabia. Perhaps they should send flowers to Riyadh.