I feel extremely distressed with two news items that have appeared in media recently. What makes me more upset is the fact that both these events have occurred in the Indian subcontinent. The first event occurred in our own country, India, in the state of Karnataka. Here, in the sleepy coastal town of Mangalore, a dubious organization, which claims to be the genuine protector of Indian Culture, attacked some women, because these girls were not obedient enough to follow some cranky diktats of these so-called guardians of Indian culture.
The Second event occurred in our neighbouring Pakistan. Government of Pakistan signed a treaty with a militant organization to enforce Islamic Shariya rule in a region of that country. People of Pakistan can certainly have and follow any rules or laws, which they prefer, in their own country. Nobody really can object to that. However, what is obnoxiously depressing is a part of this agreement regarding womenfolk. The girls in this region, as per these rules, cannot go to schools. Women cannot travel alone anywhere, have to wear veils or ‘Burkha’ and have to be more or less subservient slaves to men.
These two events, even though appearing to be on different wavelengths, have a very common link. It relates to thinking processes of some men, who have a misconception that they are some kind of superior creatures created by God and only they can decide what is good for womenfolk as well as for men around them and it is their divine duty to form rules and laws and impose these on these unfortunate women and men.
This kind of thinking is like turning the clock back to mediaeval ages. If we look back some two hundred years backwards, this kind of thinking was very common around the world. In India, as the British Empire tightened its vice like grip on most of Asia and the Orient, Indian people found themselves in a very pathetic situation. British rulers discouraged development of any industrial or commercial enterprise. Most of the population was therefore left with no means of income, except cultivation of small pieces of land with age-old methods. This again depended on vagaries of Monsoon or Seasonal rains. With abject poverty and total lack of medical and educational facilities, the society turned inwards forming a shell of pessimism, beliefs and ignorance.
As the social situation worsened, the Indian womenfolk suffered most. Even before the advent of British rule, the campaigns and the rule of Islamic invaders from northwest over most of India had driven Indian womenfolk to the safety of the four walls of their homes. As the old social order dismantled, the decrepit and decadent Indian society, reacted by denying almost every right to its womenfolk, Almost everything, including education, right to work and right to lead their own lives as they wish, was denied. Indian women became some kind of glorified slaves or bonded labor.
Perhaps, Hindu widows bore the brunt of this social mutation. Wide spread poverty, ignorance and grand epidemics of this century killed millions of people. The great plague epidemic itself killed hundreds of thousands. Such catastrophically large number of deaths resulted in a social anomaly with large percentage of widows in the women population.
Many Hindu widows were forced to burn themselves alive with their dead husbands. A clever ploy was found to lure the widows to this act of suicide by connecting this self-immolation to some kind of divine regime. For Widows, who would refuse to destroy themselves, a life of slavery and total denial of almost every pleasure of life awaited. They were forced to shave hair off their head. They had to dress up in a red colored sari, worn in a particular fashion with their head covered. They were expected to spend their life as servants behind the walls of the house. Most of the widows were exploited by male members of the society. Sexual abuse was common. The grief and pain suffered by Hindu widows of this century is a permanent and unforgettable blot on the Hindu social order. Truly, it was India’s darkest century.
Even away from borders of India, things were not particularly bright for women. Even in the western countries, which considered themselves as pinnacles of civilization, women had to fight for their rights.
The ancient Romans and Celts had granted considerable freedom to women, but with the arrival of Christianity their legal status began to decline. In the middle Ages, single women still enjoyed many rights, but had to surrender them to their husbands upon marriage. Thus, in general, women were second-class citizens. However, while female intellectual brilliance found recognition in exceptional cases, women were not given any political rights. In fact, even an intellectual education for women was seen as inappropriate. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a French writer (1762) had stated:
“The education of women should always be relative to that of men. To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, to take care of us when grown up; to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable. These are the duties of women at all times, and what they should be taught in their infancy.”
For a very long time this remained the accepted view. The English writer Mary Wollstonecraft, who had observed the French Revolution at close range, and who admired Rousseau, nevertheless felt compelled to protest against this reactionary trend. She therefore challenged such male authors in her Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). In direct response to Rousseau, she said:
“Woman was not created merely to be the solace of man. … On this sexual error has all the false system been erected, which robs our whole sex of its dignity.”
Instead, she demanded full and equal education for all women as a means of escaping sexual oppression. Yet it was not until this century and after an intense struggle by “suffragists” like Lydia Becker and Emmeline Pankhurst, and her daughters, that English women were finally admitted to the ballot box.
The constitution adopted by the United States of America never gave any political rights to women and slaves. Two other important women, who turned to feminism, were Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They were appalled by some episodes of sexual discrimination and in 1848, organized history’s first “Woman’s Rights Convention” in Seneca Falls, N.Y. This convention passed a Declaration of Sentiments, which echoed the American Declaration of Independence proclaiming:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The document then went on to quote the right to change the form of government and stated:
“The history of mankind is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations on the part of man toward woman, having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her.”
The Seneca Falls convention also adopted a set of resolutions, demanding legal and educational reforms and the end of the sexual double standard. Finally, it resolved “that it is the duty of the women of this country to secure to themselves their sacred right to the elective franchise.” One thing was obvious to everyone: In the course of the century the United States had undergone a profound transformation. From an agrarian nation of independent settlers it had changed into a largely urban and industrial society with millions of new poor immigrants and vast social problems. The subjection and disenfranchisement of women only added to these problems, because it made their solution more difficult. Other nations, which experienced similar pressures, finally took corrective action. New Zealand gave women the vote in 1893, Finland in 1906. The First World War produced social upheavals in Europe and secured the vote for women in the Netherlands and the Soviet Union (1917) and, to a limited extent, in Great Britain (1918). Germany followed suit in 1919. Under the circumstances, the lack of women’s suffrage in the United States became an embarrassment. Therefore, in 1920, the country finally adopted the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution granting the right to vote to women. A struggle of over seventy years had finally been won.
In India, we were very fortunate, that a great man was born in a small town in Konkan region of Maharashtra in the year 1858. Dhondo Keshav Karve started a small social revolution by marrying a widow and later started a school for widows to make them financially independent. This small beginning later snow balled into a social movement for women and finally women of India found their hard earned freedom.
I have discussed this issue at length because of two reasons. Firstly, it shows how long and how hard, this fight for emancipation of women had been fought. Secondly, I take personal pride in my family’s close association with this fight for freedom. My great grandmother and grandfather were close associates of Dr. Karve. This makes the issue very close to my heart.
It is therefore very distressing, that even after such long drawn battle, this obnoxious and nauseating way of thinking, like a proverbial genie, has resurfaced. If such a thing would have happened in the Middle East region, it was possible to accept it with some amount of reluctance and indignation because people from this region, in any case, have never experienced any individual freedoms so far. However, the region of Pakistan where this unfortunate change has occurred, was actually part of North India, formerly occupied by Afghans and Moguls and had no such medieval history of suppression of individual freedoms. I wish to quote here from a book written by former Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
“In India there had been previously some segregation of the sexes among the aristocracy, as in many other countries and notably in ancient Greece. Some such segregation existed in ancient Iran also and to some extent all over western Asia. The Afghans, who crowded into northern India after the capture of Delhi, had no strict purdah. Turkish and Afghan princesses and ladies of the court often went riding, hunting, and paying visits. It is an old Islamic custom, still to be observed, that women must keep their faces unveiled during the Haj pilgrimage to Mecca.”
What is happening in Karnataka and Pakistan is therefore like turning the clock backwards and is essentially an outcome of brainwashing of fresh young minds, done by some psychopaths, who perhaps have a totally distorted view of things. These characters unfortunately posses a unique ability to convince these young minds towards their crooked and distorted way of thinking and manage to create a devilish movement.
It should therefore be possible to resist and prevent such kind of sinister outbreaks if the society, media and state remain on guard. Luckily, Media power has now grown thousand folds. We have seen the effect of this power in the Karnataka incidence, where media created effective awareness of people and hopefully, such incidences may not happen again. However, things appear rather bleak for people and particularly for women of ‘Swat’ region of Pakistan.
A sinister and lengthening shadow seems to be creeping over these unfortunate womenfolk. For now at least, it appears that rest of the world would have to be just helpless bystanders.
22 February 2009