“Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.” — Virginia Woolf
March is the month of Women Rights, primarily marked by the celebration of International Women’s Day on the 8th of the month. While it is true that a single day is not enough to give women their rightful place in society, it is also true that years of inequality were shouting loud and clear way back in the early twentieth century when women were looking to break inconceivable shackles that may have us gasp in disbelief today! Yes, the world at large had some imprudent notions about how women should live, some hundred years ago and challenging the norm wasn’t really a norm, you see! So, what was it exactly that needed a reform of sorts. Have no idea? Well, let us have a look at some of the practices of our ancestors that paved way for the need for an International Day for women or more aptly put, for the need to provide them equal status and opportunities in life.
History is replete with examples of intense discrimination faced by women – from lack of legal rights to lack of freedom from the men in their lives to being considered inferior in intelligence. A country like America did not, until 1934, grant exclusive citizenship to women. Their citizenship was vested in their father or husband. If they married someone from a different nation they would cease to be an American citizens anymore! In fact, women could not transfer their citizenship to their children and that right too was only given to the father.
It is interesting to note that in the ancient world countries like India or Egypt and Mesopotamia were more inclined to equal rights for their women and they by and large enjoyed greater freedom. Of course, practices of discrimination from the rest of the world soon rubbed on to them as well. On the other hand, the Roman society was patriarchal and denied its women the right to vote or hold public office. In China, women were bought and sold into slavery under the guise of domestic servants until the rise of communists in 1949.
The medieval world was anything but better. Countries like Ireland or England barred women from participating in court or legal matters and holding a legal office was out of question. In the rest of the world as well, a woman’s legal rights totally depended on her husband. Husbands controlled the properties of their wives. Children, laughably, were the husband’s property. Husbands were the heads of families and protectors of their women!
As Thomas Paine, the philosopher and writer of An Occasional Letter on the Female Sex wrote in the year 1775, and I quote here,
“If we take a survey of ages and of countries, we shall find the women, almost without exception… adored and oppressed… they are… robbed of freedom of will by the laws… .”
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that women rights were limited to being a man’s duty. Husbands were supposed to maintain their wives.
Coming of the 18th and 19th century was no different but voices of dissent began to surface. There was an increasing demand for right to religion, freedom from slavery, rights of women and universal adult suffrage. This, I speak largely of movements in Europe. It is surprising though that some of the greatest thinkers of those times who believed in democratic principles of equality, did not defend women rights. Rousseau, the great philosopher, for example wrote that, “Women do wrong to complain of the inequality of man-made laws” and claimed that “when she tries to usurp our rights, she is our inferior”.
It was round this time that philosophers like Mary Wollstonecraft and Macaulay began talking of equal educational rights for women. Wollstonecraft published, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman where she pressed for justice and rights to humanity for all. Women in countries like England or Canada were restricted to the household and were not seen as contributors in political or economic progress. They were not even considered worthy of spending their father’s or husband’s hard-earned money. Russia was worse and although Australia was ahead of other nations in its fight for right to vote for women, by and large it remained way behind other nations as far as other rights of women were concerned. Even today, Australia has very few women who occupy important positions in the business world vis-à-vis other nations. Japan, which is otherwise a traditional society, was however quicker to realise the rights of women. It even enacted the right to vote way before the European nations granted the same to their women. Central Asia was always too late to grant women what was rightfully theirs.
You will be surprised to learn that most nations have for long denied equal employment opportunities and pay scales to women. Sometimes women’s job status changed from permanent to temporary once they got married and for some of them marriage even meant losing their jobs. At times they needed a written permission from their husbands to work! This happened because it was largely felt that working women become careless in child care – their primary duty.
Having suffered for centuries and denied basic equal rights like men, women were now irked and in the 19th century they began to ask, demand, agitate and demonstrate for the right to vote. While many opposed this agitation, women suffrage did see the light of day with New Zealand becoming the first country to grant the same in 1893 followed by Australia in 1902. By the end of the 20th century most nations had granted their women the right to vote.
We are all also aware that for long women were denied a share in property of their father or husband. Once married, their property automatically shifted to their husband who exercised full control over it. It was believed that women needed to have no money of their own. Besides these, in a lot of nations women have not been allowed to move out of homes without a male accomplice. In Australia, the passport application of a woman had to be authorised by her husband until the year 1983.
While different nations have different reasons as to why women took to streets but they were all underlined by a common ultimate desire – the end of discrimination against women. Whether it is the theory of textile workers taking to streets demanding bread and peace in Russia or the demand for right to vote and hold public office, women world over had suffered for long and needed their rightful place in the scheme of things. This called for a day to be observed in celebration of womanhood. While in some countries congratulatory messages flow around on this day, others hold protests and continue to demand an equal berth. International Women’s day was conveniently thought of to be observed on a Sunday – usually the last Sunday of February. But it was in 1914 that it was celebrated on March 8 in different nations, possibly because it was a Sunday and thus the date stuck on.
Even today women continue to be discriminated against on a lot of fronts. These include right to discriminatory marriage and divorce rights, right to education, being in frontline combat, custody rights of children, professional obstacles, unequal pay packages and restricted land ownership among others.
But besides all these one of the highest obstacles to gender parity are the beliefs and attitudes that we hold. For example, we largely undervalue the work of a home maker compared to those who work outside home. There are also biases in hiring women and their promotions as well. And hence, unless we truly break these shackles there is no doing away from observing a day for women…or rather all days. Gender parity was never going to be an easy feat and for those who feel it has been achieved, well we still have a long way to go.
As Malala Yousafzai put it and I quote, “I raise my voice not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard… we cannot succeed when half of us are held back.”