Thursday, July 13, 2006

Once upon a time

"Someone can only be strong for the future when they remember the suffering of the past ... this gives them roots." - Hero Ahmad.

Last year, one thousand women were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, collectively, (in my opinion, almost all of them were eligible in their own individual right as well). Hero Ahmad was one of them.

Her words led me to think of the battles women have fought for their rights, over the last century or so. In India, we have had a woman prime minister, several women chief ministers and now, women are demanding a third of the legislature. Yet, the Women's Reservation Bill has been stalled again and again, since it was introduced in parliament in 1998. Despite the fact that there is no outright, outspoken rejection from major political quarters, governments come and go but the bill remains a bill.

Yet, we've been lucky in India; at least, we didn't have to fight to be allowed to vote on equal terms. In other places - places, mind you, such as the land of the free etc - suffrage was a hard-fought battle. It won't hurt us to remember how hard this particular battle was fought.

Let us take a brief, sweeping look at certain points in the history of the movement. According to the wiki,

'It is notable that New Jersey , on becoming a Federal State after the American Revolution, placed only one restriction on the general suffrage - the possession of at least £50 (~USD 250) worth of cash or property. The election laws referred to voters as "he or she." In 1790 the law was revised to include women specifically. (emphasis mine) Female voters became so objectionable to professional politicians, that in 1807 the law was revised to exclude them. Later, the 1844 constitution banned women voting."

Think of that.

In fact, when the state of Utah did give women the vote, in 1869, the US Congress took away the right again, in 1887. This was the year in which Susanna Salter was elected mayor of Kansas, although she'd been nominated as a 'joke'. The first woman mayor in a country that was refusing to allow women to vote.

This battle for political equality was not necessarily a demure affair. Let me pick out some of the more aggressive events recorded in the timeline of the movement, (sourced from the ever-useful wiki, again).

1905 – Militancy began ( Christabel Pankhurst interrupted a Liberal Party meeting and spat at a policeman)
1908 – Herbert Asquith became Prime Minister (personally opposed to votes for women)
1905, 1908, 1913 – 3 phases of militancy (Civil Disobedience – Destruction of Public Property – Arson/Bombings)
1910 – Lady Constance Lytton disguised herself as a working class criminal, Jane Wharton, was arrested and endured force feeding to prove prejudice in prisons against working class women. Lady Lytton was instrumental in reforming conditions in prisons. The force feeding shortened her life considerably.
1913 – Emily Davison threw herself under the King's Horse at the Epsom Derby
1914 – Mary Richardson slashed the Velasquez in the National Gallery with an axe, protesting that she was maiming a beautiful woman, just as the government was maiming Emmeline Pankhurst with force feeding.
1918 - The Representation of the People Act of 1918 enfranchised all women over the age of 30. This was probably so that women would not outnumber men in the voting process
1928 - Women received the vote on equal terms as men (over the age of 21).

In 1913, at least 5000 women marched in Washington DC, demanding the right to vote. But ...

"The crowd became abusive and started to close in, knocking the marchers around. With local police doing little to keep control, the cavalry was called in as 100 women were hospitalized. Many suffragists now concluded that public protests might be the quickest route to universal franchise. " (For the whole history)

It seems to me that things have not changed drastically in the US, as far as public attitudes to women and politics are concerned.

I quote:

"Wal-Mart has even made anti-woman statements in the culture wars through products it chooses to sell, and those it chooses not to sell. Ten years ago, it pulled T-shirts that read, "Some Day a Woman Will Be President," featuring Margaret from "Dennis the Menace." Wal-Mart called the shirts "offensive" and "against Wal-Mart's family values." But it continues to sell violent video games such as the Grand Theft Auto series, where players get points for having sex with a prostitute and garner even higher scores for killing her to avoid payment."

Equality is not a joke. Equality is a rough road. A long journey. And we would do well to remember those who broke their backs laying out this road. Because 'Someone can only be strong for the future when they remember the suffering of the past'.


Vidya said...

You are absolutely right. Equality here IS a joke (I do live in NJ, btw)and women are still given second rate jobs and salaries. If she somehow finds herself in a leadership position, she has to do everything twice as well as a man might do just to "prove herself".

Janaki said...

Some one once said to me.. that even if one person in a hundred changed their way of thought, it was well worth the change and would a couple of hundred years later, reflect in more people. So even if more hate what you say than like, at least it will rankle some to make a little difference! I want to cling to that hope!

gaddeswarup said...

Winds of change in some places:

wise donkey said...

i dont know what upsets me more, the stupidity of politicians or the hypocrisy of orgn like walmart..

david raphael israel said...

"It seems to me that things have not changed drastically in the US, as far as public attitudes to women and politics are concerned."

Annie, writing as an American who has had considerable exposure to cultural trends and public behavior and attitudes here over the past half-century, I'd say this statement seems exaggerated and perhaps ill-founded. There may remain many backward remants occasioning anecdotes such as the Walmart nonsense (companies such as that are anyway notorious for various stupidities). I would hesitate to draw too broad a conclusion from the last dying gasps of prejudices left over from earlier centuries.

If one looks at the political climate of the moment here, one notes that on both the Democratic and Republican sides, there seems significant support for possible female candidacies for the office of US President in the 2008 election (I refer respectively to Hillary Clinto and Condi Rice) -- a situation which has never before been contemplated on this scale or with this seriousness.

Of course this, too, is anecdotal. But it is an anecdote presaging the future, rather than one signaling attitudes that were more characteristic of 1906 than they are of 2006. Or so it seems from where I sit.

That notwithstanding, as always, you raise good points. I was unaware of that 1000 women for peace thing, and am delighted to be introduced to their interesing website.


R. said...

honestly....i consider the term 'equality' rather absurd...equal to whom? men? are there any rules that prohibit this? Gender inequalities are deep rooted in peoples minds and the society, ie both men and women are responsible for propogating this. How can 50% of the population not be 'allowed' or be 'allowed' to do something? Who 'allows' who?

I don't think there are any legal covenants that are biased against women (are there?). Adaptation of the law is a whole different matter but then poor people by far are the most discriminated by the adaptation/implementation of law.

how would the 33% reservation for women in parliament help? what if the electorate in one of the selected constituencies genuinely wanted to elect a local man? Is this system democracy?

Now before i am branded a chauvinist, lemme tell you this, discrimination exists, it exists in many forms, gender based, race based, colour based, caste based,wealth based (ask a kid who fails regularly or is different from others in class about the bias in his/her classroom).. instead of fighting for a system that chooses a particular 'inequality' to address, i suggest one work towards for a system that addresses the rights of a human being by oblivious of who that human being is..even that ma'am is a mindset issue and not a legal issue and no one needs to 'allow' that.

Anonymous said...


I remember when the debate about reservations raged, you wrote a pro-reservation piece supporting the present government proposal. Many other commentators, even those who support reservation mentioned how gender should be a criterion, since you never felt the need to point that out, I am quite surpised you have suddenly discovered the virtues of 33% reservation for woman. Should not it be 33% reservation for OBC?

And what Walmart does in the land of free is hardly a pointer to how woman are treated here. Its not perfect, but its quite gtting there.

Annie Zaidi said...

safeaway: it's always harder for the generation that must 'prove itself'. maybe the next one will have it easier.
jaygee: cling! cling! even fading hopes are worth clinging to
gaddeswarup: that's heartening. thanks
wisedonkey: quite frankly, walmart upsets me more. it doesn't have to think of votes. it's rich and powerful. it has no excuse.
d.i.: i hope you're right. though, safeaway doesn't seem to agree with you.
rabin: i'm not a lawyer so i shouldn't say anything about equality of laws where gender is concerned, but i do know that several labour laws specifically leave out domestic work, especially if it carried out by women of the same family. even NSSO surveys specifically leave out this HUGE category and does not count them as working women. that's just one small example. give me a month, and i will dig out more.
about the second point, reservations in a democracy are essentially about equal rights and a fair chance at representation. now, there are seats reserved for women in panchayats and they have made a difference. i've seen this difference enacted in the lives of women; i have seen the price some women have paid, for daring to stand for elections, even if it is on a 'general' seat. from a time when rural women simply didn't have a voice, we have instances of women being elected on general seats. i doubt if this would have possible without reservation. because the 'people' would be happy to carry on voting for really good male candidates. it was, and often still is, unthinkable that a woman could be a better candidate. because, you see, most people don't like change. especially if that change is going to mean a shift of power. 33% isn't much to ask for, considering we are half the population. once the parliament does have at least 33% women, over 5 lok sabha elections, let's do a review and see if voting patterns reflect a better gender balance.
confused: i've said what i had to above. reservations should be gender-based too, and i never said they shouldn't. for instance, if parliament decides to reserve seats on the basis of caste, class and gender, there is bound to be some overlap, and that's perfectly fine by me.

Lotus Eyes said...

Great post! I remember reading a book "Sisters in Spirit" about the early American feminists and the Native American cultures that gave great respect to women. It was a long, hard road. Yes, we have to remember the struggles of the past to realise how much we take for granted.
Unfortunately, "feminism" today is associated with male-bashing and rebellion against traditional family values. This was hardly the case. Maybe the bra-burning and fiery rhetoric of the 70s and 80s have tarnished the real goal of feminism, which as I understand, is equal rights for men and women.

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