|Volume 6 | Issue 03 | March 2012|
Her vindication, he supports
SHAYERA MOULA stresses on the importance of both women and men working together to establish a gender egalitarian society.
The term feminism, just like every other theoretical frame of scholarly produced jargon, often gets dragged into a stereotypical idea -- here it has often been seen as one of a "man-hater". What one forgets however is that while millions of women over the centuries have marched forth to win the share of equality we show off today, there were many men standing right next to them advocating their rights and freedom just as powerfully.
A concept derived from the West, a good decade before Mary Wollstonecraft's Vindication of Rights of Women was published, Jeremy Bentham, English jurist, philosopher, social reformer, had already been not only pointing out the slavery of women in various nations around the world and the injustice endowed upon them, but he spoke for women's total emancipation -- their "political freedom" and for them to participate as equals in the "legislative and executive branches of the government". In his Introduction to the Principals of Morals and Legislations, he attacked the then notion of women being regarded as intellectually inferior to men or even as equals to infants or those insane, simply because of their emotional dominance in all aspects of life. Jeremy also advocated the rights of divorce and other issues that needed to be strengthened from both genders in order to produce a powerful nation.
The concept feminism has of course had its debates and even today we fail to come towards a concrete definition. While some regard it as a series of movements, other scholars believe it's a state of mind, while some argue feminism as a demand for socio-economic and political equality, others agree that a woman and a man can never be a hundred percent equal but the choices should be provided. True, feminism is an ideological movement concerned with ideas and theories -- 'one is not born a woman but becomes one' being one of the most celebrated identity-carver -- but most men believe that while dwelling on these ideas, women have currently set certain trends for themselves and forgotten what they were fighting for all these years. "I don't think feminists are bad, I think that in general they have bad ideas because they base them on false premises. Feminism is not a state of being. So you can believe in equality and not call yourself a feminist. And that's what I and a lot of other men's rights activists believe, " says a member of the true-equality.net forum.
History, however, will tell you that the fight towards equality for women did not come from a series of researches, data collections and conferences. In fact, no one identified them as feminists either -- they were humanists fighting for a human cause and they proceeded with the help of their male counterparts.
Nicolas de Condorcet, a French philosopher, mathematician, and early political scientist in a 1790 essay, "the admission of women to the rights of citizenship" opposed viewpoints of women possessing characteristics that allowed them to only fulfil domestic duties. Women deemed unqualified for public affairs because of their flawed rationality and weaker sense of justice, were barred from voting during the French Revolution, but they did benefit from many of the changes that occurred in matters of marriage, divorce, inheritance and the legal status of unwed mothers and their children with time because of their active involvement in the revolution.
Sex was also introduced as a constitutional condition for the first time and Condorcet affirmed woman's equal humanity on the grounds of reason and justice. He naturally referred to the limitations of women but pointing only to their inferior education and circumstances and not their capabilities. Having to withstand a society countering his idea and arguments, he demanded logic and evidential support from his enemies while standing up for the educational, political and social freedom for women: "I hope that anyone who attacks my arguments will do so without using ridicule or declamation, and above all, that someone will show me a natural difference between men and women on which the exclusion could legitimately be based" (Condorcet 1790, in McLean and Hewitt 1994, 338339). Needless to mention, the French Revolution and what followed was one of the first distinct waves of feminism and with the roaring of both women and men, women were able to step forth and mould the society to where Europe stands today.
Moving forward in the timeline and back in England, a philosopher and a political economist, John Stuart Mill worked together with his wife Harriet Taylor Mill in bringing out The Subjection of Women, focusing on how added moral and intellectual advancement of humankind would result in greater happiness for everybody. "He asserted that the higher pleasures of the intellect yielded far greater happiness than the lower pleasure of the senses." Mill believed everyone should be able to vote to defend their own rights and to learn to stand on their two feet, morally and intellectually. He often used his own position as a Parliament member to demand the vote for women; a controversial position for the time. Knowing very well that he was going against the common views of society and aware that he would be forced to back up his claims persistently, he argued that the inequality of women was a relic from the past and had no place in the modern world, where having half the human race at home drew hindrance to human development.
While it is true that women were seen as additional human capital to the economy and so perhaps as agents to a great capitalistic society, those very grounds of equal education, equal political rights and social contribution allowed women to have a wider range of freedom of choice. Many of the women, particularly the female garment workers in Bangladesh, have solely been able to step out of the realms of their homes back in the villages simply because of their economic power. While there is still a tug and pull between the sexes in a very patriarchal Bangladesh, we can at least claim that more and more men are open to having their wives and daughters voice their rights to education and work -- a greater number than only two decades ago.
Social and religious reformers, Swaminarayan, also founder of Swaminarayan Hinduism, and Rammohan Roy fought ruthlessly to combat the practice of sati (widow burning). Possibly one of the cruellest forms of human slaughter in the name of religion, sati and even the alternative of isolating widows from the mainstream society, angered many and it was when Rammohan Roy saw his own sister dragged into the practice that he could no longer bear the inhumanity imposed on women by his own society, thus combating against his own social system.
Roy also demanded the rights of property inheritance for women and had also set up the Brahmo Sabha -- a movement of reformist Bengalis formed to fight against social evils. He wrote: "The present system of Hindoos [sic] is not well calculated to promote their political interests… It is necessary that some change should take place for the sake of their political advantage and social comfort." Among the many "superstitious practices" Roy objected to sati, caste rigidity, polygamy and child marriages as he searched for humanitarian practices to survive the modern world.
What started with Roy later trickled to Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar who had initiated the concept of widow remarriage and raised concern for the abolition of child-marriage and polygamy, later opening doors of educational institutions for lower caste students.
As for Swaminarayan, author Raymond Brady Williams regarded him as the "early representative of the practice of advocacy of women's rights without personal involvement with women". Swaminarayan too argued against sati pointing out that human life was given by God and so it could be taken only by God, and that sati had no Vedic sanction. He called sati nothing but suicide and often even offered parents dowry expenses to discourage female infanticide, calling it a sin. Banned since 1829, the practice of sati can still be heard in various parts of north India where about 40 cases had been known till date and while the debate has been stirred to whether these women voluntarily performed the self-immolation or not, many political activists and social reformists suggest that these widows were drugged. What is noteworthy, however, is that the practice has stopped, and there were many "hims" in the crowd helping "her" re-marry, helping her reunite with her society and above all helping her live.
Women are part and parcel of the harmonious society. Right after the Independence of Bangladesh, both Nobel Laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus and Sir Fazle Abed have been working to keep women at the focal point of all development work -- education, health and well-being, micro-credit programmes, workforce and so on.
Brac collaborates with the Ain O Shalish Kendra (ASK) and Bangladesh National Women Leader's Association (BNWLA) to empower women to protect themselves from social discrimination and exploitation -- addressing the violations imposed on them through dowry, rape, acid throwing, polygamy, domestic violence and oral divorce in many rural communities. Through both social development and human rights and legal services, women are becoming more and more aware of what Amartya Sen terms as their "agencies" and their rights to choice and social mobilisation.
The human rights and legal services component focuses on legal, human and social rights through participation in activities like popular theatre and through Human Rights and Legal Education (HRLE) classes arranged by Brac for its Village Organisation members. At the end of June 2006, about 1,300 acid victim cases and 1,735 rape victim cases were reported. With more and more women enrolled in these courses and through the millions of primary schools that have allowed an equal ratio of boys and girls enrolment, much of the awareness has been diffused quicker into the communities and in only four decades many of the issues which had taken hundreds of years in other nations have been addressed in a shorter time.
Muhammad Yunus's 1976 visit to the village of Jobra was the first step in realising that a very small loan could make a great difference to a poor person. His first loan, from his own pocket, was made to 42 women in the village who were making bamboo. Succeeded in securing a loan from the government Janata Bank to lend it to the poor in Jobra in December 1976, the operation continued and by 1982 the bank had 28,000 members.
Yunus faced many obstacles on the ground level from radical leftists to the conservatives denying Muslim women the exposure and liberty of their own small businesses. With more than 7.4 million borrowers, the "solidarity groups" system is what brings women together in every village. These small informal groups apply together for loans where its members act as co-guarantors of repayment -- this defines a common strength which perhaps one woman alone would not have been able to survive.
NGOs around the world, namely poorer nations, have recognised the vital role women play as mothers, as wives and even as economic and political actors for the overall well-being of their families and the society at large. Since many of the projects have been able to bring into the foreground the importance of women, and since the past has shown us how men often verbally rose to the occasion fighting their very own gender, perhaps it is now time for these NGOs to bring both genders to work together.
One cannot help but think of Virginia Woolf's A Room Of One's Own where she saw the union of a man and a woman get into a taxi together and take off into a harmonious journey: "...The sight of two people coming down the street and meeting at the corner seems to ease the mind of some strain, I thought, watching the taxi turn and make off. Perhaps to think, as I had been thinking these two days, of one sex as distinct from the other is an effort. It interferes with the unity of the mind. Now that effort had ceased and that unity had been restored by seeing two people come together and get into a taxicab."
As we lose ourselves now and again in the battle of the sexes, we must realise that the "might is right" lingo is something of the past and even there many have fought against it. Bringing together the two is what all these scholars and activists have been fighting for. Let us not let them down.
Shayera Moula is Sub-Editor, The Daily Star.
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