Are Women’s Rights Still Chimerical?Nov 11, 2022 | Shalini Rai
In the past few days, two news reports caught my attention. One of them said that women in Afghanistan have been barred from using gyms by the Taliban. This order came after they had already been banned from using parks.
The other news was about the release of an American woman who was taken into custody in Saudi Arabia after she tweeted and spoke out about her efforts to leave the country with her young Saudi-American daughter.
It left me wondering about the motivations behind these two decisions taken by ‘competent authorities’. What could possibly go wrong if women are ‘allowed’ into gyms and public parks? Will all hell break lose if people found out about the difficulties faced by a woman who wanted to leave Saudi Arabia with her young daughter?
These developments gave me the distinct and distinctly-uncomfortable feeling that we may have already entered the dystopian world depicted in ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, a TV series about an epoch where women living in a totalitarian, theonomic state are used as natal salves and not much else.
This propensity to control women and women’s decisions about their life choices — from marriage or its rejection, from embracing childbirth or eschewing it, from engaging in sexual relations or abstaining from them, from having sex with a man or with a woman — is not new. Since the birth of time, women’s bodily autonomy has been the subject of heated debate and impassioned discussion.
Everything from education to sartorial choices to sexual inclination or lack thereof — have been sought to be controlled by patriarchal agencies. This may be acutely evident in Asian culture but countries across the world are not free of blame either. In Russia, women usually take their husband’s surname at marriage. The middle name is patronymic, created by using the child’s father’s name with the suffix “avna” or “ovna” for girls. This means ‘daughter of’.
In the 19th century, American suffragist and abolitionist Lucy Stone made a married woman’s right to keep her own surname a national issue. She kept her own prior name even after marriage. Women who choose to keep their prior names have often been called ‘Lucy Stoners’. Despite us being about to enter the 23rd year of the 21st century, a woman’s right to keep her prior name is still a matter of acrimony and leads to uncomfortable diatribes from men, resulting in much rancour and unwarranted bitterness.
Does a woman’s decision to go for a walk in a park, attend a gym session, return to her native place and keep her prior name make it so threatening for patriarchy and patriarchal institutions that it leaves a majority of men rattled? When will society (read: majority males) acknowledge the fact that marriage is an equal partnership and the edifice of modern marriage rests on the foundation of equality and mutual respect? How does autonomy over individual decisions imply ‘disrespect’ to the informal edict of marital propriety? Why is acceptance of the importance of equal rights and unwavering respect so threatening to the marriage status quoists/patriarchal men?
There may be no easy answers for these questions but that does not mean they should not be raised. At one time, human slavery, witch-hunting, ‘sati’ and child marriage were considered ‘normal’ and were not looked at as the abominations that they were.
The same holds true for women’s bodily, emotional and mental sovereignty. It’s not just about being able to visit the local park or train in the neighbourhood gym or settle down with your child in a country which is more suited to her overall growth. It’s about being free to take such decisions without fear of reprisals at least and retribution at worst.
Unless this is achieved easily and without antagonism and not just through individual cases of struggle which may or may not make it to public attention, there is little hope of change in the status quo with regard to women ability to make choices about their own bodies, children and life-path.
And if that continues to be condoned and even encouraged by a section of the population, we are staring at a bleak future for womankind and by implication, the rest of humanity. It does not take a ‘feminist’ to understand this and grasp its urgency. A sincere humanist will understand it simply and easily enough. The question is: are there enough humanists around?