In normal course, when you hear of someone being poisoned, it is usually to do with political assassinations or vendetta between warring entities. It is seldom heard in the context of education, particularly the education of girls or the lack thereof. And that is why, when earlier this week, news came in from Iran that schoolgirls there had been poisoned, it still had the potential to shock readers.
Iranian authorities believe religious groups opposed to girls’ education might be behind the poisoning incidents. It was also termed as ‘revenge’ for the role young women played in the recent protests in Iran against the mandatory ‘hijab’.
All this has left me stunned.
Poisoned to prevent girls from accessing education? ‘Revenge’ for taking part in protests for women’s rights? If there was a dystopia, this is it and we are living through it. As if the status (deplorable) of women’s rights in Afghanistan under the Taliban was not condemnable enough, what young women are being put through in Iran really does leave me speechless. It is easy to deduce that such restrictions on women are applicable only in ‘Islamic’ countries or where Islam is the dominant religious and cultural force.
However, restrictions on women’s rights to study, work and be sexually-independent have been imposed across cultures, since records began. It is tempting to point fingers at Iran, Afghanistan or even Malaysia and mark out that women there have to mandatorily wear the ‘hijab’ or ‘naqab’ or mention how women in some of these countries cannot step out of their homes without a male chaperone who is related to them.
It is a fact that in other, seemingly-emancipated countries, women’s rights are tentative at best and turning increasingly dilapidated. With the overturning of the 1973 Roe vs. Wade judgment by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2022, women’s rights in the ‘free world’ have taken a severe beating. The Roe vs. Wade judgment granted women in the U.S. the constitutional right to abortion but that now no longer exists and this means abortion rights will be rolled back in nearly half of the 50 states immediately, with more restrictions expected to follow. Worryingly, abortion will not be available in large swathes of the U.S.
Considered in media depictions to be among the most liberated women, along with those from Europe, UK and Australia, American women now face the prospect of living forever with unwelcome outcomes emanating from their sexual choices, unlike their mothers and grandmothers, who, ironically, had more options.
How can this be a step forward towards securing more emancipation for women?
Yes, women in the ‘West’ have greater autonomy in more ‘visible’ aspects of their lives, for example sartorially. Wearing as they do what are considered ‘revealing’ clothes in other parts of the world, women in the Occident may be tempted to start mistaking their freedom of choice in clothes for agency over their bodies or as sexual autonomy.
But in parts of the world where ‘covering up’ is still considered ‘virtuous’ and where the length of your skirt is considered a marker of your ‘morals’ — think almost the entire South Asia, particularly India and Pakistan — women’s rights issues are complex and layered. In India, men have been conditioned to accept women as inferior to them biologically and/or in a familial setting but will accept a female superior grudgingly in certain macro cases and collectively when it comes to national politics.
Sarojini Naidu, Indira Gandhi, Mayawati, Mamata Banerjee have all been successful in leading the nation forward, despite battling the disadvantage of being ‘women’ in India. Pakistan had Benazir Bhutto and Bangladesh has had Begum Khalida Zia and current incumbent Sheikh Haseena. The United Kingdom counts Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May and Liz Truss among its Prime Ministers and Europe has seen figures like Sanna Marin and Giorgia Meloni. Even New Zealand has elected Jacinda Ardern but the United States has not put a single woman President into office in its 247-year-long history.
Women’s emancipation rests upon several pillars, one of which is sartorial autonomy. More relevant than decisions on vestiary are wide-scale acceptance and ‘normalisation’ of women’s fundamental choices in terms of abortion, marriage, divorce and related matters. Equally crucial is the ability to be educated and to work across sectors once considered male domains — from flying fighter jets and joining the NDA or Sainik Schools to playing professional cricket.
In the dystopian ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, Booker Prize-nominated author Margaret Atwood creates a world where women have been stripped of all sexual desire and free will; this story has widely been accorded the status of ‘fiction’. Yet, Atwood has maintained that every aspect of her fictional society was drawn from something that existed either currently or in the past somewhere in the world. Notably, the story was partly inspired by Puritanism in New England. According to Britannica, “Puritans became noted in the 17th century for a spirit of moral and religious earnestness that informed their whole way of life, and they sought through church reform to make their lifestyle the pattern for the whole nation. Their efforts to transform the nation contributed both to civil war in England and to the founding of colonies in America as working models of the Puritan way of life.”
Women’s emancipation or lack thereof has found active traction throughout the world, throughout history. Acknowledgement of this fact and admission of the wide expanse of human consciousness it commands could be the starting point towards ensuring women are granted broader and more efficacious rights.
Poisoning girls who want to study; lashing women who are accused of exposure, nudity or adultery; honour killings; witch hunting — all this deserves to be condemned to the garbage pails of history. This is crucial to ensure that ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ scenario does not turn into reality and remains firmly in the realm of fiction — its rightful place.
For the sake of women, for history, for humanity and for its future.