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This article on the rising and soaring of women and their emancipation from the repression quagmire lays out the essential processes involved in devising a reliable society for women, that focusses on concepts of education, awareness and empathy.
In this piece, the use the key themes, from the first phase of the women’s movement are raised to explore, how far we as a society, have progressed in doling out fundamental rights to women, and how far we still have to go. The aim is to outline some ways in which we can cover this essential distance.
From the time of the Hindu and Greek legends trading Sita and Helen as accessories and possessions of powerful men and kingdoms, women have had to internalise their position as secondary to society’s more privileged gender. Uprisings against this have ensued from time to time, and the consolidated views around women being entities with opinions and agency of their own have solidified into the school of ‘feminism’.
This school is hardly Western or confined to one-time frame, but the West’s sustained feminist movements have been divided into four waves, each addressing different concerns around emancipation. The first wave strikes on as the most significant, not only because it garnered support for women’s rights on an unprecedented scale and started a sharply defined movement, but because the concerns it raised subsume (in a large part, and not entirely) those of the following waves and still prove most pertinent to the condition of women in various societies, especially the Indian.
I. The First Wave of Feminism
The first wave (1848-1920) saw participation from names like Virginia Woolf, Margaret Sanger and Mary Wollstonecraft.
This epochal rebellion centred around the themes of winning voting rights for women(the campaigners famously coming to be called “suffragettes”), female education(and subsequently employment and property ownership) and access to reproductive health(Sanger was responsible for founding the birth-control clinic that became American behemoth Planned Parenthood over time).
Returning to the 21st century, we note that huge changes have not been made in these regards in society. While women can vote in most societies (barring a few where it is notoriously difficult for them), voting rights are mainly exercised to have a say when it comes to education, legislative powers, physical safety and other ways of a section progressing in society.
However, women still majorly lack those. Girls are still pulled out of schooling in high numbers in India, women comprise 14% of Lok Sabha MPs (as of 2019), and a rape is reported every 15 minutes in India. Access to contraceptives is lacking and asymmetrical, and abortions or unwed sexual activity is a taboo in India.
Even in the far more “progressive” USA, Alabama’s attempt at blocking access to abortion through the Human Life Protection Act made headlines worldwide in 2019. These facts and statistics show us clearly that woman’s rights to vote and societal power are symbolic and hollow – she is vested with no real authority to create a life enriched with human rights for herself and her sisters. And that, problems of 1848 still hold very relevant to her today.
A. Voting Enlightenment
In the countries where it is very difficult for women to vote, steps can be taken to assist them and smoothen their voting experience. Singer Taylor Swift’s political post in 2018 led to a massive spike in voter registration in some parts of America. If a similar influencer geographically and culturally relevant to the Middle Eastern and African countries in question can be given a platform to ask women to vote, change can be precipitated.
Even international stars can be roped in if those specific to the countries cannot be found, or given a large enough audience. However, the onus is hardly on women to open themselves up to risk to exercise something as basic as a voting right. The legislation in these countries and the social environment in them need to change from the top-down for a shift like this.
If that will not happen organically, international policy bodies like the United Nations can urge these governments to keep pace with the changing world and award human rights. More developed countries like the USA or the prominent European players like France and Germany can enter into a partnership with the UN in these ventures to increase its clout and resources in ultra-conservative lands.
As the Internet is now open-access and extremely informative, speeches and educative modules can be broadcast over it to the concerned countries for their people to learn of the merits of an egalitarian society, so that the common person also gets to a place intellectually to protest political despotism.
B. Education: A Powerful Instrument
After voting rights have been addressed, we can turn to education, something that vests people with both progressive ideals to transform society and economic power to ensure the safety of oneself later in life. As can be seen from the Internet example in the voting issue, educating people can make them more politically liberal in outlook – when they learn of the progressive movements engulfing western countries and see that they do not preach harm to any particular sect of society, they can begin to inculcate such practices.
When they understand that the feminist movement does not plan on harming men, or degrading the essence of any individual culture like conservatives around the world are worried, they will see it is just preaching the empowerment of all the women they regard as important in their lives – and will begin to appreciate it.
There can be a special case of educating people to make them liberal, pertinent only to women. Some women do not identify as feminists due to a myriad reasons – older people tend to be more conservative and that includes older women, India’s influential film industry Bollywood preaches that feminism is a dirty concept, and poorer or caste and race-underprivileged women find themselves underrepresented in this movement.
In this subset of education which can be regarded as political education, several measures can be implemented to influence the scenario. Female independence, sexuality and leadership should be normalised in society.
Institutions fostering growth
Indian NGOs like CREA are working to foster the development of confident sexuality and leadership in women, as are international organisations like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In foundation, are providing a forum for women to be “unapologetically ambitious”, in their own words. Their work is to be supported and emulated.
Also, making gender studies or minority studies a part of the formal educational curriculum of countries can be helpful in inculcating sexual value education at a preliminary level of a student’s intellectual development. If the sense that educated, rich, sexually and mentally liberated women are not a taboo is institutionalised, only then can women be pushed into actually being these things. Therefore, this kind of foundation, based on political education, is crucial.
When it comes to formal, vocational education (later transforming into employment and financial independence), women who feel afraid to go to schools due to a lack of physical safety can access Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and open-access educative platforms like Coursera.
Attempts should be made by both the government and private bodies at publicising this mode of education, holding special workshops for vulnerable women. Home-schooling is also emerging a fool-proof alternative to classroom teaching these days (the credibility of the latter has been tested by the Coronavirus), and several important voices online are singing it’s praises.
Indeed, it holds promise to upend and radically improve how education is imparted, for several classes of women and people – those wary of physical assault, those in mental trauma and having social anxiety, those in war-torn zones and many more. The potential of this should be harnessed to educate more women.
It is also easy to realize that not all women, especially in a developing country like India, will have access to enough money for availing the gifts of the Internet – which is where NGOs come into the picture again.
In India, organisations like Mahila Kisan Adhikaar Manch(MAKAM) and Janodaya are working to make women financially stable by giving them land rights or commercially marketable life skills. A mother in possession of financial resources can educate her daughter well enough to make her a high earner even if the former missed out on that in her lifetime.
When these NGOs work to financially empower women, their daughters can afford to enter high-paying degree courses – specifically, Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education. International organisations like Black Girls Code, the Anita Borg Institute and Girls Who Code are leading the fight in increasing the reach of women and girls in high paying STEM and specifically tech careers (this being the age of the Internet), and their models are worth replicating in India as well.
Already existing NGOs can take this mission to the government and ask for funds or publicity to expand, and before that can be made fully operational, one can donate or volunteer in a private capacity with these organisations if they want to make a real change.
C. Workplace Ethics: A Basic Rule book to all
In workplaces, sexual harassment laws need to be made strict and more importantly followed. Human resource (HR) departments need specific training in handling this aspect, and companies should set aside funds for training programs. Also, corporate companies should allot specific quotas to hiring women and hiring them in influential positions, like on a managerial or directors’ board.
This is hardly a concession, and more a redressal for centuries of patriarchal societal conduction – women who get inducted into these high posts must also pass merit tests before. Companies should also come down heavily on the gender pay gap, which currently reports worrying statistics.
If companies do not precipitate these changes out of sheer goodwill, legislation must be formulated to ensure that they do. These measures together will address the lack of female representation in educational and professional environments.
D. Contraception and Menstruation: Connatural and Real
Moving on to the issue of contraception, female sexuality is made into a matter of stigma, shame and hatred even before women grow up – from when they are merely girls. Practices like period-shaming exists in schools wherein girls are fiercely mocked or bullied by peers for getting stained clothes, sometimes making them forgo the schooling experience altogether.
What is more frightening is that teachers join hands in policing girls, inculcating in them from childhood that it is the fault of their mandated school uniform’s frills and nuances, and that of their errant hair, if they are raped and harassed by boys. This is not the fault of the teacher, as she is also the product of generational patriarchy.
A lack of non-taboo access to menstrual products turns into a lack of access to contraceptives later in a woman’s life cycle, and social pariah-hood when she becomes pregnant due to offences such as rape. Moreover, unwed girls who are party to consensual sex live in fear in conservative societies like India, if they sense that word could get out, either from abortion clinics of from word of mouth – sometimes the latter being just speculation.
Resolutions to a better advancement
If the cycle of inculcating servility and accessory status in female minds is to be broken, we need to start at the level of schools and colleges. Women’s-only schools and colleges need to be built and heavily government subsidised so that they can impart very competent education.
It is very important to impart education around gender sensitivity and societal empathy in co-ed and men’s schools and colleges as well, but in very sensitive or high-risk areas, single-sex institutions help girls get educated, and imbibe fewer patriarchal norms than if they were getting degraded vis-à-vis boys every day.
It is in these same institutions that abortion, consensual sex norms and contraception should be taught and normalised. Organisations like the Asia Safe Abortion Partnership are doing valuable work in this regard – they encourage and increase awareness around the issue of reproductive rights and health, and offer fellowship and activism programs to young people from time to time, increasing the latter’s’ exposure and career prospects through earning prestigious distinctions.
When young people are on the frontlines of gender empowerment, it acts as a multifaceted benefit. More people open up to someone from their age group as gender gaps would get in the way of parents’ or teachers’ understanding. This would allow for more efficient communication.
Also, the girls being part of the reach-out initiative would be advancing their own careers by adding positions of responsibility to their CVs, thereby helping female empowerment there as well. Organisations like Lean In, or Girl Up(founded by the UN Foundation), which encourage young people to open up chapters in their schools or localities, lead the attack in this kind of function, and their operational models are worth imitating in India. In a private capacity, one can donate/volunteer as well to/for them.
For people and especially women outside of the school/college circuit and age-group, who will have problems accessing this kind of sensitisation, city schools, colleges and offices can mandatorily send students or workers as part of Socially Useful Productive Work (SUPW)/Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) drives that are very much a part of the Indian academic and professional ecosystem.
These students and professionals can hold classes in villages or slums about female empowerment and contraceptive resources, and can even distribute contraceptive products themselves. Schools and companies can ensure their safety in these places by arranging for transport and the security of large groups on the few days per year that these drives take place.
Additionally, posts must be opened up in the police forces for recruiting women candidates or recruiting more police in areas of high sex crime risk, both of which can reduce the instances of such crimes or make the reporting experience for women easier. Also, a women candidates’ quota must be introduced in legislative or policy-making bodies of the country to take in more women than already present, to precipitate trickle-down empowerment in society.
E. The Internet: A Requisite Truth
The one thing that has been present as an indispensable aid in several of the tools for empowerment mentioned above is the Internet, and that is hardly surprising in a time when “data is the new oil”, as per British mathematician Clive Humby. As powerful an emancipatory tool as the Internet can be, it also has tremendous potential for misuse and harm when it comes to women.
Pornography circulated online, normalises sex that is violent and derogatory to women, and spy cameras violate privacy on a mass scale. Women face relentless gender-based threats or inappropriate comments online, and no one from schoolgirls to influential women in business or politics are spared.
Feminists receive online abuse and counter-activism from sadistic groups like ‘Incels’ for demanding human rights, and personal information is often stolen via online media and/or forms and used for offline stalking.
Road towards a Safer Virtual Zone
To make the web safer and productive instead of toxic, some measures can be put into place. Women can be trained to be better tech users by the likes of the organizations mentioned above, which work for girls and women in technology. Social media platforms which are the hotbeds of abuse due to being excessively easy to enter and navigate, like Facebook or Reddit, should have strict content moderation rules in place.
It is not very profitable for them to regulate user content and bring in efficient censorship, which is why pages like “No Hymen No Diamond” operate on them. Until very recently, US President Donald Trump, known for toying with rights of immigrants and making derogatory comments about women, and his vote base, was also using sites like Facebook to advertise false information in exchange for high costs – but that was put to a stop by the Honest Ads Act.
Facebook was also taken to court in cases involving election-tampering and privacy violations. Legislation like this needs to be executed to defend the rights of women online. Social media giants will not comply, so the governments of users’ countries must be incisive and expedient in this matter.
Also, recently (2020), big corporations like Hindustan Unilever Limited (HUL) and Microsoft have taken themselves off Facebook in response to the platform’s growing insensitivity and lack of moderation. Public personalities like writer Stephen King have done the same. These are heartening steps, and they inch cyber society towards some progress at the very least and need to be supported.
Others ways to make the web more productive is to campaign for the good on social media (like singer Taylor Swift), in support of women and other minorities. One can report offensive posts and pages themselves if they happen to be on social media, and if they are not, contributing to feminist opinion-shapers, most of which are online today (Ms, Vice, Jezebel) through writing or campaigning for them makes an even bigger impact.
Taking into consideration the analyses of several factors that today advance and obstruct women’s rights to a safe and decent life, one notes that the first-wave feminism’s challenges are still very relevant now, in July 2020. However, not all is on the rocks.
A woman head of state (Jacinda Arden) led a country (New Zealand) to complete Coronavirus removal, a first for any affected country. Women are now permitted to enter the Sabarimala temple in Kerala, India, and there was a female Ballon d’Or for the first time in history last year (Megan Rapinoe). Things are definitely grim, but they are not verging on apocalyptic – and they can definitely be pushed higher up.
One must keep in mind in the long battle of female emancipation and empowerment in a deeply prejudiced society, and contribute as much as they can, in labour, time, energy, empathy and resources.
Institute of Management, Kozhikode