The battle for legal, civil and educational equality has been the leitmotif of feminism over the years. The first wave centred around suffrage and political equality, while the subsequent waves attempted to mitigate social and cultural inequalities. For Simone de Beauvoir “One is not born a woman but become one”. Gloria Steinem gave it a strident tone by insisting on right to abortion. But the pioneer, who gave this movement a real character, was Margaret Sanger, with her strong advocacy for contraception. It was Sanger who set up the first birth control clinic in USA and worked with women in New York slums. She was convinced that there was a strong connection between contraception and working class empowerment. Only by liberating women from unwanted pregnancy would a fundamental change take place in the society. Sanger left the US, before she was to be tried under the Comstock Law (1873) which made it an offence to send “lewd or lascivious material through the mail”. In 1914 she met a charismatic lady Marie Stopes in London who set up birth control clinics in UK. Stopes wrote a fascinating mail to the President of the United States which read:
“Have you realized what it means to be a woman whose every life and blood-capillary is subtly poisoned by an unwanted embryo developing beneath her heart”.
Sanger met Gandhi in 1936 and Thomas Weber’s book “Going Native: Gandhi’s relationship with Western woman” brings out interesting nuggets of that meeting. Gandhi disagreed with Sanger’s concept of contraception, and believed in sexual abstinence. All the same, her lecture tour of India led to the opening of several birth control clinics in India. When in 1959, Prime Minister Nehru declared that a large seems of money would go to family planning in India, Margaret Sanger was standing at his side. It’s ironic that Nehru’s grandson Sanjay Gandhi played the spoiler during the emergency years (1975-76), by going for forcible sterilization. Margaret’s effort did not go vain in USA as one year before her death (1966), the Supreme Court of USA in Griswold vs Connecticut legalized birth control in the United States.
The Supreme Court of India has also been playing a pioneering role by upholding dignity of women in work place and promoting gender justice. The Vishakha Case (1997) veered around Bhanwari Devi, a grassroots worker in the Women’s Development Project of Government of Rajasthan, who dared to campaign against child marriage and tried to prevent a one year old girl child from marriage. As a backlash, she was raped by five villagers in the presence of his husband. The lower court acquitted the accused by observing that “a Brahmin could not have raped a low caste woman”. The Supreme Court, acting like a legislative body, issued a series of guidelines to protect women from sexual harassment at workplace. In a subsequent case; Apparel Export Promotion Council vs A.K. Chopra (1999), the court further clarified that “physical contact is not a prerequisite of sexual harassment”. The Vishakha case remains a trail blazer; in so much as celebrities like Shri Tarun Tejpal, Editor Tehelka could undergo trial on a sexual assault case against a colleague.
As we move from a predominantly joint family system to nuclear one, the patriarchal mindset does not seem to be undergoing change. The “culture of silence” and women suffering indignities in the interest of family tradition are widely prevalent. Eleanor Roosevelt had wittily observed that “The woman is like a tea bag, you do not know how strong she is, till put into hot water”. In the 73rd Constitutional Amendment (1993), 33% reservation for women was introduced in the Panchayats. Nearly 10 lakh women participate in this political process and have been playing a pioneering role for promoting social inclusion schemes like Anganwadi, drinking water and primary education. There is a strong case for Parliamentarians to abdicate their ostrich like attitude towards reservation of women in legislatures and the Parliament; as it will go a long way to foster gender justice and real political empowerment. On the Women’s Day, one wishes our society brews the right tea for them.
The author teaches Constitutional Law
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(The views expressed are personal.)