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The advancement of women

Publication Date : 10-08-2012


If history is compared to an onion, one more layer peeled off last month when Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei sent their female athletes to London. The kingdom did it for the first time, but the Sheikhdom and the Sultanate supposedly had already crossed that threshold when they sent their women to the Islamic Women's Games in Tehran. Overall it's the first time for the women of all three countries to participate in the Olympics Games.

It's a small step for the women of these three countries when their gender around the world has accomplished giant leaps. They have become astronauts, stateswomen, Playboy centerfolds, bandit queens, scientists, authors, and day labours, infiltrating every rank that was once dominated by men. While the Saudi women are still forbidden to drive, their cohorts elsewhere are flying planes and manning rockets.

Why are these dissimilar strides for women? One answer is that history is like a garden where different patches are tended at different times. History itself is discriminated within itself. History books give brief treatment to the period before the emergence of writing around 3,000 B.C., although it constitutes 99.9 per cent of the five-million-year history of the human species. In short, even evolution evolves at varying rates. What is seeded in one part of the world is a grownup plant in another, yet fruit-bearing tree in many.

The seven athletes from the three countries are participating in five categories: judo, athletics, table tennis, swimming and sprint. Not to forget the first female participation in Olympics was in 1900 in Paris when women were allowed to compete only in lawn tennis and golf. The burst of female freedom in even the western world took its time. At petty pace they made their incursions into the men's world as their struggle gradually loosened the grip that was choking them for hundreds of years.

American film historian Jeanine Basinger explains what it is like. She said that no matter whether a woman lived in a mansion, an apartment, or a yurt, it's all the same thing because what she really lived in is the body of a woman. Then she gave her punch line: That body was allowed to occupy space only according to the dictates of her society.

Last month, women from three Muslim countries were able to convince their societies to give them more space. It's a pity that so many of their predecessors went to their graves, banging their heads against the walls of prejudice, their unfulfilled yearnings collapsing like a bird that succumbed to the grills of its cage. Not that women weren't influential in earlier times. They were empresses, saints, dowager princesses, nurses, writers and statisticians. But they were exceptions that proved the rule. An overwhelming number of gifted and ordinary women lived under oppression, their bodies forever squeezed for space.

In the pre-Islamic days the Arabs used to bury their daughters alive. Killing of the girl child is still a practice in many parts of the world, particularly modernising countries like India and China. The UN estimates that around 700 unborn babies are killed in India every day. The Russian daily Pravda reported in October 2011 that Chinese parents destroy one-seventh of their baby girls. They break the spines of the newborn, they bury them alive, strangle and poison them, or just starve them to death.

Shocking as it may be, even in this age of freedom and equality there are pockets of darkness where boys are valued immensely more than girls, where the birth of a girl is deemed as economically unprofitable. In 2005, Harvard University President Larry Summers, who later became Bill Clinton's Treasury Secretary, proposed that women are genetically inferior to men at the high end of the ability spectrum in math, science and engineering.

Summers' hypothesis was taken seriously. The National Academy of Sciences, the premier scientific organisation that advises the US government, was constrained to study and prepare a report, "Beyond Bias and Barriers." Its conclusion was that there is no evidence to date of cognitive differences between men and women that can explain the under-representation of women on math, science and engineering faculties.

Who wants to push back the historical chain of causation? This civilisation is only a few hundred years old compared to the millenniums that passed since the dawn of mankind. There have been conflicts, tensions, hatred and discrimination between races, religions, complexions, occupations, traditions, ideologies, and genders. Who can tell how it started? Who can tell who started it first?

But nothing is more grotesque than those depraved men who look down upon women of whom they are born. Little has changed after Age of Reasoning, Age of Enlightenment, Reformation, Renaissance, scientific discoveries, revolutions and scores of movements. Men are still trapped in their minds. And, women in their bodies.

The writer is Editor, First News and an opinion writer for The Daily Star.


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