A pat on woman's back on International Women's Day (8 March)

Exclusive on International Women's Day
International Women's Day is the story of ordinary women as makers of history; it is rooted in the centuries-old struggle of women to participate in society on an equal footing with men. It is a day to look back on past struggles and accomplishments, and more importantly, to look ahead at the untapped potential and opportunities that await future generations of women. It is a day to be proud of our achievements and to take stock of our failings; to feel the tingling sensation of being part of a period of renaissance, of struggle whose ultimate aim is “Equal rights, equal opportunities: Progress for all.” Read more
For the United Nations, International Women's Day has been observed on 8 March since 1975. In adopting its resolution on the observance of Women's Day, the General Assembly recognized the fact that securing peace and social progress fundamental freedoms require the active participation and development of women; and acknowledged the contribution of women to the strengthening of international peace and security.
For the women of the world, the Day's symbolism has a wider meaning: It is an occasion to review how far they have come in their struggle for equality, peace and development. It is also an opportunity to unite, and mobilize for meaningful change.

Mary Ward, the foundress of the Loreto Order of missionary schools (who was persecuted for fighting for the rights of women) had said 400 years ago that ‘Women in times to come would do great things”. Her prophecy has indeed come true.

It is a matter of pride that, despite strong gender biases existing in certain regions, half the world’s population are women and at least one third of the world’s official labour force is female, doing two thirds of the world’s work. However, it is a shame that they receive only one tenth of the world’s income.

For many of us women life may be hard, difficult and certainly not equal – the inequity being fuelled by ethnic, cultural, economic, political and religious stigmas. There are horrendous realities which many women have to cope with, and which cannot be ignored, even as we revel together in the celebration of womanhood
About 25,000 brides are burned to death each year in India because of insufficient dowries..

In a number of countries, women who have been raped are sometimes killed by their own families to preserve the family's honour. Honour killings have been reported in Jordan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and other Persian Gulf countries. Women in India are also subject to such killings if they dare to marry outside their caste or religion, against their parents’ wishes.

According to UNICEF, 100 million to 140 million girls and women have undergone some form of female genital mutilation. Today, this practice is carried out in 28 African countries, despite the fact that it is outlawed in a number of these nations. A doctor friend of mine, while recently in Capetown to attend a medical conference, was witness to the horrible ritual of cutting of the clitoris and the stitching of the vagina (with just a small opening left for the menstrual blood to flow) of adolescent girls in Namibia, with full sanction of the village elders.

Rape as a weapon of war has been used in Mexico, Rwanda, Kuwait, Haiti, Columbia, and elsewhere.
Village Devda in Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan in India has earned notoriety for female infanticide. In the last 120 years, this village could marry only two girls (incidentally cousins), one in 1998 and the other in 2010, as there are no other girls to be married –the villagers boast of siring only male children and killing the females as soon as they are born.

But the silver linings in this reprehensible scenario are brave hearts like Inder Singh Bhati and his wife who, 29 years ago, decided against the wishes of the community that their baby girl Jayant Kanwar will live, while everybody else around them killed their daughters. They could not bring themselves to follow the bizarre village ritual with infant girls. ‘‘I don’t remember what we were thinking but it was my wife who took the decision. I supported her,’’ recalls Inder Singh. His relative Panna Singh was encouraged to follow suit and protect his daughter Shagun Kanwar.

So there are storms to be weathered and injustices to be fought. Yet there is enough reason to celebrate. It makes me happy to see a new found confidence, bordering on arrogance, on the faces of the young girls of today, even of the small towns. There is a new fashion of covering the face with a long scarf (dupatta) while riding a two wheeler or even walking. I used to think that they do this to protect them from the harsh glare of the sun and the hot winds. But, no, they are really protecting themselves from the lecherous gaze of the world. They have found a way of appraising others, without being appraised by them; to look at the world without being looked at. It has given them the advantage of anonymity, in a world where their identity is always under scrutiny.

My heart swells with pride as I see the women riding bicycles or flying aeroplanes, and clutching at their cell phones, as they fight everyday battles to get a share of the happiness which is rightfully theirs. Of course they have to do much more than merely use cell phones or ride bicycles, in order to improve their lot. But all this (even an innocuous visit to nearby city mall) is instilling even the village belle with a new confidence, which was hitherto missing. At least she is no longer apologetic about her existence, despite despicable TV serials like ‘Agale Janam Mohe Bitiya Na Kijo’ (do not let me be born a girl in my next birth).

After 14 years of mostly rhetorical and half hearted efforts, the women’s quota bill to reserve 33% seats in legislatures for women is likely to become a reality this year. Dictated more by political compunctions, and less by noble intentions, this is undoubtedly a much deserved bonanza and truly a ‘women’s day gift’. Once passed by the Parliament and ratified by at least 50% of the state assemblies, one in every three constituency will be reserved for women. This is already sending shivers down the spines of many of our male members of the Parliament, as many of them feel the threat of losing their seats and looking at other career options. A national daily newspaper quoted an MP, echoing the mood of the male establishment, rueing that, “When we say ‘YES’, we may well be signing our own death warrants.”

Let us hope that with a female brigade at the helm of political affairs, there will be firmness without harshness; kindness without laxity; and mercy without injustice in the governance of the country.

And as more and more of us get ready to pierce the glass ceiling, we are bound to get hurt and lose a lot of blood. But that is a small price to pay to be able to inhale the breath of freedom and drink deep the cup of empowerment.

We are a heady mix of sensuality and nurturing; naughtiness and caring; exuberance and quietude; palliative and intoxicating. We are women and proud to be so.

My salutations to all women who uphold the dignity of womanhood, and also to those men who respect women and do not feel ashamed to walk alongside them in their journey on this earth.

Shobha Shukla
(The author is the Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS), has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP, and teaches Physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: www.citizen-news.org)

Published in:
Citizen News Service (CNS), India/Thailand
Modern Ghana News, Accra, Ghana
Media For Freedom, Nepal
Bihar and Jharkhand News Service (BJNS)
Counter Current
The Colombo Times, Sri Lanka