One hot summer afternoon some 20 years ago, my mother looked out of her window at the house across the road. She noticed, first, the smoke billowing out of one of the bedrooms and then suddenly became aware of a commotion – loud voices, muted screams. Within minutes, Hardeep Kaur, a young woman who had recently married into the family, was brought out wrapped in a sheet and rushed to hospital.
Later we found out what had happened. Hardeep hadn’t brought enough dowry – enough, that is, to satisfy her in-laws’ greed. They asked for more, repeatedly, and continued to harass and threaten her. One day, they decided to kill her, make the death look like an accident, keep what she’d brought and offer their son in marriage to another woman – thereby acquiring another dowry.
My mother found this difficult to believe. Was it possible that people could so easily dismiss a woman’s life? She resolved to help Hardeep. She visited her in hospital, gave evidence against the murderers in court, joined anti-dowry demonstrations, refused to accept that domestic violence was a ‘family matter’ – and thus began her journey into one of the most empowering and significant ideologies of all time: feminism.
In some ways, my mother had always been something of a feminist – though, like many other women, she had never admitted this to herself. Years later, when I asked her about this, she said: ‘Well, it was so simple. Had it not been for the many women who had gone before me, I would never have had the courage to live the way I have – to resist being cast in the role of the Indian mother…’
Today, as I stand at the end of the century and look back on the women who have made feminism a reality for us, I realize, with something of a shock, that they are far more numerous than I ever imagined. I’m reminded of some of the landmarks of our history:
- The year is 1910. Bhikaji Cama, an Indian nationalist and feminist, addresses a meeting of the Egyptian National Council in Brussels. She says to the assembled men: ‘I see here the representatives of only half the population of Egypt. May I ask where is the other half? Where are your mothers and sisters? Your wives and daughters?’
- Bhikaji Cama, I realize with the knowledge born of hindsight, isn’t just conjuring up imaginary Egyptian feminists, for things are happening in Egypt too. In the same year that she speaks, Huda Saharawi opens the first school for girls in Egypt. Later, during the nationalist agitation of 1919, she organizes women to demonstrate against British colonialists. But her most important step comes a year after the founding of the Egyptian Feminist Union (1923) when Saharawi goes to Rome to attend an international conference of women. On her way back, she takes the bold step of casting her veil upon the waters, refusing ever to wear it again.
- The year is 1911. In America, Carrie Chapman Catt, a leading feminist and suffragist, is bemoaning the shortsightedness of men. To them, she says: ‘the woman movement is an inexplicable mystery, an irritating excrescence upon the harmonious development of society. But to us... there is no mystery. From its source... we clearly trace the course of this movement through the centuries, moving slowly but majestically onward, gathering momentum, with each century, each generation, until just before us lies the golden sea of women’s liberty.’
- A year later, suffragettes in England explode into militant action, breaking windows in London shops and even at the Prime Minister’s home. Some 150 of them are arrested, including Emmeline Pankhurst, and in prison they continue their protest, refusing to eat, driving the prison authorities to force-feed them. Shortly after she is released, Pankhurst addresses a gathering at the Royal Albert Hall in London. ‘It always seems to me,’ she says, ‘when the anti-suffrage members of the government criticize militancy in women, that it is very like beasts of prey reproaching the gentler animals who turn in desperate resistance when at the point of death.’
Egypt, India, the US, England – a mere handful of countries, and such a short space of time. How many more names and issues would we be able to line up, I wonder, if we were to take stock of the whole century? For it is true that in many ways, the twentieth century can be called the age of women: all over the world their rights and wrongs, their wishes and desires, have been the subject of fierce and heated debates.
Where, then, does one find a beginning? ‘It was in the United States – at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848 –’ the Vintage Book of Historical Feminism tells us, ‘that the first organized movement for freedom for women was founded.’ As an Indian feminist, I react to this statement: this, I tell myself, is only an American beginning. For the women’s movement internationally has many different starting-points, many trajectories.
The key feminist issue in the West in the early years of the century was the fight for women’s suffrage. The first country to offer women the vote, New Zealand, did so as early as 1893, but in other countries there was no sign by 1900 that their rights were being taken seriously. As British feminists made world news in their battle for the right to vote, they inspired their North American sisters across the waters.
Elsewhere in the world too, suffrage became a key issue, although most of the early attempts – Iran in 1911 and 1920, Philippines in 1907, China in 1911, India in 1917, Japan in 1924, Sri Lanka in 1927 – were unsuccessful. But women beyond the West were also waging another kind of battle: against colonialism and for independence. Joining hands with men, they demanded their rights as citizens. That did not mean they ignored women’s issues: they worked on both fronts, giving solidarity to men when it was needed and questioning their dominance when it seemed necessary. Nor did the inspirational examples in these early years all come from the rich world. One of Indonesia’s leading feminists, Kartini, talked, for instance, of the influence on her of Pandita Ramabai, an extraordinary Indian woman whose life she found inspiring: ‘I was still going to school when I heard of this courageous Indian woman for the first time. I remember it so well: I was very young, a child of ten or eleven when, glowing with enthusiasm, I read of her in the paper. I trembled with excitement: not alone for the white woman is it possible to attain an independent position; the brown Indian too can make herself free. For days I thought of her and I have never been able to forget her. See what one good example can do! It spreads its influence so far.’
In the West, the years following the First World War – after partial suffrage had been won in some places – are generally seen as marking a lull in feminist activity. So too, in other parts of the world, women retreated into the home after the success of anti-colonial campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s. The empire had ended, in many places independence had been won – the new nations would be free, egalitarian, democratic…
It took many years for a different reality to sink in. Freedom, democracy, the rise of the proletariat – none of these delivered to women the promised ‘equality’ or dignity. Little changed, at home or in the workplace. Men still held all the cards.
Each step along the way brought more questions. How was it that trade unions hardly had any women leaders? What gave a union member the right to speak about workers’ equality on the one hand and come home and beat his wife on the other? It began to become clear that politics was not confined to the outside world; instead it entered the home and was acted out in the most intimate of domestic interactions. It was, in fact, a very personal affair.
It took the women’s movement to bring this important – and difficult – fact to the notice of the world. Yet very few people, both men and women, were willing to accept such a frightening truth: as long as politics could be kept somewhere ‘out there’ they could cope. But the moment it entered the home and touched on all those things that made up one’s very being, it signalled an overhauling of intimacies, relationships, family life. How could this be accepted? The feminist slogan ‘the personal is political’ – for women the most empowering of slogans – was as troubling for activists on the Left as it was for conservatives.
In 1925, a year after Lenin’s death, the German socialist Clara Zetkin recorded her memory of several conversations with him on the subject of women. ‘I have been told,’ he complained, ‘that at the evenings arranged for discussion with working women, sex and marriage problems come first… I could not believe my ears when I heard that. The first state of proletarian dictatorship is battling with the counter-revolutionaries of the whole world… But active communist women are busy discussing sex problems and the forms of marriage!’
The ‘second wave’ of the women’s movement all over the world, from the 1960s onwards, was marked by just such discussions on what had hitherto been seen as taboo subjects, including, specifically, female desire and pleasure in the form of the female orgasm. The campaigns were not without their lighter moments. In Italy feminists coined a slogan that upheld the greater importance of the clitoral orgasm, saying thereby that the penis was not necessary for women’s enjoyment of sex. ‘Col dito, il dito’, the slogan said, ‘l’orgasme sara garantito’ (with the finger, the finger, the orgasm is guaranteed), to which a group of men replied, ‘Con cazzo, con cazzo, e un altro andazo’ (with the penis, with the penis, is another experience altogether)!
By the 1970s, it was becoming clear that the women’s movement was one of the most dynamic and vibrant movements of all time. Everywhere in the world, it was women who were in the forefront of campaigning. In the peace movement, women occupied bases, exhorted countries to stop the arms race, advanced the issues of livelihood and survival. In the environmental movement, it was women who led demonstrations and marches and clung to trees to stop them being felled. In the labour movement they demanded that attention be paid to women’s rights…
With every campaign came a new lesson. At one time winning the vote seemed to be the crucial issue. Yet, once the vote was won, it became clear that there was a long road ahead. At another point, education seemed the most desirable goal. Yet, as education began to spread, women all over questioned its usefulness and validity.
Then it seemed that class differences were an insurmountable barrier, but this too was not the only answer. Soon, religion came to displace class since, for women in the Majority World, religious dogma and practice seemed to reinforce patriarchies – until it became clear that religion, like class, was not a force that was easily wiped out.
Perhaps the most empowering insight came only gradually – that emancipation did not mean the same thing all over the world; that for every group of women, perhaps even for each individual woman, the idea of liberation differed. At a conference in London some 15 years ago, a panel of women discussed their understanding of women’s liberation. Toni Morrison, the black American writer, located it within the context of racism in the US; Petra Kelly, the German peace activist, saw it in the context of the struggle for peace; Ellen Kuzwayo, the black South African activist and writer, spoke of women’s struggle against apartheid’s pass laws; while a member of the audience identified homophobia as women’s most pressing problem. It was the US writer Adrienne Rich who pointed out that each of these points of view had its own validity; that at this moment, for these women, liberation meant winning their particular struggle. Later, at another time, in another context, it might mean something different.
Long years ago, when single issues dominated the women’s movement, such a view would probably have been considered lunatic. Yet today, as we look back on a century of women’s activism, this recognition of difference, this understanding of its infinite variety, this turning of the gaze from the North to the South and back again, is perhaps the most valuable contribution of the women’s movement the world over.
It was this understanding too that lent new meaning to the slogan ‘Sisterhood is global’, for while that nebulous thing called sisterhood allowed one woman to feel another’s pain, no matter that they were divided by geographical, religious or other borders, it also brought home the realization that each woman’s life had different priorities, different needs. The international-ization of the women’s movement worked, as an activist in Pakistan put it, to ‘give it a universal and specific dimension’.
Today, more and more hidden histories of feminist activism are coming to light: women are coming out of the shadows, abandoning the margins. And as men and women alike look at this exciting development, there’s cause both for optimism and concern. Will humanity as a whole prove equal to the promise of the women’s movement in the twentieth century? Or will it be – as has happened in small ways – that women will move ahead, leaving men behind? Will people create new and different relationships? Or will they reject what the movement has to offer, making that terrible word ‘backlash’ a reality?
It’s difficult to say. What is clear though, it seems to me, is that from the point at which we stand today, there is no going back. We may not have quite arrived at the ‘golden sea of women’s liberty’ envisoned by Carrie Chapman Catt nearly a hundred years ago, but its waters are certainly beginning to lap at our feet.
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