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History of the Eternal Captives

By Sampriti Biswas

Edited by Sanchita Malhotra, Associate Editor, The Indian Economist

In our illustrious country India, women are worshiped, respected as deities. From Mata Durga the saviour, Mata Kali the demon punisher, Mata Lakshmi the goddess of wealth to Mata Saraswati the devi of learning; all are held in great reverence; each and every God fearing noble citizen abide by them, seek their blessings earnestly. Fortunes are spent in appeasing them; pujas, yajnas etc are made to do by pious Brahmins. Yet the “fortunate” women do not find such great honour in their individual lives. All over the country they are discriminated, they are the victims of domestic abuse, heinous crimes such as rape, infanticide, killing of girl foetus, murder etc. In this context it is apt to say that brutal crimes are committed against them not only in India but also all over the world. They are that hapless gender, the commodified gender; the eternal captives.

They have lived caged lives from time immemorial; from the valiant emperor’s harem, to the once geisha districts and the hellish red light areas. They are the daughters, the mothers, the wives, the sisters; they are the home-makers, the peaceful ones, the forgiving ones, the embodiment of love, values and honesty, the nurturer of all things beautiful. But they are made the scars of the society forcibly. They are burned in the name of dowry, raped and mutilated; her limbs torn apart in the name of lust, her face disfigured beyond recognition; driven to the brink of insanity with acid attacks by spurned lovers. Can we ever forget Delhi’s Nirbhaya? Or the Afghan women who went through unthinkable circumstances in the Taliban rule? Or the recent abduction of school girls by the Boko Haram? Every other day these crimes are increasing in number globally. The very character of the torture meted out to women is changing. The patriarchal system is trying its very best to repress women from seeking their true destinies. They are blamed for their clothes, their figure, their ways of life, their thoughts, ambitions and so on .Their purity, their modesty is of utmost importance. Unwritten special codes of conduct exist for them all over the world. In the less developed countries the scenario is even more dangerous. For example the Dalit women face great struggle for their survival.

But most of us, the educated global netizens, know all these. So it will be a futile exercise to support these facts with statistics; the prominent daily newspapers give us our regular dose of crime, their related data and statistics. Instead I would try to shift the reader’s attention to the history of these eternal captives as I strive to uncover the long forgotten tracks that have finally led them to their present situation. These tracks have been well covered by time, blood and soil so the journey will be tumultuous. But the endeavour is rewarding nonetheless as it might unearth the very history of our unfortunate kind. The very first question that plagues my mind is that when did the first discrimination happen? Was it with the early cage dwelling man , our forefathers, who first divided their work, for the ease of their daily difficult existence, the first division of labour; that the women would look after the aged and the young ones whilst the stronger male would hunt for food? If it’s so then physical strength had a substantial role to play in this division. Women are matured yet soft, understand emotions and values and to inculcate all these they may have been given the duty of upbringing of their children. Also nature creates a bond between her and her young ones through its own unique creation. Thus the era of stay at home, vulnerable, women started under the protective wing of their chivalrous men.

A mini snapshot of different parts of the world would help us in the analysis. In the Enlightenment, the philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau argued that the” domestic role of women is a structural precondition for a modern society”. The Age of Reason did not bring forth much for women; men including most of the Enlightenment aficionados believed that women were naturally destined to be principally wives and mothers. The higher class women needed to be educated and knowledgeable whereas the lower class women were expected to be economically productive; both for the benefit of their husbands. Here the Nazi Germany deserves special mention. Before 1933 women played important roles in the Nazi organization and were given some autonomy but after Adolf Hitler came to power the activist women were replaced by the bureaucratic women who naturally emphasised feminine virtues; the Nazis believed that women must be subservient to men. But in the time of The Second World War, women worked as nurses, seamstresses, support personnel and in the Luftwaffe although their wages remained vastly unequal and were denied leadership positions. The Nazis viewing the women as agents of fertility murdered two million women in the holocaust.” Chinese Women’s Life History” is a historical book written by Chen Dongyuan in 1928. This book is thought to be the first to give a systematic introduction to women’s history in China. It intends to explain how the principle of women being inferior to men evolves. He recalls the abuses inflicted on the Chinese women from the ancient times. From McGranan (2010) we come to know how the menstrual blood was thought of as a contaminating agent as she examines the role of the 20th century women in Tibet. In Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution feminist lobbying gained suffrage and nominal equality for women in education and the workplace. In 2012 feminism was called ‘mortal sin’ by a lawyer representing the Russian Orthodox Church. In South Africa owing to the legacy of apartheid and other extreme social agendas women have become the major victims from drug abuse, gang culture etc. In the United States a pioneering work by Deborah Gray White ‘Ai’n’t I a Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South’ (1985) opens up a great analysis of race, slavery, violence and feminism. The foundation stone of contemporary feminism was laid by Simone de Beauvoir’s 1949 treatise The Second Sex. She pens down exquisitely about the atrocities inflicted upon women. Women’s sexuality is of course a tabooed subject all over the world; family planning, abortions etc are thus topics of much debates and discussion. Evils of Dowry are still rampant in major parts of the world. Women have always been the worst affected by the wars; we can easily refer to the comfort women of the Japanese Military. Numerous women were raped, tortured and killed during the Bangladesh Liberation War and before that in the Indian Freedom Struggle. Tahmima Anam’s ‘A Golden Age’ is a heart wrenching read centering on the Bangladesh Mukti Juddha. In the times of the wars especially the world wars the women came out of their homes losing their husbands, brothers, fathers to work in order to support their families. They even worked in the factories to feed their children. This at least gave her liberty to some extent.

But we also have some very powerful women in the history of ‘man’kind. We have women of great merit, valour and perseverance. They were to a great extent the game changers and today’s women owe to some of them significantly for the relative betterment in their existence (for certain section of women in certain parts of the world). Hatshepsut, one of the most successful pharaohs, was the fifth pharaoh of the eighteenth dynasty of the ancient Egypt. Women of the Vedic Period in India (circa 1500-1200 BCE) were epitomes of intellectual and spiritual attainments; Ghosha, Apala, Lopamudra, Maitreyi and Gargi were some of them. Gorgo was the wife of King Leonidas, king of the Greek city of Sparta. She was named by Herodotus and was known for her political judgement and wisdom. The Valide Sultan was the title held by the queen mother of a ruling sultan of the Ottoman Empire. The position was the most important one after the sultan himself and she exerted great influence on the affairs of the empire. The most powerful and well known Valide Sultans and Haseki Sultans in the history of Ottoman Empire are Huerrem sultan, Nurbanu Sultan and Koessem Sultan. Anne Boleyn influenced religious development in England indirectly by leading Henry VIII to divorce Catherine of Aragon and break away from the Catholic Church.

Mother Mary continues to give solace to the wounded souls of the world. A’isha, wife of Muhammad, the prophet, narrates the largest number of Hadiths. Parampurush SriRamkrishna Paramhansa saw divinity in his wife Mata Sarada Devi.

Today’s women politicians like Germany’s Angela Merkel, India’s Sushma Swaraj, Mamata Banerjee, Sonia Gandhi, the late Indira Gandhi, Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, Pakistan’s the late Benazir Bhutto, Michelle Bachlet the head of UN Women, Hilary Clinton the US Secretary of State, Michelle Obama the first lady of US, Christine Lagarde the French finance minister are some of the notable key players in the global politics. Women like Florence Nightingale and Mother Teresa are immortal in the hearts of millions of people around the globe.

Perhaps there is hope for the freedom for the eternal captives as the above mentioned women and many others continue to inspire and encourage the millions of downtrodden helpless women all over the globe. There is change, of course, it has come with time, but the pace is slow and unequal. The 1987 paper Gender and cooperative conflicts by Nobel laureate Prof. Amartya Sen is a very important and interesting read. Prof. Sen says, Household activities have been viewed in many contradictory ways in assessing production and technology. On the one hand, it is not denied that the sustenance, survival and reproduction of workers are obviously essential for the workers being available for outside work. On the other, the activities that produce or support that sustenance, survival or reproduction are typically not regarded as contributing to output, and are often classified as ‘unproductive’ labour. So women can be both ‘productive’ as well as ‘unproductive’ on the home front depending on how people perceive it. Again working women face the ‘double burden’ of both working outside the home as well as working inside it.

Novels like Arthur Golden’s ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ or Katie Hickman’s ‘The Aviary Gate’ or Tracy Chevalier’s ‘The Virgin Blue’, Khaled Hosseini’s ‘A Thousand Splendid Suns’ etc portrays captive women and their sorrows, fear, joy, their undying spirits and their shackled lives. The celebration of the International Women’s Day will have no meaning whatsoever if the society does not change its attitude towards women. The society must acknowledge that she is an independent, free spirited, mature, loving yet firm entity. Given the same care as her male counterparts from childhood she lives longer. Women must be educated everywhere and allowed to pursue their dreams; they must be freely allowed to make their choices and the world must make itself a safer place for them to live in. That unseen chain bordering their lives must be eradicated and this can only be possible if along with the Government, the NGO’s the common man comes forward. Otherwise measures like the Gender related Development Index or the Gender Empowerment Index (started from 1995 by the UN) will never be able to showcase the real scenario and will just be a bunch of data. The over expectations that a common woman face both from her family and the society confines her, confuse her, embitter her and she breaks down both physically and mentally subsequently. Today’s urban women in India are confused in the face of globalisation; should they be traditional or contemporary in body mind actions, what should be the ideal concoction of traditionalism and modernism that the society might approve of? As the gender politics and positions shift, the society points its finger at women known to be in live-in relationships, or indulge in pre-marital sex etc but never care to stop the commodification of women.

I will end with a positive note; Scottish tennis star Wimbledon champion (singles title) Andy Murray recently chose Amelie Mauresmo as his coach. In the sporting world this came as a big shock. His mother Judy Murray evoked a striking metaphor in a speech she gave in London last month. She said “women are like snowflakes; we float around, we look pretty, and we usually hit a wall and melt away. But if we stick together, we can form a snowball. And snowballs can cause trouble.”

Sampriti is a M.Sc student of Economics at the University of Calcutta. She has her specialization in International Trade, Economics of Finance and Political Economy of Development. Currently, after the completion of her final (fourth) semester examination, she is busy writing both fiction and non-fiction on a diverse range of topics. She writes book reviews and short stories for her blog (www.bookwormscorner1.blogspot.com). She is extremely passionate about social and socio-economic problems of not only of India, but also of the world. Also she takes active interest in foreign languages and has learnt German language from The Goethe Institut, Maxmueller Bhavan Kolkata. A voracious reader,  from philosophy to literature, history to mythology, spirituality to physics, computers to law anything under the sun interests her . She has a keen scientific mind with a compassionate heart. Music, Indian classical dance forms like Odissi and Bharatnatyam, painting are some of her hobbies apart from reading. Her aim is to become a successful journalist and a writer. 

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