Women Empowerment can wait – let us celebrate Women’s Day!
In Mahabharata, Chitrangada was the only child of Manipur king Chitravahana. She was brought up like a male child and was adept at fighting, a skill that circumscribed the male domain in the mainland. Arjuna fell in love and married the warrior princess. Whatever be the truth, even in ancient India, women could break the glass ceiling. In the fourth century BC, women took part in the armies of Sparta and Athens. In the fifth century BC, Artemisia, Queen of Halicarnassus, a kingdom that exists in modern-day Turkey was best known as a naval commander and an ally of Xerxes, the King of Persia. An excellent Naval commander, she helped Xerxes in his invasion of the Greek city-states. The bronze statue called Boadicea and Her Daughters at the western side of Westminster Bridge in London commemorates the warrior queen who fought against Roman emperor Nero in 60 century AD. There are several instances of women taking the leadership role in battles, an essential preserve of males.
There are many interesting anecdotes presented by Nobel Laureate Svetlana Alexievich in her book the Unwomanly Face of War. Take, for instance, the anecdotes shared by Maria Nikolaevna Stepanova who served as a major in an infantry battalion. The sergeant major in charge of training the girls ordered the cadets to "even up" their chests. Since this could not happen he thundered, "What have you got in your shirt pockets?" He was not amused when the girl cadets started laughing. When an injured soldier was taken to an old lady in a village in Ukraine for recuperation, she was flabbergasted, "Don't they have enough men, that they recruit such children? Little girls…" Even amidst the time of the desperate war for survival, the old lady could not bear with such trouble for young girls.
But travel back to 1907 when Annette Kellermann was arrested in the USA for indecency. It was about wearing a swimming suit, not the skimpy bikinis which are routine now, but a fitted one-piece costume. Kellermann was famous for advocating the right of women to wear a one-piece bathing suit. In the early 1900s, women were expected to wear cumbersome dress and pantaloon combinations when swimming. Imagine, the lady was arrested for indecency for wearing a swimming costume which today's, most orthodox clerics, will endorse warmly and the US law enforcers arrested a person who later happened to be the first major actress to do a nude scene in Hollywood without any charge of indecency! Duplicity thy name is law.
The need for a feminine touch was felt, time and again, in what is still viewed as the men's world— the battlefield for instance. Women were first employed by the Royal British Navy in 1696 when a handful was employed as nurses and laundresses on hospital ships. But, there were staunch opponents. By the start of the 19th century, both roles were eliminated. Then in 1884, the Naval Nursing Service was formed. Women had active roles in the British Army since 1902, when Queen Alexandra's Royal Army Nursing Corps was founded. During the Second World War, about 600,000 women served in the three British women's auxiliary services. There were many who even served in combat roles as anti-aircraft gunners. By 1949, women were officially recognised as a permanent part of the British Armed forces. During the 1991 Gulf War, there was the first deployment of British women in combat operations.
Israel, where women fought arm in arm with men for the creation of the state in 1948, started compulsory conscription of all – males and females – in 1948 itself. In 2000, an amendment to laws allowed Israeli women equal right to serve in the national defence forces as men. Despite the presence of a large number of female soldiers, many of them in the higher ranks, there are many instances of sexual harassment cases and religion-related bans on women soldiers. The most glaring example of male chauvinism was when Golda Meir resigned from her post as Prime Minister after Israel's victory in the Yom Kippur war, for being condemned as a "woman" out of her depth. But the facts had been just the opposite, as a recent research has established. It was Moshe Dayan, her Defence Minister, who lost nerve and felt Israel would be annihilated. The woman held hers and penetrated close to the Syrian capital Damascus and gave a strong response to Egypt after crossing the Suez Canal on the other side. As far as sullying the image of Golda, the first Prime Minister in the western world, three factors played important roles – sexism, the lack of education and a poor knowledge of Hebrew – with the first one having greater weight than the next two.
US President Nixon had compared two women leaders he had faced – Indira Gandhi and Golda Meir –Indira as one who acted like a man, with the ruthlessness of a man, but wanted always to be treated like a woman while Golda acted like a man and wanted to be treated like a man.
When women wear the pants and succeed, actually performing much better and outsmarting men, in a men's world, campaigns always take place to tarnish their image. Character is an easy tool. Men in Golda's life (and, like it or not, in Indira's life as well) are a constant source of gossip. Their failure to attend to their families, children, in particular, is another line of attack—while absentee fathers receive mention akin to a hero.
In an age of technology-based warfare, where hand to hand combat is rare and where time and again it has been proven by girls that they perform significantly better in academics than boys, it is just the mindset that stops women from joining the armed forces. In India, women have joined ranks as fighter pilots; as the BSF daredevils had shown their bravery skills during the Republic Day parade and have been inducted to flush out Naxals. Yet, the popular jokes circulated on social media continue to remain anti-women. Even some women politicians have received the choicest sexist abuses from their opposition. Evidently, males do not like to cede their territory gained through the dark ages when brute force used to determine the victors and the vanquished.
India's women's reservation bill and the manner of tearing the same in the Rajya Sabha in 2010 illustrates this very mindset. In order to confuse issues, the caste- and religion-based politicians ask for the reservation to be expanded on the lines of caste and religion, a clear sign that women in their own fold are not expected to be equal in status and position.
The celebration of Women's Day should be seen in this context. Women in India are mere symbols of beauty, homemaking, and child-nursing. They might receive some comfort in exchange and glowing messages on the occasions along with presents. But, an equal role in the men's world is still guarded by the Laxman Rekha.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)