I was gifted a book by my friend, Mr. Balamurali, who runs an alternate school named Greenvalley International school, for my birthday last month. The title of the book is “Penn en adimayaanal” (“Why did women become slaves?”).
Well, for a feminist like me, this book is a treasure. Periyar E. V. Ramasamy (17 September 1879 – 24 December 1973), also known as Ramaswami, EVR, Thanthai Periyar, or Periyar, was a Dravidian social reformer and politician from Tamilnadu, who founded the Self-Respect Movement and Dravidar Kazhagam. He advocated for the rights of women and was considered ahead of his time as well as controversial.
For example, with regards to marriage, Periyar has stated that it is one of the worst customs in India. He claimed that the marriage principle, briefly, involves the enslavement of a woman by her husband and nothing else. This enslavement is concealed under the cover of marriage rites to deceive the women concerned by giving the wedding the false name of a divine function! Furthermore, Periyar objected to terms like “giving of a maid” and “given in marriage”. They are, “Sanskrit terms” and treat a woman as an object. He advocated the substitution of the word for marriage taken from the Tirukkual “Valkai thunai” or “life partner”. If women have to live on terms of equality with men, they must have the liberty, like men, to have the kind of education they like and also to do unhampered, any work suitable to their knowledge, ability and taste.
Even in Periyar’s community at the time, there were widowed girls below the age of 13 years. Periyar stated how it is a touching sight to see the parents of those widowed children treating them as untouchables. Periyar promoted widow remarriage which was far ahead of the times. He also advocated divorce for women who didn’t like to continue in the marriage.
Thanks to various movements and social activism by Periyar, the Self-Respect conference held in Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu in 1929, the following were among the many resolutions passed with regards to women’s rights:
- Women should be given equal rights along with men for the family property.
- There should be no objection to employing women to any job for which they are qualified
- Schools, particularly schools, should try to employ only women teachers
In a 1960 issue of Viduthalai magazine, Periyar stated that “There should be a drastic revolution in the desires and ideals of Indian women. They should equip themselves to do all types of work that men are doing. They should have good domestic life without allowing nature’s obstacles in their own lives. Therefore, there should be a welcome change in the minds of our women. Women should also be an integral part of the governance of a state”
When I read the book which was written by a man in the 1920s, I was astonished at the kind of liberated thoughts that this wise man has given to the regressive society which was prevalent in those days. In July, when I read this book, I was so thrilled at these thoughts by Periyar and at the same time felt sad that I didn’t read about him earlier. My school education or college education did not introduce me to such progressive philosophers other than a vague mention!
Now, come to August 2021. On August 15th, when India was celebrating the 75th year of Independence, we heard the news of Taliban terrorists taking over our neighbouring country, Afghanistan.
After the new takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, one thing that has been generally feared and drawn concerns is the situation with women’s rights under their government in the country. From not being permitted to pursue education or work to not being permitted to even move out from the house without a male escort, women and girls were the greatest victims of the Taliban terrorist regime. Women who challenged the Taliban’s mandates and their fundamentalist translation of Islam were rebuffed, frequently ruthlessly, with floggings or beatings. The Taliban became notorious internationally for their misogyny and violence against women. Their stated motive was to create a “secure environment where the chasteness and dignity of women may once again be sacrosanct”
Ladies in Afghanistan had to wear the burqa consistently out in the open, because, as indicated by one Taliban representative, “the face of a woman is a source of corruption” for men not related to them. In systematic segregation sometimes referred to as gender apartheid, women were not allowed to work, they were not allowed to be educated after the age of eight, and until then were permitted only to study the Qur’an. They were not allowed to be treated by male doctors unless accompanied by a male chaperone, which led to illnesses remaining untreated. The Taliban permitted and forced girls younger than 16 into marriage.
During the Taliban regime two decades back, from the age of eight onward, girls in Afghanistan were not allowed to be in direct contact with males other than a close “blood relative”, husband, or in-law. Other restrictions for women were:
- Women should not appear in the streets without a blood relative or without wearing a burqa.
- Women should not wear high-heeled shoes as no man should hear a woman’s footsteps lest it excite him.
- Women must not speak loudly in public as no stranger should hear a woman’s voice.
- All ground and first-floor residential windows should be painted over or screened to prevent women from being visible from the street.
- Photographing, filming and displaying pictures of females in newspapers, books, shops or the home was banned.
- The modification of any place names that included the word “women”. For example, “women’s garden” was renamed “spring garden”
- Women were forbidden to appear on the balconies of their apartments or houses.
- Ban on women’s presence on radio, television or at public gatherings of any kind
Though the Taliban have looked to rebrand themselves this time as a bit more moderate, particularly with the world watching. The Taliban representative has guaranteed the public that ladies would be permitted to go to work and school, “as per Islamic law.” Part of the cat-and-mouse game is finding by and by what “as indicated by Islamic law” truly implies.
Well, my thoughts went wild. If Periyar were alive today, what would he be doing?
How many more Periyars are needed to make the world better for women?
My heart goes out to the Afghan women who might be living in a fear of terror, devoid of their rights. My heart also goes out to the little girls with dreams who might be worried.