Let's start with some statistics. The United Nations Human Development Report 2004 estimated that when both paid employment and unpaid household tasks are accounted for, on average women work more than men. In rural areas of selected developing countries performed an average 20% more work than men, or an additional 102minutes per day. In the OECD countries surveyed, on average women performed 5% more than men, or 20 minutes per day. At the UN's Pan Pacific Southeast Asia Women's Association 21st International Conference in 2001 it was stated that 'in the world as a whole, women comprise 51% of the population, do 66% of the work, receive 10% of the income and own less than 1 % of the property'. Yes, less than one percent!! Does it sound okay to you? Feminist movements or feminism for centuries attempted and still attempting to put a balance to this unhappy statistics and claimed that laws/legal provisions, along with other issues, have contributed to these discriminations.
What is Feminism?
Feminism is a political, cultural, and economic movement aimed at establishing equal rights and legal protection for women. Feminism includes sociological theories and philosophies concerned with issues of gender difference. It is also a movement that campaigns for women's rights and interests. Nancy Cott defines feminism as the belief in the importance of gender equality, invalidating the idea of gender hierarchy as a socially constructed concept.
Feminism has changed traditional perspectives on a wide range of areas of human life, from culture to law. Feminist activists have campaigned for women's legal rights, such as rights to enter into contract, property rights, and voting rights, while also promoting women's right to bodily integrity and autonomy, abortion right, and reproductive rights. They have struggled to protect women and girls from domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape. On economic matters, feminists have advocated for workplace rights, including maternity leave and equal pay and against other form of gender specified discrimination against women. Although, first time we see in history a woman taking up her pen in defense of her sex is in the 15th century, but a more systematic and organized movements of feminists/feminism started much later. Feminists and scholars have divided legal contribution by the feminism movements into three different periods, popularly known as the waves of feminism.
The first wave transpired in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, which attempted to secure basic rights for women from none available at all. Their struggle was focused on legal right to vote, right to own property. Susan B Anthony in her famous "Speech after Arrest for illegal voting" in 1872 raised the question that everyone was afraid of asking, why women should be punished under the law but they cannot use the law for their own protection? Why women should be subject to a constitution which fails to specify women? In Britain as result of the movements by the feminist, Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed, granting the right of the women to vote. However, the law was narrowly drafted and the right was only granted to those women who were over the age of 30 and owned houses. Later on, feminist movement ensured voting right for all women over the age of 21 years. In USA, feminists, such as Lucy Stone and Susan Anthony campaigned for the abolition of slavery prior to their campaign for women's right to vote. The Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution 1919 eventually granted women the right to vote. Feminists working during this period are known as liberal feminists, trying to liberate the women from oppression and discrimination.
Problems with the First Wave: Feminists active in the first wave have basically focused on the notion of equality; however, they have done so by considering "Men to be the ideal towards which women should aspire". Legal rights, some of them to be precise, were secured but perhaps law consciously or unconsciously, through its makers, contributed in creating laws for women against a male standard. Therefore, at a later stage of first wave, many argued that for feminism to move forward and for law to be developed properly, the women must first set aside this attitude, whereby feminism wrongly becomes a competition with men to be like .
The Second Wave occurred in the 1960s and 70s, which campaigned for individual legal and social rights for women. Second wave moved away from the general rights to other issues of equality, such as ending discrimination and granting women the right over their individual lives such as freedom to plan their family, rightat work place, right to hold public office, to have marital, parental and religious rights. Reform related to law of abortion, representation in media, equal access to school athletics are contribution of the second wave.
Second wave sought for replacement of the male standard in the name of equality and based their arguments on the notion that women are different from men, having different upbringing and ethics, therefore, should be treated differently from men. They argued for law to be designed by law makers keeping in mind the ‘feminine factor’. Some believed that there is a male-based authority and power structure, whereby the law makers are mostly men or those women who believes male standard is the ultimate standard, and in their opinion this was responsible for oppression and inequality for women. They advocated that as long as the system and its values are not changed, society and law will never be reformed in any significant way to ensure women's right.
Problems with the Second Wave: Modem feminists have been critical of those active in the second wave, claiming, second wave over-emphasized on the experiences and thoughts of the upper middle class white women only. Male standard cannot be the ultimate criteria for women, at the same time, universal definition of the "feminine" factor cannot also be the answer as different classes of women with different backgrounds will have different experience and issues. Feminists such as AmeliaJones conclusively termed second wave movements as guilty of generalizations and the law enacted during that period seems to be also very generic in nature. Indeed, it is impossible to generalize women’s experiences across classes, cultures and histories.
The Third Wave extends from the 1990s to the present, including the post modem feminism, dealing with perceived failures of the second wave feminism and also as a response to the backlash against initiatives and movements created by the second wave. Post modem feminists criticized feminist movements so far as too westernized and ethnocentric. They have pointed out that law enacted so far has one way or other failed to take into account the unique experience of women from non-western and third world countries. For them, due to lack of adequate and specific legal provisions, women's bodies have been objectified throughout history through the changing ideologies of fashion, diets, exercise programs, cosmetic surgery, pornography etc, while making them believe that these are women's right and doing so will actually be good. Perhaps rightly pointed out by some modem feminists that second wave left women thinking that competing with men and cherishing their feminine side by objectifying themselves in the name of independence is a good idea. Clearly it is not!!
They have pointed out the contribution from law in various other aspects as well. In particular, gender bias from law as discussed by feminists were focused on reproductive rights and right of abortion. Reproductive rights are rights related to sexual reproduction and reproductive health. Unfortunately, "reproductive rights" are not recognized in international human rights law and the effect of lack of adequate legal protection is wide spreading, affecting some or all of the following rights: the right to legal or safe abortion, the right to control one's reproductive functions, the right to access to quality reproductive healthcare, and the right to education and access in order to make reproductive choices free from coercion, discrimination, and violence. However, some sort of development has been achieved by The Sixteenth article of the Proclamation of Teheran, which recognizes- reproductive rights as a subset of human rights and states, "Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of theirchildren.
More importantly, abortion is one area which feminists believe have not properly been dealt by the legal provisions. Women's access to legal abortions is restricted by law in most countries in the world. Even where abortion is permitted by law, women may only have limited access to safe abortion services. Although only few countries prohibit abortion in all cases and in most countries and jurisdictions, abortion is allowed to save the pregnant woman's life, or where the pregnancy is the result of rape, it is evident that lack of adequate protection and provisions from law can have drastic effect. Human Rights Watch states that where women's access to safe and legal abortion services are restricted, the following human rights maybe at risk: the right to life, the right to health (or health care),right to freedom from discrimination, right to security of person, the right to liberty, the right to privacy, the right to information, the right to be free from cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, the right to decide the number and spacing of children (reproductive rights), the right to freedom of thought, and the right to freedom of religion.
The Male Reaction:
The relationship between men and feminism has been complex. Men have taken significant interest in feminism and in each wave of its movements. There have been positive and negative reactions and responses, depending on individual man and the social context of the time. These responses have varied from Pro feminism to masculism to anti-feminism. In the 21st century the new thread of reactions to feminist ideologies have emerged including a generation of male scholars involved in gender studies and also men's rights activists who promote male equality, including equal treatment in family, divorce and anti-discrimination law. Historically a number of men have engaged with feminism, e.g. Philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who demanded equal rights for women in 18th century.
However, a number of feminists, mostly radical feminists, have maintained that men cannot be feminists simply because they are not women. They argued that men are granted inherent privileges by law and the legal system that prevent them from identifying with feminist struggles, thus making it impossible for them to identify with feminists.
On the other hand, a number of feminist writers maintain that identifying as a feminist is the strongest stand men can take in the struggle against sexism inherent in law and in the struggle for reforming it. They have argued that men should be allowed, or even be encouraged, to participate in the feminist movement. They see men and women working together for women right as the way forward.
Indeed, it is time for us to realize that feminism as a legal or even a social issue is an all-encompassing human issue and that is why human rights should be secured jointly by men and women.
New concepts and proposals:
Time has come to realize and to act keeping the notion in mind that women are people, i.e. human being, and that should be the ultimate criteria when it comes to securing their rights. Some of the modem human right activists have actually expressed their views that the way to future should be to unite the genders, specially for purpose of law to have its optimum effect. They have called those women or men who seek to separate the sexes as different class as"sexist rather than feminist". Perhaps that's too aggressive, but the content is worth considering. Ensuring human rights for all human in general will answer the call of feminists of all branches and may just produce the right balance sought for centuries.
In compare, strictly speaking in the context of availability of legal provisions for better protection of women, Bangladesh, in my opinion,is much ahead than many other countries. We have detailed provisions addressing various issues regarding women.The Prevention of Violence Against Women and Children Act 2000, Acid Control Act 2002,The Prevention of Acid Offenses Act 2002,Provisions related to Prevention of Domestic Violence, High Court’s directives related to Sexual Harassment at Work, Anti- Dowry Act 2000,etc are available in Bangladesh. Some of the other legal jurisdictions, including some western countries are definitely lacking far behind in compare to Bangladesh in producing adequate legislation.
However, in reality, we are far behind. The reason for that is our inadequate awareness. For example, there are adequate provisions for Prevention Against Domestic Violence in our country, but in reality do we expect wife of a rickshaw puller, who is perhaps get beaten by the husband every other day, to be aware of the provisions and to take benefit of the provisions? Have we created the platform for her to take the benefit of the legal protection the law has offered? The answer is surely negative.
So, what we need is awareness, rather than more new legal provisions. Therefore, the movements of feminists in Bangladesh should now rather focus on implementation and application of the laws already available. We are on regular basis failing to utilize what we already have, and there is no doubt about that. Some may think awareness itself will not change or dramatically improve the condition of women in Bangladesh. Perhaps true, but power of awareness should not be lightly seen. Prime example of it is the current situation with Eve-teasing. Just because people in general, men-women both are aware of the provision and legal protection, the law has been successfully enforced in the country and we have witnessed a dramatic decrease of such events, along with strict legal response to such instances. In my opinion, awareness is what we need. We also need men and women all to work for restoring human rights, rather than women right only. Optimistically speaking, when we will start bringing men and women in the same platform of being human and will start working towards establishing human rights, the sad picture of gender bias and discrimination may change.
However, those who are working with and for women's right,demanding legislation for particular rights, need to remember the practical context and culture of our country. While important, understanding the struggle, needs and issues of woman living in the slums and resolving those cannot be achieved by conducting seminars in the air conditioned rooms. We need to involve those who are directly affected. We need them to come forward and lead the process. Once again, the way to provide the platform to those women struggling in the slums and deprived of minimum human rights would be by building awareness. Let us hope that through ensuring human rights we would be able to put an end to the struggle of women.
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