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Home / India News / Landmark decade for equal rights

Landmark decade for equal rights

The second decade of the 21st century will be remembered for challenging the idea of what it means to be a woman, and solidifying an intersectional approach to women’s issues.

india Updated: Dec 30, 2019 01:22 IST
Dhamini Ratnam
Dhamini Ratnam
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Police use water cannons to disperse demonstrators at protests against the gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi on December 16, 2012
Police use water cannons to disperse demonstrators at protests against the gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi on December 16, 2012 (HT photos/S Saxena)

It may well be a truism to say that the history of women’s rights is a history of protest. This is as true today as it was a century ago, when, in 1920, American women won the right to vote following the suffrage movement.

If the 20th century was about women around the world gaining the right to vote, the right to leave their domestic spheres and go to work, and the right of self-determination over their own bodies (birth control pills and medical termination of pregnancies), the first two decades of the 21st century will be remembered for challenging the very idea of what it means to be a woman.

“A person assigned female gender at birth” has replaced “woman” in women’s rights parlance, because gender itself has been taken off its perch of biological fixity and exposed as a social, cultural and economic construct that keeps in place patriarchal hierarchies.

To think of women’s rights today, one must consider other factors that are equally significant and essential to their identity such as class, religion, region and within the subcontinent, caste. The 2010s will be remembered for solidifying such an intersectional approach, particularly in relation to the transgender rights movement.

A caveat: As with any analysis of a constructed time period — a decade, after all, is a period of 10 years through common agreement — it is impossible to think of these changes without acknowledging what preceded them. Women fight for rights today because other women, in the past, fought for other ones. It is, at the same time, an ongoing battle: the right for self-determination, to have one’s voice count in household decisions, to have one’s experiences of pleasure or harassment and violence be heard and validated by larger social units, to be represented politically, all of these form the baseline of protests that marked the past, this decade and may be the coming decades, too.

And now, back to the definition.

Gender, as taught in our science curriculum, is often conflated with sex, which in turn, refers to biological components such as chromosomes, hormones and organs. We were taught that it follows that a woman is a person born with female sex organs, the XX chromosome, and with a preponderance of estrogen. However, this decade has taught us that the one does not follow from the other. Perhaps the single biggest sign of this change was when the Court for Arbitration in Sports, located in Lausanne in Switzerland, asked the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to amend its rules for female sportspersons.

Indian athlete Dutee Chand was behind this. Barred from competing in the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow because a test — which she had not given permission for — found that the naturally occurring testosterone in her body was higher than the permissible limit. Chand, an Olympic hopeful at the time, decided to fight this case at CAS, which is the highest court for such sporting cases. She won, IAAF rules were suspended for two years and India was directed to allow her to compete. IAAF then formulated a new rule, included a changed name and restricted the athletic events to which these limits applied. In 2018, a South African sprinter, Caster Semenya, challenged the new rule. Semenya lost, and has sought an appeal.

To be sure, this change in rule was not welcomed by everyone. Several women sportspersons and sports authorities questioned the CAS ruling that permitted Chand to compete. They argued that it disturbed the level playing field that all women athletes were entitled to. However, the argument was not based on fact: the new rules were formulated after IAAF found that higher levels of naturally occurring testosterone did not, as previously thought, give athletes like Chand an advantage over others competing in similar categories as her. A win, a change, and an ongoing battle.

What it means to be a woman has always been a contentious issue. Gender roles are assigned based on an essentialist understanding of womanhood, and science has, often enough, been used as a fig leaf. However, it was in this decade more than any other that such essentialist notions were challenged. In an emergent intersex movement, persons with differences in sexual development — whether in chromosomes, or sexual organs — have begun to vocalise their right to choose their gender rather than have it chosen for them by gynecologists or their parents. Already these protests have borne results. In April, the Madras high court banned normative surgeries on intersex infants and children. A few months ago, the state of Tamil Nadu banned these surgeries. Earlier this month, intersex rights organisations called for a nationwide ban in a conference held in New Delhi. If it comes through, India will become the third country, after Taiwan and Malta, to protect the rights of intersex children. This past decade has also witnessed an emergent transgender rights movement fighting for self-determination of gender. In 2014, the Supreme Court of India offered a legal recognition of the gender identity of transgender persons. Trans rights groups have sought an implementation of the court’s directives, including self-determination (which is to say, no one, other than the person themselves, can identify their gender). However, the recently passed Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act 2019, has introduced a two-step process to obtain gender identity documentation if a transperson identifies as a woman, or a man. Another win, another change, another ongoing battle.

As the decade winds to an end and a fourth wave feminism engulfs millennials — the generation that will take forward the protests for women’s rights — it is fitting to conclude by referring to the Me Too movement.

Started 13 years ago by American civil rights activist Tarana Burke on MySpace, the movement has been one of the fourth wave feminists’ most impactful interventions on the issues of gender equity. Using social media and other internet-based applications — one of the hallmarks of fourth wave feminism — as a tool to connect women who are sexual assault and harassment survivors, the movement received a fillip in 2017, when several actors, including A-listers such as Gwyneth Paltrow and Salma Hayek, accused Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct. Millions of others around the globe also used the MeToo hashtag on social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to describe their own experiences of sexual harassment and violence, indicating the scale of the problem. At the same time, Me Too was instrumental is giving a platform to millions of women to speak about the quotidien violence they face, and which the law was inadequate to address.

In 2017, Raya Sarkar, a PhD scholar first circulated a crowdsourced list of academicians accused of sexual harassment by students. A year later, thousands of women from different professions, including Bollywood, revealed names of their alleged harassers.

Former union minister of state, MJ Akbar and artist Subodh Gupta have filed defamation suits against their accusers — journalist Priya Ramani and an anonymous Instagram account, SeenHerdAnd, (it collected testimonies of women associated with the Indian art world against multiple artists), respectively.

Women argue sexual harassment is a continuum based on entrenched ideas of gender inequality. And while the law may convict a person for an incident of crime; it does not address behaviour. Thus, fourth wave feminists around the world and in India seem to be pondering over how to reimagine the justice system itself such that restorative justice is made available to all, victims and
oppressors, alike. A win, a change, an ongoing battle.