The perils of heedless gender equality

Excess makes a mess, so said the wag. Ati sarvatra varjayet, excess in anything is forbidden, says a verse in Maha-subhashita-samgraha, a compendium of Sanskrit aphorisms. When the concept of gender equality was stretched beyond logical limits, some women faced the consequences of such excess. Women have been at the receiving end of human irrationality for centuries, even as they became celebrated writers, painters, mathematicians, warriors and rulers sporadically throughout history. The dominant attitude of the male remained as was enshrined in the “holy” books of all religions and as was codified in Roman law that gave the label “property” to wife, along with children, slaves and cattle. Lip service was paid to women as mother and they were deified as the mother goddess in every ancient culture even before the idea of a male god took shape. The Manu Smriti declared, “where women are worshipped, gods rejoice”, but also enjoined a wife to worship her husband even if he were bereft of any virtue and the abode of every vice.

Throughout history, women have been glorified, beatified, deified and praised for motivating men to go forth in battle, for sending their sons to be martyred in war and for being the anthropomorphic symbol of the nation as motherland. Joan of Arc, who rallied her people to liberate France from the English, was canonized in 1820 as a Saint, although in the 15th century she was burnt at the stake. “The Motherland Calls” an iconic sculpture celebrating the Battle of Stalingrad, shows Mother Russia with a raised sword calling her children to war. Yet, the Bolsheviks in the USSR considered the feminist movement as bourgeois and propagated the idea that motherhood came naturally by virtue of being a woman.

It was only in the 19th century that women started demanding their place in the sun beyond being a “mother”. They faced serious opposition from the patriarchal society. The history of women’s struggle for the right to vote, even in the USA, starts before The Declaration of Independence, when in 1869, Wyoming Territory gave women the right to vote. It culminated in the USA conferring this right on women in 1920. France was a latecomer (1944) but Switzerland was even slower, giving this right to women in 1971. Islamic Saudi Arabia joined the tail end in 2015 and there are many undemocratic countries where neither men nor women can vote.

Women activists did not rest on their laurels after being enfranchised. Feminism had already emerged in the middle of the 19th century with its premise of equality between the two sexes and the battle for the ballot being merely the first phase of their struggle. As this initial goal was achieved by the middle of the 20th century, feminists raised the issue of denial of legal equality, particularly in the field of employment. For instance, under French law, a married woman did not have the right to work without her husband’s permission. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) took up the challenge and adopted Resolutions on gender equality, pay equity and maternity protection. The 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights of Work deemed gender equality a fundamental human right.

Democratic nations have moved swiftly towards gender equality in matters of employment and in addition to the legal norms, a social norm has evolved where an allegation of gender discrimination is stigmatic. In many countries, with the USA leading the pack, women have won combat roles, on equal terms with men, in all wings of the armed forces.

It is ironic that this great success of the feminists led to serious hazards in the life of a section of women who already stood deprived of many rights available to citizens. While prisoners everywhere, by the very nature of their condition, are denied the right to privacy, this denial becomes more accentuated in case of women. The two words together, women and prisoner, automatically become a double jeopardy. Add to it the fact that most of the prisoners are from economically poor, poorly educated and socially disadvantaged groups and the recipe for institutional discrimination and injustice is ready.

Some women employees of prisons in the USA approached the courts claiming that they have an equal right with men to be posted in men’s prisons. It was obvious that there are more prisons for men than for women and these women were eyeing the career opportunities that would become available if they could be eligible for working in male penitentiaries. The prison administrations pleaded that the presence of female officers in male prisons would endanger such officers. Further, it would make the maintenance of discipline among prisoners more difficult particularly due to differences between men and women in physical proportions and sometimes, physical strength. The administration further pleaded that it would be embarrassing for both the female officers and male prisoners when pat down and strip searches were conducted and when officers had to observe prisoners during shower and toilet.

The judges were unmoved by these pleadings and held that the right to equal opportunity in employment trumped these inconveniences. In Griffin v. Michigan Department of Corrections it was held that gender could not be a “bona fide occupational qualification” for prison officers and that “inmates did not possess any protected right under the Constitution against being viewed while naked by officers of opposite sex”. It was not long before male officers filed similar petitions for being posted to female prisons. This involved male officers being present during pat down and strip searches, including body cavity searches of female inmates and watching female prisoners during shower and toilet. This time, the female prisoners joined the litigation claiming loss of privacy and dignity. The Federal Supreme Court in Bell v. Wolfish, while admitting that “this practice instinctively gives us the most pause”, still ruled that such loss of privacy as comes with body cavity searches is “reasonable” as “a detention facility is fraught with serious security dangers. Smuggling of money, drugs, weapons, and other contraband is all too common an occurrence”. To the female inmates’ apprehension of sexual assault by male officers who held authority over them, the court ordered steps to strengthen the complaint system.

Thus, the gender equality in employment won after a century of feminist struggle, when carried too far, boomeranged on disadvantaged women exposing them to loss of dignity and cruel treatment at the hands of men. In the second part of this article, we shall discuss how equality in a world which is changing from a binary of males and females to a plethora of sexual identities, women are further exposed to loss of hard-won advantages giving way to male domination by another route.

Source : Daily World

The writer RN Prasher is a retired IAS officer of Haryana cadre | Personal Opinions

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