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A great woman behind every man
Such is the position women have come to occupy in the world today, in various spheres, from politics to business, and adventure to scientific research, that it is indeed intriguing that the right for women to vote in elections took time to be granted in several countries. Also, it is a matter for regret, that a bill proposing an amendment to the Constitution of India to provide for women a percentage of seats in the lower house of Parliament and State assemblies should be languishing, awaiting passage by Parliament
I wonder if you have heard this. RK Laxman, the legendary cartoonist, was once asked why his caricatures always referred to the 'common man, and not the 'common woman'. His retort was, "because a woman can never be common!" Such is the position women have come to occupy in the world today, in various spheres, from politics to business, and adventure to scientific research, that it is indeed intriguing that the right for women to vote in elections took time to be granted in several countries. Women's suffrage a movement demanding the right for women to vote in elections, was a cause exposed by national and international organisations, especially the International Women's Suffrage Alliance, started in the early 20th century in Germany. The movement was a broad one, with activists such as Emmeline Pankhurst in Britain and Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott in America in the lead.
The first country in Europe to introduce women suffrage was Finland in 1906. It was only 1913 that Norway became the first sovereign nation to allow women to vote. Canada and Britain followed suit about a decade later than spread to some states in the United States of America. Strangely enough France and Greece, and much later, Switzerland, were among the last to extend the privilege to women. Needless to say, it is a matter of immense gratification that India, proudly, claims a prominent place among the countries which ushered in universal suffrage, as soon as they became republics.
An intriguing a development wasthe coming into beingof organisations such as the Women's National Anti-Suffrage League, which, especially in the period before the First World War, opposed franchise for women, citing their relative experience. Interestingly enough in ancient Athens, regarded as the birthplace of democracy, only adult males owning land, enjoyed the right to vote. From Marie Curie, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize and the only woman to win it twice, through Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman astronaut,to Agatha Christie, also called the Queen of Crime and made a Dame by the Queen of England to Sindhu, the world champion in badminton, women have made their mark in many areas including scientific research, exploration, sport and adventure.At the World Boxing Women Champions 2023, Nitu Ghanghas and Saweety Boora did India prod with their historic accomplishments.
As is surely the case with everyone else, several women have, in their own way, had their impact on my life.Needless to say, the greatest influence on my life has been my mother. She nurtured me, a premature child, born in the days sans antibiotics and incubators, with great care and affection. She would wrap the fragile lump of flesh in cotton and feed it with an ink filler. And when it went blue, a frequent occurrence, administer a few drops of brandy (that was how early my introduction to the elixir was!). Between her, and her brother who,at that time, was a house surgeon in the Madras General Hospital, they managed to ensure my survival, a possibility that had looked quite remote, weeks earlier.
The wife is usually called the 'better half' on account of the fact that it is she who undertakes the responsibility of sharing all the activities of her husband and fills his life with compassion, care and understanding. A hundred percent true, in my case. During my tenure as Chief Secretary to the Government of Andhra Pradesh, I had to appear before the National Women's Commission of whichthe present Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman wasa Member. I still break into a sweat when I recall the excruciating grilling I received at her hands that afternoon!
I had another brief, but memorable, association with the legendary tennis player. Martina Navratilova, when she had cometo Hyderabad to play a few exhibition matches. As the Chief Secretary to the government I had been invited to witness one of them. I could not resist an invitation to join the players in a game, and, after a gap of several decades, played a shaky, but thoroughly enjoyable set. I even actually managed to score a point, upon which we both exchanged a 'high-five'!
Out of respect, and regard, the wife of the Head of the State of a country is also referred to as the 'First Lady', although she, on her own, may have won no election or qualified for any office. In fairness, it must also be noted that similar respect is shown to the spouse when that office is occupied by a woman, 'First Gentleman' being the title used in that case. The scintillating beauty, and irresistible attraction, of some women altered the history of the world. Such were the good looksof the Helen of Troy, in Greek mythology,that her face is famously supposed to have 'launched a thousand ships.'
Gone are the days, in other words, when the words of Shakespeare's Hamlet "frailty, thy name is woman," are to be taken seriously.I have often wondered why the tradition, a very commendable one at that, of giving womenprecedence in many matters, improved by the spirit of 'ladies first',is confined only to the western world. Apparently, the practice began in ancient times, in Germany, when cavemen, fearing attacks by wild animals, ensured that the women were the first to be moved to a safer place. Over time, the practice came to be associated with a display of courtesy and chivalry, as also concern, for the so-called 'fair sex'. All over the world today, women are invariably treated with similar consideration, when it comes to situations such as standing in a queue,or during rescue operations undertaken, in the wake of the occurrence of a disaster.
The Government of India has, over time, mounted several initiatives in order to ensure a level playing field for women in public life.Among the earliest intiativestaken in this direction was the constitution, in 1952, of the Central Social Welfare Board with Dr Durgabai Deshmukh as the founder Chairperson to carry out welfare activities for promoting voluntarism, providing technical and financial assistance to the voluntary organisations for the general welfare of family, women and children. The Government of India and many other states followed with steps such as the reservation of seats for women in elections to local bodies, admissions to educational institutions, employmentand in welfare programmes, among others.It is a matter for regret, though, that the most significant of all initiatives on the anvil, namely, a bill proposing an amendment to the Constitution of India to provide for women a percentage of seats in the lower house of Parliament and State assemblies should be languishing, awaiting passage by Parliament.
Those who have read 'Pygmalion' by Bernard Shaw, or watched the movie based on that book, 'My Fair Lady', will remember Professor Henry Higgins, whose role was portrayed to realistically, be the legendary actor Rex Harrison, saying, "Why can't the French speak English?" I have little doubt that most of us, at one time or other, have wondered why men can't be like women!
(The writer is formerly Chief Secretary, Government of Andhra Pradesh)