Despite great strides made by the international women’s rights movement over many years, women and girls around the world are still married as children or trafficked into forced labor and sex slavery. They are refused access to education and political participation, and some are trapped in conflicts where rape is perpetrated as a weapon of war. Around the world, deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth are needlessly high, and women are prevented from making deeply personal choices in their private lives. (Human Rights Watch)
Throughout the 19th century and several centuries before ‘Coverture’ was enshrined in the common law of England. Simply meaning, ‘upon marriage, a woman’s legal rights and obligations were subsumed by those of her husband.’ The premise of this principle is clearly described in William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England in the late 18th century:
‘By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything; and is therefore called in our law-French a feme-covert; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. Upon this principle, of a union of person in husband and wife, depend almost all the legal rights, duties, and disabilities that either of them acquire by the marriage. I speak not at present of the rights of property, but of such as are merely personal. For this reason, a man cannot grant anything to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself: and therefore it is also generally true, that all compacts made between husband and wife, when single, are voided by the intermarriage.’(3)
Now let’s just check the definition of slavery. Wikipedia says, ‘Slavery is a legal or economic system under which people are treated as property. While laws and systems vary, as property, slaves may be bought and sold. Slaves can be held from the time of their capture, purchase or birth, and deprived of the right to leave, to refuse to work or to demand compensation.’(4)
Many female of the human species know what this means all around the world. Some follow laws, for many the laws are enforced; unwritten. Every human rights organization, many governments, feminist groups advocate and fight for the fundamental rights of women. Should a woman be allowed to wear certain clothes, should it be okay for women to work after marriage or aspire for jobs that are ‘different’? Is it acceptable if a woman does not want to bear child or should we let her choose when to get married? Can she happily remain single if that’s what she wants or is it even okay for her to want new experiences? No matter advancements in every field, these questions have remained the same through centuries.
Laws and traditions are made by those in power and through history, these have kept women on a tight leash, be it England, Turkey, United States, South/Western Asia or Africa. Statements like the one made by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently at a Women’s Rights conference (of all places!) can be protested against but are of no surprise. He says, “Women are not equal to men… it is against nature to put them on an equal footing.”(6) This sentiment is very easily shared by many around the world.
Laws allowing women specific rights are made after much debate, backlash, even from religious groups highlighting that God doesn’t want women to do certain things. “Women cannot do this” is repeated many times over. “Women should not do/want this” more times and the judgment is passed without the burden of proof of capability! After much struggle, rights are ‘granted’ and basic freedom of thought ‘allowed’ – Equality; a reflection of the benefactor’s magnanimity.
When it has to be allowed, is the status equal?!
The way is found if we as women, have a will to change our own beliefs ingrained through centuries of traditional conditioning.
Equality is a fact, not a privilege and self-worth needs no external validation; should it?
1. Feature image courtesy: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-life/11620161/Sex-and-marriage-Victorian-19th-century-advice-for-single-women.html
The British Library has unearthed a book written by Haydn Brown published in 1899; the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign. Here is a book giving advices to the young unattached Victorian woman and a great insight into life and (in)equalities in the 19th century. Interestingly, it is not all too irrelevant in today’s times and the library has decided to republish it. The article captures some of the main points from the book.
Women’s own judgements of themselves and attitudes reinforces and helps carry forward social traditions (or impact change).