Category Archives: WOW History

History at our Doorstep


Old Vietnamese Communist Party, founded in 1930 to overthrow the French colonial regime, later renamed itself to Indochina Communist Party and issued a resolution to include whole French Indochina (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam). Among the 10 points the party was built around, ‘bringing democratic freedom to the masses’, ‘dispensing education to all people’ and ‘equality between man and woman’ were a key part. By 1945, the party dissolved into separate Cambodian, Lao and Vietnamese communist parties and 1951 saw the formation of the Cambodian party named Khmer People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP) heavily supported by the Vietnamese party during its initial phase of existence.

Through many political twists and turns and considerable historical rewriting, the party was renamed Workers Party of Kampuchea (WPK) in 1960 in a secret meeting between 14 ‘rural’ faction delegates and 7 from the ‘urban’ faction. This was further changed to ‘Communist Party of Kampuchea’ (also known as Khmer Communist Party) in 1971 under Pol Pot’s leadership. Its followers were generally known as Khmer Rouge (Red Khmers).

The leadership of the Khmer Rouge was largely unchanged between the 1960s and the mid-1990s. The Khmer Rouge leaders were mostly from middle-class families and had been educated at French universities. China “armed and trained” the Khmer Rouge during the civil war and continued to aid them years afterward.(1)_76722298_51950509

In power, the Khmer Rouge carried out a radical program that included isolating the country from foreign influence, closing schools, hospitals and factories, abolishing banking, finance and currency, outlawing all religions, confiscating all private property and relocating people from urban areas to collective farms where forced labor was widespread. The purpose of this policy was to turn professional and urban Cambodians, or “Old People”, into “New People” through agricultural labor. These actions resulted in massive deaths through executions, work exhaustion, illness, and starvation.

s-killing-fields2The Khmer Rouge regime arrested and eventually executed almost everyone suspected of connections with the former government or with foreign governments, as well as professionals and intellectuals. Ethnic Vietnamese, ethnic Thai, ethnic Chinese, ethnic Cham, Cambodian Christians, and the Buddhist monkhood were the demographic targets of persecution. Estimates range from 1.7 million to 3 million Cambodians executed during Pol Pot’s reign out of a 1975 population of roughly 8 million (1975 – 1979). A number of sites where collectively more than a million people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime are named the Killing Fields.(2)

During the Khmer Rouge regime, I was put in prison at the age of 15 for picking mushrooms in the rice fields to feed my pregnant sister. Under the Khmer Rouge, everything belonged to the Revolution — and picking up anything from the ground without their permission was a crime.” – YOUK CHANG, survivor of the Khmer Rouge killing fields.(3)

I wanted to look around for my relatives, but was unable to turn around. My neck was stiff with pain. My head hurt – oh how it hurt so badly. I could only feel around me with my two hands. Everywhere I touched was cold flesh. My hands were both trembling and I could not control them from shaking. I cried my heart out when I recognized a few dead bodies next to me, one of which was Oum and her unborn child. I suddenly remembered the bare foot I saw when I woke up – it was hers. Her elderly father and her two sisters were all piled on top of each other and side by side as though they were embracing just before they lost their lives. I could not go on. My cries turned to a sobs; it was the only sound around besides the mosquitoes which continued to torment my almost bloodless body. I began to fade and feel as though my life was slipping away. I passed out again on top of the dead bodies. I was totally out cold.” – RONNIE YIMSUT was 13 years old when the Khmer Rouge swept into Phnom Penh in 1975. He and his extended family were removed from their homes in Siem Reap, near the famed ruins of Angkor, and forced to work in collective camps. During the last week of 1977, Ronnie’s family was horded up for the last time before being killed by the Khmer Rouge.(4)

We endured misery which words can never fully describe and a numbness to life itself. I got sicker with each passing day. There was virtually no muscle left on my body at all, just skin and bones. My head was bigger than my trunk even though my body was swollen from starvation. I lost my vision and the use of my legs. I was yellow with hepatitis and was ready to die if it were not for my greatest fear – I would not die without my mother. As I lay motionless I recalled my mother’s voice urging me on and not to accept death, for it was this that saved my life. The Khmer Rouge would not kill me.” – SOPHAL LENG STAGG was nine years old when she and her family were forced to leave their home in Phnom Penh in April 1975, joining the millions of Cambodians who were devastated by the Khmer Rouge. Today, Sophal and her husband, Bill Stagg, run the Southeast Asian Children’s Mercy Fund, a not-for-profit corporation dedicated to raising awareness of the genocide as well as collecting much needed funds for children in Cambodia. As Sophal says, “I am determined to tell our story. I believe our story must be told by all survivors, again and again, to prevent a repeat of the inhumanities that existed during Cambodia’s darkest years.

LIENG – A medical Doctor tells her story

(Lieng’s story is taken directly from Soul Survivors)

April 17, 1975 is stamped on my mind because our lives were changed forever after that date. I could have left Cambodia image-lieng-01before 1975, but I didn’t consider it because I had no idea the Khmer Rouge would be so cruel. I was in my fifth year of medical school at the time. My father was a surgeon and he wanted one of his children to become a doctor. I agreed because practicing medicine is a service.”

Lieng’s husband was also a medical student and they had 2 young children. The Khmer Rouge ordered them to move into a work camp.

For four years I lived like a slave. At first my job was to dig out tree stumps, which was very difficult work. Later I was assigned the miserable task of making compost from human feces. In 1976 there were 20 families living in my village. One by one they were killed. By 1977, only four families in our village were left. Terrified that we would be the next to die, we focused solely on our work and never spoke to each other.”

In 1979 the Vietnamese ousted the Khmer Rouge and Lieng returned home.

As soon as I arrived in Phnom Penh I went directly to my old house hoping to find my relatives, but no one was there. I walked through the empty house and saw that most things were just as we left them, four years ago. Our books on Buddhism were still on the shelf, along with my husband’s class notes. A Vietnamese soldier came in and told me that no one was permitted to live in that area. As I was leaving, I stopped and wrote a message to my family on the front gate saying that I had come looking for them.

No one read the message. Everyone in Lieng’s family had died including her parents, her husband and her sisters.

After the Khmer Rouge regime there were only forty doctors left in the country. Nearly all the older doctors had died, so we had no specialists or experts. There wasn’t a single psychiatrist in Cambodia. Only eighteen out of the fifty medical students in my class survived, and I was the only woman. I went back to medical school and graduated in nine months because Cambodia desperately needed doctors. I became director of a hospital’s emergency and recovery rooms. Some of my colleagues worked in Cambodia for a while and then went to live abroad because the conditions here were so terrible…

“In 1992 I passed the entrance exam to get a postgraduate degree in anesthesiology and went through a three-year program with nine other doctors, studying under a visiting French expert at the University of Phnom Penh. It was more difficult to remember the lessons because I am older. I finished school at age fifty, which is retirement age, but I agreed to work and teach in the medical school for six years.”

Lieng wanted to do this because there was only one trained anesthesiologist in all of Cambodia.

CambodiaThe Khmer Rouge government was finally overthrown in 1979 by invading Vietnamese troops, after a series of violent border confrontations.(6) Pol Pot relocated to the jungles of Southwest Cambodia and from 1979 to 1997, he and a remnant of the old Khmer Rouge operated near the border of Cambodia and Thailand, where they clung to power. Pol Pot died while under house arrest by his own military chief on the night of 15 April 1998.(7)

The space for discussing, redressing and healing from the genocide only began to open up in the past decade with the establishment of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.

Founded in 2006, the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (ECCC) is a “hybrid” tribunal using both Cambodian and international judges and staff to investigate the Khmer Rouge’s crimes against humanity and bring leading regime figures to justice.

Intended as a Southeast Asian equivalent of the Nuremberg trials, the tribunal has cost $232 million so far. But the pace of kr-trialproceedings has seemed glacial, given the advancing years of the suspected war criminals, two of whom have died while facing trial. Another was ruled mentally unfit to stand trial. (The Khmer Rouge’s top leader, Pol Pot, died without ever facing charges. It is speculated that he committed suicide when he learnt that his party was planning to hand him over to the International tribunal.)(8)

History at our doorstep.
Remain ignorant; invite it again
Some humans survive, humanity but died,
It’s high time we break the chain!

But history does matter. There is a line connecting the Armenians and the Jews and the Cambodians and the Bosnians and the Rwandans. There are obviously more, but, really, how much genocide can one sentence handle?” – Author: Chris Bohjalian



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Waiting for ‘Comfort’

After experiencing that life in the garrison and being raped, I swear that until I die, I will fight for justice, not just for me but for all the women who were victims during the war,” Narcisa Claveria, 85, said.

They ruined our lives as women. My elder sister, she lost her mind because of the trauma. And I took care of her until she died. If this happened to you in Japan, would you be happy about it?” asked Claveria, who recalled being brought into a Japanese garrison when she was 13 or 14 in her home province Abra north of Manila together with her two sisters and five other women. They were then sexually abused.(1)

Comfort Women’; Women and girls who were forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army in occupied territories before and during World War II. The name ‘comfort women’ is a translation of the Japanese euphemism ianfu (慰安婦) and the similar Korean term wianbu (위안부). Ianfu is a euphemism for shōfu (娼婦) whose meaning is “prostitute(s)”.

Estimates vary as to how many women were involved, with numbers ranging from as low as 20,000 to as high as 360,000 to 410,000, in Chinese sources; the exact numbers are still being researched and debated. Many of the women were from occupied countries, including Korea, China, and the Philippines, although women from Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan (then a Japanese dependency), Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies), East Timor (then Portuguese Timor), and other Japanese-occupied territories were used for military ‘comfort stations’. Stations were located in Japan, China, the Philippines, Indonesia, then Malaya, Thailand, Burma, New Guinea, Hong Kong, Macau, and French Indochina. A smaller number of women of European origin from the Netherlands and Australia were also involved. Most former comfort women are now in their 80’s; old, sick and in need of maintenance medicines.(2)

But it is essential not to forget that those who came forward are just a very small fraction of all of the victims. Many have already passed away, and others do not wish to identify themselves.

In a decisive moment Kim Hak-Sun, a victim, came forward in Seoul, Korea in the summer of 1991 and demanded that Japan take responsibility. Ms. Kim was the only complainant to use her own name in a lawsuit demanding compensation for Pacific War victims. The lawsuit was lodged in December 1991.

The Japanese government’s denial of responsibility and casual approach to the issue irked the Republic of Korea and a movement promoted mainly by women quickly gained ground in the country. On 10 January 1992, Yoshiaki Yoshimi, a Chuo University professor and Japanese historian, announced the existence of documents proving the involvement of the Japanese military and the fact that the phenomenon was part of Japanese wartime policy. These developments created a shock in Japan.(3)

Military correspondence of the Japanese Imperial Army shows that the aim of facilitating comfort stations was the prevention of rape crimes committed by Japanese army personnel and thus preventing the rise of hostility among people in occupied areas.

Given the well-organized and open nature of prostitution in Japan, it was seen as logical that there should be organized prostitution to serve the Japanese Armed Forces. The Japanese Army established the comfort stations to prevent venereal diseases and rape by Japanese soldiers, to provide comfort to soldiers and head off espionage. The comfort stations were not actual solutions to the first two problems, however. According to Yoshiaki Yoshimi, they aggravated the problems. Yoshimi has asserted, “The Japanese Imperial Army feared most that the simmering discontentment of the soldiers could explode into a riot and revolt. That is why it provided women.”(2)

On 31 August 1994, the Prime Minister issued a statement looking ahead to the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, expressing his “profound and sincere remorse and apologies” with regard to the comfort women issue, and stating his desire to find “an appropriate way which enables a wide participation” of Japanese people in order to share such feelings of apology and remorse.

The Government decided to acknowledge moral responsibility for the comfort women issue and establish a Fund in cooperation with the people of Japan – Asian Women’s Fund. It was decided that the fund, funded through donations from the people of Japan, would go towards (i) those conducting medical and welfare projects for former comfort women; (ii) when these projects are executed, the government will express the nation’s apology; (iii) Government will collate historical documents relating to the comfort women, to serve as lesson of history.

‘Comfort Women’ from all former Japanese colonies emphatically say, ‘Not Enough’.
Japan government needs to acknowledge its involvement and should be held legally responsible. While Japan accepted moral responsibility for the harm to women, the issue time and again gets looked at as an incidental to war time crisis. A comment from Toru Hashimoto, the Mayor of Osaka in 2013, highlights the same, “For soldiers who risked their lives in circumstances where bullets are flying around like rain and wind, if you want them to get some rest a comfort women system was necessary. That’s clear to anyone.”

For the women who were forced into wartime prostitution, the nightmare remains part of their psyche.

Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Rapporteur to the UN Commission 1996 regards the issue of ‘comfort women’ as ‘military sexual slavery’ and said, “The Japanese Government has accepted moral responsibility and this is a welcome beginning. The Asian Women’s Fund is an expression of the Japanese Government’s moral concern however this does not exempt the Government from the ‘legal claims’ of the comfort women under public international law.”

Inspired by the Korean women who gave voice to the issue, María Rosa Luna Henson or “Lola Rosa” (“Grandma Rosa”) RosaHensonPCIJ(1927- 1997) became the first Filipina who made public her story as a comfort woman (military sex slave) for the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War.(4)
She said that during the occupation, after being raped the first time, she joined the guerrilla resistance movement, then was captured, raped again, taken by order of Japanese military headquarters and confined with other women for nine months, during which time she was raped time after time. They were taken to a two-storey house and were held there for a year washing clothes during day time and being raped at night.(5)
Fidencia David, 86, was only 14 when she watched Japanese bombs drop in her Philippine village in 1942 during the Second World War. Soldiers burned down David’s house and used her as a sex slave for 10 days.(6)

Isabelita Vinuya, 81, can vividly hear the screams of men – brothers, fathers, uncles – as soldiersvinuya320 tied them up in the nearby school and burned them to death. The 13493428125Dg9SzzLJapanese soldiers then gathered the young girls like Vinuya, then 13, locked them in a dark, two-storey red house, tortured them and took turns raping them through the night. The Bahay na Pula or The Red House stands to this day in San Ildefenso, Bulacan.(7)

Every Wednesday, living comfort women, women’s organizations, socio-civic groups, religious groups, and a number of Comfort-Women-statue-415x260individuals participate in the “Wednesday Demonstrations” in front of the Japanese embassy in Seoul. In December 2011, a statue of a young woman was erected in front of the Japanese Embassy to honor the comfort women, on the 1,000th of the weekly “Wednesday Demonstrations”. The statue has stayed irrespective of the Japanese Government’s request for it to be taken down.

Different groups formed by the comfort women have asked the Philippine government to back their claims against the Japanese government. These groups have taken legal actions against Japan, then against their own government to back their claims and, as of August 2014, planned to take the case to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and Children (CEDAW).

These groups have made demonstrations in front of the Japanese embassy in Manila on many occasions, and give testimonies to Japanese tourists in Manila.

Since the 1990’s Taiwanese survivors have brought the issue of comfort women to light in the Taiwanese society through newspapers, books, and documentary films. They receive the support of a non-profit organization, Taipei Women’s Rescue Foundation (TWRF). Due to this, the Taiwanese government has asked Japan to apologize and compensate the war victims on a few occasions.(2)

While enmeshed political policies translate to a sluggish pace of support to the issue and demands but the former comfort women continue to fight.

Filipino Fidencia David captures the political cobweb and sentiment of the ‘military sex slaves’, across all former Japanese colonies –
A state apology and state compensation. Many of my colleagues have passed away with no justice after fighting for 22 years. The Japanese government has not acknowledged the atrocities. The Philippine government has also denied support to comfort women survivors because the country receives aid from Japan. It’s unfinished business. I will fight up until my deathbed.”(1)

Fellow Filipina, Isabelita Vinuya cannot conceal her anger when she says, “I no longer cry about what happened. I am angry. I am still very angry.”(7)



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Re-writing Legacy; Repeating Human Attitudes


Raden Ajeng Kartini (1879-1904) was born to aristocracy in Mayong village near Jepara, a town located in the center of the island of Java, an island then controlled by Holland as part of the Netherlands Indies (now Indonesia). A man of some modern attitudes, her father allowed her to attend Dutch elementary school along with her brothers. The schools were open only to Europeans and to sons of wealthy Javanese. Due to the advantages of her birth and her intellectual inclination, Kartini became one of the first native women allowed to learn to read and write in Dutch.

Despite her father’s permission to allow her a primary education, by Islamic custom and a Javanese tradition known as pingit, all girls, including Kartini, were forced to leave school at age 12 and stay home to learn homemaking skills. Even her status among the upper class could not save her from this tradition of discrimination against women; marriage was expected of her. This was despite the fact that for its part, the Dutch Education Department had finally given permission for R.A. Kartini to study in Batavia. At the age of 24, she was married to a man twice her age who already had three wives.

From 1900 to 1904 during Kartini’s stay at home from school according to the dictates of Javanese tradition; she found an outlet for her beliefs in letters she wrote in Dutch and sent to her friends in Holland. Kartini was unique in that she was a woman who was able to write; what set her apart even further was her rebellious spirit and her determination to air concerns that no one, not even men, were publicly discussing. In her letters, she protested against the treatment of women in Java, the practice of polygamy, and of the Dutch suppression of the island’s native population.

Kartini was not proud of being set apart from her countrymen as one of the privileged few of the aristocracy. In her writings she described two types of nobility, one of mind and one of deed. Simply being born from a noble line does not make one great; a person needs to do great deeds for humanity to be considered noble. In her letters, she wrote about the plight of Javanese citizens and the need to improve conditions through education and progress. In one of her letters, she described her wish to study further and make education accessible to all women. As Nursyahbani Katjasungkana commented in the Jakarta Post, “Kartini knew and expounded the concept that women can make choices in any aspect of their lives, careers, and personal matters.”

Despite the marriage, in 1903 Kartini was able to take a step forward towards achieving women’s equality by opening a school for girls. At this time, Kartini also published the paper “Teach the Javanese.”
Although, Kartini’s enthusiasm at educating Indonesian girls was short lived. On September 17, 1904, at the age of 25, she died while giving birth to her son.

In 1911 a collection of her Dutch letters were published posthumously, first in Java and then in Holland as kartini-door-duisternis-tot-lightDoor Duisternis tot Licht: Gedachten Over en Voor Het Javanese Volk (‘From Darkness to Light: Thoughts about and on Behalf of the Javanese People’). The book was then translated into several languages, including French, Arabic, and Russian, and in 1920 was translated by Agnes Louis Symmers into English as Letters of a Javanese Princess. In 1922 Armijn Pane finally translated the book into the Javanese language under the title Habis Gelap Terbitlah Terang (‘After Darkness, Light Is Born’) based on a verse found both in the Bible and the Qur’an in which God calls people out of the darkness and into the light. Recently, Kartini’s granddaughter, Professor Haryati Soebadio, re-translated the letters and published them as Dari Gelap Menuju Cahaya, meaning ‘From Darkness into Light.’(1)

Kartini’s letters spurred her nation’s enthusiasm for nationalism and garnered sympathy abroad for the plight of Javanese women. Syrian writer Aleyech Thouk translated ‘From Darkness into Light’ into Arabic for use in her country. Many of Kartini’s admirers established a string of “Kartini schools” across the island of Java, the schools are funded through private contributions. Kartini’s beliefs and letters inspired many women and effected actual change in her native Java. Taking their example, women from other islands in the archipelago, such as Sumatra, also were inspired to push for change in their regions. The 1945 Constitution establishing the Republic of Indonesia guaranteed women the same rights as men in the areas of education, voting rights, and economy.

In Indonesia, April 21, Kartini’s birthday, is a national holiday that recognizes her as a pioneer for women’s rights and emancipation. However, ambiguities in Kartini’s life and writings permit contemporary Indonesian leaders to shape her legacy to suit their goals. After 1965, the New Order Indonesian Government promoted Hari Ibu (Mother) Kartini or Mother Kartini Day. For that occasion, young girls are to wear tight, fitted jackets, batik shirts, elaborate hairstyles and ornate jewelry to school, supposedly replicating Kartini’s attire but in reality wearing an invented and more constricting ensemble than she ever did.

Thus Kartini now validates the New Order policy of State Ibuism, “which defines women as appendages and companions to their husbands, as procreators of the nation, as mothers and educators of children, as housekeepers, and as members of Indonesian society – in that order. In neither colonial nor independent Indonesia is there room for the Kartini who proclaimed “I long to be free, to be allowed, to be able to make myself independent, to be dependent on no one else, …. to never have to marry.”(2)

Mother she never got a chance to be as she died during child-birth, girl she was with dreams of emancipation and uplifting lives of Javanese women, legacy she is today molded to agendas she never stood for.

Kartini’s story has reflections in every country, culture and religion through history and today. When will we break out from the vicious cycle of human attitudes and political agendas and let everyone live their true potential? How many more Kartinis’ would we need to teach us the same lesson?

Repeating the past won’t create a new future; it will but take us back!



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Slavery, the economics of Race & Women

“To be given dominion over another is a hard thing; to wrest dominion over another is a wrong thing; to give dominion of yourself to another is a wicked thing.” ― Toni Morrison, A Mercy

With the 4th of July celebrations round the corner, let’s trace our steps back to the origins of slavery, its journey to todays United States racism and understand what liberty meant when Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence(1776).

The history of slavery spans nearly every culture, nationality and religion, and from ancient times to the present day. Slavery was a legally recognized system in which people were considered the property or chattel of another irrespective of the slave’s ethnic or racial origins.(1) Classical Greek and Roman empires were based on slave labor. They were most often prisoners of war or conquered people.

Socialist historian of the Haitian Revolution, C.L.R. James, explained:

Historically it is pretty well proved now that the ancient Greeks and Romans knew nothing about race. They had another standard—civilized and barbarian—and you could have white skin and be a barbarian and you could be black and civilized.”

From the 10th through the 16th centuries, slaves in Western Europe came from Eastern Europe. In fact, the word “slave” comes from the word “Slav,” the people of Eastern Europe. In Eastern Europe, Russia stood out as the major area where slaveholders and slaves were of the same ethnicity. Of course, by modern-day racial descriptions the Slavs and Russian slaves were white.(1)

The agrarian societies kept blooming and the plantations grew in size and so did their need for labor. Europe turned towards Africa due to its geographical proximity thus giving rise to the African slave trade. Contrary to the belief that the African tribes traditionally ‘sold their own’; demand created the supply. Also sometimes the African kings formed alliances with European nations to fight wars on their behalf and handed over the prisoners of war as slaves.

On the plantations, slaves were subjected to a regimen of 18-hour workdays. All members of slave families were set to work. Since the New World tobacco and sugar plantations operated nearly like factories, men, women and children were assigned tasks from the fields to the processing mills.

Slaves were denied any rights.(1)

The African slave trade helped to shape a wide variety of societies from modern Argentina to Canada. The planters instituted barbaric regimes of repression and meted out horrific treatments to prevent any slave revolts. The slaves as a class were looked down upon. But none of these became as virulently racist—insisting on racial separation and a strict color bar—as the English North American colonies that became the United States. Slavery in the 17th and 18th centuries was primarily as a means of producing profits. It was cheap labor.

The European colonies in North America were set up as private business enterprises in the early 1600s. The colonists tried forcing the indigenous population into labor but they resisted and escaped. They of course knew the land better. Then the English turned to white servants – usually English or Irish—who were required to work for a planter master for a fixed term of four to seven years.(1)

Subsequently, moving towards full-fledged black labor simply made economic sense. A planter could buy an African slave for life for the same price that he could purchase a white servant for 10 years. To ensure the property rights of the slaveholders, states like Maryland passed laws (1664) determining who would be considered slaves based on the mother’s condition – whether slave or free (as establishing paternity was difficult) and enforced penalties on “free” women who slept with slaves. This ensured the children of slaves remain enslaved and paved the way for racism in the future years.

Race does not explain the law. Rather, the law shows society in the act of inventing race.(1)

Clearly understanding that African slaves would cultivate major cash crops of the North American colonies, it became important to build black slavery into society’s fabric itself. The planters then moved to establish the institutions and ideas that would uphold white supremacy. Most unfree labor became Black labor. Laws and ideas intended to underscore the subhuman status of Black people—in a word, the ideology of racism and white supremacy—emerged full-blown over the next generation.(1) A way to justify slavery and protect and secure their ‘property’ into the future.

Then came the American fight for Independence – American Revolution (1775-1783) or more precisely, the battles between the Kingdom of Great Britain and its 13 North American colonies. Free America became the United States of America and the continental congress asked Thomas Jefferson to write the ‘Declaration of Independence’ (1776).

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
— Declaration of Independence, 1776

This was so revolutionary and daring an idea in the way that nothing like it had been heard before in Governments – ‘Governments are for the benefit of the people who are being governed.’(2)

Jefferson’s original text described slavery as against “most sacred rights of life and liberty.” From July 2 through July 4th, Congress made changes to Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration. His words were cut by about a fourth. South Carolina, Georgia and New England did not agree to his words on slavery. Finally, all reference to slavery was removed from the declaration.(3) The slaveholders were not up to giving up their key resource. (Jefferson himself owned more than 100 slaves).

It would take another 85 years and a civil war for the African-Americans to achieve a sense of ‘liberty’ and many more struggles to gain ‘equality’.

By ‘all men’, the Declaration meant all free, white, property-owning males and the document reflects the views of society at the time. Slavery had proven economic benefits all through human history and definitely within the American economy then and the idea of race created to keep slaves in check.

The lofty idea of ‘all men are created equal’ also left the women out. Jefferson might have used ‘men’ to mean ‘men & women’ (we are not sure) but the final document surely did not.

Under the laws of the new United States, women were denied property rights, lacked the ability to vote and could not make or enter into a legal contract. In colonial America, women were pushed to the sidelines as dependents of men. Married women were under control of their husbands. Before and during the Revolutionary War, women played a critical role by boycotting British goods and organizing fundraising activities to support the mission of the patriots. The necessity of war allowed for women to participate fully in the development of the new independence. Following independence, however, social and economic inequality returned and women were once again relegated to household tasks. The Revolutionary War had little impact on African-American women either. They continued as slaves in every state except Massachusetts.(4)

So while the African-Americans (men & women) were discriminated against and the identities of race used to justify slavery; the second-class citizen status bestowed on women simply needed no discussion or justification – it was a given!

It was to be another 150 years when the women would gain the right to vote – the only one constitutional right.(5)

On this 239th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, the American women still do not have constitutional equal rights. The rights that have been gained, are all statutory, not constitutional. That means a hostile Congress or Supreme Court could take them away in the dead of night. An Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution was introduced in 1923. It was voted out of Congress and sent to the states for ratification only once (1972). It failed three states short of the required 38 – Advocates in Congress are still working to get the amendment passed.(5)

Today, ‘men are created equal’ expands to include all men but women are still not guaranteed equal rights in the U.S constitution.

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The Rising Sun: Power play between sexes

In the last 150 years, Japan has evolved from its semi-feudal roots to become a world power. Along the way Japan struggled with the West, admiring, imitating, fighting, and ultimately, equaling its power. Japanese society has been formed from many influences, among the most important are Confucianism, Buddhism, and Samurai based feudalism. The Japanese, as in all societies derived from the Chinese Confucian heritage, value the group over the individual. The group, be it a family, or society at large, is greater than the individual. In addition to this, Confucianism emphasized the supreme position of the male, and a hierarchical power structure for society, stating: “A woman is to obey her father as daughter, her husband as wife, and her son as aged mother.” A basic tenant of Buddhism is that salvation is not possible for women, and the Samurai believed that “…A woman should look upon her husband as if he were heaven itself.”(1)

In the 15th century A.D., Japanese society had been ordered largely on matrilineal lines. The combined influences of Confucianism, Buddhism, and Samurai culture forever changed the place of the woman in Japanese society. Women living under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1602-1868), as the government of Japan was known, did not exist legally. Women could not own property, and according to a Portuguese trader, a woman’s “…husband may kill his wife for being lazy or bad.” Women could learn to write only hiragana, and thus were prevented from reading political and business transactions or great literary works, which were written in the more formal kanji. The ruler of Japan issued an exclusionary edict in 1637 that cut the country off from all contact with non-Japanese. No foreigners were allowed in and no one was allowed to travel out. Japan became a time capsule which was not opened until 1853 with the arrival at Tokyo Bay of United States Army. Thus Japan was thrust into the modern world with a societal structure that was barely discernable from that which had existed for the previous four hundred years.(1)

As the MeijiTaisho era (1868-1926) began, Japanese leaders were open to new ideas. Responding to this more liberal environment, male and female reformers created the “Popular Rights Movement” which called for new rights and freedoms. Although the reformers saw that it was important to improve the status of women, they often did so motivated mainly by feeling that this was essential if other technologically advanced nations were to accept Japan. At the same time, they were reluctant to alter the traditional role of women which had prevailed in the past. Although, this opened the door for a small group of women who called for new rights and freedoms. The phrase “good wife, wise mother” was coined, meaning that in order to be good citizens, women had to become educated and take part in public affairs.(2)

One of the Japan’s ‘first wave’ feminists to speak out was Kishida Toshiko. When she was a teenager she served the Empress13454570675_bc82ac1614_b at court, but left after two years describing the court as “far from the real world” and a symbol of the concubine system which was an outrage to women. She also wanted parents to stop ruining their daughters by turning them into “maidens in boxes.” In her speech “Daughters in Boxes” Toshiko highlights how girls are locked into three boxes – The first box is one in which parents hid their daughters, who are not allowed to leave their room and any elements belonging to the outside world were blocked out. The second box demanded the obedience of the Japanese daughters. In this box, “parents refuse to recognize their responsibility to their daughters and teach her naught”. These daughters receive no love or affection and are expected to “obey their [parent’s] every word without complaint”. The final box presented by Kishida was one in which daughters were taught ancient knowledge. In this box, parents passed down an appreciation for knowledge to their daughters.(3) She claimed that with the present family system there was no way for a young woman to develop her potential. The only appropriate” box” for daughters, said Toshiko, should be one “as large and free as the world itself.”(2)

Kishida set off on a speaking tour addressing huge crowds all over Japan. She was a powerful, dynamic speaker. She often was harassed by the police, and once was jailed. Her words, nonetheless, were heard by thousands of women who found in them encouragement to become politically involved.(2)

The position of women changed little during the fifty year period leading to World War II. However, during the war, role of women changed in society. This is mostly because around 7,190,000 men were then serving in the armed forces. With millions of men removed from industry, women found themselves working in coal mines, steel mills, and arms factories. With their husbands gone, wives were now in complete control of the home. Japanese wives found themselves doing double and sometimes triple duty.(1)

1945; by the close of WWII, Japanese society had been completely transformed. Most Japanese cities had been literally levelled, uncounted millions were homeless. The Japanese people were disillusioned with the traditional bearer of power – their military. It was the collapse of a faith, it was the disintegration of everything they believed in and lived by and fought for. It left a complete vacuum, morally, mentally, and physically.(1)

The Americans, who stepped on Japanese soil, introduced many reforms to the society. They rewrote the Japanese Constitution, outlawing war, ensuring Parliamentary rule, encouraging union activity, and reducing the Emperor to the position of a normal human being. Women suffrage came in 1946, all inequalities in laws were ended, high schools became coed, 26 women’s universities were opened, and nationwide there were now 2,000 female police officers. A Labor Standards Law was passed in 1947, it had regulations which covered equal pay, working hours, maternity leave, menstruation leave (2 days a month), and holiday leave. Unfortunately, the provisions of this law are rarely, if ever, enforced.(1) There is no law that enforces mindset change!

Today, the place of women in Japanese society provides an interesting blend of illusion and myth. There are two distinct Japanese societies – public and private. The popular Western image of the subservient Japanese woman is real, it is however, only an image. In their private family role, women quite often dominate the male members of the household. Judged by Western standards, the women of Japan are unusually dedicated to their families. A Japanese woman has almost unquestioned authority within the family system of today’s Japan. Typically the wife will make all decisions regarding the raising of children, and will have absolute control of the family’s finances.(1) Outside the home, employment patterns have also changed in the last 68 years; more women work in traditionally ‘male-dominated’ jobs for longer hours however they face blatant discrimination – it is in all professions. Japanese men really believe that women are inferior.

At their end, women in Japan seem to have an almost contemptible attitude towards their husband’s abilities. The wife of former Prime Minister Miki publicly said that her husband “hardly knows how to wash his face properly.” Sixty years ago these statements would have gone unspoken. The fact that women speak about their husbands in this manner shows that they no longer consider themselves subservient. Women’s feelings of equality, if not superiority, are starting to come into public view.(1)

Japan, perhaps more so than any other country, has undergone numerous, radical transformations in a compressed period of time. The current generation of Japanese women are in many ways victims of the past, trapped by the conflicting poles of old and new. The male-female equation has drastically shifted and a country is transitioning from one end of the spectrum to the other. A society trying to understand and barely accept the required changes and individuals projecting pressures with power plays in their traditionally comfort zones, as is in fact the case all over the world.

From Kishida Toshiko to the 21st century Japanese women, roles and power politics have dramatically shifted and they will continue to evolve. Having already achieved a dominant role in issues involving the household it will only be a matter of time till women start acquiring public power. This process is being accelerated by a declining birthrate, families can now expect to have 1.7 children. Japan increasingly will be forced to turn to women to fill job vacancies.(1) Will it do so with ease or head to yet another imbalanced society; bowing to feminine power this time?

Change needs a catalyst and WWII left Japan shaken. John Totland aptly captures the situation in his book, The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945, as, “saga of people caught up in the flood of the most overwhelming war of mankind – muddled, ennobling, disgraceful, frustrating, full of paradox.” He says, “that there are no simple lessons in history, that it is human nature that repeats itself, not history.”(4)

Change before you have to – Jack Welch

5. In-post image –
6. Feature image courtesy –

The 88 Year Marathon

Its 776 BC, year of the first Greek Olympics. Crowds cheering, an array of sportsmen testing their prowess at various games, picking up trophies and achieving greatness in their chosen sport. Athens is dipped in an atmosphere of cheer, ambition, rivalry, pride and just sheer joy. But wait; where are the women? Not on the sporting grounds, for sure!

If you are a woman in ancient Greece, you have a few options. If a prostitute or a virgin, you are allowed to spectate. If married, you could train horses and let them race but you need to stay out or get the death penalty no less. Although you could be a prize for the male winners of chariot races. The Olympic Games that were organized every 4 years for more than 600 years built a tradition, immortalized many and didn’t change that one thing – keep women out.

1503 years after the last organized games in 393 AD, Baron Pierre de Coubertin brought back Olympics in style organizing the first one in Athens, Greece in honor of the original Olympic Games. About the Games he said in a famous recorded speech announced in Berlin in 1936, “The important thing in the Olympic Games is not winning but taking part. Just as in life, the aim is not to conquer but to struggle well.”

He also had a strong stand on women participating in the Olympic movement. He opposed it!

1896; year of the first modern Olympic Games, again a ‘men-only’ event in Athens. Coubertin saw the true Olympic hero as an adult male. In his view, women could not physically rival men, therefore they could not push sports “citius, altius, forties” (faster, higher, stronger), the core precept of the Olympics. He always said that a, “female Olympiad would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect.” In this sentiment, he received the full support from Pope Pius XI. Needless to say that there were no female participants in 1896.

Then came about Stamata Revithi, a poor Greek woman who walked from Piraeus to Athens with her 17 month child in search of a better fortune. An athlete she met on the way gave her some cash and an advice to ‘run in the marathon’. She decided to register for the 40 kilometer race from Marathon to Athens. On the eve of the Marathon run (Thursday 28 March), she was welcomed by the mayor, Mr. Koutsogiannopoulos in the small village of Marathon. Press reporters came to meet the woman who wished to run the Marathon. The next morning Stamata%20Revithi%20%20The%20First%20Woman%20to%20Run%20the%20Olympic%20Marathon(Friday, 29 March) the old priest of Marathon refused to give her blessings saying that he “only gave blessings to the officially recognized athletes.” Later in the day, she was refused entry by the race committee. However, on Saturday, 30 March at 8am, Stamata ran the Marathon course on her own. Before she started she asked the teacher, the mayor and the magistrate to witness the time she started and sign a hand-written report of the race. Reports make it quite clear that Stamata Revithi completed the Marathon officially at the time of the First Olympic Games. When asked why she ran the difficult course, she replied, “So that the King would give my child a position in the future.”

Here as Athanaios Tarasouleas says in his report; the trail of the first Greek woman to run the Marathon is lost in the dust of history.

Taking from the pages of the Olympic Marathon, by Charlie Lovett; the journey further to a fully accepted women’s marathon was still almost a century ahead. As Lovett writes; by the 1970’s, the Olympic Marathon had come a long way from the dusty roads of Athens yet women were still not allowed to compete. From the 1900’s, women participation increased in the games but was restricted to select sports. Before the 1980’s, there were no women’s distance races in the Olympics.

Women kept running!

De Coubertin said in the 1928 IOC report, “As to the admission of women to the Games, I remain strongly against it. It was against my will that they were admitted to a growing number of competitions.” For him, the Games were “the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism…with the applause of women as reward”.

But no rules or opinions kept women from running! And ran they did!

In 1966, Roberta Gibb hid behind a bush at the start of the Boston Marathon, sneaking into the field and finishing the race in an unofficial time of 3:21:25. She was the first woman known to complete the arduous Boston course. Gibb had been inspired to run by the return of her race entry with a note saying that women were not physically capable of running a marathon. (Ref 1)

The following year, number 261 in the Boston Marathon was assigned to entrant K.V. originalSwitzer. Not until two miles into the race did officials realize that Switzer was a woman, twenty-year-old Kathrine Switzer of Syracuse University. Race director Will Cloney and official Jock Semple tried to grab Switzer and remove her from the race, or at least remove her number, but her teammates from Syracuse fended them off with body blocks. Switzer eventually finished the race after the race timers had stopped running, in 4:20. (Ref 1)

And women continued running pushing more and more races to include women!

Brands like Avon joined hands and organized international women Marathons. Women were setting new records and breaking them. Years went by!

I think it’s time to change the rules,” said Switzer. “They are archaic.” (Ref 1)

It was time for Olympics to include the women’s marathon. The Executive Board of IOC met in Los Angeles in February of 1981. Five votes were needed for the resolution to pass. Unable to stand still while she waited for the result, Switzer went out for a six-mile run. At 6:30 that evening, the Executive Board of IOC announced that a women’s marathon had been given its approval and would likely be included in the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. The Soviet Union was the only country to vote against the race. The struggle was almost over. (Ref 1)

In the 1981 IOC meeting in Baden-Baden, Germany many important decisions were made and there hidden in the press coverage of Olympics news in all newspapers was the fact that women had finally won the right to compete in an Olympic Marathon!

The much awaited announcement came after an 88 year run (first women’s Olympics Marathon was officially included in the 1984 Games) or should I say some dreams buried in the sands of ancient Athens finally came true!

Coubertin once said, “The role of the woman remains what it has always been: she is above all man’s companion, the future mother; and must be educated with that unchanging future in mind.”

The story of women’s Olympic Marathon has reflections in all of our lives. How many times have women been told that something is not for them to do and they are best suited to play a specific role? How many times have women been told to grow up, be practical and see that certain dreams are just not for them? Many more times women have been ridiculed for simply endeavoring a new venture and many have tried to reinforce that home is where her place is. And how many times have women themselves believed in their restricted being?

As Roberta Gibb said in 1972, “I hadn’t intended to make a feminist statement. I was running against the distance [not the men] and I was measuring myself with my own potential.”

Freedom is knowing and deciding what you are capable of or meant to do then walk the path one step at a time. Who are we to decide what the other cannot do?

Let’s believe we CAN and in the words of Abraham Lincoln ‘Whatever you are, be a good one’!