SOUTHSIDE STORIES

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International Women’s Day 1: Weathering Storms

by Dakshina Gammanpila

International Women’s Day dawns next week and the opportunity to shine a spotlight on it has been an annual mainstay of my writing calendar for over a decade. My last ‘public’ professional engagement in 2020 was as a member of an International Women’s Day panel at the India International Centre in Delhi. The subjects and speakers from Japan, India, China, France and the UK, were indeed global. Perhaps of all the skills on the dias some clairvoyance would have served well, as little did we know, my fellow panelists and I, that a wave of lockdowns would follow, a pandemic would release its paralysing tentacles, and an excruciating 12 months would ensue worldwide.

During the first weeks and months of the virus the phrase ‘we are all in the same boat’ designed to unite, was touted. It became rapidly apparent that this was patently untrue. We were not in the same boat, or even the same storm. Many were in very different craft: some luxury impermeable yachts moored in calm offshore waters; some in leaky dinghys; still others in barely inflated life jackets. Whole swathes of people were drowning behind closed doors and in plain sight, wave after crashing wave. What was revealed was inherent distortions of experience. The fact that there were more deaths in black and ethnic minority communities (I loathe that phrase) in the West held a pitiful torch on systemic inequalities.

However, regardless of race Covid illustrated (and continues to do so as the pandemic’s repercussions will be felt for years, perhaps generations to come) that those disproportionately scarred and diminished are women. They have borne the brunt, both professionally and personally of this viral atrocity. Many of the world’s essential frontline workers — the nurses, cleaners and supermarket workers relied upon are women; as is their unpaid work as carers, wives and mothers.

In addition, in India it is common to see women engaged in low paid manual labour on roadsides and construction sites, others more screened in factory or ‘sweat shops’. On the home front in India women are engaged as home help ‘domestic workers’ relying on the generosity or principles of their employers to see them through hard times when they could not come to work.

Many women the world over found themselves not only continuing their professional roles, albeit remotely, but also juggling the additional burden of having the family working, schooling and living at home 24 hours a day 7 days a week. Atop this lay the concomitant pressure of homeschooling their children. Think about millions of single mothers struggling to support their families in every regard, round the clock.

We began to hear of the rise of domestic and sexual violence and financial abuse that the pandemic wrought on women. Crimes against children in the home rose but sadly, and perhaps predictably, so did crimes against women forcibly locked up during lockdown with their perpetrators. What was sanctuary for some became the living hell of prison to others. The mantra of Stay Home, Stay Safe was anything but, for too many women.

And in addition to physical health what about mental health? Depression, anxiety and stress has undoubtedly risen. In women this will have increased not because women are less able to cope but they have greater inequality to overcome, fewer safety nets and more expectations put upon them. I have had girlfriends literally tearing their hair out trying to school, feed and entertain their young children, with little or no respite. Skilled and capable though they are, nothing prepares you for this.

Other friends with older children, like myself, feel fortunate that although our teenagers have found the pandemic tough to bear, denied the social interaction and freedoms they crave, they may be more self-directing when it comes to schoolwork. It seems unfair that women have the lioness’ share of work (and accompanying stress) and yet remain unequal when it comes to power, pay and equalities – we are denied the PPE that we so desperately deserve. 

Of course, this is nothing new and the double whammy comes with the historical questioning of the authority and power of women in the home and workplace. Until recently in human evolution, women were treated as property, chattels in the marriage contract. In some places that remains the case.

In business and media women are thwarted and maligned constantly. Katherine Meyer Graham, owner of the Washington Post was bullied by her male board members and stood up to them leading to the publication of the Watergate scandal, Pentagon papers and the impeachment of a President. In the UK it was known that Margaret Thatcher had to literally make herself heard in politics despite being voted Prime Minister. She notoriously changed and deepened her voice to be taken more seriously. In the US the treatment of Hilary Clinton and scrutiny of Kamala Harris is illustrative of prevailing hypocrisies. Questioning the authority of women by using bullying, intrigue, intimidation and belittling especially when they are brave, intelligent and powerful, is rife but nothing new.

Competing in a man’s world ruled by men when the rules are constantly rewritten was the fate of two queens who ruled on the same island at the same time: Mary Stewart and Elizabeth Tudor, who also happened to be cousins. The created rivalry and battle between them by men who sought illegitimate power for themselves was legendary. Mary was ultimately betrayed by every man around her including her husband, her half brother and her chief adviser and protector. False propaganda was whipped up by clergymen, lies about her character and sexuality spawned. For women centuries later that double standard persists.

Conspiring against her for their own ends, fearing her power and rightful place on the throne the lords of England and Scotland sought to undermine and control Mary. Many times she out maneuvered them and would not yield. In the end they forced her abdication, despoiled her reputation and engineered her death. Holding her son hostage she was deposed and her half brother usurped her crown.

Marriage and motherhood were used as weapons of entitlement, bondage even over a ruling queen, to rule over women who ruled in their own right. The male aristocracy sought and succeeded to stir up enmity between two queens. Being forthright, principled with an unremitting sense of self are characteristics valued in a man, but too often transfigured to highlight something ‘other’ in women.

Elizabeth I as Queen of England witnessed her cousin’s fate, learning from Mary’s ‘mistakes’. However, convinced by men of the threat to her power, she signed Mary’s death warrant. Elizabeth reigned for nearly 45 years but unlike Mary, never married, had a child or named a successor to her title. Like her cousin she was forsaken, she chose isolation and was wedded to the throne. What decisions to have to make and price to pay? To choose nothing to supposedly rule all. A man would never have been put in that position.

Both queens thought they were rightful queens of Scotland and England. Ironically in the end Mary’s son James became the first monarch to rule both England and Scotland; his path paved by the work, life and death of his mother, Mary Queen of Scots and his godmother Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Conversely Queen Elizabeth II who next year will celebrate her Platinum Jubilee and be the first British monarch to have reigned for 70 years, has a husband as consort not king – Queen Victoria and her Albert were the same. The strength of leading by example and experience cannot be undervalued. The consistent role held by a woman respected for her fortitude, competence and staying power remains inspiring. And rare.

For the less regal amongst us, with all these setbacks it is a wonder that women get out of bed at all in the mornings, and yet they do day in and day out. And I would wager despite the health, societal, professional and domestic inequalities, although at times hard- it is glorious to be a woman. I love it and I love them! So if we see others in a leaky boat, don’t comment or judge: all hands on deck start bailing them out. To All Happy Women’s Day!

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