Marie Antoinette famously asked the French poor to “eat cake” if bread was not available. Social disparities leading to a famine caused by rising bread prices, had hit the poor poorly. On 5th October 1789 women, unable to feed their families and outraged by the chronic shortage of bread, converged in the market place of Paris in a riotous mood. One young woman struck a drum and forced a nearby church to toll its bells for the crowd to gather. As it swelled nearly ten thousand women marched towards Versailles Palace —looting the armoury on their way. Armed with cannons and spears, they broke the heavily fortified palace gates that men had been, until then, unable to breach to place their demands to the King. It took them six hours to travel twenty-one miles from Paris to Versailles and less than twenty four hours to set the momentum for change. This was the defining moment of the French revolution that gave the Republic its constitution based on “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite”. This was also the beginning of modern day feminist movement based on the same ethos of liberty, equality and fraternity that fanned out to the world.
The demand for social and political reform was pushed forward by the modern day feminists of Paris through their bold March to Versailles. Threatened by women's power and ability to bring tumultuous change, French men, crushed the feminist movement of the post revolution days; organised women's groups were banned. Women were denied the rights of active citizenship and relegated to their 'natural roles'—to stay home and tend to the family. Earlier, during the “enlightenment” years in the 1750s, when the French needed women to support their cause, Louis de Jaucourt wrote, "it would be difficult to demonstrate that the husband's rule comes from nature, in as much as this principle is contrary to natural human equality . . . a man does not invariably have more strength of body, of wisdom, of mind or of conduct than a woman . . . women can succeed equally . . .”
On 4 August 1789 the French Constituent Assembly passed the Declaration of the 'Rights of Man' leaving behind women of the revolution. The process was completed by adoption of the Napoleonic Code which established the right of the man to take decisions on woman's education and property, relegating all the advances made by the feminist movement to pre-revolutionary days.
The French Declaration of the Rights of Man together with the US Bill of Rights later served as the working documents for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Alas, none of these bills which propagated freedom of individuals on the basis of natural rights and protected by law of equality, considered liberty and equality as fundamental to ensuring women's rights. For the next thirty years women of the world imbued by the spirit of the revolutionary women of France continued the fight for their equal and inalienable rights until the UN Convention on Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, popularly known as CEDAW, was signed in 1979. CEDAW, however, has not yet been able to give women freedom from discrimination.
Women who participated in the French Revolution had begun their struggle for equality in decision making long before the revolution was over. Led by Pauline Leon and Claire Lacombe, the Society of Revolutionary Republican Women was founded on 10 May 1793 to fight against hoarding of grain and inflation, and demanding bread and a new constitution with guaranteed citizenship rights for women. Most of them were later persecuted, exiled, or put under the guillotine. Other than these militant women, another group influenced the fight for liberty and equality through their writing and political engagement. Olympe de Gouges authored the Declaration of the Rights of Woman and the Female Citizen in 1791. She sought to transform France into a country liberated, moderate, and “equal for all” by influencing policy decisions through her writings, in defence of which she offered to jump into the Seine River if the extremist and autocratic revolutionary Robespierre would join her. Olympe de Gouges was arrested, tortured and executed. Marie Roland influenced political decisions and policies through her letters addressed to male revolutionary leaders. She was not an activist for women's liberation but believed that women had a role to play in politics. She attributed their lack of education as their biggest weakness in being involved and observed—“it was their inferior education that turned them into foolish people.” Roland also believed that given the opportunity to be properly educated women could be involved in “serious business of politics.” These women were supported in their struggle by a few great thinkers of their time, such as Nicolas de Condorcet who advocated for equal rights for women and penned the article “For the Admission to the Rights of Citizenship for Women” in 1790. French women did not get their full rights until 1965, nearly two hundred years after the revolution. Bangladesh cannot wait that long!
Writings of de Gouges and Roland proved that women could be intelligent and serious political change makers. Although guillotined, their ideas shared through their writings did not die down. In fact, growing awareness of rights stemming from Olympe de Gouges' writing of the Rights of Women gave momentum to later day movements for equality, liberty, and change for women around the world.
Bangladeshi women joined men in the armed struggle and in policy making in the formative years of the country. The constitution, in recognition of their role in the liberation struggle, guarantees their equal rights in all spheres of public and private life. Yet, nearly fifty years on women are still not treated as equal citizens. Bangladesh continues to have reservations on the preamble of the CEDAW that declares equality of men and women in the eyes of the law, for reasons that are un-defendable. For nearly forty years foreign exchange earnings of Bangladesh has piggybacked on women's labour in the garment and processed food industry. Yet, these poor women remain exactly where they were, with little or no education and no wealth to move upwards with equal rights towards a better life.
While milestones have been reached in primary education, and maternal and child health, much remains to be done on women's higher education, health, and wealth that could allow them to get off the list of “foolish people.” With sound higher education matching those of their male compatriots, and good health, women will be able to enter politics and the decision making foray in meaningful numbers. Over the last four decades, feminist movements in the country have successfully raised awareness on violence against women, child marriage, female poverty, and other issues that directly affect women and their equal citizenship rights. Many of these have been or are being addressed by the government with vigour and sincerity. But the fundamental right of liberty and equality in fair representation in higher education and governance has been eluding Bangladeshi women for far too long. Reserved seats for women in governance are a far cry from equal citizenship as they do not give women opportunity to change or influence laws or take part in national decision making. Seats without defined constituencies' are zero sum games. In most cases female representation in decision making bodies of public and private institutions are equally meaningless.
Before reaching its fiftieth independence day, Bangladesh must guarantee full citizenship rights to fifty percent of its population through ensuring their absolute right to representation in governance bodies and the liberty to seek legislation that guarantees equal opportunity. If women are to be treated as equal citizens, they need not only justice to ensure their rights, but also a strong voice in the legislature. This can be ensured through several means, namely, using the criteria of proportional representation where 50% of the seats will be set aside for women to contest through a rotation formula in direct election; use of 40:40:20 model where 40% of seats would be open to men, 40% to women and the remaining 20% left for the gender neutral, encouraging the third gender to participate; or reserving 33% of seats for women to contest through the rotation formula to reach at least the 33% benchmark that the feminist movement has been seeking since independence. Political parties and trade bodies must follow the same formula in order to allow the female population of the country and the third gender to be ready to contest, and the Election Commission must set it as a pre-condition to elections on the basis of equal citizenship.
If women are to be empowered they need legislation that guarantees equal opportunity in higher education and nutrition intake as well. To ensure capable and competent women's participation in the decision making process Bangladesh needs to ensure full and unconditional support to them in getting higher education. In 2012, percentage of female student enrolment was 35% in the University of Dhaka and 33% in Jahangir Nagar University; this is hardly an indicator of women's equality in higher education as dropouts would lower the number of women graduates even further. Ensuring higher education through special incentives for women is the immediate action required. State run higher educational institutions must take affirmative action to encourage more young women to get higher education. For the present, establishing adult education centres preferably within universities for women who have been forced to drop out of higher education for social and familial reasons is the only alternative available to raise the number of educated women. Only then the 'lost generation' can be participants in the decision making process of public and private enterprise. Private and public sectors must also see to it that women have equal access to healthy, adequate and nutritious food in order to maintain good health. Ensuring women's good health is part and parcel of effective leadership; not only as women but as mothers of future generations of leaders.
Participation in political activities requires financial commitments. Women, without equal and unconditional right to wealth can never gain the status of equal citizenship. The State must therefore ensure that every woman has an equal right to wealth inheritance and equal pay for equal job in every sector.
A woman cannot fight the fight without knowledge, a sound body and mind, and without the means to obtain her legitimate share of funds and finances. Without education, good health, and wealth, a woman will always remain in shackles and cannot be truly liberated or empowered.
The writer is a former ambassador