Never take women’s freedom for granted

I was reading a lovely story online about the joy Saudi women are experiencing, now that they are allowed to drive in the Kingdom, beginning tomorrow. One particular woman, 64 years old, has already bought a brand new Mercedes SUV and is looking forward to taking a leisurely drive in the morning “with her head held high”. She remembers a time in the early 1970s when women could drive outside of the city without being harassed, go to the cinema and cafés, and walk around without their heads covered.

Then, the crackdown came after 1979 and women were severely restricted in a society that was already deeply conservative. The dreaded religious police were everywhere and the rules of a minority fundamentalist sect became the law for everyone. In just a few years, the Saudi Arabia of black abayas became the norm. Thankfully, things are changing gradually and cinemas are being built at a rapid pace to satisfy the pent-up demand. In fact, when Black Panther opened in April, it was the first major feature film to grace Saudi screens in over 35 years.

The significance of the moment was not lost on a 27-year-old woman at the VIP screening in Riyadh. “It is just great to watch a superhero fighting for his kingdom, surrounded by women empowered as warriors, while the issues of race and colonialism were tackled,” she enthused.

Meanwhile, in India, four beautiful actresses are celebrating the success of their buddy movie, Veere di Wedding (Friend’s Wedding), about young, affluent, urban women dealing with relationship dilemmas, in a way that has never been portrayed in Bollywood. They smoke, swear and have sex lives, just like their male counterparts, but conservative Hindi society is shocked that everyday life for Delhi millennials has been brought to the cinema screen.

And yet, this is the same society that is ambivalent and conflicted about the horrific, religiously motivated gang rapes that are taking place in India. Many of the victims are under-age – as young as 8 years old. Just last week, five anti-trafficking campaigners were abducted and raped at gunpoint, after staging a street play to create awareness amongst locals. The moral outrage that is largely absent, despite over 40,000 such cases annually, is largely due to many of the victims being poor, rural and Muslim in a Hindu-majority society.

The freedom that many women around the world enjoy is a fragile one. Here in Nigeria, poor, rural women in the north-east are routinely kidnapped by Boko Haram fanatics who force them to become their ‘wives’ or sell them to the highest bidder. A few years ago, the plight of one particular group of schoolgirls hit international headlines, only because it was highlighted by American celebrities. The local media could hardly be bothered up until that point.

Even greater freedoms for all citizens, such as the right to vote, have only been the norm in Nigeria for less than twenty years, despite being independent of colonial rule for nearly sixty years. The fact that the current president is a former military dictator underscores that fragility, especially when influential citizens whom I know are still afraid to speak their minds publicly. It’s quite telling that in Nollywood, the second most prolific film industry in the world, there is a conspicuous absence of films about political corruption – even though the stories to be told are more jaw-dropping than any fictional plot a scriptwriter could conjure up.

It’s clear that societies where women are not free to express themselves and enjoy the same rights and privileges as men, are not free for anyone. As someone who has benefitted enormously from the strength, creativity and resilience of women who have been allowed to pursue their careers and their dreams, I know that any society that restricts women is much poorer as a result.

Let’s find a way to ensure that women in our societies are not held back or reduced in any way. They have their own aspirations and, when given complete freedom, they make amazing choices that enrich our lives in so many ways.

“Whatever women do, they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult.” ~ Charlotte Whitton

Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development and building good governance.” ~ Kofi Annan

“When God created man and woman, he was thinking, ‘Who shall I give the power to, to give birth to the next human being?’ And God chose woman. And this is the big evidence that women are powerful.” ~ Malala Yousafzai

Photograph by John May (The Sunday Times)

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