The choice between the right to education and allowing girls to wear a headscarf with their uniforms is a no-brainer. The girls must be allowed their fundamental right to expression, privacy, and autonomy.
There is no contradiction. The fundamental point in both countries is a woman’s right to choose.
In Iran, the extraordinary sight of women dancing, singing, and chanting as they toss their headscarves, or hijabs, into bonfires. In India, the extraordinary sight of girls waiting to be admitted into their classrooms as they sit in silent protest outside in their hijabs. Commentators on social media have pointed to the seeming discrepancy between the feminist argument that supports the right to take off the hijab by women in Iran while rooting for the right to wear it by school girls in India.
She’s an author, entrepreneur, speaker, mother and a proud feminist. Canada-born Eliza Reid, married to the president of Iceland, Gudni Johannesson is also a First Lady. Unshackled by protocol, Reid who once famously asserted that she is not her husband’s handbag is out with her first book, Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s extraordinary women and how they are changing the world.
Between attending Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral in London and flying off a day later to Toronto, I was able to speak to her at the presidential residence in Alfatanes, just outside Reykjavik, about her book, why she admires women who speak up and how gender equality is good for everyone.
Q: Ever since you became First Lady of Iceland in 2016, you’ve been very vocal about one thing and that is you are not your husband’s handbag. Could you elaborate?
Eliza Reid (ER): It’s a bit of a clumsy metaphor, but somehow struck a chord. It comes from the idea that there are sometimes assumptions that because I’m married to the president, I am an accessory at his disposal all the time.
I wrote an article in The New York Times to say that I am a person with my own identity and am not an accessory to compliment my husband’s image or enhance his reputation. Of course, I’m very proud to be his wife and of his accomplishments and I hope he is proud to be my husband.
When I wrote this article, I wondered at first if people might think: “Who is this privileged woman complaining about nothing?” But actually, even though not many people are married to heads of state, a great many, especially women, have spouses who, for whatever reason, are better known than they are and they then become known as so-and-so’s wife. So, somehow a lot of people remembered that line and could relate to it.
Q: A lot of people seem surprised that you have a career and job outside of being the First Lady.
ER: I’ve long been freelancing in the writing and editing world. When my husband was elected president, I was doing a number of projects: Working one day a week for a company doing corporate writing; editing Icelandair’s in-flight magazine; running an annual event called the Iceland Writers Retreat, which I still do.
When Gudni became president, I gave up some of those projects, because it was full time doing all of that. But in principle I wanted to keep my own work. I thought, “Why should I get a new job because my husband has a new job?” The writers retreat is my professional baby; it’s what I created. So I have continued with that work. I have also written a book and been touring to promote it. And I work with Business Iceland to promote Iceland as a business and tourism destination.
Eliza Reid: The First Lady of Iceland (Source: By Special Arrangement)
Q: What led to this book?
ER: In Iceland, we have a phrase ‘everyone walks with a book in their belly’. I’ve worked so long with writers and literature that people would always ask me, “What’s the book?” And I would reply that I’m not working on a book because I have a job and I’m First Lady and I have four kids.
But I always wanted to write a book; I just never had an idea for one. Then the pandemic happened and everything shifted for so many people. We had to cancel our writers retreat. There were fewer events to attend as First Lady and for Business Iceland. My time shifted in terms of ideas coming up.
Then it occurred to me one day that we are very proud in Iceland of what we have achieved when it comes to gender equality, even though we still have a long way to go. I’m very proud as an immigrant here for my life in this new country. So, given my background in writing, and especially travel writing and journalism, and my interest in the theme of gender equality, I thought it would be nice to paint a portrait of a country using that as the theme.
I didn’t want to write a book that was an academic textbook or an angry diatribe on what’s wrong with the world, but something inspirational where we can hear different people’s voices. Stories of what it’s like to be a mother or a politician or a writer or a business person in Iceland. I deliberately chose women who were not the obvious ones you’d think of. I didn’t choose Bjork, the singer, or our first president Vigdis Finnbogadottir. I wanted to choose women everybody can relate to.
These women are sprakker, the plural of a word sprakki, which is a very obscure word in Icelandic that even my husband had never heard of, which makes me feel a bit smug. It means ‘outstanding women’. Even just the fact that that the Icelandic language has a word that defines only women in exclusively positive way says something. In English, I can’t think of any word like that.
Keeping up with the Bidens (Source: By Special Arrangement)
ER: Three things. One is gender-based violence. It’s the ‘Nordic Paradox’ that we have higher reported rates of gender-based violence than what one might expect. Maybe it’s because there is more trust with the police and less stigma to talk about it. The law and the definition of what constitutes gender-based violence is broader. But at the end of the day, there are still these cases and a very, very low rate of conviction. Right now a group of people are taking the government of Iceland to the European Court of Human Rights and it’s an interesting case to follow.
The second is the corporate world. We have quotas, for instance, for the boards of publicly traded companies. We also have legislation, that means you have to prove equal pay for equal work. But we still don’t see enough investment by women, enough investment in women-led organizations or women running companies.
When I wrote the book, there were no women who were running companies that were traded on the stock exchange. Ever since its publication, there are now three. There are two new companies that have joined the stock exchange led by women and one company that switched CEOs and is now run by a woman. So we’re getting there but it’s slow and something we need to look at because if it’s always men controlling the pocketbook and controlling the purse, that’s going to be a challenge.
Third, I would say, is to remember that working towards gender equality is not for one specific group of people. We have to be very broad in terms of leaving no group behind. That includes immigrant women, women of colour, women with disabilities, queer women, all of the groups.
Gender equality isn’t something for women, it’s for everybody. Men benefit from this as well.
Q: Yet, all over the world, we are seeing a backlash. The pandemic has taken us back several decades. Even now, you see the pushback whether it’s abortion rights in America, or the right not to wear hijab in Iran or the rise of the right-wing in Sweden.
ER: The World Economic Forum was the first report to come out after the pandemic that showed we had lost over 30 years–an entire generation. The backlash tells us just how important it is to be vigilant.
Q: How does one be vigilant when you see the horrific violence unleashed against women and girls for just wanting to go to school, for instance?
ER: It’s a huge question, and I feel in many senses unqualified to answer it because I am in a very privileged position in a very privileged country. I need to be aware of that when I’m commenting on things.
One dimension is trying to reinforce or build up this idea that working towards greater equality is not a zero sum game. If I try to support you and lift you up, it’s not to push somebody else down. It’s trying to work to create a level playing field for everybody.
Countries that are more gender equal have happier, more peaceful, longer living populations.
Q: Exactly. Everyone knows how GDP will go up if women participated in the workforce at par with men. But in India, women are falling off the labour force to reach their lowest level in decades.
ER: Even when we are as women getting more active in the workforce, we are not necessarily giving up everything at home. There’s a mental load on women who are looking after all the food, remembering all the birthdays or doing all the cooking. In Iceland, men will say, “I load the dishwasher.” But it’s still the women who say, “Well, are you going to unload it now?”
In many countries, it’s still the woman who does all the cooking and there’s a small number who will say, “He can’t cook as well as I can. So I’m not going to let him do it.”
But we can’t do it all. I certainly can’t have a full time job and run an amazing household and be in perfect shape. Nobody can do it all. And when we have all those expectations, it causes a lot of sort of stress and burnout that can be difficult to manage.
(Source: By Special Arrangement)
Q: Coming back to the book, how did you choose the women?
ER: It wasn’t terribly scientific. I started by thinking of the different chapters and categories: Motherhood, friendships, media, arts, and culture, politics. Then I thought about who I could speak to for each one. There’s quite a strong memoir element to the story and the narrative thread is really my own story.
Q: I really read it as a love song to Iceland.
ER: Yes, exactly. It’s exactly a love story to the country. So often, I chose women that I knew somehow or had a personal connection to. Beyond that I wanted to try to be as diverse as I could with the subject. So sometimes I thought, “I need someone who is very young or older, or I don’t have a woman with a disability.” For example, in the chapter on corporate Iceland, I also tried to choose women who represent the three main industries in Iceland, which is fisheries, tourism and energy. I tried to be comprehensive so that people would learn a little bit about the country overall.
Q: Who are the women who inspire you in Iceland and outside?
ER: I am very fortunate to have had wonderful role models growing up in my own family.
Even though I grew up in a family with very traditional gender roles, I always grew up knowing that I could do whatever I wanted to. For example, my grandmother was a nurse in the Second World War, and Canada was the only country that sent women to the front with the troops and she was in the operating room.
I have great admiration for women who run for public office. I feel very spoiled because I got this platform because of something my husband achieved. I can talk about gender equality, even though my husband did something. I haven’t run for public office. I didn’t have my whole history or face the wrath of trolls the way many women who go into politics do. Women who are told, “You’re not friendly enough,” or, “You’re too friendly,” or “Can’t you wear this instead?”
We need to hear women’s voices more. Women who really put themselves in the firing line, journalists and women who report on difficult topics and get death threats. Those people are my role models; the people who speak up and talk about injustice, often at great personal risk.
That’s what I wanted to do with this book, write about people who are living extraordinary lives and don’t always appreciate that themselves. That’s what I wanted to get across. We are all role models. We can choose to be negative role models or positive role models. And some of us have more people who hear us than others. But we all have an impact on those who are around us.
Fewer than 8% of high court judges in the last 25 years have been women. More than half of India’s high courts have not had a woman chief justice and just four high court judges elevated to the Supreme Court in the same time period of 25 years have been women.
Source: Quantitative analysis of 1,800 high court judges over the past 25 years by Rukmini S published in IndiaSpend
WE HEAR YOU
Roop Rekha Verma and Siddique Kappan (Source: File Photo)
“This is the minimum I can do as a concerned citizen in these dubious and dark times.”
Roop Rekha Verma, the 79-year-old former acting vice-chancellor of Lucknow University on why she agreed to stand surety for Kerala-based journalist Siddique Kappan after he was granted bail by the Supreme Court.
STORIES YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED
Hijab judgment reserved
Following a marathon 10-day hearing with two dozen lawyers arguing against a Karnataka high court judgment that held that the state was entitled to ban hijab as part of its right to prescribe school uniforms, the Supreme Court has reserved its verdict.
While there is no indication on when the judgment will be delivered. One of the two Supreme Court judges who heard the petitioners is scheduled to demit office on October 16, writes Utkarsh Anand. If the two judges fail to reach a consensus, the matter will be referred to a larger three-judge bench.
The petitioners have challenged the high court order on the grounds of fundamental rights relating to religion, culture, privacy and education. Appearing for the Karnataka government, solicitor general Tushar Mehta said the uniform was in the interest of unity, equality and discipline.
Fear and loathing on Chandigarh University campus
Protests at Chandigarh University (Source: Ravi Kumar /HT)
Police sources insist that a 22-year-old student made candid videos only of herself and shared these with her boyfriend and one other person. That did not stop the swirl of rumours on the Chandigarh University campus to the effect that the woman student had surreptitiously made videos of other students in the hostel bathroom – and shared these.
University authorities also denied rumours about several students attempting to die by suicide over the purported videos. The woman, her boyfriend and one more person have been arrested and the state cyber cell is analysing the data on the mobile phone of the three.
No state for women
Yet another Dalit girl was raped and murdered in Uttar Pradesh’s Badaun district. One man, Jitendra Yadav has been arrested in connection with the crime. He has apparently confessed to the crime, saying he strangled the 15-year-old in order to protect his identity.
A 16-year-old Dalit girl who was gang-raped and set on fire by two men in Pilibhit district on September 7 has died in hospital where she was undergoing treatment.
In Rampur village in eastern UP, the bodies of an 18-year-old and a 15-year-old girl were found hanging from a tree. Villagers allege that the duo were in a relationship and family members suspect the two were murdered.
The incidents come days after two minor Dalit sisters were found hanging from a tree in Lakhimpur Kheri district. Police said the girls were murdered after being raped.
AROUND THE WORLD
Women members of feminist groups and Iranians migrants hold a demonstration in support of Mahsa Amini (Source: AFP)
In Iran, the death of Mahsa Amini who died while in the custody of the country’s so-called morality police for wearing an ‘improper’ hijab off has sparked widespread protests with women publicly burning their headscarves, cutting their hair and, along with men, overturning police cars. Over a dozen protestors have been killed so far, reports Financial Times. The protests have led to dozens of cities in Iran and to other places around the world.
In Beirut,reports Associated Press, US-backed Syrian fighters led a sweep at the al-Hol camp that houses 50,000 Syrians and Iraqis, 20,000 of them children and most of the rest wives and widows of IS fighters. The sweep resulted in the rescue of two Yazidi girls taken as sex slaves years ago from Iraq and four non-Yazidi women who had been chained and tortured.
In Palestine, a joint investigation by a London-based research group and a Palestinian rights group has refuted Israel’s account that the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Aklesh was a mistake and has asserted it was deliberate. Abu Aklesh was shot in the head and killed by Israewli forces on May 11 while covering an army raid in the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank. The probe, reports Al Jazeera, examined the Israeli sniper’s precise angle of fire and concluded that the sniper was able to clearly tell there were journalists in the area.
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When Reena went into labour she was taken to the community health centre in rural Uttar Pradesh where she lives. By then she had begun to bleed and since the health centre didn’t have blood transfusion facilities, she was moved to a district hospital. Two hours later when she arrived at the hospital, she was bleeding profusely, her blood staining the floor. She was terrified she would lose her baby.
Instead of empathy, she was yelled at for dirtying the floor. When she began to cry, the attending doctor scolded her and when she wouldn’t stop, a nurse slapped her. She eventually had a still birth.
Reena’s story is not an unusual one. One in three women who give birth in public hospitals is slapped or hit, finds a new study on labour room violence. The first-hand witnessing of 31 deliveries in government hospitals in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh is a small study, but its findings are significant, and alarming, as it found “widespread mistreatment of pregnant women”.
Physical violence and verbal abuse are not the only hardships women in labour face. “Women were also often humiliated for their fertility choices and had intrauterine devices (IUDs) inserted into them without their full knowledge or consent,” found the study, findings of which have been published in The India Forum.
Straining under stress
The drive to reduce maternal mortality (MMR) has resulted in more women being brought to the hospital to deliver. The Janani Suraksha Yojana, launched in 2005, provides cash assistance to women and ASHAs are incentivized to bring in women to hospitals and community health centres. The National Family Health Survey-5 found that institutional births had risen to 89%, compared to 79% in the previous round.
That’s good news. But this has resulted in overburdening health facilities that are simply not prepared for the increase in volume, according to Soumya Gupta, a gynaecologist who has worked in government hospitals in Meerut and Delhi.
In hospitals, even in the big cities, it is not uncommon to see three or four women on a single bed going through labour, Gupta said. “In this scenario, how do you offer an epidural where you need to have one-to-one monitoring of the mother and baby?”
Pain relief options are rarely offered. Epiostomies, or vaginal cutting to prevent tears, are routinely done minus consent and, often, minus painkillers.
In other places, women are denied a bed and forced to deliver on the floor so that they don’t make a ‘mess’. Or they are loudly berated by nurses and ayahs for shouting (apparently a favourite slur is: “You weren’t shouting when f***ing, so why are you yelling now?).”
High levels of poverty and inequality affect the capacity of poor women to obtain quality and respectful services, found a 2011 paper by Jashodhara Dasgupta. “The poor are likely to travel great distances for treatment, may be obliged to pay bribes…may not receive appropriate treatment or may even be humiliated,” the paper found.
The paper trail
The physical and verbal abuse of women in the delivery room is well undocumented. In 2019, a study found that all 275 mothers in 26 private and public sector hospitals in three districts in Uttar Pradesh had been subjected to at least one indicator of mistreatment: 92% were not offered a birthing position of choice, others were disallowed birthing companions, denied privacy and even slapped, pinched or kicked by medical personnel, nurses, doctors and ayahs.
This violence is not limited to India. In October 2019, Lancet published findings that found that mistreatment in four countries including Myanmar and Nigeria involved physical or verbal abuse, stigma or discrimination. It found that 13% of caesarian births and 75% of episiotomies were performed without consent and, often, without a painkiller. In fact, 57% of women said they had not been offered any relief for pain.
Journalist Sohini Chattopadhyay went undercover to an unnamed government hospital in Kolkata. Her story makes for distressing reading.
The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the situation. In May 2020, Human Rights in Childbirth, an international non-profit, found that pregnant women, especially those from marginalized communities, were bearing the burden caused by strains on the health system.
Covid made a bad situation worse. In June 2020, Neelam Kumari Gautam died during labour after being turned away from eight hospitals. At the first, the doctor reportedly told her: “I will slap you if you take off your mask.”
Why don’t we talk about it?
When we talk of violence against women, we tend to talk about domestic violence or sexual assault. Rarely do we include the almost universal experience of obstetric violence.
There are several reasons for the silence. First, the women who are subject to the most extreme violence are also the most marginalized in terms of socio-economic and caste status and lack the agency to complain.
“From a poor ragpicker to a rickshaw puller’s wife, these women are helpless and have no recourse,” Gupta said.
Second, she continued, is the dehumanization of women’s health. “If men were giving birth in such horrendous circumstances it would make headlines,” she said.
Third, women are brought up to not complain. Child birth, we are told, is an inevitable rite of passage that must be painful and endured. Mothers tell their daughters, “We went through it and so can you,” said Gupta.
Fourth is just a lack of awareness and sensitivity by medical professionals. A friend who is herself a gynaecologist told me about an examination by a peer. “I was lying on the table and she just inserted her glove into my vagina without giving me the most basic courtesy of a heads up. The labour room seems designed to strip you of your dignity. There is no privacy as everybody casually passes by and thinks it ok to take a look,” she said.
Jashodhara Dasgupta, an independent researcher on maternal health for over two decades said she is perplexed at the lack of outrage by feminist groups and healthcare activists. “Issues like sexual harassment at the workplace, domestic violence and rape have caught on. But not obstetric violence. I can’t explain it,” she said.
Men on average earn Rs 4,000 more than women. Muslims earn Rs 7,000 less than non-Muslims and those at the bottom of the caste system, including Dalits and tribals, make Rs 5,000 less than others with the same educational qualifications and experience.
A two-judge bench of Justices Hemant Gupta and Sudhanshu Dhulia remarked that it was not equipped to interpret the Quran. Meanwhile, lawyers representing 23 petitioners challenged an earlier Karnataka high court order that upheld the ban on hijab, or a head scarf.
The ban is a violation of individual rights and of privacy said senior advocate Kapil Sibal who urged the judges to refer the matter to a larger Constitution bench since it involved the personal dignity of individuals and is a cultural right protected by Article 29.
On the fifth day of hearings, senior advocate Colin Gonsalves called the Constitution a living document and asked for hijab to be given the same protection as Sikh turbans and kirpans. “The wrong equation of hijab with a law and order problem is a shocking formulation,” he said.
Putting forward a just-released PUCL report on how the hijab ban had impacted Muslim girls from attending schools and colleges, another senior advocate, Aditya Sondhi said the girls were being forced to make a choice between education and the wearing of a head scarf. “A citizen must not be burdened with choosing between two rights,” he said.
Senior advocate Yusuf Mucchala agreed that the rights of Muslim girls is affected because their cultural and religious rights were not being accepted.
UP’s rape horror story continues
Six men have been arrested , one after an encounter with police left him with a bullet injury on his leg while he was trying to evade arrest, in connection with the death of two minor Dalit girls who were found hanging from a tree in Nighasan in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri district. Police officials said two of the men, Sohail and Hafeezul Rehaman raped and murdered the girls while Chottu Gautam, a local villager facilitated the crime. The others helped in disposing off the bodies.
National Crime Records Bureau data shows a 45% increase in the reported rapes of Dalit women from 2015 to 2020.
Bringing in a law for ‘honour’ killings’
The Dalit Human Rights Defender Network, a coalition of anti-caste activists and organisations has, reports The News Minute, put together a draft bill that recognises so-called ‘honour’ killings or, more accurately, the caste-based murder of kin by their own families because they marry outside caste and faith. Despite a Law Commission recommendation, there is no law in India that specifically deals with these killings.
AND NOW FOR THE GOOD NEWS
The simple intervention of lidocaine, a local anaesthesia that costs less than Rs 100, just before breast cancer surgery significantly lowers the risk of death and recurrence of the cancer. The decade-long study by doctors at the Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai said the treatment will now be used as standard protocol for the treatment of all breast cancer patients at their centres.
India has an estimated 150,000 new breast cancer patients every year, of which 90,000 to 100,000 are eligible for surgery.
What happens to three couples who break barriers by falling in love? Journalist Mansi Choksi documents three cases: One which crossed the religious divide; another that had to pretend to be sisters just to live together; and a third that runs away from their families because they belong to different castes.
Mansi Choksi’s The Newly Weds: Rearranging marriage in modern India has been published to rave reviews. In the Financial Times, Nilanjana Roy called it “compelling, and sometimes heartbreaking”. The Times calls it a “staggeringly good work of literary journalism”.
AROUND THE WORLD
In Iowa, a teenage human trafficking victim who was initially charged with first-degree murder after she stabbed her accused rapist to death has been sentenced to five years of closely supervised probation. But, under state law, she will also have to pay $150,000 to the man’s family, reports Associated Press. Donations through GoFundMe have been pouring in for the teenager and stand at twice the amount she has been ordered to pay.
In Sweden, the country’s first woman prime minister Magdalena Andersson accepted defeat to a four-party right-wing opposition bloc in a close-fought election and has resigned, reports EuroNews.
In Chicago, , a jury has found R&B singer R Kelly guilty of multiple charges of child pornography and luring underage girls to have sex with him, reports CNN. Earlier in June, Kelly was sentenced to 30 years in prison by a New York court on charges of racketeering and prostitution. The singer still faces charges in Illinois and Minnesota.
In the UK, civil liberties campaigners have expressed alarm about the police crackdown on anti-monarchy protestors, including the arrest of a man in Edinburgh for apparently heckling Prince Andrew who remains under a cloud of allegations for sex with underage trafficked girls.
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