The Apollo-11 mission is forever entrenched in history as the Human conquest of the Moon. But very few know the major and historic blunder that the mission committed.
The landing module of the spaceflight was left on the moon with a plaque that reads –
“Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon, in July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.“
In one stroke, this plaque has deleted the existence of women not only from the Earth but the whole Universe.
If you find this cynical then let me tell you that in the year 1789 one such humongous blunder was committed when the glorious French revolution culminated in the declaration of the ‘Rights of Man and of the citizens.’ And it took Olympe de Gouges’ ‘Rights of Woman‘ nearly 150 years to become a reality.
Lo, that will bring us back to square one, to the day of the declaration of the rights of men.
As someone threw wisdom at me – Men mean everyone. ‘Those Apollo groups were all men that’s why they wrote so.’ My wise friend simplified my agony.
‘Don’t you see, that exactly is the problem.’
When are we invited?
Throughout my growing up and adulthood, I have remained unsure when ‘he’ includes me and when he excludes me.
Why can’t this be simple like those signs outside restrooms? ‘He‘ for men and ‘she‘ for women. You don’t need to hesitate outside the door, simply find the correct sign and barge in.
This looks simple but actually, it is very complicated.
Invisible ‘she’ in Legal Texts
In one of my political science lectures, we were discussing various statutes carried forward by the British colonists. The professor was explaining who is competent to contract under the Indian Contract Act, of 1872 – “Every person is competent to contract…according to the law to which he is subject.“
If I agree with my wise friend, then here ‘He‘ includes me. But look around, it is not only me confused by the missing pronouns. Isn’t this reflected in the common perception that women lack business acumen and financial IQ?
Do you know why? Because in this Statute which has been amended so many times, there is not a single illustration where a woman is entering into a contract.
This becomes further complicated when you read Indian Constitution.
Let me come straight to the Right to Equality, the very foundation of our democracy. It declares that the State shall not discriminate against any citizen. And when you trace who is a citizen, then Article 5 clearly words – “. . . every person who has his domicile in the territory of India. . .”
The list is endless, if you open any statute or Act, it is always ‘he‘ perched on the dais.
So, not waiting for the drafters to amend these errors, I took matters into my hand during a lecture I attended on the powers of the President of India.
‘He is the supreme commander of the armed forces,’ the professor explains.
‘Can she apply her discretion in declaring war?’ I interrupt him with pretended query.
‘No, he can only declare on the advice of the Council of Ministers.‘ The professor answers in a calm voice joining this ping-pong of pronouns.
Do you see the complexity in this whole thing? Despite having a woman President in chair presently, we choose to define things as per the words written in the law.
Thus, even if women get equal space, they will still stay invisible because we are invisible in texts. Secondly, interpreting ‘he‘ as both she and he, brings the social conditioning that women cannot have an identity independent of men.
The social conditioning resulting from invisible pronouns
The irony is that this social conditioning is so smooth that even we, women, are hesitant to claim that space even if it is given to us. It is like entering the hall and occupying the corner-most seat even if you are the only one in the room.
Let me demonstrate this through the snippet of a conversation, which I prefer to call a social experiment. On a hot summery day, I conspiringly told my mother-in-law, ‘You know, if we two stick together, they won’t have their way.’
I was a young bride then, perhaps that’s why exhibited this foolish bravery to instigate a gentle woman who was both constitutional and God-fearing. She looked up at me with a start, ‘Stick together? For what?‘
We had just got back from the vegetable market and then entered the kitchen to prepare lunch, while our husbands were cooling down under the AC.
‘For reciprocity. Didn’t you see, they did not even bother to take the bags or offer a glass of water.‘
‘They were sitting, why bother them?’
That’s how many of us are hesitant to claim what is equally ours because we don’t want to bother them.
In search of substantive equality
Not many people know about the pioneering role of women of Manipur, an Indian State, in the social and economic sphere. You will find the markets run by women in almost all the districts. They are popularly called Ima (mother) markets. The Ima market of Imphal, the capital of the State, is the world’s only market run entirely by women.
Another interesting feature is the Meira Paibis group. Literally, it means torch-bearer. These are community groups of women who keep a neighbourhood watch on drug abuse and other social issues. Drug trafficking is a major evil that has stunted the growth of this beautiful state. Another issue that plagued Manipur for many decades was the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a kind of martial law, enacted by the Parliament in 1958 after the region was declared ‘disturbed.’ Instead of getting lost in the political labyrinth, I will come straight to the ‘feminist‘ movement of Manipur.
In the year 2000, Irom Sharmila, a civil rights activist from Manipur began her hunger strike against the atrocities committed under the security law. According to BBC, this was the world’s longest hunger strike. For 16 long years, she was force-fed, kept chained to her bed on the charges of ‘attempt to commit suicide.’ She was joined in this show of defiance by Meira Paibi who staged their naked protest. The combined efforts of these brave women finally shook the consciousness of the World and country.
The landmark judgment of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in 2016, finally ‘acknowledged‘ the misuse of the Act. The same year, Irom Sharmila announced the ending of her fast and contested the State elections scheduled next year. Interestingly, despite having the majority of women voters in the State, she got only 90 votes against winning around 11,000 votes, the lowest among the five candidates.
As one of the female voters said: ‘Politics is not the place for Women,’ it summarizes how we have marked our lines. The paradox doesn’t end here.
Aporia in government statistics
If we look at the National Family Health Survey – 4 records, Manipur tops in spousal violence in India. This brings back the core issue that the seen parity at the social and economic level is illusionary till the time we do not claim the rights in letter and spirit.
It is as important as putting a nameplate outside your house despite having the legal papers, and documents as proof of your ownership.
Seeing the speed the world is spreading, mankind has already begun marking its territory on other planets. So, before they forget, let the rest of us, prepare the plaque with our distinct pronoun for the next space mission ready, announcing to the universe that, ‘We came in Peace for All.’