I Am Woman, Watch Me Vote

We hear all the time that Americans take a lot of things for granted, but the thing we never discuss is how we take rights for granted.  This may be due to the fact that rights perhaps should be taken for granted, since we believe that they should be an inherent aspect of the human condition…but they aren’t always.  While the “West” basks in its freedoms of speech, religion, and press, in other parts of the world, those rights are denied.  Those rights, particularly speech and press, we consider to be extraordinarily important because we consider them to be facilitative rights-~-that is, they enable us to utilize other rights, such as our right to participate in government.

One of the greatest challenges that the feminist movement across the board faced in the beginning has been the issue of

American suffragettes used rallies and protests, and even went to jail, fighting for the right to vote in the early 20th century

government participation.  This is because, initially, women’s suffrage was not an accepted part of many societies.  New Zealand was actually the first country to grant universal suffrage, although Sweden was the first to let women vote at all, ruling in 1718 that women who paid taxes and were affiliated with guilds could vote (this was, however, rescinded in 1771).  It was not until 1920 that the United States as a whole (although many states did grant women the right to vote in state and local elections prior to this) instated women’s suffrage with the nineteenth amendment.

Since 1920, however, it seems that the issue of suffrage has become far less prominent, and American women have turned their attention to actual equal opportunities, equal treatment, and equal pay.  These are all extraordinarily valid feminist issues, but while Western feminism moved along, women in other countries still struggled with basic rights to their own bodies-~-some countries STILL do not have laws against spousal rape (in fact, the United States on recognized spousal rape as a crime in the 1970’s).   In fact, Afghanistan passed a law in 2009 that appears to legalize spousal rape and child marriages for a portion of the population.  Particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, spousal rape is a serious issue (serious enough, in fact, that I am going to wait until a later post to talk more about it).

And that is in countries where women DO have a say in the government, albeit a perhaps limited one.  Even where women are able to run for office, they often have trouble advancing women’s issues in government due to a lack of female voters supporting them, which forces them to bend to the political will of male voters in order to run for office.  So imagine how overwhelming it might be to try to change norms, to try to appeal to society, to tackle these kinds of issues…without the right to vote.

We may not think about this often, but the fight for suffrage didn’t end when the United States passed the nineteenth amendment.  It is not just a chapter in the past…for many women, it is a present, maybe even a part of a hopeful future.  Syria managed to gain women’s suffrage in 1953 only to lose it the same year and not regain it until 1972, due to regime changes.  Nigeria only granted women in the north suffrage in ’75, South Africa achieved full suffrage in 1994.  And if you’re looking at that thinking “whoa, countries were still just getting around to granting suffrage in the 1990’s”…make sure you’re sitting when you read this next bit.

Because Saudi Arabia just granted women suffrage…ON SUNDAY.

(Yes, this post was supposed to be published on Monday.  I apologize for that delay.)

SEPTEMBER 2011, Saudi Arabia granted women the ability to vote and run for office in local elections.  Only local elections.  And they still haven’t given women the ability to do things like drive, which restricts their ability to act on these new rights.  But nevertheless, this is a big step for women in Saudi Arabia, giving them a political voice of their own for the first time.

It is amazing to me how easy it is to take for granted that we have come so far, when women around the world are still struggling just to be seen as citizens in their own country, able to make decisions and be a part of the process.  But I am equally taken aback by the fortitude with which women have continued to fight for these rights, even when the rest of the world forgets that they are rights that need to be fought for…and it is beautiful to see women in places like Saudi Arabia slowly but surely making progress, where it seemed for so long that the status quo might never change.

For more a timeline on women’s suffrage, see http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/politics/womens-suffrage/world-suffrage-timeline.  For one of the original articles about women’s suffrage in Saudi Arabia, see http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/26/world/middleeast/women-to-vote-in-saudi-arabia-king-says.html?_r=1&ref=saudiarabia

Regardless of sex/gender, if you are eligible to vote where you live and you are not registered, please register.  The ability to vote and have a voice in government is both a right and a responsibility, and as the Junior State of America slogan so aptly states, democracy is not a spectator sport.  Don’t let the opportunity to let your voice be heard pass you by: there are people in this world still fighting for that opportunity to be heard.

 

 

 

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~ by Randi Saunders on September 28, 2011.

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