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A Brief Glance at the History of Women's Rights in Europe

The talk of human rights began in the 17th century. The writers and thinkers of the 17th and the 18th centuries, with great perseverance, gave publicity to their ideas about natural and indefeasible rights. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu belong to this group of thinkers and writers. The first practical result of the spread of their ideas was a long-drawn struggle between the rulers and the people of England. In 1688 the English people succeeded in making the King agree to grant them certain political and social rights advanced by them in the Charter, known as the Bill of Rights.

Another outstanding result of the spread of these ideas was the American War of Independence against England. Thirteen English colonies in North America revolted, following the imposition of heavy taxes, and eventually gained their independence. In 1776 a conference was held in Philadelphia which issued the Declaration of Independence. Its preamble said: "We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their justice power from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organising its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness".

As regards what is known as the Declaration of Human Rights, it was issued after the French Revolution. It contains certain universal principles which are considered to be an integral part of the French Constitution. The Declaration consists of a preamble and 17 clauses. The first clause says that all human beings are born free and remain free throughout their life. They are equal to one another in the matter of rights.

In the 19th century new developments took place and new ideas emerged in the field of human rights in economic, social and political matters. These resulted in the emergence of socialism, participation of the workers in the profits, and the shifting of the government from the hands of the capitalists to the labour.

Up to the beginning of the 20th century all discussions on human rights were centred upon the rights of the people versus the governments, or the rights of the labouring classes as against the employers and the landlords.

In the 20th century, the question of the rights of woman vis-a-vis those of man cropped up. It was only in the beginning of the 20th century that Britain, which is known as the oldest democracy, recognised the equality of rights between man and woman. Though the United States had, in general terms, recognised human rights in the 18th century in the course of the Declaration of Independence, yet universal suffrage was granted only in 1920. France also extended suffrage to woman only from the 20th century.

Somehow or the other in the 20th century large sections of people throughout the world came to support a deep change in the relations between man and woman, from the viewpoint of rights and obligations. According to them the purpose of social justice could not be achieved by change in the relation between the nations and between the workers and the employers and capitalists so long as the relations of man and woman with regard to their rights were not considered.

That is why the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issued by the United Nations in 1948, says:

"Whereas the peoples dignity of individual and equality of rights between man and woman ... ."

The crisis caused by the development of machines in the 19th and the 20th centuries, and the consequent pitiable condition of the workers, especially the female workers, focused the attention on the plight of woman and that is why attention was paid to the question of their rights. A historian says: "As long as the governments did not pay attention to the plight of the workers and the behaviour of their employers, the capitalists did whatever they liked. The mill-owners used to employ women and children at very meagre wages and, as their working hours were too long, most of them suffered from various diseases and died at a young age".

This was the brief history of the Movement for Human Rights in Europe. As we know, all those clauses of the Declaration of Human Rights, which are new to the Europeans, had been visualised by Islam 14 centuries ago, and some Arab and Iranian intellectuals in their books have made a comparative study of the teachings of Islam and the provisions of these declarations. There still exists some difference between certain parts of these declarations and what Islam has taught. This is an interesting subject. For example, Islam accepts equality between the rights of man and woman, but it does not accept similarity or uniformity of their rights.

Adapted from the book: "Woman and Her Rights" by: "Shahid Murtaza Mutahhari"

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