Play­ing games with the rights of women

CityPress - - Business - Terry Bell busi­ness@ city­press. co. za

Ev­ery year, as Au­gust dawns, there are media mur­mur­ings about women’s rights and a rash of prom­ises and re­mem­brances. But though in­sti­tu­tion­alised apartheid is no longer, the po­si­tion of women in South Africa and many parts of the world re­mains demon­stra­bly un­equal – in some cases worse than it was 20 or more years ago.

How­ever, this year there was great irony in the mur­mur­ings be­ing eclipsed by news of the award­ing of the 2022 Win­ter Olympics to Bei­jing. And not only be­cause China has a hardly ster­ling record for hu­man – and women’s – rights.

In 1995, Bei­jing hosted what was claimed as a vi­sion­ary agenda for women: The Bei­jing Dec­la­ra­tion and Plat­form for Ac­tion. It was adopted by 189 coun­tries.

Ac­cord­ing to the UN, this plat­form “imag­ines a world where each woman and girl can ex­er­cise her free­doms and choices, and re­alise all her rights, such as to live free from vi­o­lence, to go to school, to par­tic­i­pate in de­ci­sions and to earn equal pay for equal work”.

But for mil­lions of women, this vi­sion re­mains a mi­rage.

That the Olympic award went to Bei­jing has dou­bled the irony be­cause of the history of this in­ter­na­tional com­pe­ti­tion. It started 119 years ago as an elit­ist and ex­clu­sively male pre­serve.

The fact that women now com­pete can also be at­trib­uted in sub­stan­tial mea­sure to the labour move­ment, not to the found­ing ethos of the mod­ern Olympics.

A wealthy French no­ble­man, Baron Pierre de Cou­bertin, founded the mod­ern Games. His vi­sion of an Olympiad com­prised unit­ing what he per­ceived to be the cul­tured – male and white – elite of the world across na­tional bound­aries.

All com­peti­tors, De Cou­bertin ruled, should be am­a­teurs. As such, he en­sured that the mod­ern Games would also be ex­clu­sive on the ba­sis of class. Work­ing men who had nei­ther the time to train nor the money for equip­ment were, in ef­fect, ex­cluded.

In the face of this class and gen­der bias, the labour move­ment in Europe and the US sup­ported the es­tab­lish­ment of an in­ter­na­tional “worker Games”. This was open to all, ir­re­spec­tive of gen­der, class, race or re­li­gion, and the first event was staged in Prague, Cze­choslo­vakia, in 1921.

Ten years later, the work­ers’ sum­mer Games in Vi­enna at­tracted 100 000 ath­letes and 250 000 spec­ta­tors – on both counts more than the 1932 Los An­ge­les Olympics. But by then, in Ger­many, Hitler and the Nazis were on the rise, pro­mot­ing ul­tra­na­tion­al­ism and the idea that a woman’s place was in the home as a house­wife and baby pro­ducer.

Against wide­spread op­po­si­tion, the Olympic Com­mit­tee awarded Ger­many the 1936 Olympics and the Nazis in­tro­duced three in­no­va­tions that still per­sist: the Olympic flame (sym­bol­is­ing burn­ing out the filth of the world) and torch re­lay, along with na­tional an­thems in­stead of the sin­gle, uni­fy­ing Olympic an­them.

Just as these sym­bols per­sist, so too, in dif­fer­ent ways and in var­i­ous parts of the world, do the na­tion­al­ist and male chau­vin­ist at­ti­tudes that ac­com­pa­nied them.

And since the Bei­jing Dec­la­ra­tion, there have been a num­ber of sim­i­lar dec­la­ra­tions of in­tent to bring about rad­i­cal change. Most women of the world are still wait­ing. And this is what we should re­ally be con­cerned about to­day – and ev­ery other day of the year.

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