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A Glance at the History of Women’s Rights in Europe

By: Martyred Ayatullah Murtada Mutahhari
In Europe, from the seventeenth century onwards, voices began to be raised in the name of human rights. Writers and thinkers of the 17th and 18th century propagated their thoughts in respect of the natural, inherent and undeniable rights of man with wonderful perseverance. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu belong to this group of thinkers and writers.
The fist practical result of the propagation of the ideas of the supporters of natural human rights occurred when in England a protracted struggle took place between the rulers and the ruled. In 1688 AD, the people succeeded in moving for some of their social and political rights according to a manifesto of rights [1] and had them restored.
Another practical result of the propagation of these ideas was manifested in the War of Independence of America against England. Thirteen British Colonies in North America, due to the strains and difficulties imposed upon them, rose in disobedience and rebellion and at last gained their independence.
In the year 1776 AD, a Congress was formed in Philadelphia which declared its complete independence and published a document [2] to that effect. In the introduction that document they wrote, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
However that is well-known in the world under the name of the ‘Declaration of Human Rights’ is that document which was issued after the Great French Revolution. This declaration [3] consists of a series of general principles which are prefixed to the French Constitution, and it is considered an inseparable part of it. This proclamation consists of an introduction and seventeen clauses. The first section states that “Men are born, and always continue, free and equal in respect of their rights.”
In the 19th century new changes and new thoughts occurred in the field of economics, sociology and politics which culminated in the advent of socialism and the resultant requirement of the allocation of a share of profits to the working class, and the transfer of government from the hands of the capitalists to the workers.
Till the early part of the 20th century, all the controversies concerning human rights were connected entirely with the rights of the people before their governments, or with rights of the proletariat and the working class before the employers.
It was in the 20th century for the first time that the question of the rights of woman before man came to the fore. Britain, which is considered to be the oldest democratic country, only acknowledged equal rights for men and women in the beginning of the 20th century. The United States of America, in spite of their generally admitting the rights of all human beings in the 18th century in their Declaration of Independence, passed the act giving equal political rights to men and women in the year 1920 and France also approved this matter in the 20th century.
Anyhow, in the 20th century, many groups all over the world favoured a profound change in the relations of men and women concerning their rights and duties. According to these people, the change and transformation in the relations of peoples with their governments, and in the relations of the labour class and the proletariat with the employers and the capitalists did not suffice for social justice, so long as the relations of rights of men and women are not reformed.
Accordingly, a Universal Declaration of Human Rights was issued for the first time after the Second World War in 1948 [4] on behalf of the United Nations Organization. In its introduction it was stipulated: Whereas the people of the United Nations have once again proclaimed their belief in human rights and the status and worth of an individual human being and equality of the rights of men and women…
The crisis of change due to mechanization in the 19th and the 20th century and the eventual unfortunate condition of craftsmen, especially women, exaggerated the situation all the more, demanding that the matter of the rights of women should be especially attended to. In his Nouvelle Histoire Universelle (vol.4, p.387) Albert Malet writes: “Since the State no longer interfered in any way between the employers and the workers, except to forbid the latter to group together and strike, the employers were able to enforce a real economic despotism’….in France, in 1840, in the Ronen region, cotton mill workers laboured up to 16—17 hours a day… The exploitation for work of women and children was particular obnoxious......mortality in the working districts was horrifying.”
This is a short and cursory history of the human rights movement in Europe. As we know all the matters contained in the Declarations of Human Rights, which have novelty for the Europeans, were anticipated fourteen century ago in Islam. Some Arab and Iranian scholars have compared (the position of) Islam with these declarations in their books. Of course, there are differences in some parts between what the declarations say and what has said, and this is itself an absorbing and interesting matter. One of these differences is the problem of the rights of men and women, in which Islam approves of equality, but does not agree with identicalness, uniformity and exact similarity.
[] The author refers to the Persian translation of Albert Malet’s Nouvelle Histoire Universelle where mention is made of the “Declaration of Rights” presented to William and Mary of Orange in the presence of the entire British Parliament on 13th February 1689. (Tr.)
[2] Actually called “The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen United States of America”, made on 4th July 1776. (Tr.)
[3] The “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens.” This was promulgated by the French National Assembly as a preamble to the constitution in 1789, and subsequently popularized by Thomas Paine’s “The Rights of Man”. (Tr.)
[4] The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted and proclaimed by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 10th December 1948. (Tr.)

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