Did the Magna Carta Establish Human Rights?


Celebrating 10 Years of the Jaipur Literature Festival

Apekshita Varshney, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger


I have tried everything.

Draping myself in layers of clothes.
Dishevelling hair to look unkempt, insouciant, even ugly.
Returning home an hour earlier. And then another hour. And then another hour.

Nothing works.

You know why? Because it’s not my fault. It’s theirs. They have been wrong for centuries. Wrong about their misplaced advice, suffocating moralising, nit-picking, unwavering control, dominance, misogyny but over and above all, they are incorrigible in their sanctimonious attitude towards women.

I can’t advocate for women’s issues better than many women already have. I can’t word an essay that will reason better than Virginia Woolf. I can’t frame a poem that will pierce your heart deeper than Maya Angelou. I can’t insist more sincerely on the need for freedom from fear than Aung San Suu Kyi. I can’t, over and above it all, compel you to see the drudgery of being a woman if you have chosen to shield your eyes from the gender debate. It’s not new. It struck Bangalore at the stroke of midnight. It strikes lesser known and lesser cared for places every second.


Signing of the Magna Carta


It’s not new, but I wish we had had this debate 800 years ago, when the Magna Carta was being written.
Because what is considered a hallmark in human rights treated women as non-existent.

Many scholars argue that this most celebrated charter in middle history was drawn up to make peace between King John and his barons, who didn’t want to keep being taxed for his never-ending wars. The settlement was mostly for the benefit of the barons and the English elite, but it also included perks for the common or ‘free’ man.

On paper, the Magna Carta ensured the protection of church rights, saved barons from illegal imprisonment, provided access to quick justice, and limited taxes payable to the King. It extended rights and liberties to free men, and established that the King was not above the law, thus restraining him from arbitrary imprisonment and merciless plunder.

The success of the Magna Carta’s implementation is still considered debateable, but the settlement remains relevant today. Although few know what it actually says, many believe that it set the benchmark for human rights. It takes pride of place in world politics, resting on the tip of politicians’ tongues, and regarded through rose-tinted glasses. It is often brandished with rhetorical flair in debates on human rights.

Yet claims of the Magna Carta’s importance in human rights are overstated for one very pertinent reason: it does not discuss the securing of women’s rights. So why is it revered to the extent that it is?

Some argue that the Magna Carta speaks graciously of widows: ‘… A widow… will without difficulty have her marriage portion and inheritance…’ but she will have to ‘give security (that she won’t marry) without our (King’s) consent’. But this clause can be viewed as a glass as half-full or a glass half-empty. Yes, AT LEAST the Magna Carta gave widows some respite from forced marriage, and began the process of emancipating women. But AT LEAST is not AT MOST, and AT LEAST is not acceptable. To my mind, the glass is in fact completely empty: what kind of emancipation begins and ends with marriage?

Magna Carta

A further clause in the Magna Carta reads: ‘No one is to be arrested on the accusation of a woman for the death of anyone other than her husband.’ Not only does this show that women were treated as sub-par in judgement and authority, but also that her testimony only held value if the victim was her husband.

Many remember the Magna Carta from their schoolbooks and acclaim it for its Anti-Arbitration rhetoric. Yet besides its cursory mention of widows, it did nothing to challenge the status quo of women. Women remained at the mercy of men long after the world’s most treasured charter was annulled. More than 800 years later, the narrative of world politics is still largely shaped and operated by men.

Today, when one woman raises her head above the parapet to talk about patriarchy and harassment, ten men rise to trend a  #NotAllMen on social media because they are tired of the constant blame. Of course they are tired. They are tired of thinking of themselves as the invincible gender in strength, attitude, and performance. Well I am tired of the constant lecherous gazes when I am out in public. I am tired of the didactic morals directed at me with every breath. I am tired of sitting at the edge, legs firmly together.

The much reported mass molestation in Bangalore on New Year’s Eve has shaken my faith in Indian cities. Sexual crime rates prove time and again that Indian cities are no safer for working, independent women than rural areas. Ambedkar was wrong. Jane Jacobs was wrong. All the urbanites who claimed that cities were transformative, were wrong. Cities are not a respite for women. They are not saving women. They are not changing the situation for women.

In England, like every other country, women had to wait many centuries after the Magna Carta to be granted a dignified position in society, with representation, rights and universal suffrage. During the first-wave of feminism, many women were recorded as saying that they wished that the movement had happened earlier, so their mothers and grandmothers could have lived a happier life. Today, you may have that same wish for irreversible equality for the generations of women to come, but I can’t help thinking, what if? What if the 800-year-old Magna Carta truly had been the genesis of human rights, rather than of man rights?

Maybe my grandmother too would have lived a happier life.


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