Monday, August 19, 2013

Marie Stopes – Pioneer of Birth Control.

            In the early 20th Century, Victorian England was shocked out of its prudery by a woman called Marie Stopes, who made it her vocation to inform the women of her day, that the enjoyment of sex was not just a male prerogative, but could be enjoyed by women too, without fear of pregnancy. What surprised everyone was that she was neither a doctor nor a sex therapist but a spinster, with Botany and Geology as subjects of specialization. Perhaps her friendship with Margaret Sanders an advocate for Birth Control induced her to make a lifelong commitment to the Birth Control Movement.
            Marie’s first book “Married Love” was considered scandalous, and was turned down by a number of publishers. They found her theory, that marriage can be happy only if the couple has a mutually satisfying sex life, to be offensive. But a rich and influential man called Humphrey Verdon Roe got it published on 20th March 1918, even though the contents shocked the world. This man later became her second husband, and with his help she was able to establish the first Birth Control Clinic in 1921, in the Holloway district of London.
            Marie’s second book “Wise Parenthood” was written after her marriage but before she became a parent. It was addressed to middle class women. Later, she brought out a condensed form of its contents, as a news letter, which was specially directed to poor women. It was titled “A letter to working class mothers – How to have healthy children and avoid weakening pregnancies.” But the poor ignored her letter and called her ‘a well intentioned meddler.’
Both Protestant and Catholic churches denounced her ‘indecent literature’ and were opposed to the sale of condoms. The Birth Control Clinic was open only to married women. It was manned by midwives and visiting doctors. Women were taught to use the cervical cap. Marie was against abortions.
            In 1922, the cervical cap which she promoted was criticized vehemently by Halliday Gibson Sutherland. It led to bitter fights between them, which ended in a legal battle. Unluckily for Marie, Sutherland won the case.
            Over the following years, Marie opened clinics in different parts of the British Isles. With fellow family planning pioneers, she established the National Birth Control Council in 1930. It was committed to improving the reproductive health of women and breaking down existing taboos.
            Marie Stopes was born in Edinburgh on October 5th 1880. Both her parents were scholars who ensured that their intelligent daughter had a good education. She entered the University of London on a scholarship to study Botany and Geology. She secured a First Class in her B.Sc degree in 1902, followed by D.Sc and was the youngest person to do so. After extensive research in both subjects, Marie transferred to the University of Munich in 1904, for her PhD in Paleobotany. She then became a lecturer at the University of Manchester, and was the first female academic to be appointed on the Science staff of the University. But after a few years, she resigned her lectureship to concentrate on her Birth Control Clinic.
            The quirks in her character however, were too blatant to ignore. Her first husband was a Canadian scientist called Reginald Ruggles Gates. She divorced him two years later in 1916, because her sex life was unfulfilling and was never consummated.
In 1918, she married the wealthy Humphrey Verdon Roe, and forced her husband to sign a pre-nuptial document to free her of sexual fidelity if he was unable to satisfy her.
            Marie’s first child was stillborn in 1919. At the age of 43, her second son Harry Stopes Roe was born. She was a dominating mother who controlled every aspect of his life. When he grew up, he married against her will. Her main objection was that the girl wore spectacles, and there was a possibility of his children being damaged through imperfections. Mother and son were estranged till her death.
            Though Marie disliked Hitler, she sent him a compilation of “Love Songs for Young Lovers,” Her son put this down to her megalomania and not because of any affection for him. But one presumes that her support for Eugenics was inspired by Hitler. She advocated sterilization of physically disabled and mentally retarded women calling them “inferior, depraved and feeble minded.” She believed that the human race would decline if such people were allowed to procreate. Like Hitler she was anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic and anti-Russian.
            But Hitler closed down her Birth Control clinics in Germany. So in 1940, she wrote a note to Churchill suggesting a slogan for the war against Hitler, “Fight the Battle of Britain in German Air.”
            Marie was a harridan. Verdon Roe her husband had to put up with many humiliating restrictions. After World War II, she took to writing poetry and literature. She even wrote children’s stories under the name of Erica Fay.
            Marie died of Breast Cancer on October 2nd, 1958. She bequeathed her mansion and entire estate to the Royal Society of Literature. To Harry her only son, she left 13 volumes of the Greater Oxford Dictionary.
            But in spite of her eccentricities, she has been immortalized through the Marie Stopes International Organization which was started in 1976, and now covers 41 countries through a network of 600 centres.
            Not many know that this champion of women’s rights had a small stone cottage on the Isle of Portland, where she used to hide during her stressful days of battle with Sutherland. In 1930, she converted it into the Portland Museum and presented it to the people of Portland. The museum in Church Ope Cove at Wakeham is a lovely place to visit. The exhibits there depict the history of the Isle of Portland.

Thursday, July 4, 2013


            An unusual Valentine’s Day card caught my attention in a book shop. It had a dried peepal leaf stuck on the outside, with the face of a beautiful woman painted on it. Two beauty spots were seen on her left cheek. Inside the card were these words:-
“I am an expert in things of love. Even the moth is my disciple.”
The author of these lines was ‘Makhfi.’
“Who is this poet?” I wondered, “Is it man or a woman?”
So began my search for Makhfi – the ‘Invisible One.’
            Though the women of the Moghul Empire were mostly ignored, Zebunissa the eldest daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb was an exception. She was renowned in the Literary World as a sensitive Sufi poet.
            Born in 1638 to Aurangzeb and Debias Banoo, a descendant of the Persian Safavid dynasty, Zebunissa was the Emperor’s favourite child for the first half of her life. He ensured that she received a good education in science, maths, astrology, philosophy, literature and languages like Persian, Arabic and Urdu. She memorized the entire Quran within three years, and by the age of seven, was declared a Hafiz. Her father was so thrilled by her performance that he turned it into a big celebration, and gifted her with 30,000 gold pieces.
            Zebunissa started writing poetry from the age of fourteen. But as her father hated poetry, she was secretive about it and wrote under the pseudonym Makhfi meaning the ‘invisible one.’
            Zebunissa was exposed to the affairs of the Moghul Court. The Emperor discussed his political problems with her and even sought her opinion on various issues. But she soon became conscious of his unbridled ambition and cruelty, which led to the dethronement of his father Shah Jehan. She also disliked his orthodox views on religion and society.
            At the age of 21, her relationship with her father underwent a drastic change. He became more conservative and strict. He resented her love of poetry and her desire to become a Sufi poet. But Zebunissa proved to be a rebel. She secretly participated in literary and cultural events, her face covered with a veil. Her poems were steeped in mystic thought – of love, freedom, inner experiences of the soul and love of God. The Persian poet Hafiz Shiraz had an influence on her poetry. She became one of the members of the Indian School of Poetry in Persian.
            Aurangzeb was jealous of her talents and rising fame in literary circles. She was moved to Tees Hazari, a house with an imposing garden, which was once the home of her talented aunt Jahan Ara. Zebunissa became a patron of poets. Her poems were appreciated by her contemporaries. She established an excellent library, employing scholars to translate famous literary works.
            Zebunissa was a tall, slim woman with a glowing complexion. She dressed soberly without adornments except for a string of pearls. She remained a spinster all her life though she had a train of lovers and many indiscreet liaisons. Her fondness for her slave girl Mian Bai was also the subject of gossip. She gifted her with the Charbuji Gardens in Lahore. The inscription on the gate read “This garden has been bestowed on Mian Bai by the beauty Zebinda Begum, the lady of her age.”
            Zebunissa’s fame infuriated her father. He decided to humiliate her publicly. He invited a famous Iranian poet Nazir Ali to his court, to challenge Zebunissa to a contest.  Nazir would begin a couplet which Zebunissa had to complete in three days. If she failed to do so, she would have to renounce poetry forever. Zebunissa decided that she would rather commit suicide instead.
            But she won the contest, and this was the beginning of a love affair between Nazir and her. It was short lived. Aurangzeb had the man put to death for daring to love a princess.
            Later, Aurangzeb accused her of conspiring with her brother Akbar, who led a revolt against him. She was imprisoned in Salimgarh Fort for the next twenty years, till the end of her life. She continued to immerse herself in literature and poetry for as long as she lived.
            Zebunissa died in 1702, when the Emperor was away in Deccan. She was buried in “The Garden of Thirty Thousand Trees,” near the Kabul Gate in Old Delhi. But when a railway line was laid, her coffin and tombstone was shifted to Akbar’s mausoleum in Sikandra at Agra.
            Zebunissa was a rare woman. Her poems (5000 verses) were compiled posthumously into a volume titled Diwan-i-Makhfi. It was later translated from Persian to English by Willis Barnstone. Copies of it are preserved in the British Museum and the National Libraries of Paris and Tehran, Library of University of Tubingen, and Mota Library in Delhi.
As Shelley said, “Poetry makes immortal all that is best and most beautiful in the world.”

Sunday, May 19, 2013


A holiday in Majorca, the Isle of Love, is never complete without a visit to the Cartusian Monastery at Valledemossa. A bus journey along the coast line from Playa de Palma to Valldemossa is a thrilling experience which takes all of ninety minutes.
Cell No. 4 in the monastery is the room where the famous writer George Sand wintered with her lover the musical genius Frederick Chopin, between 1838 and 1839. It is a modest room with essentials of furniture and his Pleyel Piano standing in one corner. Chopin was already suffering from Tuberculosis and George nursed him like a devoted mother. Chopin however, resented her oversolicitude. They quarreled frequently, and in her story “Winter’s Tale,” published in 1841, she was frank about their tempestuous life together. They parted company after eight years of living together. Ironically it was her daughter who brought about their rift.
Baroness Aurore Dudevant was a French novelist, who preferred to go by the name of George Sand. She was born in Nohant in central Paris on 1st July 1804. She lost her father at the age of four, and was brought up by a flighty mother. George had a broad education and was familiar with the literary works of Shakespeare, Rousseau, Homer and others.
But George was unlucky in love. Married at the age of 18 to Baron Cashmere Dudevant, she bore him two children. She was a dutiful wife until she discovered he was an adulterer. She left him in 1831, and moved to literary quarter of Paris, where she plunged into a Bohemian lifestyle for the next five years. She took the name of George Sand, dressed like a man, smoked, drank and rubbed shoulders with the literati like Dumas, Balzac and Hugo and several other artists.
Like the heroine in her third novel “Lelia” she was forever in search of an ideal man. She was attracted to younger men like Jules Sandeau and Alfred de Musset who broke her heart by being unfaithful to her, and the composer Chopin, who made the best of her hospitality at Nohant, where he composed his haunting nocturnes, melodious preludes and Sonata in B Flat minor.
George now realised that she was wasting her time on men. She would rather shower her love on humanity. Her writing became more humanitarian. She envisaged a classless society where people would live together in love. She was back in her natal home at Nohant. In her pastoral idylls like “The Haunted Pool” (1890) and “Francis the Waif,” (1889) she advocated a return to the soil where one could find peace, virtue and happiness.
At the outbreak of the Revolution, George offered her services to the provisional government and wrote many articles for the Bulletin of The Republic. But after the repression that followed, she once again retired to Nohant.
Many of George’s books dealt with women’s lives, loves, marriage and divorce. She stood for equality of the sexes and property rights for women. During her lifetime, she wrote hundred books and twenty five plays. She could cobble together 3000 words per day and was said to complete a novel within a month. Her advocacy of Romantic Feminism did not endear her to the conservative society of her day. But her books are popular among analysts of Feminism even today. Her first book ‘Indiana’ published in 1832 was the story of a woman’s escape from a stifling marriage, to live with the lover on a primitive island.
George Sand was truly a woman with a prodigious pen. Though she was from an aristocratic family, she was kind hearted and hospitable to all around her. She died at the age of 71 years at her home in Nohant, on June 8th 1876.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


About 45 kms east of Morocco is Ain Sefra, Algeria, the gateway to the Sahara Desert. It was once a 19th century French Garrison Town that was destroyed by a flash flood in 1904 – the very same flood that killed the young Swiss explorer and writer Isabella Eberhardt, who had made Algeria her home.
Isabella was a law unto herself. One seldom sees such rare courage in a young woman of twenty, who threw conventional morality to the winds and insisted on her right to be a vagrant with the freedom to wander and to live life according to the dictates of her own conscience.
Isabella Eberhardt was born in Geneva on February 17th 1877, to a German Russian mother Natalie Eberhardt and an Armenian anarchist father Alexandre Trophimowsky. She was registered as an illegitimate child and therefore never needed to recognize Trophimowsky’s paternity. Perhaps her mixed genetic pool contributed to her erratic behaviour which shocked the world.
Isabella was well educated and fluent in several languages like French, German, Russian and Italian. She even learnt Latin and Greek and was specially tutored by her father in Arabic Classics and the Koran. The Koran so influenced her faith that she called Islam her true calling.
In 1897 she moved with her mother from Geneva to North Africa where they both embraced Islam.
Isabella was always dressed like a man to enjoy freedom of movement in Arab Society. She re-christened herself Si Mahamoud Essadi and joined a secret Sufi sect called Qadiriya, to help the poor and needy. She also encouraged Muslim locals to fight against French Colonial rule.
Isabella traveled extensively as a Muslim man. She rubbed shoulders with vagrants and vagabonds and squandered her meager resources on drugs and drinks, and bedded with any man who pleased her. Her endless wanderings gave her intimate knowledge of the lives of the poor and powerless. She believed that vagrancy was deliverance from conformity and freedom from the burdensome shackles of society. It was the route to self-purification. 
She said,“Such men can reach the magic horizon where they are free to build their dream palaces of delight.”
Perhaps the Hippie Movement drew its inspiration from her.
            As a creative person, she was a keen observer of people and practices around her. Her experience of low life made her a sensitive human being. Her short stories are so compelling. Her diaries are packed with fascinating information of her life and times. Not for her the beaten track. Derision  and ridicule by society left her unfazed.
“As a nomad who has no country besides Islam and neither family nor close friends, I shall wind my way through life until it is time for everlasting sleep beyond the grave,” she wrote.
It is difficult to understand how she reconciled her faith in Islam to her depraved life style.
            Isabella was not the darling of Algerian Society and must have earned the ire of many holy men. In 1901, she was attacked by a man who severed her arm. But this magnanimous lady not only forgave him but pleaded for his life.
            Later that year in October 1901, Isabella married an Algerian soldier called Slimane Ehnni, in Marseilles. But they were seldom together because of his duties and her wanderings.
However in 1904, her husband joined her for a long break and they rented a house for the duration of his leave. Unfortunately on October 21st 1904, tragedy struck in the form of a flash flood and their clay house collapsed, killing Isabella. Her husband was washed away but he survived.
            Isabella Eberhardt was buried in the Muslim cemetery in Ain Sefra, according to Muslim rites. A trip to the cemetery can be made by car or by foot. Here, her restless spirit lies in peace, framed in by Mount Atlas on one side and the golden sands of the Sahara on the other.
Isabella’s “Algerian Short Stories” was published posthumously in 1905 and “In the warm shadows of Islam,” in 1906. A novella was made into a film.
            Isabella reached that “sun-drenched Somewhere” which she was always seeking for, sadly at a very young age. She was only 27 years old when she died.