Achieving gender equality is a balancing act

"Trust in God," said Emmeline Pankhurst. "She will provide."

Almost a century has passed since Pankhurst's militant suffragette movement won the right for women to vote in Great Britain and Ireland.

One imagines her with one eye smiling, the other almost weeping when it was announced this week that women will be allowed to play golf at Muirfield in Scotland.

The Old Boys of the "Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers" have had the course and the clubhouse to themselves for 273 years. You can imagine their bewhiskered faces turning purple now that their bastion is compromised.

The ladies will still have to wait a while. They must apply for membership, and take their turn on a waiting list that might be five years, depending on the drop out (or the death rate) of incumbent members.

What might seem to be contradictory is forcing the men of Muirfield to be dragged into modernity, while opening up ladies-only clubs in Britain and across the world.

What brought about the change less than 12 months since the members vetoed emancipation on their turf, their clubhouse?

Fame and fortune matter in the 21st century, and those depend upon high finance and plenty of TV exposure. Even the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers cannot survive on green fees alone.

Muirfield has staged the coveted Open tournament on 16 occasions. But the venerable old club was told that so long as sex discrimination prevailed there, the Open would never return.

Literally moments after the Muirfield members capitulated this week, the Royal and Ancient Golf Club that supervises the game's rules pronounced that Muirfield and the Open were back on the agenda.

"We'll go back and play the Open because they'll let women in," said Rory McIlroy, the 27-year-old former world No.1.

"But I still think the fact that it got to this stage is horrendous."

He went on: "In this day and age when you've got women heads of government, and they're not able to join a golf course, its obscene. Ridiculous.

"I'll play in the Open there, but I wont be having many cups of tea with the members!"

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, and the UK Sports Minister Tracey Crouch were among the first to welcome Muirfield to 21st century gender equality.

I go along with them, up to a point.

One slight reservation is that, for as long as the crusty old codgers wished to live and die in their old colonial view of the world, maybe we should have just left them to it.

I would be interested in Rory McIlroy's opinions if it was suggested that male and female golfers shared their tournaments, and their prize money equally.

That, of course, is already the case at Wimbledon which pays pound for pound financial reward for both sexes - without anyone (so far) pushing the case for equal pay for equal time on the court.

Or, perish the thought, for open gender matches.

Not that I would dare to imply that women are the weaker sex. I wouldn't rate my chances in the ring against Ruqsana Begum, the World Kickboxing Association muay thai atomweight champion.

Begum is a practising Muslim who styles herself as Warrior Princess. She was born in Essex, near London, to Bangladeshi parents. As a child, she would hide her attraction for fighting, indeed for sport, from her family.

They are proud enough now that their 33-year-old daughter has been a pro fighter since her teens. A fighter, a champion, and an example to Muslim girls in particular because neither her religion nor her diminutive size (1.60m and 48kg) stopped her from wanting to take care of herself, and take on the world.

Women have been fighters for longer than we realise. Nicola Adams, the 2012 and 2016 Olympic flyweight boxing champion, recently turned professional.

That puts her 70 years behind one Barbara Buttrick who, in the 1940s and 1950s, graduated from travelling as a boxing booth sideshow to winning the world flyweight women's boxing title.

"Battling Barbara" came from Hull, not far away from Leeds where Adams was born. Buttrick later emigrated to Fort Lauderdale to promote her gender in a tough sport in the US.

Aside from Muirfield, very little is new in this world.

The Grace Belgravia Women's Only Spa, Gym and Club, quite close to London's Buckingham Palace, offers high-class, high-cost exclusivity, the female answer to male clubs that have existed a century and more in the city.

Not far away, the University of Westminster runs Ladies Only muay thai kickboxing, and in Chelsea the "Strictly Ladies Only Kickboxing Gym" promotes itself with the slogan "Calling All Muslim Sisters!"

Further away in Birmingham there is the Black Widow Martial Arts Academy.

Nike, the American sportswear company will jump on this bandwagon by launching its own range of hijabs for female athletes next year.

Egypt's runner Manal Rostom, the UAE ice skater Zahra Lari and Malaysia's fitness coach Esfah Lili were there long before Nike came out to put the brand, and the price, on what already exists.

One can understand that, in order to include girls in sports, fitness and wellbeing, the taboos of their parents need to be addressed. Allowing youngsters to come out into the world, to enjoy physical fitness and the thrills of competition, and to protect themselves, is a right.

So while the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers is forced to open up their "obscene and ridiculous" gentlemen's club, emancipation is taking its own path.

What might seem to be contradictory is forcing the men of Muirfield to be dragged into modernity, while opening up ladies-only clubs in Britain and across the world.

The pendulum swings. Maybe Mrs Pankhurst was right to say "She" will provide.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 18, 2017, with the headline 'Achieving gender equality is a balancing act'. Print Edition | Subscribe