I have been told that on this occasion I will not be addressing only fellow-Muslims but also non-Muslims. I have tried therefore to present what I wish to say particularly to Muslims in terms that are general, and make some sense to non-Muslims as well.
What I have to say is in two parts: (1) some critical reflections on the direction of contemporary feminism (which is rather different from the feminism of a century ago that campaigned for political and property rights for women in the West) ; and (2) an account of three distinct but connected perspectives on how to imagine and pursue reforms in the norms and conventions that negatively affect women in Muslim communities. I have assumed that there is no need to give examples of the injustices women suffer, generally or specifically in Muslim communities, because these are extensively and regularly highlighted in the media.
Let me begin by saying bluntly: the issue of justice and empowerment for women is not a simple question of established structures of male tyranny on the one hand, and on the other, female victimhood and subjugation.
On the contrary, it is a very delicate, complicated issue, that cannot and will not be resolved by ardent, extremist campaigning against men’s privileges and for women’s rights. That approach generates new problems that, ultimately, are much harder to deal with than gender injustice. More specifically, women’s rights to happiness will not be secured simply by demanding men’s privileges for themselves. Common sense alone should tell us that in that way women import into their lives the burdens of men in addition to the burdens they already carry as women.
I believe a better and more sustainable plan of action can and should be based on adjustments, on shifting weight from side to side – the way we do when we are trying to regain a lost balance. I do not believe that reforms to institute formal, legal equality between men and women in fact result in any sustainable advance towards gender justice. I understand, and I fully accept, that formal legal equality is often the only practical way to measure, and to display public commitment to, gender justice. But, for reasons I will explain, legal equality is not by itself the most important means of achieving the desired end of justice.
Just to get a sense of how delicate and complicated the issue is, I ask you to imagine a brother and sister, kept indoors by persistent rain, sitting idly by the window, looking out. Neither has reached puberty. They are not talking to each other. Rather, each is lost in his or her own thoughts about what life could be like for them, what they might do when they grow up.
Is there any sensible reason for supposing that what the girl imagines for herself should be different from what the boy imagines for himself? Why should she not imagine leaving home to study and acquire skills; going out and about in her world and competing for success; visiting new lands and making discoveries; taking the lead role in some heroic adventure or other?
To deny that boy and girl have the same general faculties, and the same need to exercise them and realise their potential, is a grave injustice. To hold that boy and girl have a different social value, that they may be cherished and disciplined unequally, that parents and society may (for example) invest heavily in the boy’s education but not in the girl’s, is a major sin. To believe that a girl’s upbringing should prepare her for confinement in or near the home, for only the domestic responsibilities of wife and mother, comes close to the terrible crime of burying infant girls alive. The Qur’an warns severely of a day when the girl child will ask for what sin this was done to her.
After puberty sets in, the relative balance and interactions of the same hormones shift in both the boy and the girl. And now we expect that their tastes and aspirations, and some behaviours, will change. We expect that, alongside the internal bodily changes, the boy typically looks more markedly boy-like, and the girl more girl-like. Even so, after all the physiological and chemical adjustments have matured and become established, is it not the case that the differences between individual human beings, men or women, are far, far more significant and obvious and interesting than the differences between men-generally and women-generally? So, why the degree of attention and concern over being boy-like or girl-like? Why gender?
Part of the answer is that puberty does not happen in a vacuum. It is not an influence from outside, an interference from an alien planet, that abruptly transforms a neutral person into one distinctively male or female. On the contrary, the body (with all its multitude of organs) is already prepared and programmed for this change; it has had, more or less since conception, the potential for maturing to adulthood mainly in this direction and not the other.
Similarly, children do not grow up in a vacuum, but in the concrete reality of family and community life. Since family and community have experience of the change of puberty, they anticipate and support that change by encouraging, applauding and approving what their local tastes and conventions tell them is “properly” boy-like or “properly” girl-like. Gender is the assemblage of social expectations that happen alongside the physiological changes that contribute to the definition and expression of biological sex in the individual. The two processes are interrelated and cannot be arbitrarily separated.
You cannot abruptly engineer the non-existence or non-significance of gender by socio-legal means or by medical means, without inflicting damaging stress on the body and on the psychological and emotional life of the persons and communities subjected to such engineering. Sex and gender arise and develop concomitantly. I believe that a wilful refusal to recognise this reality has misguided much well-intentioned feminist campaigning, and has contributed (among many other factors) to a sharp rise in personal anxieties, disorientations of self-image, and socially disruptive and self-harming behaviours.
Let me briefly interrupt myself here to emphasise that the many other factors leading to the negative effects I just mentioned are far more important than feminist campaigning . Indeed, it could be argued that a great deal of gender injustice is not so directly and obviously connected to male privilege as it is connected to economic and political injustices that affect men as much as women. We observe that those who talk passionately about human rights (always in societies other than their own) never talk about the economic conditions that prevent most human beings from standing on their own feet, being self-resourced and therefore capable of independence of thought and action. On the contrary, the prevailing system is oriented to keeping peoples and governments trapped in un-repayable debt and thereby restricting their freedom of action. But that is another subject for another occasion.
The main point I wish to stress here is that sex and gender happen and develop concomitantly. On this point I differ so strongly from the mainstream of contemporary feminists that I would have to say that, by their definition of what feminism is for, I am not a feminist. The contrary, feminist assumption is that gender is merely a social construct, merely an interpretation of what sex is and what it is for, merely a story that men have told themselves. And men have believed this story because it enables them to sustain their privilege over women, to exclude women from occupations and opportunities they want for themselves, to exclude women from striving for status and authority in society, to exclude them from striving for leadership. These structures of narrative and power are now routinely called patriarchy; and those who label themselves “Muslim feminists” have imported that term into their arguments as qiwamah. This term is not found in the source-texts of Islam. However, it is (in an acceptable way) derived from a Qur’anic usage in the verse (4:34) that affirms that men-generally have a standing over women-generally in that (bi-ma) they take responsibility for their maintenance and protection.
Now, if it were really true that this patriarchy/qiwamah, this man-made story, had inflicted the injustices suffered by women, then all we would need to do to undo these injustices would be tell a different story. Of course, it might take a while for people everywhere to believe and accept the new story, and progress might be slow.
In point of fact, it has been remarkably quick. The new story is well established in all the advanced economies of the world, and among those classes of people in the developing world who are well connected with the advanced economies (through education, business, etc.). Gender equality is relentlessly promoted as measure and evidence of human progress through all avenues of advertising, public policy, and popular culture such as films. In those films women take the lead, make decisions, fight hand to hand with men and defeat them. In this pervasive modern narrative, women’s connection to children or family responsibility is routinely presented as a nuisance, as something that gets in the way of their personal advancement, that impedes their ability to climb the occupational ladder, to get to the top. Almost never do we see in popular culture images of women seeking and finding contentment in the love of their children or the appreciation of their husbands and extended family. Even stories set in past periods are regularly re-interpreted to emphasise women’s resistance to patriarchy and their victimisation or marginalisation by men, and their heroism in triumphing over their disadvantages to achieve as much or more than men.
In the advanced economies, where the economic options for women are greatest, the data consistently show that the great majority of women (not all) prefer jobs and career paths that permit them to give time to their families. Meanwhile, it remains the case that some 90% of the heavy, dirty, dangerous jobs are done by men, not women. Again, in those economies where women can make a decent living from jobs that involve contact with and caring for people, that is their preference by an overwhelming margin, over jobs that involve contact with mechanical devices or handling abstractions like numbers and mathematical formulae. Necessarily, and predictably, in those economies (in Iran, for example, or India) where the women do not have the same range of financially attractive career options, they do enter into (and indeed perform very well) in the jobs that are typically preferred by and for men.
That seems to tell us something very simple and very agreeable: women have a genuine choice now, and where they can, they prefer to combine being a wage-earner with caring for their family. It is a demanding, stressful existence, but they cope.
But it is not so simple. Because of the new story, women continue to believe that, in many economic sectors, their salaries and promotion potential are inferior to men because of the persistence of patriarchy, and not because they do different work and commit their time and energies to it in a different degree. In short, they still see themselves as victims of patriarchy. And men, in tune with the old story, the patriarchy, respond by accepting this narrative and making the necessary adjustments, now calling it “positive discrimination” instead of “providing for their women”.
Secondly, because motherhood and family life are presented as a burden, a drag on women’s economic potential, women demand additional financial support and/or tax privileges so that they can employ others to attend to their children while they go to work. Going to work is seen as the primary need, the higher priority, the more important means of enjoying status and self-respect. The modern economy has been engineered in such a way that a single average wage no longer suffices to support a family – debt-servicing (via rents, mortgages, and other loans) is so heavy a charge that both parents must go out to work. Even when the work is crushingly tedious and poorly paid, women are forced into it, though they might prefer to be looking after their own children and homes themselves. For the vast majority of women, the choice is not really a choice. But the story, told by women in the higher, well-paid jobs, is still that women must be seen to have a choice to work or run their families or both. Public policy is not to provide a living wage for the poorly paid, nor to help women look after their own children with more support. They need that support because extended families and good neighbours are becoming rare. Instead, public policy is to somehow find public money and expend it on providing child-care support so that mothers are enabled to go out to do poorly paid work, even when they do not want to. Feminism in this respect makes a handsome contribution to keeping wages down, something with which the economic masters (and mistresses) of the world must be well-content.
Refusal of the reality that sex and gender are concomitants of each other in effect reduces male-female partnership to the pleasures of sex and companionship with some promise of reproduction. Then, once reproduction has been achieved, it would seem that women don’t need men in their traditional gender role as providers and protectors of the family. But, since that is, for most men, the single most important purpose they have in life, there is the consequence that relations with women can become detached from the behaviours and manners shown in kindness, loyalty, respect, prioritising the well-being of their family over personal pleasure, etc. Men’s partnerships with women are then not set within the wider system of commitments that used to discipline and mitigate some of the harsher attributes of masculinity such as aggressive behaviour.
The same separation of sex and gender on the women’s side has the consequence that gender expression is narrowed down into the expression of femininity, excluding motherhood and status within the family. There is always profit to be made from human anxieties. So, in parallel with the admission of women, over the last half-century, to all areas of paid employment, there has been an explosive growth in the femininity industry. Its main components are fashion (body covering or display), cosmetics (body surfaces), slimming (body shape), and pornography (body selling). Also, though this is not yet a worldwide phenomenon, there has been substantial growth in cosmetic surgery and chemical adjustments of complexion (body re-design) .
The biological need to be desirable makes women vulnerable to anxieties about how they look to the opposite sex. Men-generally, except in a few years of adolescence, do not have this problem. Also, in ways that men do not, women do assess each other, among themselves, by their appeal to the opposite sex. Women used to be somewhat protected from this vulnerability within stable married life and by (culturally variable) codes of modesty. With the weakening of such inhibitors, and given the nature of the dominant economic system, this special vulnerability of women is exploited without pity : girls as young as six or seven are groomed to worry about their look, and this worry stays with them through to old age when, most incongruously, seventy and eighty year old women claim, at least in advertisements, to want to look “sexy”. Certainly, a vanity industry for men exists, and is assiduously promoted, but without the same success.
Feminism is not to blame for this. Rather, the wide reach of the femininity industry is enabled by the means to transmit images instantly and constantly into private and public spaces. In the past people used to worry over what those they personally knew and cared for thought about them — family, friends, local elders, neighbours. Now, people worry over how strangers see them, how they compare against the globally advertised standards. The general message of advertising in the fashion industry can be summarised in the command: “Buy this mask, and you will see the real you!” Or, “Wear this mask, so people can see you as you really are!” May I mention in passing that, because of the holiness of the profit motive, nobody accuses the femininity industry of trying to control women – in the way that the institution of hijab is routinely presented as Muslim men trying to control the bodies of their women. To the contrary, this industry promotes itself as liberating women to enjoy their bodies, possibly as an expression of their power over men.
The overall effects cannot be measured directly. But, judging by proxy measures (the numbers of adolescents treated for varieties of self-harming, the volume of drugs taken for stress and depression, expenditures on cosmetics, slimming products, etc.), women, with and despite their modern freedoms, are very discontent. And this is assuming they are not discontent also with the terms and conditions of their work, or with how, in everyday situations, they are treated in the workplace by their colleagues, male or female.
Many individual women do impressive, interesting jobs, and achieve high-status results that are publicly acknowledged as they should be – whereas in the past their intellectual and cultural achievements, when possible at all, would be systematically hidden. Of course this is a good thing, real progress. But the overwhelming majority of women, as in the case of men, do not do wonderful jobs or win public acclaim for their achievements. And since neither men or women find high purpose, dignity and contentment in raising the next generation, gender roles are being made redundant.
The implicit (sometimes explicit) theoretical ideal of contemporary feminism is to make all social customs, traditions, manners and habits, all rules and regulations, gender neutral. Feminist practice is very different, but never mind that for now. Is this a desirable goal, irrespective of it being practicable?
Some plants reproduce asexually, some sexually. In the latter, the male and female of the species do not differ much in their forms except for the organs that (by action of the wind or insects or human cultivators) produce and receive the pollen. We do not see plants parenting or nurturing their offspring. But wherever in the living world there is the labour of nurturing the next generation, there is a marked differentiation in the forms of male and female. This differentiation seems to be more or less proportional to how much parenting the young need until they can fend for themselves. In no species of living creature does parenting, the preparation of the young, take so long or demand so much in investment of time and exertion, as in our species.
We would be right to expect that the differentiation between male and female forms would develop alongside a differentiation in parenting behaviour. That differentiation is the basis of gender roles. We would also be right to expect that humans have a unique capacity to rise above what is given or demanded by nature and therefore to vary those roles, to mix and match, and exchange responsibilities, to a degree not found in the normal habits of other animals. But that capacity does not justify denying the natural, biological basis of gender differentiation, and insisting that all of it is, instead, a male fiction, a patriarchal construct. Gender is accurately described as a social construct only insofar as gender roles are so over-defined and so fixed by convention that individuals are prevented from adapting their roles to suit their particular circumstances and temperaments.
The goal of gender neutrality in all customs and conventions is not so much an ideal as a utopian thought-experiment. In many examples of such thought-experiments (starting with Plato’s Republic), the ideal of perfect equality among males and females of a privileged ruling class (ruling over masses from whom ideal behaviour cannot be expected) is based on separating children at birth from their parents and having them reared communally by professional carers, in other words, rearing them as orphans kept ignorant of their parentage. The bond of child and parents is never established. The theory is that all members of the privileged class will bond with the interests of that class and then be better able to devote themselves thoroughly to its preservation. Expensive boarding schools for the elite offer a service that is comparable in its commitment to class-solidarity and preservation.
Feminists do not propose anything that extreme. But many do claim that it should make no difference to the children whether the man or woman has the “mother” or “father” role, and no difference if either man or woman take on both roles. But children are not born as blank slates on which anything can be written. They have expectant, potent faculties that are most favourably developed by the active care of both parents, mother and father. Whatever tasks either performs for the child, he or she correctly identifies one as male and the other as female, by sight and sound, touch and smell. If the mother is missing and the father does the feeding, nappy-changing and pram-pushing, the child will still be missing the mother and have to develop psychological and emotional mechanisms to cope with her absence. The same applies if the father is missing. Indeed, in the long term his absence may in fact be the more injurious since, among most human societies, historically and currently, children are guided and helped to their place in the world outside the home by the male parent, including when that help is, for daughters, being “given away in marriage”. Fathers who are absent from or take no interest in their children wound them deeply. Many fatherless children report feeling rootless and aimless in the world, unprotected, and unable to enjoy life spontaneously and easily.
If one should ask, why need reproduction be sexual, what is the point of it? The first answer has to be that it just is so. The Qur’an (4:1) tells us that God created male and female from a single soul in order that they might multiply and spread over the earth. In contemporary idiom we might interpret this to mean that sexual reproduction is a technique for shuffling heritable characteristics in such a way that their abundance is combined with their diversification. This secures the uniqueness of each individual child, and it secures the high adaptability of humans collectively to changing circumstances and environments. This is another argument to recognise that gender differentiation is given concomitantly with sex differentiation, and should be accepted accordingly.
Finally, it is worth stating that although, in theory, contemporary feminists claim to support gender neutrality of laws and norms, in practice they demand special treatment: so women are sentenced differently for the same crimes as men; men accused of rape or other misdeeds against women have to prove their innocence, and even if they succeed will still be deemed guilty and may suffer social consequences (like being fired from a job or expelled from college); in child custody cases mothers almost automatically win over men, and they need only hint at some threat against themselves or the children to exclude the father from any further unsupervised contact with his children; in divorce settlements, women, even when they have no need of it, demand that the ex-husband continue to pay maintenance and they usually get to keep assets like the family home. It is hardly surprising that men increasingly do not want to risk entering into marriage since that risk includes losing their wealth and their children. Although the government statistics tell us that in the US in about half of registered domestic violence cases, the instigators of violence are women, the general perception remains that it is only men who hurt women, so there is no campaign to provide refuges for battered husbands or specialist counselling to help them get over the humiliations they have suffered. As for emotional or psychological violence, evidently men have a total monopoly, and women are never guilty of such a thing. I could go on to mention the downgrading of the physical side of military training regimes so that women are not disadvantaged by men’s superior upper-body strength; or the mandatory reduction of package weights so that women can handle them for a full working day, and do so day after day, without hurting themselves, a consideration rarely given to men doing the same job with much heavier packages.
I do not list these things by way of complaint. All of this is acceptable because necessary as “positive discrimination”, to right past wrongs, to change attitudes, to improve the background conditions, to open up closed spaces. The point is that these and many other examples of positive discrimination are clear evidence, not of gender neutrality but of persistent gender identification by both women and men: women declare their need for help, and men or the society as a whole duly provide. This disposition is firmly grounded in the higher social value accorded to the lives of women and children, not because of their weakness but because women are seen (by themselves and by men) as the carers of the children, and the children are society’s investment in the future, its hereafter in the world. And men have always and everywhere preferred that future survival of their biological and cultural legacy to their present well-being, and always and everywhere sacrificed for it. In the past, and in the few still surviving traditional societies, this basic reality was recognised and men were not, as now, made to think of themselves as the tormentors and exploiters of women. By and large, either directly, or indirectly through the agency of their taxes, men are still the principal providers and protectors of women and children. But they are no longer supposed to say that it is so; similarly, women are no longer allowed to admit that, directly or indirectly, they are still dependants, not even when acting precisely as such.
I conclude this section with the observation that sex and gender differentiation develop concomitantly, and that this concomitant development is not rooted in how men and women view each other but in their potential roles as parents. The differences between them exist as a function of their (actual or potential) parenting roles; the relative advantages and disadvantages of the male or female role are oriented to the needs of the children, to facilitate their full and proper development over the extraordinarily long time it takes for a human infant to become an independent adult.
Once this fundamental reality is acknowledged it is no longer difficult to understand the Qur’anic provisions for marriage and divorce, inheritance and child care, and its exhortations to kindness and goodness and consultation in family affairs. It is no longer necessary to feel embarrassed by those provisions or to apologise for them as if admitting with the feminists: “Well, the Qur’an made great advances in establishing the rights of women, but that was a millennium and half ago, and now we can progress much further.” To that, I say, No. No, the boundaries set in the Qur’an mark the space within which parenting roles can be safely adjusted, given that safe, properly testable and tested alteration of the long-established physical and chemical components of human nature is not conceivable. Some adaptation there must be since socio-economic conditions have changed and modern technologies have made many tasks less demanding; the content in the details of family life and child care is very different from even a century ago. What principles should guide this adaptation? And which of the conventions that obtain in Muslim communities are the most in need of reform because they are consistently associated with the worst of the injustices to women?