By Dr. Mohammad Akram Nadwī
Feminism everyone can agree with: helping women in trouble and in need when their relatives will not or cannot do it. This includes speaking up for their right when they are wronged. This is good because it is always good to help those who are suffering from injustice, poverty etc.
The feminism to be questioned and perhaps opposed is a contemporary phenomenon based on a theory of gender. This theory is itself based on the idea that traditional social relations are a function of distribution of power in the society. Those who have more power, as a group, oppress those who have less in order to keep and increase their privileges. For example, the rich as a group oppress the poor, the whites as a group oppress the blacks, men as a group oppress the women. Just think about this if a group of blacks is troubling a white man or woman other whites will rush to defend the victim who is of their group. But if a group of men are troubling or harassing a woman the other men will not identify with the men, but with the women. This is always so. Women often identify with other women as a group, men as a group do not do this; they compete with each other instead. Men always defend the women in their own group in preference to the women of other groups. But they do not prefer to side with men as such against women as such. Typically within a group, men compete with each other for the favour of women.
Feminist gender theory argues that differences in roles between men and women are based on men’s oppression of women; they are artificial construct of power. Again this has no basis in reality. In reality gender roles are direct consequence of parenting responsibilities. The males and females of most animals are distinguishable from each other to the extent that they have different parenting roles. If the roles are interchangeable you cannot distinguish male from female except by reproductive organs. In humans the investment in raising children is perhaps longer and more intense and demanding than for any other creature. Humans have more to do and therefore it takes longer to learn it – in some cases up to 25 years. That is why the physical differences (other than the reproductive organs) between men and women are more pronounced than for any other creature that we can think of. Consider penguins and how they parent and how they take turn in looking after the youngs. Can you easily differentiate male from female. Women you easily can distinguish from men: by voice, body shape, skin tone, manner of walking etc. In addition there are differences internal to the bodies, different hormones which regulate the affections and feelings such as fear and anger. Modern instruments can demonstrate as a fact that mental operations and decisions are processed by men and women through different pathways in the brain. This is not a measure of intelligence, just a description how intelligence operates. Differences like this affect behaviours from the moment of birth and possibly before. Male babies respond to objects before they respond to faces; girl babies the other way around. Girl babies are more distressed by the sound of others’ crying than boys and so on. Early childhood play is similarly differentiated. Gender correct parents may like to present their daughters with trucks and guns, but when the parents are not watching the daughters will make friends with these toys, tuck them into bed, nurse them, and speak to them as if they were dolls. Contrarily boys will throw dolls and soft toys around as if they were balls or weapons, except in the case of an individual such toy which the boy may identify as a friend to protect or be protected by.
The major building toy manufacturer Lego recently did extensive research to work out what kind building toys girls will play with. Lego wanted to double their number of customers. They came up with “friends’ series” which was very successful with girls and very much criticised by feminists for betraying the girls and limiting their aspirations.
Feminism of this sort must separate what distinguishes women physically and emotionally from men, namely the potential for motherhood. Gender theory proposes that motherhood has been used by men to confine the activities and aspirations of women to child care and home care. Therefore most feminists support on demand contraception and abortion, so they have full control of their reproduction potential. Feminists also insist on creating what they perceive to be discrimination against women. In many western societies now this corrective discrimination is very evident: in changes to due process when handling allegations of sexual assault (the presumption of innocence has gone); different sentences for equal crimes; strong biased favour of women in the settlement of marital disputes relating to child custody and division of the property; major changes in employment and educational policies to encourage women into work force, increase in health and welfare services to enable women to live independently of the financial support of men; extensive provision of safe houses for women victims of domestic violence, almost non for men victims. Many of these changes have improved life condition and prospect of women, but not necessarily improved their chances of happiness.
I would strongly recommend my fellow Muslims to look hard at the available data about these issues. They will find to their surprise: 1- women are less happy now than in seventies when this phase of feminism got underway; 2- more men are victims of rape than women; 3- domestic violence initiated as often by wives as husbands; 4- physical abuse of children is more often done by mother than fathers; 5- in all of the freest society women gravitate towards employment when they not use their natural gifts for dealing with people rather than things. Meanwhile the heavy dangerous jobs continue to be done by men not women.
All this is not to demonstrate the failure of feminism as such, or to deny the important gains for women in educational and employment opportunities which benefit the whole society the men and the women. Rather my aim is to ask you to question the truth of gender theory, because this theory, not feminism, is contributing many many other things to personal and social misery, anxiety, stress and despair.
Now let me look at the matter from an Islamic perspective. When I do so I see immediately what differentiate men and women (because of their different parenting responsibilities) is not as important or as obvious as what makes them human. What is common to men and women is present at all times throughout their lives, throughout their different responsibilities, including when they are being parents. To begin with both men and women come from single soul, that soul was honoured by the Creator with a unique faculty namely human language. With this gift men and women can exchange ideas and feelings; they can build companionship, they can be good and kind to one another. Their intimacy can be a garment mutually given and received that can give each of them some dignity and cover for their failings and weaknesses. God says “We placed affection and mercy in the hearts of the men and women; had He not done that our intimacies would be like those of animals a brutish mating and parting.