By: Rizwan Shamsi
Karachi: For ages, women have been kept away from certain liberties and activities under the excuse that they will not be as good as men. That was the premise behind them not being allowed to vote until the early twentieth century. It is also largely the reason why women are not permitted to drive in countries, like Saudi Arabia and also the justification provided by certain employers for paying females less than their male counterparts.
Aristotle, who influenced later Western thinkers, forwarded the view that women are a little better than slaves, but clearly inferior to men. According to him women were ‘more prone to despondency and less hopeful; more false of speech and more deceptive’ than men and more void of shame or self-respect. Philosophers like John Stewart Mill, on the other hand, have severely criticized this view. He rejects the age old idea, that women are naturally worse at some things than men, and hence should be discouraged or forbidden from doing them. He rightly asserts that we clearly can’t know what women are capable of, unless we let them try, what they’ve been kept away from. Mill elucidates that how the current system, in which women are supposed to be under the rule of men, is not a result of deliberation or a tried and tested theory. But simply arose from the fact that ‘from the dawn of human society every woman was in a state of bondage to some man, because, she was of value to him and she had less muscular strength than he did.’
In modern times, there is great debate within the Islamic discourse that what rights are allotted to women by the faith. In most Islamic countries, women cannot be heads of state. This probably stems from the archaic conviction about women lacking the substance to make vital decisions and comprehend complex matters. Though, this view can be challenged through citing examples, such as Benazir Bhutto (Pakistan) and Sheikh Hasina (Bangladesh). The fact is that women are largely kept away or discouraged from the political sphere, not only in Muslim countries but also in a lot of progressive western nations. England, however, is one state that has a long standing history of having female monarchs. Mill writes; ‘To Englishmen it doesn’t seem at all unnatural, because they are used to it; but they do feel it unnatural that women should be soldiers or members of parliament.’ And that is really what the dilemma faced by women is all about; what seems natural or unnatural to their male contemporaries.
The latter is what defines the scope and extent of the liberty and emancipation allotted to women. There has been so much emphasis on the home solely being the domain of women and the perception that they are weaker than men that, even in the twenty first century women cannot have the same status as men.
The sad truth is that the shackles of suppression that stop women from coming forward and realizing their true strength and potential are based on so much more than the idea that women are naturally worse at certain things than men. I agree with Beauvoir when she claims that its ‘high time that women are left to take their own chances’ and realize the need for women to caste off the burden of ‘duty’ and forced affections. (Mill, 5) However, it’s not as simple as it sounds. Even if women are allowed to enter the arenas and spaces that they were previously forbidden from, their experience will be vastly different from that of men. For men are not usually the ones that are faced with the fear of rape, attacks on their honor, doubts about their ability stemming from their gender and the social requirement of staying ‘feminine enough’- that is the bane of a woman’s existence.
The writer is a student of IoBM Karachi.