The recent centenary celebration of the Suffragette movement brought home the sobering thought of just how much we take the historic and ongoing struggles of women for granted. It’s also highlighted something subtle yet quite significant, but doesn’t nearly get the attention it deserves. This is the idea that much of the gender (in)justice focus, whether in the mainstream media, on blogs or Twitter, is expressed through the lenses of the ‘plight of women’ and their experiences. While this is necessary, and must continue as a social justice movement, typically, it’s in a vacuum of being a ‘women only’ issue, one that as a society we have a tendency to think that it is only up to women who must voice their concerns. My argument here is that if we step back a little, what we find is that at the root of gender injustice is, arguably, an endemic crisis in men and ‘masculinity,’ which we perhaps don’t acknowledge as much, both historically and today. I would therefore like to flip the focus on men here and to examine, as the faux pas cliché ‘it’s a man’s world’ goes, some home truths which men must deal with in their responsibility for gender justice. Not least since the Prophetic model compels us to be sensitive to the needs of women, and to work towards healing the discontents of our world.
Much of today’s gender injustices are of course inherited in the fundamentally patriarchal historical social constructions which are not just peculiar to the West but by and large found across the world, with some exceptions, perhaps. In other words (setting aside subtle issues to do with a post-enlightenment concept formation which is not free of problems of its own – I get that), ‘patriarchal’ denotes power relations wherein women’s interests are subordinated to those of men.
In pre-modern times biological sex differences gave rise to a basic complementarity arrangement of the role of men and women in society. Men with their raw physical strength were perceived to be naturally better-equipped for the physically-intensive world out-of-the home, while women were perceived to be naturally far better-equipped for child-rearing and meeting the needs of the family in-the-home. It would be unfair to retrospectively judge past social arrangements through the prism of current notions of patriarchy. To equate patriarchy with male aggression towards women, for instance, would be a gross oversimplification. Pre-modern conditions were vastly different, and the integration of society (public versus private life; urban versus rural, trust frameworks etc.) had limitations for which there were no solutions. Patriarchy was much more a function of the social environment e.g. for farming, dealing with tribal feuds, communal violence and ever-present threats from bandits etc. Something which we might view as patriarchal today may well have been simply necessary to protect society or to make the world work as productively as possible given the constraints of pre-modern setting.
Aside from this kind of pragmatism, there were nevertheless darker sides too. Narratives around ‘Eve’s fall from Grace’ had a tendency in large parts of medieval Christendom to symbolise women as ‘sinning’ and ‘witches.’ Similar references existed in other parts of the world: in India, Hindu girls were often buried, and even in arguably more legally-advanced Muslim societies, women’s rights struggled to be enforced – far from the standards in the examples of Mary, Khadija, A’isha and so on. Whatever the conditions, they helped to legitimise and reinforce the idea that men had a moral power over women, which was an accepted societal norm that went unchallenged.
However, following the industrial revolution in the eighteenth century everything changed. For the first time, women took up public spaces and worked alongside men en mass and it became increasingly apparent that men and women could do the same jobs but be subjected to different standards of rights and recognition. There was thus a hegemonic idea of a ‘male outlook’ which precluded females, which began to be noticed as a ‘dehumanising gap.’
However, recognition and equal rights were only part of the picture. Since the industrial revolution, human social and economic activities had grown exponentially and, under patriarchal conditions, women had to negotiate their ‘discovery,’ or ‘making,’ of new roles and definitions of ‘female identity.’ And with structures of male privilege increasingly challenged by courageous movements like the Suffragettes in the 19th and 20th century or the ‘second-wave feminism’ in the 1960s, or the appearance of ‘gender-neutral’ jobs in the office and IT etc., we have ended up with all the intricacies of gender injustices today.
So, today, these intricacies broadly fall into four categories. 1) Men increasing feel ‘squeezed’ by the growing public-presence of women which has challenged their sense of privilege and identity. 2) Structural barriers (e.g. lack of aligned political will, lack of protective legal frameworks, commercial commitments etc.) hinder society’s corrective polity. 3) Gender-justice is also a moving goal-post which reflects the dynamism in the subjective notions of under- versus over-feminisation. 4) There are fierce ongoing evolution of perspectives and debates about femininity among women. In the interest of brevity, my focus here will be related to the first category.
It’s important to remember that at the more egregious part of the spectrum quite a few men are actually sexual predators of one kind or another. The stats are quite shocking: a staggering 85,000 women are raped every year – that’s 10 every hour, and there are 4000 help calls made about attempted or actual rape cases a week in England and Wales of which 93% are by women. We’re also all too aware of near-daily reports of Harvey Weinstein style ‘hit on’ women, and most recently we’ve come to learn of the opportunists among Oxfam workers exploiting vulnerable women in disaster zones. Metrics on other types of male violence and intimidation against women – trafficking and prostitution, abusive marriages, honour-based violence etc., aren’t any better. These behaviours are not exclusive to the West, but prevalent right across the world.
Some men will often compare themselves against a ‘gold standard’ which prizes power, control and invincibility. ‘Hegemonic masculinity’ which is what men are socially-constructed to aspire to measure themselves based on striving for power, dominance, aggressiveness etc. For others, being a man means the occasional drunkenness and disorderly behaviour. Yet these standards belie the fragility in the rise in men’s obsession and addiction to pornography with the advent of the internet and mobile devices. In some cases, according to observers, it is contributing to an actual down-turn in men’s overall sexual and psychologically well-being. It’s also a far cry from studies showing that men in mid-life, ironically, remain overwhelmingly dependent on a female partner for emotional support.
Studies also point to an increase in the lack of self-confidence in men, usually because they avoid talking about their feelings and anxieties. It’s no wonder that suicide rates in men aged 35-54 in the UK are more than twice that of women, while female suicide rates, in comparison, have declined over the last 50 years. According to the Samaritans, this is partly due to emotional illiteracy among men and a loss of masculine pride and identity due to the decline of traditional male industries and the rise of gender-neutral jobs.
If truth be told, most of these trends are no better for Muslims. While I’ve resisted making the focus Muslim specific since much of the crisis is generic to men, there is no doubt that as communities of Muslims we fall way too short on gender justice measured against the Prophetic model of what God wants of us. To those Muslim sexual predators and misogynists, and those who take uncaring, blasé attitude towards women, it is worth knowing that God is ever watchful and most Just.