By Babar Sattar
March 16, 2019
A lot of us of the male variety are mad at the boorish tone of placards displayed during Aurat March 2019 or for them being audacious, obnoxious, and lacking reverence for established cultural norms.
It is curious that many who claim to be proponents of women’s rights and opposed to misogyny, and not just predictable bigots, have taken offence to this year’s well-attended and spirited women’s march. It is the angry irreverent tone that bothers us, we say. Should men mind abuse hurled at the misbehaviour or oppression that they claim to be opposed to?
The tone argument is the most flexible weapon one can employ as a bully. If you accept its logic and legitimacy, it works like a nuclear option. “It’s not what you said, but how you said it” – this sure was conceived by one creative mind. Basically, you claim the power to determine when the tone redline gets crossed and once you determine that it has, you are liberated of the need to respond to the merit of the argument logically. Here is the cause and effect linkage: a woman’s rude tone besmirches male honour, defending which aggressively is a sacred male duty.
In our male-dominated society, many want male progeny. One of the reasons for that is that we are acutely aware of the power imbalance between men and women. As parents who love our kids, we don’t wish for them to be part of the team that is on the receiving end of this imbalance. We wish our kids the catchphrase from ‘Hunger Games’: “may the odds be ever in your favour”. And statistically the chance of that happening is much higher if you are a boy and not a girl. That our baby girls will, one day, need to suffer boys like us is a scary thought.
So will we help fix this power differential out of a sense of fairness? No we won’t. No one gives up power voluntarily. As men, we are at the top of the food chain due to this power imbalance. We will employ all means to guard our interests: employ the logic of division of labour and how nature has defined different roles for men and women; selectively site religious scripture (also interpreted by men over the centuries) to support the hierarchy between the sexes; and if all else fails, rely on moral panic – ie society will fall apart if we even shake the applecart.
Frankly, it is much easier to appreciate the injustice inflicted by the inequality between sexes in the context of one’s daughter as opposed to the relationship with one’s partner. So the logic regarding division of labour and naturally-assigned roles lasts so far as it relates to the responsibility that goes with a function attributed to the wife and not the power that can also go along. It is much easier to hide behind religion or culture or family values and not open this Pandora ’s Box than open it up and defend the imbalance with honest arguments.
Men can’t conceive or give birth to children. But there is nothing innate about the Y chromosome being incapable of waking up in the middle of the night to change or feed a crying baby. But it is very convenient if such responsibility is assigned to the wife. Raising children is not easy. It is a lot of work that requires patience and selflessness. (And even when you love your kids to bits, you want to throw them out of the window every once in a while.) That we have been able to outsource the menial part of raising children to the wives is a function of power and not nature.
But these responsibilities don’t come along with rights. Take the issue of names. A woman feels pressured to give up her maiden name after marriage and adopt that of her husband. The ability to retain one’s maiden name after marriage is a mark of liberation. There is, however, no debate about why children must inherit the father’s surname and not the mother’s. She conceives them, gives birth to them, nurtures them and tends to them when they are helpless. This tradition, that the family name is to flow from the father and not the mother, is also a function of power.
That men got to the top of the food chain for being stronger physically might be correct as a historical matter. But there is no natural or moral reason why there should be a hierarchy between sexes and not equality and partnership. There were many beasts more powerful than man in the jungle. But we didn’t accept such nature of things. Some men are physically stronger than others. But there is not inter se hierarchy amongst men based on physical strength. In fact, we teach our boys to counter bigger boys or bullies and not be cowed into submission.
Is it not convenient that men have interpreted religious texts for centuries to conclude that scripture requires men to have authority over women? We have obviously spotted no conflict of interest in such exercise undertaken by men. The other instrument we have used to entrench our predominant position is the law. As those caught on the wrong side of legal systems understand, laws, above all, are instruments of power. Those who possess the power to write laws don’t exercise such power with a philanthropic zeal to undermine their own interests.
Look at our family laws. What can possibly be just about distributing property such that a girl gets half of what a boy gets? But we have a zillion explanations of how this makes sense. Within a family, educating and training boys is a priority. Once educated, their career is a priority. To top it up, our inheritance law awards them twice the share in a father’s estate to bolster their financial autonomy. Leaving nothing to chance, our personal law, together with our culture, ensures that the wife remains the husband’s ward. Could there be a system more rigged?
Notions of honour and shame are social constructs. There is nothing logical about defining a boy’s taking up smoking as a bad habit and a girl’s taking up smoking as a character flaw. How can the same actions of two siblings – brother and sister – born and brought up in the same family mean completely different things to the family and society; one being of no serious consequence and the other a major source of stigma? In honour societies, power structures inform concepts of honour. Making women the repository of our shame is a potent lever of control.
I have two sons and a daughter. I wish to raise them as equals. But to do so I will need to acknowledge some hard truths to myself. Our cultural values encompass good and bad. Some of our traditions are cruel and regressive. Raising girls to believe they are responsible for protecting the shame of male family members is one of them. It undermines their agency and autonomy. In any just system, rights and responsibilities go hand-in-hand. Preserving culture must be about conserving the good and changing the bad. Our notions of honour must change.
In raising children, one debates the role of nature versus nurture. Nature grants children a sense of unfairness when discriminated against. But we try and kill that instinct by nurturing them so they learn to ‘fit in’. For girls it means being ok with playing second fiddle to the men in their lives. This reinforces unjust cultural expectations. But to instil change, one can’t just theoretically tell children that they are equal; they learn from what they see around them. We thus need to admit to ourselves first that in the hierarchy they see in the home, the mother and the father are not equal.
To raise a daughter who won’t be held down by glass ceilings, won’t acquiesce to abusive relationships and instead will try and be the best she can be by chasing her dreams and realising her potential, I will need to acknowledge that when my wife put her career on hold to raise our kids and allow me to pursue my career, she wasn’t dealt a fair hand. I will need to teach myself not to hold my daughter or wife hostage to my sense of honour. I will need to raise my sons without a sense of entitlement. And for that, I’ll first need to rid myself of my sense of entitlement.
Babar Sattar is a lawyer based in Islamabad.