Ideas & Philosophy — 04 February 2005

The current debate on women’s rights has until now been predominantly shaped by its progress in the west. Whilst attitudes towards women have changed significantly in the west through the endeavours of feminists and women’s rights movements of different philosophical persuasions, Akmal Asghar questions some of the assumptions – and their universality – as well as the broader impact of their successes.

The treatment of women in any society has become, without doubt, a key marker in evaluating its progress. The accepted framework of the debate on women’s rights has centred around the need for ‘equality’, to redress a historic imbalance that has empowered men considerably more than it has women, and to undermine patriarchy and societies modelled on its assumptions. It is without doubt that the perception, treatment and rights of women are now dramatically different to those of even the last century. But alongside the rapid changes that followed the ‘domestic revolution’, as some term it, a number of very key questions remain unanswered. While historical prejudices and assumptions may be slowly eroding in areas of opportunity, employment conditions, political rights, and marriage-particularly in the West-it would be difficult to argue that the debate on women’s rights is now over. Many feminists and women’s rights activists, while welcoming the changes of the last century, believe that there are many battles still to be fought, although they remain deeply divided on which battles they are.

These unanswered questions not only relate to the rights of women, but to the impact that the successes of women’s movements have had on society as a whole. Their progress has fuelled increasingly complex dilemmas on issues such as the rights of children, relationships with the opposite sex, and the escalation of previously rare social problems. They have exposed shortcomings in the accepted framework and in its very assumptions, illustrated by the bitter divisions that plague post-feminist movements. Critically, one must ask if the discussions in the West-promoted as a template and international standard-have addressed the core issues of the debate. If, however, they have overlooked them we are in need of a new perspective.

The context

The currently accepted framework of debate on women’s rights originated shortly after Europe’s age of enlightenment. It was Mary Wollstonecroft, influenced by her company of liberal thinkers, who first applied the conclusions of the enlightenment to the issues of women in her ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women’ in 1792. It followed the publication of ‘The Rights of Man’ by her close friend Thomas Paine and challenged the ‘domestic tyranny of men’ as Paine had challenged the ‘divine right of kings’. After nearly a century of campaigning, and through the turbulence of the French Revolution, another landmark work on the rights of women was the publication of ‘The Subjugation of Women’ by John Stuart Mill.

‘Modern’ perspectives on the rights of women are largely based on the liberal conclusions first articulated by Wollstonecroft and Mill. Also termed ‘constructivism’, liberal positions assert that men and women are fundamentally-‘perfectly’ as Mill puts it-equal. Accepting anything less is to promote the oppression of one sex over the other, rendering the other subordinate. Observed differences between men and women, they asserted, are neither biological nor innate but the product of centuries of conditioning. This is why feminists are keen to differentiate between ‘gender’ as a social construct and ‘sex’. Simone De Beauvoir, one of the most significant voices after Wollstonecroft, famously remarked in her book ‘The Second Sex’: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman”. Equality translated to equal political, economic, and social rights and opportunities, such as those to independent education, employment and political representation. The ‘division of labour’, between housewife female and breadwinning male, was deplored as a symbol of subjugation and patriarchy (male dominated society) and a consequence of the growing injustices of the industrial revolution. Liberal individualism, therefore, was the bedrock on which classical theories of women’s emancipation were founded and which now form the foundations of modern perceptions.

The traditionalists, or essentialists, who maintained that the differences between men and women were a biological fact and not a social construct, are now less prominent in the debate on women’s rights. Advocates such as James FitzJames Stephen, a contemporary of Mill, in his book ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ held that differing political, social and economic rights should follow from these determined differences. The Victorians held that men and women should operate in two separate spheres (with the women confined to the home) based on the long-established belief of the world as a naturally ordered whole, in which all was harmonious as long as things stayed in their ordained places. This is the division of labour feminists deplored. Although conservatives and traditionalists still maintain similar arguments, the liberals have the victory in the debate thus far.

Equality: The European context

Great significance and importance has been assigned to the discussion of ‘equality’, and to the specific meaning it has come to assume, by western writers. But its symbolism as a key tenet in the debate on women’s rights, such that it has become the very prism through which emancipation is measured, is largely because of its European context. Movements who championed women’s emancipation were defined by their struggle against a distinctly European mindset and the inconsistency with which it treated women in relation to men, particularly during its medieval to post-industrial period. It is events in Europe and post-revolution America-both of whom share a common European tradition-which have defined the accepted framework of the debate on women.

A number of contributions forged the historical context in which equality between the sexes was first suggested in Europe. Christian theology, a pillar of Europe’s medieval monarchies, played a pivotal role in forming Europe’s confused perspectives on women. The Decretum Gratiani, which formed the basis of Church law for nearly eight hundred years between 1140 and 1917, assigned roles and duties on the basis that “sin came into the world through them [women]” and that “because of original sin they [women] must show themselves submissive”.i Apart from blaming Eve for original sin, and so condemning women, the belief that Eve was created out of the bent rib of Adam popularised their secondary nature. Indeed, even after the Reformation, the works of theologians that asserted women possessed an innately evil capacity, and that even their humanity was questionable convinced monarchs and senior clergy. Pope Innocent VIII’s endorsement of the book ‘The Hammer of the Witches’ in 1484, which asserts: “What else is woman but a foe to friendship, an inescapable punishment, a necessary evil, a natural temptation, a desirable calamity, a domestic danger, a delectable detriment, an evil of nature, painted with fair colours”,ii resulted in thousands of women being burned at the stake.

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