...Let me begin, then, by trying to capture in a few words the current crisis in Western gender discourse. As good a place as any to do this is Germaine Greer’s book The Whole Woman, released in 1999 to an interesting mix of befuddled anger and encomia from the press.
This is an important book, not least because it casts itself as a dialogue with the author’s earlier, more notorious volume The Female Eunuch, published thirty years previously. Throughout, Greer, who is one of the most conscientious and compassionate of feminist writers, reflects on the ways in which the social and also scientific context of Western gender discourse has shifted over this period. In 1969, liberation seemed imminent, or at least cogently achievable. In 1999, with states and national institutions largely converted to the cause which once seemed so radical, it seems to have receded somewhere over the horizon. Hence Greer’s anger descends upon not one, but two lightning-rods: the old enemy of male gynophobia is still excoriated, but there is also a more diffuse frustration with what Greer now acknowledges is the hard-wiring of the human species itself. Most feminism in the 1960s and 1970s was ‘equality feminism’, committed to the breakdown of gender disparities as social constructs amenable to changes in education and media generalisation; feminism in the 1990s, however, was increasingly a ‘difference feminism’, rooted in the growing conviction that nature is at least as important as nurture in shaping the behavioural traits of men and women. Most politicians, educators and media barons and baronesses are still committed to the old feminist idea; however, as Greer’s book shows, the new feminism is growing and promises to take the world through another social shakedown, whose consequences for Muslim communities will be considerable.
Several factors have been at work in securing this sea-change. Perhaps the most obvious has been the sheer stubbornness of traditional patterns, which most men and women continue to find strangely satisfying. Radical feminist revolution of the old Greer school has not found a demographically significant constituency. Most women have not properly signed up to the sisterhood.
Moreover, the world which has been increasingly shaped by secular egalitarian gender discourse has not proved to be the promised land than the younger Greer had prophesied. As she now writes:
‘When the Female Eunuch was written our daughters were not cutting or starving themselves. On every side speechless women endure endless hardship, grief and pain, in a world system that creates billions of losers for every handful of winners.’ (p.3)
She goes on to suggest that the sexual liberation that accompanied the gender revolution has in most cases harmed women more than men. ‘The sexuality that has been freed’, she writes, ‘is male sexuality.’ Promiscuity harms women more than men: women continue to experience the momentous consequences of pregnancy, while the male body is unaffected. When the USS Acadia returned from the Gulf War, a tenth of her female crewmembers had already been returned to
Another consequence of the sexual revolution has been an increase in infidelity, and a consequent rise in divorce and single parenthood. Again, it is women who have shouldered most of the burden. ‘In 1971, one in twelve British families was headed by a single parent, in 1986 one in seven, and by 1992 one in five’ (p.202). Another consequence has been the pain of solitude. ‘By the year 2020 a third of all British households will be occupied by a single individual, and the majority of those individuals will be female’ (p.250). One of the most persistent legends of the sexual revolution, that ‘testing the waters’ before marriage helps to determine compatibility, seems to have been definitively refuted. ‘Some of the briefest marriages are those that follow a long period of cohabitation’ (p.255).
A further area in which women seem to have found themselves degraded rather than liberated by the new cultural climate is that of pornography. This institution, opposed by most feminists as a dehumanisation and objectification of women (Otto Preminger once called Marilyn Monroe a ‘vacuum with nipples’), has not been chastened into decline by the feminist revolution; it has swollen into a thirty billion pound a year industry, populated by armies of faceless Internet whores and robo-bimbos. As Greer remarks, ‘after thirty years of feminism there is vastly more pornography, disseminated more widely than ever before.’ Pornography blends into the fashion industry, which claims to exist for the gratification of women, but is in fact, as she records, largely controlled by men who seek to persuade women to denude or adorn themselves to add to a public spectacle created largely for men. (Many fashion designers, moreover, are homosexual, Versace only the most conspicuous example, and these men create a boylike fashion norm which forces women into patterns of diet and exercise which constitute a new form of oppression.) Cellulite, once admired in the West and in almost all traditional societies, has now become a sin. To be saved, one ‘works out’. Demi Moore pumps iron for four hours a day; but even this ordeal was not enough to save her marriage.
Greer and other feminists identify the fashion industry as a major contributor to the contemporary enslavement of women. Its leading co-conspirator is the pharmaceuticals business, which, as she says, deliberately creates a culture of obsession with physical flaws: the so called Body Dysmorphic Disorder which is currently plumping out the business accounts of doctors, psychiatrists, and, of course, the cosmetic surgeons. As Dolly Parton says, ‘It costs a lot of money to look as cheap as I do.’ The world’s resources are gobbled up to service this artificially-induced obsession with looks, fed by the culture of denudation. And perhaps the most repellent dimension is the new phenomenon of hormone replacement therapy, billed as an anti-aging panacea. The hormone involved, estrogen, is obtained from mares: in
The consequences of the new pressures on women are already generally known, although no solutions are seriously proposed. Women, we are told by the old school of feminists, today lead richer lives. However, it is also acknowledged that these lives often seem to be sadder. ‘Since 1955 there has been a five-fold increase in depressive illness in the
Greer concludes her angry book with few notes of hopefulness. The strategies she demanded in the 1960s have been extensively tried and applied; but the results have been ambiguous, and sometimes catastrophic. What is clear is that there has not been a liberation of women, so much as a throwing-off of one pattern of dependence in exchange for another. The husband has become dispensable; the pharmaceutical industry, and the ever-growing army of psychiatrists and counsellors, have taken his place. Happiness seems as remote as ever.
The most obvious area in which science has reverberations among feminists is in the differentials of physical strength which divide the sexes. In areas of life demanding physical power and agility, men continue to possess an advantage. Attempts have, of course, been made to overcome this proof of Mother Nature’s sexism through legislation. The most notorious attempt in the
was the 1997 Ministry of Defence directive that female recruits would not be subject to the same physical tests as men. This excursion into political correctness foundered when it was discovered that the women being admitted to the army were not strong enough to perform some of the tasks required of them on completion of their training. As a result, the 1998 rules applied what were called ‘gender-free’ selection procedures to ensure that women and men faced identical tasks. The result was a massive rise in female injuries when compared with the men. Medical discharges due to overuse injuries, such as stress fractures, were calculated at 1.5% for male recruits, and at anything between 4.6% and 11.1% for females. Lt Col Ian Gemmell, an army occupational physician who compiled a report on the situation, noted that differences in women’s bone size and muscle mass lead to 33%-39% more stress on the female skeleton when compared to that of the male. The result is that although social changes have eroded the traditional moral reasons for barring women from active combat roles, the medical evidence alone compels the British army to bar women from the infantry and the Royal Armoured Corps. United Kingdom
The army is an unusual case, and the great majority of professions to which women seek access require no great physical ability. But the differences between the sexes are at their most profound where they are least visible. The gender revolutionaries of the 1960s, popularising and also radicalising the earlier, gentler calls for equality led by the likes of Virginia Woolf, were working with a science which was still largely unequipped to assess the subtler aspects of gender difference. Modern techniques of genetic examination, the reconstruction of genome maps, and the larger implications of the DNA discoveries made by Crick and Watson, were unimaginable when Greer first wrote. Since Marx and Weber, and also Freud, it had been assumed that gender roles were principally, perhaps even entirely, the product of social conditioning. Re-engineer that conditioning, it was thought, and in due season fifty percent of those doing all jobs, composing symphonies, and winning Nobel Prizes, would turn out to be women.
In retrospect this seems an odd assurance. The intellectual climate was, after all, thoroughly secular. There was no metaphysical or moral imperative that obliged the Western mind to conclude that the sexes were different only trivially, or, as one trendy bishop put it, simply ‘the same thing but with different fittings’. And yet so overwhelming were the egalitarian assumptions that had shaped Europe and America since at least Thomas Paine and David Hume, that everyone assumed that the sexes must be equal, in the way that the classes must be equal, or the races, or the nations.
One of the first large-scale social experiments based on the new theory of gender equality was the kibbutz scheme in Jewish-settled
The kibbutzim were collective farms in which maternal care was entirely eliminated. Instead of living with parents, children lived in special dormitories. To spare women the usual rounds of domestic drudgery, communal laundries and kitchens were provided. Both men and women were hence freed up to choose any activity or work they wished, and it was expected that both would participate equally in positions of power. To ensure the neutral socialisation of children, toys were kept in large baskets, so that boys and girls could choose their own toys, rather than have gender-stereotyped toys and games pressed upon them.
The results, after ninety years of consistent and conscientious social engineering, have been disconcerting. The children, to the anger of their supervisors, unerringly choose gender-specific toys. Three year-old boys pull guns and cars out of the baskets; the girls prefer dolls and tea-sets. Games organised by the children are competitive - among boys - and cooperative – among the girls.
In the kibbutz administration, quotas imposed to enforce female participation in leadership positions are rarely met. Dress codes which attempt to create uniformity are consistently flouted. In
Most scientists and anthropologists who have documented the failure of such projects of social engineering today locate the gravitation of males and females to differing patterns of behaviour in the context of evolutionary biology. Darwinism and neo-Darwinism are of course under attack now, particularly by philosophers and physicists, rather more seriously than at any other time over the past hundred years. And as Shaykh Nuh Keller has shown, a thoroughgoing commitment to the theory of evolution is incompatible with the Koranic account of the origins of humanity. We believe in a common ancestry for our kind; the neo-Darwinists insist in multiple and interactive development of hominids from simian ancestors.
This does not mean, however, that all the insights of modern biology are unacceptable. Keller notes that micro-evolution, that is to say, the perpetuation and reinforcement over time of genetically successful strategies for survival, is undeniable, and is affirmed also in the hadith. The breeding of horses, for instance, presupposes principles of natural selection in which human beings can intervene. Heredity is true, as a hadith affirms. Categories such as the ‘Israelites’, or the ahl al-bayt, have real significance.
What do the biologists say? The view is that biological success amounts to one factor alone: the maximal propagation of an organism’s genetic material. A powerful predator which dominates its habitat is, however outwardly imposing, a biological failure if it fails to reproduce itself at least in sufficient numbers to ensure its own perpetuation.
Biologists point out that males and females have different reproductive strategies. The burden of what biologist Robert Trivers calls ‘parental investment’ is massively higher in the case of females than of males. This has nothing to do with social conditioning: it is a genetic and biological given. The human female, for instance, makes a vast investment in a child: beginning with nine months of metabolic commitment, followed by a further period before weaning. The male’s ‘parental investment’ is enormously less.
Trivers shows that ‘the sex providing the greater parental investment will become the limiting resource.’ The sex which contributes less will then necessarily be in a social position involving competition, ‘because they can improve their reproductive success through having numerous partners in a way that members of the other sex cannot.’ Hence, for modern biologists, the genetic and hormonal basis of male competition and aggression. Competition and aggression are traits which may be found in females, but typically to a greatly reduced degree, simply because they are not traits vital to those females’ reproductive success. The aggression which is vital to male biological survival is directed primarily against other males (the vast, physiologically-demanding racks of antlers on stags, for instance); but aggression also serves to make the male more equipped for hunting. Male parental investment is hence physiological only indirectly, insofar as it is directed to providing food or defence for the young.
Biology also helps us understand why the female hormonal pattern, dominated by estrogen and oxytocin, generates strong nurturing instincts which are far less evident in the male androgens and in adrenaline, which is useful for huntsmen and warriors, but of considerably less value in the rearing of children. Simply put, mothers have a far greater investment to lose if they neglect their children. A child that dies, through lack of care resulting from insufficient hormonal guidance, represents a greater potential failure for the mother than for the father. During gestation and lactation, the mother is infertile or nearly so; whereas during the same period the father may become a father again many times over. Hence, again, the genetic programming which generates nurturing and convivial instincts in women far more than it does in men. Men have less of the ‘nurturing’ neurotransmitter oxytocin than do women. Androgens ensure that men choose mates for their youth and their apparent childbearing abilities, estrogens impel women to choose mates who are assertive and powerful, as more likely to provide the food and protection that their offspring will need.
Hence also the prevalence of polygyny in traditional societies, and the extreme rarity of polyandry. To have many wives is a genetically sensible strategy, to have many husbands is not.
A further aspect of inherited gender difference is presented in the issue of risk-taking. Primordial humanity allocated willingness to take risks differently among the sexes, not for constructed ‘social’ reasons, but for reasons of biological survival. To achieve the power and status requisite for transmitting his genetic material, the male had to take risks. In the historically very few years that have elapsed since such times, this norm does not appear to have changed. Consistently the figures show that risky activities and sports attract more men than women. Gambling, motor racing and bungee-jumping continue to be overwhelmingly male activities. Men are statistically more likely to ignore seat-belt laws. Despite the popular stereotypes of women as dangerous drivers, the great majority of lethal road accidents are the fault of men, because they indulge in hazardous and aggressive styles of driving. More than twice as many boys as girls die through playing dangerous games, and this statistic is remarkably consistent throughout the world.
The precise mechanisms in the brain which generate this behaviour are only now being understood. The mechanisms are called neurotransmitters, hundreds of different varieties of which activate emotions and bodily movements. One of the most important is serotonin, which has as one of its functions the task of informing the body to stop certain activities.
When the body is tired, it generates the desire to sleep; when we have eaten enough it tells the body to stop eating; and so on. It does this by linking the limbic system (which is the kingdom of the nafs, and which generates primal impulses to attack, be sad, or make sexual advances), with the frontal cortex at the front of the brain, where our ability to assess and plan our actions is thought to be located. Studies indicate that men typically have lower serotonin levels than women, and conclude that the higher risk-taking behaviour characterising successful Formula One drivers, for instance, is likely to make that choice of career an almost entirely male preserve, whatever the amount of social engineering that feminist societies may attempt.
Universities can reduce gender disparities by adopting alternative modes of assessment, but after graduation, the real world is often less amenable. Risk-taking is a necessary ingredient of success in many, perhaps most, high-flying professions. Psychologist Elizabeth Arch has recently shown that the ‘glass ceiling’ in many professions, which supposedly excludes women from further promotion because of prejudice, may in fact have a biological foundation. Conspicuous success in business, for instance, demands the taking of risks that do not always come instinctively to women. As she says, ‘from an early age, females are more averse to social, as well as physical, risk, and tend to behave in a manner that ensures continued social inclusion;’ and this is largely innate, rather than socially constructed.
One expert who has devoted his research to the implications of neurotransmitters for gender behaviour is Marvin Zuckerman. He divides the serotonin-related human quest for sensation into four types. Firstly, there is the quest for adventure and the love of danger, which is associated with the typically low serotonin levels of the male. Secondly, the quest for experiences, whether these be musical, aesthetic or religious. Zuckerman detected no significant difference between male and female enthusiasm for this quest. Thirdly, disinhibition. The neurotransmitters of the typical male allow the comparatively swift loss of moral control over the sex drive, when compared with women. Fourthly, boredom. The male brain is more susceptible to boredom when carrying out routine and repetitive tasks.
What are the religious implications of this?
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