This is perhaps one of the defining questions of the modern world.
Irrespective of the country and culture one lives in, it is next to impossible to negotiate life today without running into this question lurking behind office desks, popping out of the messy bed sheets, and mixing with the food on our plate. How we ask and answer this question marks our politics, paints our ideology, highlights our socio-cultural context as well as gives hints about how we live our private lives.
So I might as well ask and answer this question, even though I can hear Alexander Pope whispering in my ear: “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread”!
Before we begin answering, it may be worthwhile to revisit the history of this question.
When the slogan of gender equality was first voiced, tentatively at that, in the nineteenth century, what was being demanded was an equality of political rights. Let us go back and remember the conditions in Europe and North America at that time. As a famous feminist writer has said, “A woman underwent ‘civil death’ upon marriage, forfeiting what amounted to every human right, as felons now do upon entering prison. She lacked control over her earnings, was not permitted to choose her domicile, could not manage property legally her own, sign papers or bear witness. Her husband owned both her person and her services.” Women were, in effect, legal minors — their fathers and husbands having rights over their wealth, labour and sexuality. And, of course, women did not have the right to vote.
It was also the time when the founding principles of the modern world — Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, unfurled with such fanfare by the French Revolution, were slowly, tortuously, being transferred from the pages of books to the streets and legal statutes. It was in this larger historical context that women organised themselves to demand legal and political rights, along with workers, ethnic minorities and colonised people.
Once the assertion that ‘all men are equal’ was accepted, it was easy to extend this premise to all humans, irrespective of sex, class, race, ethnicity, religious persuasion, etc. The main struggle was whether equality or hierarchy would be the founding principle of society. Once the battle for the equality of all men was won, it was relatively easy to extend this principle to sub-sets of the human race.
Yet it took almost a century for women to gain legal and political equality in its entirety. It was only in the 1960s and later that legal and political infirmities which women suffered were fully removed in Western Europe and North America.
It is a measure of the distance we have to cover that women, in many of our societies, still do not have basic political rights; legal parity is still further away. Even countries like Pakistan, which have had a woman prime minister, are still struggling with laws that consider a woman less than a man. We also know how relatively easy it is for these political and legal rights of women, whatever they are, to be taken away with a mere change of government. In fact, many of our societies have seen a regression as far as laws and political rights of women are concerned.
The reason why, unlike in the West, women’s rights are so easy to take away is because one, they are not real ‘rights’, but more like privileges, and two, because the idea of equality is yet to be crowned with the universality it enjoys in the West. This is because a right is a claim made on society, guaranteed by the state. Unless this claim can be made by all and guaranteed for all, those who articulate that claim will remain privileged with reference to those who cannot.
The idea of equality, as a general organising principle of society, has still not been won in our societies. Our societies remain deeply hierarchical and stratified along primordial identities. It is not possible for women to gain political and legal equality with men unless it becomes a general principle. A sub-set (men-women equality) cannot exist when the universe (equality of all humans) is absent. In a context where that is lacking, whatever ‘rights’ women or other oppressed groups manage to wrangle, would remain ‘privileges’ rather than true rights.
But the achievement of legal and political equality in the post-World War II West brought about the realisation that women still lagged behind men in substantive matters. While they did manage to gain political rights to vote and stand for public office, it was very difficult for women to actually get elected. The US still has not been able to elect a single woman (or non-white) to its presidency. Similar glass ceilings — an effective barrier, which remains invisible in law, to growth — were found operating in business, professions and other public domains where women continue to be under-represented and underpaid.
It was in this context that the demand for substantive equality emerged. The political agenda of the women’s movement moved from demanding mere legal equality to equality of opportunities, such that it reflected in outcomes.
What are the lessons we — the people living in Asia, living in Muslim societies, living in post-colonial societies — can learn from this history of the women’s movement in the West?
The question, “Are men and women equal?” will provide different answers in the West and in Asia. Since the question is premised on the fact of existing political equality and legal parity in the West, it purports to ask whether men and women are the same in their emotional, psychological and cultural attributes. Whatever way that question is then answered, it rarely takes away from the political equality of women and men.
But when this same question is posed in our societies, it jostles for space with questions like: “Are people of all castes equal?”, or “Are people of all religions equal?” And we well know that these are hardly settled questions in our societies. As was argued earlier, in a context where the general equality of human beings is still not an accepted fact, demands for equality of parts would always tend to dissolve into a fight for privilege.
Given this context, it seems that the demand for women’s equality in our societies is, perforce, to be part of a larger political programme which demands general equality for the entire population. “Are men and women equal?”, in that sense, would be a wrong question to ask in today’s Asia. They can never be unless the hierarchical foundation of our social structure is destroyed and the idea of the inherent equality of human beings, qua human beings, is enthroned in our cultures.
(My articles are carried every Wednesday in a column called Left~ Write in The Post, published from Lahore/Islamabad.)