Are men and women equal?

28 02 2007


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.)

This is the first of a three-part series. You will find Part II here and Part III here. There is a complimentary article (the better half so to speak) here.



17 responses

31 07 2008

The article ponders and pontificates about the equality of women but the author doesnt commit to the stance that despite politics and social structure enforcing inequality, men, women, children, aged, sexual minorities are inherently EQUAL.

Its how we live these polarities is what makes the question still alive in todays context.

I would also have been happier if we didnt bring in the classical North South divide to place the context…Equality is a concern, regardless of where we live!

4 03 2009
Darren Brown, London

No, men and women are not equal. Women are greater than men so how can it be? But its the men, the smaller of the two, who have held the greater captive. Its strange that the very gender that gives birth to men, including great men in our history, has been denied equality and basic rights for centuries. And while their rights are only quite new, they are expected to come out of ages of oppression in an instant.

4 03 2009

the usual equality-fetish blabbering. men and women are equal before the law, unequal before the scale of capability. that’s the reason why the dominant sex has ruled over the weaker from time immemorial.

we’d be much served if we were to hold to equality under law rather than trying to clone women as men and vice versa.

13 08 2009

This question remains unanswered yet,and I don’t think there can be a clearcut answer to this at all,at least in the present times.Now as an “A” cannot be the same as a “B”,but still both are indispensable and hold their own importance in the English alphabet ,similarly men and women can’t be equal,and they have their specific importance in the human society.
The greater physical power of men as if an error of destiny renders them dominant and their say prevails most of the time.and it is this superficial vanity of the masculine power is venerated wolrdover.
A look at the mother nature reveals the creator’s idea ,that it never wanted a discrimination based gender,but the growing insanity of the human society ,and its affair with power, lust and domination is to be condemned.

23 08 2009

“Now as an “A” cannot be the same as a “B”,but still both are indispensable and hold their own importance in the English alphabet ,similarly men and women can’t be equal,and they have their specific importance in the human society.”


3 03 2010
Lucia Sanchez

I truly believe that men and women are not equal. The women is better in many ways. Even thought before many people thought that the men more intelligent, strong, and brave, the true is that the women have show the reality. Today women are obtaining more deegres in the colleges and are caplabe to support the family much more so than the men.

25 04 2011

I think you are dodging the issue, it is not a question of superiority but of equality, the opposite. Gender equality doesn’t mean that the right to. be respected as a woman (or man) is taken away or less important. Equality is the acceptance of our differences, not only physical but mental and physcological too and the acceptance that they are both powerful, strong, an understanding that both have defaults. BOTH. Women are not trying to be masculine or men feminine, the only thing stopping us from peace is human arrogance and ignorance. Our obsession with power and dominance is holding us back as an international society. Just some thoughts.

26 06 2011

shut up

21 05 2012

men were created different than us so i would say women are not eqaul than a men but that does’nt mean we women we are not special..

15 06 2012
John Gray

I think that now a days women are equal to men but they cont work harder then men.But quite they are very special made by god.

10 10 2012
shraddha chandna

every people in the society have different thoughts.According to me women are much better than men in many activities like dressing sernse, jobs,studies etc. ……….

8 03 2013
Giridhar Rao

> There is a complimentary article (the better half so to speak) here.

Complementary, surely?

18 08 2013

men & women are make roads;but it is the women who teach children how to walk on it. we all are humans

if you like my ideas please RATE UP
My name is ABIN K THOMAS

10 03 2014

Are Apples equal to oranges? Mathematically speaking, equality depends on what we compare them based upon. Is it their taste, shape, colour, chemical composition, per capita mass, cost in the market that we use for the purpose?
But nonetheless do not forget that both are fruits, equally good for health and equally essential for the eater.
This is essentially a similar problem that we are talking about.
I think it is not fair to compare men and women and talk about equality.- No, we do not compare their stamina, muscle power, average height etc.
Is there any reason at all to embark on this discussion of equality at all? If you want to have this as a pre-requisite to opening up giving equal rights, let me point out, what is the whole point of any discrimination at all ? (based on gender or otherwise).
If somebody is doing good work, whichever gender they may belong to, they should be given the opportunity to do it. Ultimately we want good work from people, in whatever aspects they can contribute and it therefore is absolutely essential that we give them level playing field for doing that.
How do we expect men to be equal to women?
We selectively kill the female fetus. We educate the male child and not the girl. We also have stereotypic notions of the career options conventionally allowed for females. And we also have helluva lot of societal norms against them, enforced with perfect vigor by old patriarchs.
If you do not water two trees equally right from birth or childhood, how will they be equal?

8 04 2014
Logan Duitscher

You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be really something that I
feel I would never understand. It kind of feels too complex
and extremely wide for me. I’m having a look ahead for your subsequent post, I’ll attempt to
get the grasp of it!

5 05 2014

Well Mr. Fscottky, what if the complementary role that you suggest for women is not liked by a particular women? Women make great mothers, but does that mean that you will force every women to be a mother and leave her no choice? Your argument seems naturally biased against socialism and revels heavily in your notion of “destiny”

25 09 2014

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