Pawns in a game

by Saad Hafiz

It is no exaggeration to state that women have lived under centuries of arbitrary androcentric traditions and religious intolerance. An early illustration is the tale of Hypatia of Alexandria, a female philosopher and mathematician, born in Alexandria, Egypt in 370 CE. Hypatia was the daughter of the mathematician Theon, the last professor at the University of Alexandria, who tutored her in math, astronomy and the philosophy of the day, which, in modern times, would be considered science. Theon refused to impose upon his daughter the traditional role assigned to women and raised her as one would have raised a son in the Greek tradition: by teaching her his own trade.
Hypatia from the “The School of Athens” by Raphael

As the story goes, Hypatia was a close friend of the pagan prefect Orestes and was blamed by Cyril, the Christian Archbishop of Alexandria, for keeping Orestes from accepting the “true faith”. In 415 CE, on her way home from delivering her daily lectures at the university, Hypatia was attacked by a mob of Christian monks, dragged from her chariot down the street into a church and was there stripped naked, beaten to death and burned. In the aftermath of Hypatia’s death, the University of Alexandria was sacked and burned on orders from Cyril, pagan temples were torn down and there was a mass exodus of intellectuals and artists from the newly Christianised city of Alexandria. Some historians suggest that Alexandria began to decline as Christianity rose in power and the death of Hypatia came to embody all that was lost to civilisation in the tumult of religious intolerance and the destruction it engenders.

The transformation of gender relations in predominantly Christian societies since the beginning of the 20th century is one of the most rapid, profound social changes in human history. At the beginning of the 20th century, the legitimacy of patriarchy in these societies was taken for granted by most people and was backed by religious doctrines that saw these relations as ordained by God. However, in the 21st century, only a small minority of people still holds on to the view that women should be subordinated to men. As a result, western societies have moved to a greater level of gender equality and understanding, although levels of gender-based violence still remain unacceptably high. The advice that Abigail Adams gave to her husband, US President John Adams, in 1776 is of note: “Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice, or representation.”

In contrast to progress in the west, women in many regions of the world continue to fight tooth and nail for some basic recognition. Considered a burden at birth and primed to be subservient, women and girls endure rape, stoning, beheading, genital mutilation, paternal violence, honour killings, forced marriages and domestic abuse. The theme of the life of many women remains perpetual subjugation. A woman is controlled by her parents throughout her childhood and then handed directly into the hands of a husband, whom she most likely had not chosen herself, and who exercises control over her until her death or his. Women who do not marry for whatever reason are likewise granted no independence of thought and action, living under subjugation in the home of a male relative in near seclusion.

“The real question is how much suffering we’ve caused our womenfolk by turning headscarves into symbols — and using women as pawns in a political game.”

Women also remain the inevitable chips in the ‘patriarchal bargain’ struck by political and religious leaders. For instance, in some Muslim countries, family protection laws have been declared incompatible with the canon of Islamic laws. The right to polygamous marriage has been restored and child marriages are condoned. The legal rights of women in application for divorce and custody of children have been severely curtailed. Civil law makes it clear that the marriage of a girl is dependent upon the consent of her father or grandfather. It declares that married women can only accept jobs that are not incompatible with their responsibilities as a wife. Consequently, women’s rights in these countries are considered among the worst in the world. The nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk, once said, “The real question is how much suffering we’ve caused our womenfolk by turning headscarves into symbols — and using women as pawns in a political game.”

Misogyny, gender-based biases and socio-economic inequalities are so endemic that it is not just a war on women but a destructive force tearing apart economies and societies. Some (within Muslim societies) compare the condition of women to that of a collapsed lung, which incapacitates the entire body. A community, a nation, can never reach its full potential if half its members are denied certain rights. There is an urgent need to create conditions for women to thrive on their own terms. Women’s education is the key to change. There is also a need to harmonise the outer secular layers of the workplace and communities, with the inner sanctum of faith, spirituality and family. Those individuals and groups that seek to keep women in backwardness through their myopic delusions and the perverted application of religious tenets or archaic traditions must be challenged.

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