Alienation of women
By Fatima Farideh Nejat
September 1, 2003
important to examine the history of legal changes in different
societies that have made an effort to correct the flaws of their
legal system regarding the status of women. Iran has recently said
that it will ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms
against Women (CEDWA)
that is if its articles are not in conflict with Islam.
precepts regarding the status of woman are in conflict with the
Isn't it time that Muslim societies try to evaluate the
flaws of their legal system? One good example is the history of
women's suffrage in America, and the question "What if
women's suffrage was never passed?"
The limit to which the society can achieve its gender boundary
maintenance depends upon the extent of knowledge and behavioral
training. People's understanding of individual rights within the
social groups of family and society will determine their outlook
on gender roles. The most important element of all intellectual
traditions is a restrictive view of women, which pervades both
religious writings and popular beliefs.
Images in the popular culture
tend to focus on ideas such as the "self-sacrificing women," as
chaste and pure, the Virgin Mary, the mother. The opposite of this
is the woman who is the destroyer, the seductress, the bloody,
destructive, malevolent power, the Eve. Neither the Madonna nor
the whore image is far fetched.
The question of woman's status has
attained great importance in communities throughout the entire
world. For centuries
it was accepted
as "natural law" in
many parts of the world that women were inferior to men and must submit to patriarchal
authority, to allow for the smooth running of family life.
For thousands of years,
women were kept in absolute subjugation in all patriarchal societies.A brief
chronology of the three Ibrahimic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,
in regard to women's alienation in the formulation of religion, miracles,
magic and race is notable to review. One needs to examine the popular
points of view
of different schools of thought, to illustrate the roots of female alienation
as manifested in popular culture within patriarchal societies. This has influenced
the status of women, politically, economically, and in terms of the framing
of their individuality.
How did the strife between man and woman pervade antiquity? How
were women viewed geo-politically in the Bronze Age (3000-1200
B.C. Greece) and in classical
There are apparent discrepancies between the women in society and the heroines
in its literature. Several hypotheses have been formulated to explain the
conflict between fact and fiction.
The powerful women who were
mentioned in the work
of tragedy eventually created a mythology about women by men who judged the
and selected what they thought best - this was the beginning of the ideological
creation of popular culture. Misogyny was born from the fear of women. It
led to social structures that were oppressive and demeaning.
These structures did
not correspond to the actual, vital roles women were performing at the time.
Aristophanes' writings showed successful women in
opposition to men. On the
contrary, in Sophocles, Creon, a domineering ruler, reveals hostility in
with the opposite sex and he refers to a wife as a "field to plow." Many
tragedies showed women in rebellion against the established norms of society
and the image of the heroine on the stage coincided with the reality of Athenian
women. The proper behavior of women and men was explored in many tragedies.
Womanly behavior was characterized then, as now in some cultures, by submissiveness
modesty (Pomeroy 93-9).
The cultural legacy eventually began to permeate
further, controlling the female and the male roles, and circumscribing
sexuality within the context
The rigid role conditioned and limited the full range of human potential
and produced a negative impact on both men and women. The "sex for reproduction" legacy
began with the Judeo-Christian heritage and tradition. Childbearing was tremendously
important to the ancient Hebrews, and their history of being subjected to slavery
and persecution made them determined to preserve their people and replenish
A joyful appreciation of sexuality was part of the
Judaic tradition as
was the notion that sex was for procreation. By the first century B.C.,
many exotic cults such as the Bacchus, which provided sexual entertainment
forced intercourse with the members of the cult, were banned by the Roman
Empire. Jesus' followers reacted against activities like the Bacchanalia
sex with sin (Crooks, Baur 4).
In 600 B.C., the rise of Islam and Mohammad's view
of sexuality brought about a completely different set of customs.
He told his male followers
was permitted and advocated. He gave two reasons: reducing female infanticide
among Arabs, and providing homes for widows who were left homeless
when their husbands were killed at war. Christians referred to
sex as sin,
promoted it through polygyny - one exaggeration led to another - contradicting
norms confusing the trend in which a customary tradition began its
course by force.
As Islam began to expand, the phenomena of polygyny
a source of social prestige in Arabia and other regions. Unlike the
living within the orbit of Islam began having multiple wives as a status
symbol. Later on, in the Tenth Century, Rabbi Gershom of Germany enacted
a legal decree
that raised the status of women in Jewish law and updated Jewish morality
in other areas. The two most significant laws attributed to him were
polygyny and divorcing a woman against her will. Rabbi Gershom said
that the most obvious evidence of the Torah's preference for monogamy
human beings God created were Adam and Eve, not Adam, Eve, and Joan
The misogyny of the later Middle Ages is well known. This was articulated
in theological, philosophical and scientific theories that are centuries
Males and females were contrasted and asymmetrically valued in terms
of several dichotomies:
intellect/body, active/passive, rational/irrational, reason/emotion,
When devotional writers mentioned marriage and
it was to warn against
the horrors that accompanied them; when secular literature commented
on women's roles, it was chiefly to romanticize adultery by aristocratic
mock the sexual appetites of peasant or middle-class wives. Much
recent interpretation of religion has seen misogyny as a causal
only in the persecution
of women as witches, but also as heretics or eccentric mystics. Such
interpretation has argued that women are seen as lustful, emotional
or disorderly (Bynum
From the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Century, in contrast,
positive female figures and feminine metaphors took place in spirituality,
images of women (Bynum 150-2). The largest number of miracle stories
is connected with the shrines of women saints. Events called "miracula" permeated
life at every level, and were closely woven into the texture of Christian experience
without any explanation of presuppositions that lay behind them.
saints performed miracles predominantly for women. Events were
told and believed by the people without question. The romance of
magic in courtly culture came
after the Middle Ages. Women were described as magical, enchanting,
charming, fascinating, and even bewitching, which now describe
experiences that are extraordinary,
but attractive (Ward 1).
Male writers saw the genders in terms of dichotomy; they stressed
males as powerful, judgmental, disciplined and reasonable; female
and irrational. They applied female images to themselves only to
express worldly denial. The male image of worldly renunciation
forsaking of wealth
Women writers used imagery more fluidly - personal
and social characteristics were shared by two genders. "She" was
a less marked category and a symbol of a gender-less self. The
idea of asymmetrical gender was physical
bodily to women. Women's spirituality had a significant emphasis
on asceticism, which was prominent in women's religiosity in the
form of food deprivation,
and self-inflicted suffering.
Women of these societies, by accepting the weaker
position, led themselves to neurosis by tolerating the abuse. Women
as consumers of physical and emotional exploitation. Their suppressed
rage eventually changed to hate and revolt in the form of witchcraft.
to which the
society can achieve its gender boundary maintenance depends upon
the extent of knowledge and behavioral training.
within the social groups of family and society will determine their
outlook on gender roles. The most important element of all intellectual
restrictive view of women, which pervades both religious writings
popular beliefs. Images in the popular culture tend to focus on
ideas such as the "self-sacrificing
women," as chaste and pure, the Virgin Mary, the mother.
opposite of this is the woman who is the destroyer, the seductress,
the bloody, destructive,
malevolent power, the Eve. Neither the Madonna nor the whore image
is far fetched. It is the pervasiveness of this traditional idea
of womanhood that tells how
popular culture circumscribes the range of identities from which
In the social structures, it is increasingly difficult
to maintain the old attitudes toward women. It is important to
note that even
altogether escape from adopting new attitudes. Since the social
attitudes are so pervasive, the scriptures are therefore being
re-interpreted, at least among progressive sections of societies.
Similarly, the question
women in societies is analogous to that of slavery. In feudal and
pre-feudal societies, up to the 1800s, slavery was considered justifiable
slaves themselves had accepted the social exploitation.
toward slavery and serfdom had to change rapidly because of the
emergence of capitalist
societies. The theory of divine law is no longer applicable to
the institution of exploitation. Human consciousness in modern
by the concept of human dignity. The laws regarding women were
enacted or interpreted
from scriptures during the dark ages of the medieval period by
the jurists. They
are no longer accepted by women today in western societies. They
no longer accept their subordination to men and they demand equal
of men (Engineer
The feminist paradigm is now pointing in a different direction,
stressing the relations of gender, meaning the oppression of women
by men that
to overlook. Scholars' interpretation of patriarchy varies: a conceptual
problem in Marxist feminist analysis is the focus on labor/capital
identify the operation of gender relation, Marx viewed it as the
processes of production and reproduction as defined by materialism.
patriarchy as a household that is dominated by the father, who
controls the economy for
the members of the household.
Millett confronts the thesis that
in capitalist society the domination of women by men is mediated
between women. McDonough and Harison regard patriarchy as the control
fertility and sexuality in monogamous marriage, and the economic
subordination of women
through the sexual division of labor and property. Harrison's mode
of patriarchy, they argue, has been eliminated, but its relations
assume a form dictated
by capitalist relations of production (Barrett 8-17).
The most accepted theory argues that racism is functional and characteristic
of the capitalist mode of production. When the Anglo Saxons and
other European peoples penetrated into different parts of the world,
was the destruction of the culture they found upon arrival. This
was the concept
and inferiority in relation to race, elaborated in order to justify
exploitation of people. Basically, racial hierarchy is an artificial
way to stratify
people according to such a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority.
With this historical background, we can interpret the U.S. legal
system, as it existed before the mid-1960s, as a system that re-enforced
the American legal system was the only system that prohibited inter-racial
by law. Obviously, inter-racial marriage would change the physical
appearance of future generations, making it difficult to sustain
the rigid racial
hierarchy that currently exists. Inter-racial marriage, or miscegenation,
is a practice
that could eventually extinguish the difference between black and
white in America.
Another facet of discrimination involves educational
opportunity in this society. Why is equal education so important?
slashing the grants for education? At the outset, illiteracy was
to the institution
of slavery, and education threatened to bring about emancipation.
One who can read and write is potentially competitive in the labor
Literacy also encourages possible movements for political
and social achievements.
the beginning, it was against the law to teach slaves how to read
and write. Later, after the Emancipation Proclamation, schools
remained segregated, although
equal education for all was the stated goal. In reality, even today,
equality has yet to arrive, and there is still discrimination in
Of course, the Marxist approach argues that class-based discrimination
in the school system would remain even at the end of racial segregation.
also a structural functionalist approach which regards race as
a natural way of distinguishing
human beings according to their physical characteristics. This
theory says that blacks are not necessarily inferior, but they
according to this theory, blacks will be integrated into the mainstream
society by virtue of the capitalist mode of production. This is
a jurisprudential interpretation of a democratic social model.
Another similar discrimination which society imposes,
vital to this discussion, is gender discrimination. The conflict
that females are
biologically different than males at birth, and the main difference
is that women bear
children and men can not. The conflict approach is saying women
are born female, but
society makes sexual distinction. Since there is a biological sexual
adds gender difference and imposes a "female" role on
The patriarchal system mainly sets forth the idea
that women are weak, they need
and a safe place for them is the home. The violence such as rape
is used as a socially justified weapon, to make the environment
outside of home unsafe.
enforces the domesticity of women. All these differences are then
reinforced by the legal system, which allows for discrimination
in the work place, prison
system and other institutions. For example, in Salem, Massachusetts,
brave women who tried to defend their rights were burned on stakes,
when the legal
prosecuted them as witches.
The key to understanding gender discrimination is
the control that the state has over women's bodies, and their capacity
to bear children.
the criminalization of pregnancy, the mother goes to jail as a
result of addiction;
she is not permitted to have an abortion, and is blamed when she
is raped. She can not have an abortion since the state is trying
reproduction, but at the same time the state does not provide protection
in cases of
family abuse, like spouse or child abuse.
Basically, the two issues of gender and race are
related because the capitalist mode of production needs to combine
The mainframe and the goal of the liberal state is that all men
equal. But at the same time, the capitalist mode of production
argues that labor and
profit should reach equilibrium. The economist's theories, whether
liberal or conservative, conclude that, regarding salary and the
relationship between supply
and demand, capitalism must strive to achieve equilibrium.
society, in order to survive, especially to keep profit extremely
high, needs to exploit
certain strata of the population. At the same time, the ideology
is attached to capitalism. Democracy, freedom, self reliance,
equality of opportunity all encourages hard work in exchange for
How can we combine
contrasting needs - capitalism and democracy? The solution is
to say that certain people are different and that is why they can
of ownership of large industries such as Ford.
The structural functionalist approach argues that
the conflict approach is wrong in emphasizing discrimination. This
into the system, over a period of time. This theory also argues
that race is a natural way to distinguish humans according to their
Eventually they will be integrated into the mainstream of the society
through inter-racial marriage, the final stage of integration.
So the structural
approach looks at the abolishment and end to illegal inter-racial
marriage and civil rights movement as movements toward the end
The feminist movement of the Twentieth Century has
raised perplexing questions both in American society and around
the globe. Often
we hear men justifying
the symbolic role of the "Goddess" in literature as a tangible and true
value within society. "Myths of the great Goddess teach compassion for all
living beings. There you come to appreciate the real sanctity of the earth, because
it is the body of the Goddess" (Campbell 207).
most passionate and graceful lyrical expressions in every culture
praising the Goddess - symbolizing
the forms of sensibility of our literature - what most women
wonder is that: What went wrong that caused the ritual to lose
The ritual, which
once conveyed an inner reality, is now merely a form, and that
is true in the ritual
of society. What happens when a society no longer embraces a
powerful mythology? The decline of the Goddess myth is exemplified
demeaning economic position
of women in contemporary society.
The traditional economic roles
which women occupy in our society contain parallel responsibilities
to those that women
perform in the household. These economic roles prevent most
women from engaging in business
affairs, and also limit their role in politics. The change
in the economic potential of woman will not be achieved by woman
occur only when men's perception of women changes and when
longer projects upon women his perception of what woman's
roles should be.
Fatima Farideh Nejat holds a Bachelors degree
in Interdisciplinary Studies of Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology
Studies; and a Masters
degree in International Training and Education from the
American University in Washington, DC. She served in diplomatic
of Iran working at
the Iranian Embassy in Washington, DC, from 1970-80. She
is currently Assistant
at the Department of the Army, Defense language Institute
in Monterey, California.
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