Saturday, February 11, 2012

Women and Progress in Arab Societies

The values of progress, modernity, democracy, freedoms belonging to humanity, belief in pluralism, cultural tolerance, otherness, culture of peace, refusal of all forms of fanaticism or discrimination are the corner stones of my writings and lectures. These purposes can not be served unless we all feel most ashamed of the manner women are treated in many societies, where they continue to be banned (to a shameful degree) from many of their human rights. The "Man Dominated Culture" is disgraceful to humankind. If men apologize to women for a thousand years, this will be "insufficient". It is under the shade of the above that I wrote my article "Women And Progress", first published by "Al- Ahram" on 15th August 2003 (in Arabic). Though it might sound "a given" to some Westerners, in the Middle East (and elsewhere) we need a thousand voices/wills to cause the required crack in the prevailing medieval masculine culture.

A writer I hold in high esteem has reproached me for addressing the issue of women’s rights from the perspective of progress rather than of human rights. Actually, my position on the issue of gender equality is informed by a conviction that both aspects are equally important. I have always advocated the need to grant women full equality with men from both perspectives: as a prerequisite for society’s progress and as a basic human right. The two aspects are not mutually exclusive but complement one another.  In fact, one of the most important indicators of a society's progress is the status it accords to women and how they are perceived in the prevailing cultural climate. Indeed, that is perhaps one of the most accurate ways of measuring the extent of a society's progress or backwardness. I have for long championed the cause of equal rights for women, not only because I firmly believe they are -at least- equal to men in all aspects of life, but also because a society that subordinates women to men cannot hope to make any headway on the path to progress. The institutionalized concept of male superiority, the so-called machismo ethos, works not only against the interests of women as a group but of society as a whole. 

I have no doubt whatsoever that male chauvinism grows from the seeds of male insecurity. A confident man who believes in himself, his intellect, his abilities and with a strong sense of self does not need to assert his superiority over women. The experience of dealing with thousands of young men has taught me that the more modest their capabilities, the more insistent they are on clinging to the chauvinistic culture that relegates women to a lower status than men. It is understandable: those who fail at the public level have nothing left but to assert themselves artificially in their little private domain.  Strangely enough, the generations that grew up in the fifties and sixties, like myself, are more progressive on this issue than later generations. Several factors have contributed to this phenomenon. 

One is the more high-profile role that was coming to be assumed by women. With more and more women receiving an education and participating in the workforce, the myth of male superiority was effectively shattered. To compensate for this blow to their self-esteem, many young men sought refuge in a kind of mythical victory, invoking their innate superiority on no other grounds than their gender.  As previously mentioned, many years spent closely observing the attitude towards women among the men I worked with confirmed the existence of an inverse relationship between a man's lack of self-confidence and his willingness to accept that women are equal to him in all respects, and that, indeed, in some respects they rank higher. For if women are men's equals as human beings, their value surpasses that of men in certain areas, notably as mothers, the first teachers of humankind.

Some of the proponents of the male-superiority theory use specious arguments to back their claim that women are somehow inferior to men, often citing religious texts to justify their position. But there are always other texts that assert the full humanity of women and the equality of both sexes. At the end of the day, any text, even if it is divine, requires a human agency to interpret it, and the real test is how the mind elects to deal with it. Thus the source for the notion of male superiority is not, as some people claim, religion, but the stages of human history in general and of tribal/Bedouin history in particular when civilization and humanistic values were at a low ebb. There is no greater proof that the issue has nothing to do with religion than that none of the proponents of this chauvinistic approach care to underscore some of the aspects of the first marriage entered into by the prophet of Islam. Not only was it exemplary in terms of the equal humanity of both partners, but in many other aspects, like the wife having the right of divorce and the husband not taking a second wife. But the reactionary chauvinists choose not to see these examples or not to bring them to light, as if they never were.

The first person in history to receive the Nobel Prize more than once was Madam Curie. That alone is enough to silence those who claim men are superior to women, and it is far from being the only instance of public recognition of a woman's excellent achievements. But diehard male chauvinists dismiss the argument that brilliant women like Madame Curie, who are light years ahead of them in intelligence, knowledge and success, testify to the fallacy of the male superiority theory, and claim that such women are exceptions that confirm the rule. In fact, the only reason women were not allowed to realize their full potential earlier is that for centuries they were subjugated by men, who then claimed they were unfit to take part in, let alone win, the race. My experience as the CEO of a giant multinational corporation employing thousands of men and women proved to me not only that male staff members were in no way superior to their female colleagues, either in education, performance, management or leadership qualities, but that, if anything, the opposite was true. Possibly because they were driven by a sense of challenge and the desire to prove themselves, women often proved to be superior in many ways.

The time has come to break the institutionalized concept of male superiority that colours the general attitude to women in our society. To that end, measures must be taken to safeguard the steps already taken in that direction and to prevent anyone in future from engineering a cultural setback. For, at the end of the day, the notion that men are innately superior to women is deeply entrenched in the cultural tissue of society. It is only by recognizing the existence of an organic link between people’s cultural formation and the beliefs they hold that we can understand and properly address the mentality that seeks to keep women at the same lowly status to which they have been relegated throughout much of our history. The use of religion to justify this view is a political cover for fossilized societal attitudes deriving from four sources: Bedouin customs, medieval values and a patriarchal culture that is deeply rooted in tribal society. What can we expect of men who have drunk deeply from these sources and who, moreover, have never drunk from the well of universal human culture, men whose inability to master the linguistic tools of the Renaissance keeps them isolated from the great masterpieces of human creativity?

This cultural insularity makes the absence of objectivity on the issue of women’s rights absolute. We are here before revisionism coupled with primitiveness coloured by a tribal mentality and covered with a layer of cultural isolation from the masterpieces of universal human culture. The situation is rendered even more intractable by the fact that men are clinging to the myth of their superiority over women out of a tremendous lack of self-confidence, a sense that they must at all costs defend themselves against what they see as a challenge to their supremacy. 

It is tragic that in this day and age, when the advanced world is concerned with knowledge, development, civil liberties and human rights, we should still be asking the shameful question: are women equal to men?


1 comment:

  1. Dear Mr Hegy, I want to thank you for this wonderful article which moved me because it was written by a man. I am a Western woman, but your article still spoke to me. There is nowhere in this world where women are equal. Some, are just more equal than others. My Egyptian partner also wants to congratulate you on this article. It speaks not only for women but for those men, who like him, are struggling to break from the chains of mysogyny.