Sita (which literally means the furrow) is actually a goddess earth in Valmiki’s Ramayana who appears as a woman. After defeating Ravana who abducted Sita, Rama orders her to appear before the public assembly.

Addressing her, Wendy Doniger depicts, Rama says: “Doubts have arisen about your behavior. Go, then, wherever you wish. I can have nothing to do with you.What man of good family could take you back, simply because his mind so tortured by longing for her, a woman who had lived in the house of another man? How can I take you back when you have been degraded upon the lap of Ravana?”

Sita had to go through the ordeal of fire to prove her innocence. At the same time, he admits: “But I knew that she was always true to me.” Such is the power of masculinity at the social level that even the Lord Rama had to behave like an ordinary male vis-a-vis a woman, his wife.

We all are familiar with Semitic story of Adam and Eve, the first man and woman. The Lord placed them in the garden of Eden strictly instructing that they could eat anything but the fruit of the forbidden tree of knowledge. A serpent persuaded Eve to eat the forbidden fruit and she also gave some of it to Adam. Both were cursed and exiled to earth. Subsequently, Eve, the first woman, was blamed for the sin and portrayed as gullible and temptress. So gullibility and temptation have been associated with woman showing that she is intrinsically inferior to man who epitomises discernment and judiciousness.

Scaling up man and scaling down woman are taken as an expression of divine law. Such is the power of masculinity.

In the mundane world even our greats – men usually are considered great - aren’t exempt from the prevalent notion of masculinity. From Rumi to Shakespeare to Sultan Bahu we see a streak of misogyny, naked and concealed. Reading the sixth chapter of Rumi’s magnum opus, the Masnavi, can send shivers down your spine if you happen to be gender sensitive. Rumi has story after story where he is abrasively critical of woman and his portraiture of female at times borders on demonisation. He treats slaves in a similar way. Hamlet’s rant is well known: “Woman, thy name is frailty”. In the “Jew of the Malta” when the priest says to Barabas: “Thou hast committed”. Barabas interjects with “Fornication? / But that was in another country / Besides, the wench is dead”. Fornication is no charge against a man if he commits it on foreign soil and is especially trivial if the woman has died. Male privilege comes first.

In Sultan Bahu, a great and an eloquent poet otherwise, we come across his predisposition to misogyny. “This world is as unclean as a woman is during menstruation / It can’t purify itself”, he says in one of his verses. To express his disdain of worldliness he chooses an image which is not only reminiscent of primitive skewed view of femininity but also demonises female for her natural bodily function. It shows both; acceptance of ceremonial uncleanliness associated with menstruating woman and lack of awareness of biological process needed for procreation. Man vis-a-vis woman faces a strange dilemma; he attracts her as well as repels her. Man feels attraction for her because of his instinctual and sexual needs and repulsion for her because of longstanding social constructs regarding male, female and their roles which are largely outdated and dangerously male chauvinistic.

The forces of attraction and repulsion that shape male-female relationship have to be looked at in a historical context if we want to understand the intricacies and complexities of our system, encompassing the social and the personal.

Origins of male domination can be traced back to the awareness of bodily differences between male and female. His bodily composition gives the male an advantage in terms of height, and bone structure that makes him comparatively physically stronger. Female body due to procreative needs seems vulnerable especially during menstruation and pregnancy. So perhaps the perception of woman’s weakness was originally formed during the hunting age when physical strength and agility carried supreme value as a survival strategy. The notion of male’s strength and female’s frailty was a product of our jungle life which developed religious, social and metaphysical dimensions later. But if male strength is juxtaposed to female procreative functions, the myth of male superiority stands debunked, the grudging realisation of which we find in the myths of fertility all across the globe.

With the emergence of family and private property the space for woman was further squeezed as inheritance demanded the absolute surety of offspring’s parentage which entailed monitoring of female and curbing her freedom of movement and interaction. The wife/partner needs to be kept safe from the predators; other males. The overlap that exists between the physiological and the psychological further reinforced the perception of male strength and female weakness. Strangely, man has lurking fear of other men who, he suspects, covet his woman/ women. But instead of squaring off with other men on the issue of their lustfulness and vagrancy, he applies all his force to completely control his womenfolk.

In Muslim societies the interpretations of faith done in the 9th and 10th century were underpinned by Arab patriarchic outlook which still hold sway. “Fiqh [religious jurisprudence] of the era when monarchy ruled the roost heavily tilted in favour of male. Only Ibn al Arabi, the grand mystic and profound thinker, stood apart on the issue of gender. In his view man and woman are equal in terms of their human potential.

“Humanity unites male and female, and in it maleness and femaleness are contingencies, not a human reality,” he says. His vision of woman was revolutionary as it not only espoused gender equality but also at a certain level placed woman higher. “And there is no more powerful creature in the universe than woman,” the Sheikh writes.

He abolished “singular male images of the universe in favour of a binary conjugal conception, where male and female are coupled together in a necessary cosmic unity on the level of both Creation and Gnosis,” writes Souad Hakim in his article ‘Ibn Arabi’s Twofold Perception of Woman’.

As a Muslim society we have a choice; either to go back to the 12th/13th century mystic who believed in the absolute gender equality or to the Fiqh [Islamic jurists] of 9th/10th century who legitimised longstanding patriarchic notion of masculinity. Sadly, despite being venerated the mystic is rarely listened to. — soofi01@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 2nd, 2021

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