The notion of the male being the superior sex is still common in parts of the world today. Islam has been largely accused of supporting the male whilst suppressing the female. The truth, however, is something else. We all know that both male and female are different in terms of reproductive systems and basic biological features, differences that are innate and bound by nature. The question arises: On what basis are males considered superior to females? Is it in terms of career, intelligence, physical strength, passion, empathy, sporting skills, cooking skills or something else?
In such a debatable topic, there have been many scientific articles that try to show the superiority of one sex over the other, or gender equality. Let us analyze a few key studies before we reflect on the Islamic perspective. Modern professors such as Steve Pinker and Larry Summers from Harvard University claim that innate behavior is responsible for the failure of females to advance in scientific careers. Peter Lawrence in his article "Men, Women and Ghosts in Science" (Journal PLoS Biology), holds a similar opinion that even in a world which is free of bias, women will not be at par with men because they are born different. Simon Baron-Cohen, a professor at the University of Cambridge shows in his book, "The Essential Difference: Men, Women, and the Extreme Male Brain" that men on average are biologically designed to systematize, analyze, and are better equipped to compete in science whereas women are designed to empathize, communicate and care for others.
On the flipside, Professor Ben A. Barres published his story "Does gender matter?" in one of the finest journals, Nature in 2006, contradicting all the above theories regarding sex discrimination. He argues that the available scientific data does not provide support for the argument that women are born inferior; rather it supports another hypothesis – that women are not as advanced in science not because of their innate abilities, but because of discrimination. He then shows various data about the advancement of women in areas such as social sciences, life sciences, physical sciences and engineering. One study cited by the same story above about sex discrimination shows that women applying for a research grant needed to be 2.5 times more productive than men in order to be considered equally potent. This data was so convincing that MIT President Charles Vest publicly admitted that sex discrimination is responsible for women's progress in fields of science. In a recent book, "Delusions of Gender", Cordelia Fine reviews many important scientific studies of the past few years. The book shows that cultural and social factors are the main factors affecting sexual differences and thus creating sexual discrimination. The book condemns the bad science that continues to emphasize that sexual differences are solely due to innate brain differences between a male and a female.
Male chauvinists point out that male's possessing a larger brain, skeleton, height, and muscle mass are evidence of the male gender's superiority. Contrary to this belief, there are completely different views that support women are the superior sex. Ashley Montagu in his book, The Natural Superiority of Women, states that women have a more powerful immunological system that helps them having a better resistance to fatigue, shock and illness. He further writes that a female brain is highly developed structurally and functionally, concluding that women are more insightful with greater stamina and longevity.
Ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle in their famous books, The Republic and The Politics, have also delved into gender differences, both with contrasting ideas. Plato stated that the difference between males and females is quantitative and both of them have similar talents and capabilities. Aristotle on the other hand, stated that both the sexes are different not only quantitatively but qualitatively as well, possessing unique talents which are bound by nature.
What is the Real Answer?
It is not very reasonable to compare apples with oranges, analogous to the comparison between males and females. Both the sexes have been given their own natural and social duties, and thus it becomes a matter of appropriateness and equity rather than the superiority or uniformity.
As we review modern scientists' and ancient philosophers' views, the answers and explanations remain ambiguous. Islam has all the answers in every form, and we do not need to search the answers anywhere else when we possess genius scholars such as Martyr Murtada Mutahhari in our own hamlet. In his book, Women and Her Rights, he explains all the necessary rights of women and elucidates the disparities between the two sexes. He states that during the liberation movement of women rights, everybody focused only on the liberty and equality of women as a human being whereas it was forgotten that a woman is a woman too.
He mentions that woman previously fought for being recognized as an equal gender, and now she is suffering because her natural rights and special facilities have being ignored, intentionally or otherwise. As Ayatollah Mutahhari explains, if a situation arises around the equality of women as a human being, women would be the sufferers, because by nature they have a less productive capacity, while their consumption of wealth is more than men's. Their menstrual cycles, hardships of pregnancies, pains of childbirth and the nursing of children place them in a position in which they require men's protection. In an article in the magazine Coronet, Mrs. Macdaniel says on account of lifting heavy weights, some female workers of her factory suffered from internal hemorrhage. These women want to return to their previous position. They want to be treated as women and not as mere workers. For the supporters of equality it may be a simple matter; they sit in their luxurious apartments and talk of equality, but they have never been to the factories, where most of the wage-earning women of this country have to work. Numerous similar incidences affecting the women physically or psychologically have been reported in the society.
Islam Comes to the Rescue
Islam has given women an identity with rights, freedom, personality, independence and free thinking. Women in Islam are recognized as pure women, not as obstinate human beings equal to men as politicized by the industrial revolutionists. Islam also gives women the right to choose their spouses and the independence of transactions of money during marriage. Explaining the philosophy behind the legal issues, Ayatollah Mutahhari states the psychology of the sexes, in which men are after sex and women are after love. Man's instinct of alluring and woman's instinct of credulity are fine paradigms of understanding the two sexes. This is why it is important for a girl to consult her father before agreeing for marriage, as fathers are aware about the thoughts and plans of a male. Several other important issues such as those relating to dowry, inheritance, divorce and polygamy have also been logically explained in the same book.
Ayatollah Mutahhari gauzily compares the physical and psychological differences between a man and a woman. He explains that irrespective of the differences between the two sexes, both of them have been purposefully designed by Allah in order to complement and support each other. Continuity of the human species is a direct answer to us that calls for the harmony between males and females. As nature is not a matter of chance, the bodies and souls have been designed physically and spiritually in a perfect sense such that the differences attract the sexes to each other. The connection between male and female signifies that each one wants the comfort and happiness of the other, and enjoys making sacrifices for the sake of the other.
The Qur'an says: "They (women) are raiment (comfort, embellishment and protection) for you, and you (men) are raiment for them." (2:187)
This verse clearly indicates that women are not created for the benefit of men but both of them have been created for the sake of each other. Islam preserves the natural rights of women whereas the western world focuses more on the uniformity and equality of human rights. Islam respects the fact that women are intrinsically and biologically different and that is why it focuses more on the similarity of rights rather than the equality of rights.
The Qur'an says: "And of His signs is this that He created your mates from yourselves that you might find rest in them, and He put between you affection and compassion." (30:21)
The verse shows that marriage between a man and a woman is higher than all passions. It is really not logical to compare the two sexes on the basis of equality of rights. The two sexes have been created to show respect, love and compassion to each other.
Injustice Against Women
Another important issue that needs attention is the injustice done to women in forms of sexual and physical abuse, emotional cruelty, prejudice and domestic exploitation. The solution to these problems is adhering to the true Islamic beliefs. Our Holy fourth Imam Sajjad (peace be upon him), in his Treatise of Rights talks about the right of the wife: "And the right of your subject through matrimonial contract is that you should know that God has made her a repose, a comfort and a companion, and a protector for you. It is incumbent upon each of you to thank God for the other and realize that the other one is God's blessing for you. It is obligatory to be a good companion for God's blessing, and to honor her and treat her gently. Yet, your right over her is more incumbent and she must obey you in every matter that you like or detest – except in acts of disobedience to God. She should enjoy the rights of mercy and intimacy, as she is an object of tranquility. You should care for her through consummation of the lust that must be consummated. And that is surely great. And there is no power but in God."
We must also get inspiration from modern day examples like Imam Khomeini, who was very humble and caring to his wife. Like our role model Imam Ali (peace be upon him), he would always help his wife in household routine jobs such as washing clothes and sweeping, and would give tremendous respect to his wife and family. He would say, "Don't think little of the home; the upbringing of children is no small matter. If somebody is able to raise one person (properly), she has done a great service to society."
There is truly no masculinity in males who subjugate females trying to dominate them with resentment or physical abuse. True masculinity and harmony between male and female lies in mutual respect, and in the understanding of each others needs. We can leave the spurious battle of the sexes for the opportunists who want to earn something other than the true realization of human beings.