Women and Sexual Politics

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We live in the world where human beings and their lives, identities, and social expectations are carefully and socially defined, articulated and reinforced according to their sexes, using discourse and other social tools and apparatus.

Has it ever occurred to you why male and female bodies are judged differently? Why would the two bodies carry different connotations? Why would people frown at a topless woman, while a half-naked man walking next to her with a short only is hardly noticed or condemned? Let’s go to the vocabulary. The words “witch” and “wizard” might carry negative semantics, however, a talented male footballer or security expert can be positively addressed as a football or security “wizard.” Suddenly, the word “wizard” has a positive meaning when a male is an actor. Right?  But would you use the feminine word for “wizard” (“witch”) in the same context and expect the same meaning? Hardly not. A football witch? That security witch? The word “witch” remains perceived negatively in the same context when the actor is a female gender. A man who cannot control his libido is positively called a “tiger in bed” while his female counterpart is judged unfavourably and labelled a harlot, sex maniac or promiscuous. Same act, same context, different definition, and meaning. Semantics sexism, you would say. Wouldn’t you?

Logically, therefore, men and women are the same human beings yet they are perceived differently. Yes, there might be some anatomical difference between men and women, but are these minor biological differences enough to socially differentiate the two genders? Nor do the differences provide enough evidence to support the blatant stereotypical treatment of women as inferior, and for that matter, appendix to men?

This means as a woman, one’s fate has been predetermined by socio-historical factors which serve as a “psycho-historical background” to her life. She must, therefore, follow and abide by those “psycho-historical background” to become a “normal” and “acceptable” woman in the society. Nothing in between. Are the lives, identities, and expectations of women socially predefined, articulated and reinforced by men to maintain their control over women? Does the irrational treatment of women as subordinates to men, help re-enforce the status quo?  Your guess is as good as mine.

Kate Millett (Sexual Politics, 1978) points out that “politics” are power-structured relationships, arrangements whereby one coherent group of persons, of which the common denominator might be sex, class, race, caste and so on, exercises power over another group through personal contact and interaction. Using the concept of “politics” primarily when speaking of the sexes, Kate Millett insists that sex is a status category with political implications. Thus, logically, and in line with Millett’s argument, we could rightly classify sexuality or patriarchy as “politics” because it involves, not only exercise of power, but also presume a superior norm against which inferior groups are tested and found lacking.

Patriarchy, and to that extent, sexuality, therefore, can be said to be a political institution in the sense that it is a social relation aimed at the maintenance of power or dominance through constant control of discourse and physical power to produce desired attitudinal and behavioural changes. To maintain this power or dominance, dominant groups (eg male)  presume a superior norm against which inferior groups are tested and found lacking. The subsequent findings, then serve as an excuse for treating the latter as inferiors and keeping them perpetually dependent. At the same time, the presumed norm also serves to explain the “realities” of the world or the order of things: why things are the way they are; what is ‘normal,’ ‘abnormal,’ ‘right,’ ‘wrong,’ ‘natural’ or ‘unnatural.’

Recently, an Egyptian lawyer has been sentenced to three years in prison for openly advocating that women in ripped jeans should be raped in “punishment.”

Mr. Nabih al-Wahsh, a prominent conservative lawyer (yes, a lawyer indeed), made the controversial remarks on a TV debate in October, over his country’s draft law on prostitution. To him, women, who dress “indecently” (of course, we must first define the word “indecent” and establish where the border lies) only “inviting men to harass them.”

“Are you happy when you see a girl walking down the street with half of her behind showing? I say that when a girl walks about like that, it is a patriotic duty to sexually harass her and a national duty to rape her.” Nabih al-Wahsh insisted.

Last year, Mr. Wahsh had a very nasty brawl with a cleric, who suggested that women should not necessarily have to wear a headscarf. To Mr. Wahsh, being a woman means covering yourself – and of course, being subordinate to a man as well. Although Mr. Wahsh, who previously called the Holocaust “imaginary” and proudly called himself “a proud anti-Semite,” was also fined 20,000 Egyptian pounds (£839; $1,130), his statement and opinion reveal clearly the sexual politics that have culturally defined, subordinated and subjected women as sex objects to men. If men were equally seen as sex objected, one would have expected Mr. Wahsh to equally encourage women to “rape” men who dress “indecently.” No, that is far from the case. What makes the Wahsh’s remarks very dangerous and inciting is the idea of enshrining and interpreting the act (rape) as a patriotic cum national duty. In other words, to be regarded as a good Egyptian (male) citizen, it is one’s “patriotic and national” duty to sexually harass and rape women, based on men’s definition of a woman. Thus, carrying out this act elevates one to the level of a social “purist,” according to Mr. Wahsh’s line of thought. Where does this leave us? Do you need to search further to understand why rape against women and other mistreatments of women in many countries have become a form of  “correction” rather than an illegal act?

In Egypt and far beyond, sexual ideology and culture are presumed by men to be the superior norms and it is the men’s formative background that provides the judgmental standards against which women are measured and found lacking. Using culture, mainly made by men and which favours them, the males simply follow their sexist strategies of justification for their exercise of power and control over females. Such an exercise of power and control is manifested in every area of relationships and social interaction between male and female. Sadly, the social interaction is far from being symmetric. The unbalanced relationship between male and female may be represented as power versus powerless, authority versus obedience, reward versus punishment, master versus slave, dominant versus subordinate, subject versus object, active versus passive etc. Put in other words, the male is regarded as the symbol of power – ‘master’ – and the female as the ‘slave.’  If a group is held to be inferior, it can expect to be treated so; and it will act according to that treatment. The subordinate groups, on the other hand, are doomed to remain perpetually ‘colonized,’ or, as Catherine Belsey puts it, “interpellated,” to accept the social positions which are necessary for their participation in the social formation.

The colonisation of women leads to dependence. As Simone de Beauvoir (1949) has pointed out, the female, having inherited an inferior position tries to please the male, through subordination and dependence. By making sure that the female depends on him, the male can successfully ‘colonize,’ enslave and despise her, even reduce her to a dependent “Zombie.”

Socially, an unbalanced relationship is also typical of a patriarchal family. In such a family, according to Millett, the father is granted the “ownership” of his wife as well as children. He occupies a dominant subject position in the family that is completely subjugated to him. The wife is regarded, and treated, as a passive object. What is very dangerous is the fact that the sexist mistreatment of women as inferiors is learned and transferred to a younger generation through socialisation.

Take a closer look at your children’s school books. Go back to the kindergarten class. What can you see? Often, almost all active words like boxing, climbing, fighting, running, you name them, are representable by a male character. On the other hand, female characters are used for passive acts like sitting, cooking, singing, etc. This clearly defines, right from the infancy,  socially “preferred behaviours” amongst male and female (kids) and explains why certain acts are labelled “unfemale” or “male.” These “socially acceptable behaviours” are actively encouraged and promoted in schools, homes and other social domain.

Clearly, in a complex and institutionalized social relation such as patriarchy, social dominance of groups, as Van Dijk (1992) points out, is not merely enacted individually by its group members, but will be legitimized by laws, sanctioned by the courts and enforced by the police or magistrates. It is through the control of what Louis Althusser has defined as “Ideological State Apparatuses” (ISAs) – institutions such as the family, the court, religion, education, the media, that dominant groups (eg. male) or ruling classes manage to legitimize their own presumably superior norms and indeed their power and dominance.

Thus, the vicious circle is perpetuated and the status quo maintained. Unless our various governments act quickly and modify their policies and discourage strongly the mistreatment of women through enforcement of laws that will act as a detriment to sexists, men’s negative and domineering attitude towards women will remain unchanged. So will women remain treated as second-class citizens in our societies. Definitely, the mistreatment of women has negative consequences – socially, economically, politically –  in the societies. It is not too late to change the sexist ideology, but it is unforgivable not to act now – and decisively indeed.