December 4, 2015 By Interactive Edit

Is Equality Really a Bad Word?


Gender equality has come to fore as a hot topic for debate. With the statement of Turkish President Recep Teyep Erdogan that motherhood is a precious value which feminism has discarded in a wholesale manner is the hotter piece of cake in the debating table. The obvious problem in his statement, if the cited words are true and not mediated, is the way he amalgamates diversity of feminist positions into the liberal version of feminism, the mainstream Femen position, which, instead of exploring the complexities in the gender issue, comes up with automatic notions of equality and graft their universalist western narratives into the agenda of occidental pseudo-democratic liberation of the orient.

South Africa-based Muslim feminist scholar Saadiya Sheikh, for example, drawing on the works of Ibn Arabi, reimagines motherhood as a key liberating notion, which, by remaining close to the divine attribute of Rahma and nurturing (tarbiya), acquires a life-affirming valence.

The second problem in Erdogan’s statement is the binary imagination of role playing by both males and females. Are women exclusively limited to the role of giving birth to a child and of rearing her/him? Can they not strive, simultaneously, to perform the tasks which men are supposed to do? Also is motherhood a synonym of parenthood and is the father exempt from the role of rearing a child? Saadiya Sheikh’s exegesis of Ibn Arabi brings to light the fact that masculinity and femininity are traits and attributes non-essentially and evenly distributed among biological males and females.

Take the following examples for consideration. Prophet Muhammad’s, peace be upon him, children were all (except the boy named Ibrahim) mothered and reared by his wife Khadija, May God be pleased with her. She is, therefore, an epitome of motherhood and all associated virtues. She was a consolation of the Prophet shivering under the stupendous spiritual elegance of Revelation. She was, moreover, a business woman par excellence, which the Muslim tradition cherishes and respects. Does this not challenge the binary of roles to be played by biological males and females? Also why did Imam Shafi, one of the four most honoured imams in the school of law, wish that his funeral prayer should be led by Nafeesa Al Misriya, a revered Sufi woman in the Muslim tradition?

The oft-quoted verse, 4:34  , which some take as the Quranic underlining of “natural” gender inequality by placing male above female, has been interpreted in the exegetical tradition as functional inequality subsumed under the fact that God has provided from his bounty (faddala) with some over others. This functional superiority of males can be claimed by females if they earn more than or even as much as the males. The functional superiority is also subsumed under the verse (33:35) which underlines equality of both males and females in front of God. Also, the imagination of male and female as attributes and traits rather than fixed biological demarcation is an exegetical possibility offered by Ibn Arabi.

We truly believe Erdogan was not making a theological point. And he is free to make an opinion in a political platform where he would defend the position. But some readers have received his comment theologically and it requires some theological counter arguments for unravelling and deepening.

Finally, some reflections are needed about using the word equality. As Erdogan spoke in Turkish, we can’t build our surmises from English reports which use the word equality. However, supporters of Erdogan in several countries have come out agreeing in English to the statement that men and women are not equal. A comment goes: “women have menstruation; men don’t have.” “Women get pregnant; men don’t. So how can they be equal?” Biological differences between genders are thus brought to justify political differences. In other words, had the interlocutor said, instead of “how can they be equal”, “how can they be same or similar” he could have been less politically incorrect and the statement could have been a fact (though why such an apodeictic and commonplace statement becomes newsworthy is another question to debate). Equality, instead of similarity, is a key term in modern political science. It means, according Oxford English Dictionary, the state of being equal in status, opportunities and rights. To have someone less equal in these three aspects is a dominant feature in modern politics. Especially, minorities the world over pose the question of unequal opportunities and rights. Western thinkers with a smack racism like Hegal, Nietsczhe, and Adam Smith argue that some races are more equal than the rest. The Brahminical order in India argues the same about Dalits, Muslims and Christians. Whites considered and still consider themselves to be more equal than the Blacks and justified their superiority by the factor of lives in different climates. A positive element in Feminist arguments is that it cautioned us against diverting the arguments regarding biological differences to unequal distribution of rights. To use the word equality to mean similarity or sameness is either political naivety or proof of the fact that those who make such statements have reached the position of enunciating the mechanism of power discourses. Though to use more equal and less equal is grammatically erroneous, that some are more and less equal today than others is a crude political reality of this time. When we say people are equal irrespective of gender, class, religion etc, we say they stand on the same level before justice and on the same level before, ultimately, God. And the verse 33:30 has an argument strong enough to trumpet counterclaims.

Posted in: Editorial