Globally, there has never been a better time to be a woman. Within 100 years women won the right to vote, the right to become economic players, the right to control, in most countries, their sexuality and their bodies, the right to rise as Heads of States and fall spectacularly from power. However, the history of women across the world does not flow down a straight line from repression to liberation, and in this history we cannot draw convenient lines between the discourse of a backwards East and an enlightened West. This article takes a look at the status of women from a historical and evolutionary perspective, and concludes that beyond the frustrations of feminisms, there is an evolutionary wheel that has already been invented.
Hammurabi’s Babylonian code of law is often recognized as officially institutionalizing patriarchy (1754 BC) positioning the status of women as distinct from that of men. Perhaps, this law which epitomises a very peculiar rendition of justice - if a man rapes a woman then his punishment is the rape of his wife – best relates the story and power dynamics which were created. By law, men owned women’s sexuality. Male honour became something that was primordial in a world obsessed with virility and virginity became a condition for marriage. Reduced to a sexuality that needed to be contained by men, women were forbidden from all commercial activity outside the household.
The Ancient Greek’s pejorative notions of women would also influence much of what we do today and much of what we are struggling with. In fact, a woman’s experience in Ancient Greece was not dissimilar to that of a woman under the Taliban last century (Professor Lloyd Lewellyn-Jones). Greece, the cradle of democracy, was not democratic for all. Aristotle (300 BC) wrote deeply incorrect stories about women, lacking in rationality and therefore needing to be under man’s control. If a woman laughed too much, or showed a part of her body then she deserved punishment. Women were barred from politics, economic activity and could be bought and sold as slaves. There is also the stunning silence of women on all matters. Athenian women were required to be silent, modest, chaste and produce sons. Ironically, the country that gave democracy to the world also only granted women the right to vote as late as 1952. It was 1948 in Mauritius.
In Ancient Greece, a deep phobia about woman’s body crept into culture. Behind this phobia is a creativity that is denied to men. Hippocrates, 5th BC, father of Western medicine would describe hysteria (coined from uterus) as the disease that women had when the womb would move around the body. The womb is seen as a potent force with a life and a mind of its own, it is the Godlike power of women to give life that needed to be contained. Gradually, women became associated with the madness of fertility and nature, and men became the gods of justice (Professor Amanda Foreman).
Foreman’s description of a 3-day ceremony, by women and for women in Ancient Greece, helps to better understand the dynamics between men and women. Every year there were 3 days of controlled madness when women were allowed to come into the centre of the polis and reshape it. On day 1, they elected their leaders. On day 2, they were allowed to shout obscenities and insanities. On Day 3 they prayed for children and crop. Day 2 of the ceremony when women were invited to shout obscenities is particularly noteworthy. Women’s sexuality, or their madness, therefore needed to be controlled and needed to be used at the service of the state – to produce sons. And here, very interestingly, the veil would become the symbol of woman, whose power needed to be covered up. In Ancient Greece a wide variety of veils would be used, over the head, over the body, over the face, covering the whole body and face except for two holes for the eyes.
On the other hand, there are other stories which suggest that sexual equality is not a recent invention. An example of a pre-agricultural era where there was very little gender distinction is Anatolia in Turkey, during the Catalhoyuk civilization, 7000 BC. The figurine of the seated woman suggests that there was a time when God was a woman, and when women were revered for both their ability to produce life and to take their place in the public domain alike. The same sexual equality prevailed with the Sumerians 3000 BC (Iraq). Women thrived, presided as priestesses, represented themselves in law, studied writing, brought their own property into marriage and could ask for divorce. In Nomadic Russian culture going back thousands of years, we witness the same equality. Studies have, in fact, shown that in contemporary hunter-gatherer tribes, men and women tend to have equal influence on the group.
So, here is an interesting point. It seems that when life is precarious there is greater equality between men and women. This makes sense. When resources are limited and the future is uncertain, we cannot afford to segregate men and women and confine women to biological functions. Women were recognized for their skills because those were absolutely indispensable for the survival of the clan. Equality between the sexes in our history as a species may have been a survival advantage and this equality has, at different moments in time, played an important role in shaping human society and evolution. This wheel/story has already been invented, it has been broken, we need to fix it.
The myth of a dark East and an enlightened West
Although the feminist movements of the 20th century which won women basic rights came from Europe and the USA, the big history of women is much more complex than that. When we think of the suffragettes, we think of Penkhurst and Davison. And now, after a little detour to Ancient Greece, we understand better that Winston Churchill’s fury against the Suffragette. His conviction that women were too irrational to be given any form of political power, came from a very deep place.
At the forefront of the Suffragette movement, was also Sophia Duleep Singh, an Indian Punjabi princess. So what brought an Indian princess, born into privilege, to the forefront of the Black Friday march in London? Anita Anand tells the full story here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dAH0MLNfK1U). Sophia Duleep Singh’s family had moved to London. When she returned to Punjab on a visit, and understood what the Raj had done to the people in her father’s kingdom, something shifted in her. She returned to London with the fire of revolution burning in her, with a new anger against the injustices of Empire. And this anger that she could not single-handedly raise against Empire, she converted into the cause of the Suffragettes. Sophia Duleep Singh, leveraging on her rebellion against empire, helped to shift the balance of power between men and women, and is acknowledge as ‘one of the most inspirational figures in modern British politics’ (Baroness Flather).
The conundrum of patriarchy
Despite the known advantages of sexual equality for the tribe, patriarchy has been the most universal and stable social system throughout history. We do not actually know why.
It cannot simply be a question of muscle and physical strength as there is little correlation between physical strength and social power among humans. Historian Harari demonstrates that it is our mental and social skills, our ability for language, which have got us so far as a species, not biological advantages. Language facilitated cooperation, giving us the ability to move from smaller bands to bigger ones, allowing us to be more efficient and powerful. Moreover, the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all, things that have never been seen or touched gave us the ability to imagine. Power lies not in muscles but in the ability to lead a large and stable coalition, through words, through fiction, in convincing millions of people to believe particular stories about particular gods or ‘natural leaders’. When this phenomenon is successful, it can move mountains, it can convince huge numbers of human beings to cooperate towards common progressive humane goals.
So, to come back to the question of patriarchy therefore, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in. And as long as everyone believes, the imagined reality exerts its continued influence onto the world through culture, through institutions, through our psyche. This is, partly, how patriarchy has thrived. Since the Agricultural revolution, all societies have divided themselves between men and women and almost everywhere men have got the better deal. The repercussions have been deep and cruel. Female infanticide, which goes against all our instincts of survival, epitomizes the manifold repercussions of patriarchy in a most poignant way.
But we have also been knocking on the walls of patriarchy consistently for a hundred years, so the cracks in the wall are letting through the light of truth. And we are recognising patriarchy for what it is, a myth, a story. Herein lies hope. If large scale human cooperation is based on myth, then the way people cooperate can also be changed by changing the myths, by telling different stories.
At this end of era, the planet cries out for a new story, a new way of being and doing life. Perhaps just, it is a story where we will fully embrace our humanity, a story in which we acknowledge our equal right to work, our equal right to take decisions for the planet, our equal right as men and women to care, and our equal right to be respected. And perhaps just, when we have told the new stories that allow us to fully embrace the economic and political power, the creativity and the intelligence of women, we might, as a species, have our superhuman breakthrough.
Anand, Anita, Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary (2015)
Foreman, Amanda, The Ascent of Women: From the apple to the pill (2016)
Harari, Yuval Noah, Homo Sapiens (2014)
Lewellyn-Jones, Lloyd, Aphrodite’s Tortoise, the Veiled Woman of Ancient Greece (2004)