EUROPE REACTS TO THE ISLAMIC HEADSCARF

BALANCING GENDER POWER

A politics of co-operation in society may also promote a better relationship between men and women

It can happen occasionally in Germany or in other European countries, that when you would like to meet a person - whether male or female – and ask for a date at any particular time, he or she replies: “I must first ask ‘my better half’ what kind of plans we have made for that day!” Such an exceedingly respectful and polite answer gives the impression that all is well with regard to the relationship between the sexes. The statement implies a practice of democracy and equality. - But of course life is more complicated than that, and privileges in society are rarely distributed fairly and equally. More often they are heavily contested. In most societies around the world, men dominate and enjoy a higher social status and more privileges than women. Is this a natural, righteous phenomenon, or are there human-made root causes?

Germany is at present waking up to the fact that its birth rate has fallen to its lowest level since the end of World War II in 1945. Since the bumper baby boom year of 1964, when as many as 1.357 million babies were born in both East and West Germany together, there has been a steady decline in the number of births. Just 686.000 babies were born in unified Germany in 2005 with its total population of 82 million inhabitants. Much public debate is at present going on here among experts, popular TV stars, writers and politicians, to find out whether the emancipation movement of women and political equality-seeking measures might have had the result to produce small-size families and a huge number of single-households. The official birth rate in Germany lies at 1.3 children per woman. The birth rate for a society needs to revolve around 2.1 children per woman if the population figure is to remain constant. Yet more than every third marriage fails in Germany, and in large cities such as Munich, Berlin and Hamburg every second household is a single household. Out of the 82 million inhabitants, 43 million people live in households with a partner and / or children. Yet a huge number live in single-households or share a flat or house with friends. What has gone wrong? Is gender equality detrimental to society? Did the original good intentions of achieving equality between the sexes backfire and turn us into egotistical, career-minded consumers? Or did the harshness of economic reality with its demand on our flexibility and mobility overburden us, with the result that family life has deteriorated or in some cases even become impossible? Should we return to a more patriarchal and traditional attitude towards life and uphold family values more clearly once more, in order to reverse the radical demographic change?

Yet only a few decades ago, to avoid having children was a decision that met with understanding by many people. During the 60s and 70s of the previous century, it was fashionable to discuss the problem of the world’s overpopulation and the ways and means to overcome this problem. In the last 100 years, the world has quadrupled its population figure. Within the same period of time, we have burned the energy which nature has taken thousands, perhaps millions, of years to produce. With a view to the forthcoming climate crisis and the expected rise of the sea level, it may well become a relevant topic again. The present 6.5 billion people and the projected 9.3 billion by 2050 exceed the world’s biological carrying capacity.

Much in today’s life-style is determined by market regulations and international capital streams – how can we keep these unfortunate essentials out of our personal relationships? Equality between the sexes has raised living standards, it has taken some of the pressure away from men having to toil to make a living for the family, yet it may also have produced more than the desired amount of individualism and egoism. This development does not come about without a good reason. The upbringing and the education of children is very time-consuming and expensive. After much studying and training, work life does not begin before the age of 28 for many youngsters. This time and money is spent on children of either sex, and a return for this investment is expected from both. A woman’s dowry is her education. In this way, selective abortion did not become an issue in Europe.

Yet the importance attached to the sexes varied considerably over time. Women were once revered as priestesses for their power to give life. Around the world, quite a number of matriarchal societies existed at various stages. The Basks in southern France even maintained their system of matrilineal inheritance until the Napoleonic civil code was enforced in France in 1804.

A number of well-known scientists have put forward the theory, along with some evidence, that in ancient times there was a cult of the Goddess. For instance James Mellaart, a British scientist and university lecturer and an authority on Near Eastern archaeology, writes in his famous survey of ancient Near Eastern civilisation: "Between 9000 and 7000 B.C. art makes its appearance in the Near East in the form of statuettes of the supreme deity, the Great Goddess." Mellaart states that historically "the cult of the Great Goddess" is "the basis of our civilisation." Other scientists who backed this idea were the geologist James DeMeo, archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, neurobiologist Humberto Maturana as well as the psychologist Wilhelm Reich. They believe that after this matriarchal period, around 7000 years ago, climatic changes led to a forced migration of peoples. This had as consequence that societies became rather warlike in order to survive. Men became more important and began to dominate in social life. Society became patriarchal. The division of labour was fairly clear. Women stayed at home to look after the children, men provided the family income outside of the home.

Two “halves” fitting well together obviously make a strong wholesome institution. It was women in Finland who proved this point extremely well! For a long time they had been unhappy about their husbands having major rights such as determining the religion of their children and the place of residence. But the women of the country were not able to unite and work together politically, as the rift in the Finnish society of those days was not between men and women, but rather between those social classes that were privileged and those that were underprivileged. The proletarian female parliamentarians instead practised solidarity with their men and fought with them to obtain better social rights. This way, they were able to secure the right to vote as well as the right to be elected for both men and women above the age of 24 already in 1906. There is just one country which had granted the right to vote for women a little earlier: New Zealand. In 1893 the women of New Zealand were given the right to vote, yet they were not allowed to be elected. Thus Finland with its granting of full rights became the champion and the shining example for women’s movements around the world.

In England and in the United States women’s groups were rather more feminist and militant. They were able to arouse a lot of attention by breaking windows or smashing their way into Parliament, but with these practices they had no broad support among the people. In England, the United States as well as in Germany, women had to wait for the right to vote until after the First World War.

The right to vote is one aspect of participation in political decision-making and therefore in determining one’s own life. Yet earning money is a more potent factor for the aspired independence. While men were fighting in the world wars on the European continent, it was for the first time that women showed that they could work and earn money just like their male partners. In fact they had to do so in order to survive and in order to provide the country with the commodities it needed and which could not be provided for by men busy fighting a war. When those men who had survived returned home in 1945, they again had the priority in taking up work. At the time, it was still rare for women to work. More than a decade later, women in Germany were free to study, work, vote and open her own bank account since 1958. But it was not until 1977 that married women were legally allowed to work without the consent of their husbands.

Not all women, however, aim for financial independence. A different kind of feminist movement took place more than 100 years ago. Whether she was worried about abrupt demographical changes is not really known, but Mary Harris Jones (1837 – 1930), better known as Mother Jones, the great American labour and community leader, co-founder of the union ’Industrial Workers of the World’, was committed to promote women’s rights all her life. But she did not want women to earn as much as men, because in that case they would have no incentive to stay at home and have children. Men should be in a position to earn enough money for the family so that the women would not be made to work in the coal mines or spinning mills by uncaring capitalist patrons, she thought.

To this day, of course, equal pay for women doing the same work as men, is still not in sight, although much progress has been made. Out of the ten new countries becoming a member of the EU in 2004, women earn 35 per cent less than men for the same job, and their share of positions in power is still very minimal. One successful way of securing a more equitable share is to introduce quotas for women, and to extend facilities for daytime child-care.

According to a report by the United Nations, women worldwide own just 1 per cent of the wealth and 1 per cent of real estate in the world!

The facts and figures about the share of domestic work in Germany show a certain development in the share of paid work outside of the home and unpaid domestic work. The sociologist and expert on research work concerning men and women, a field which is now popularly called “gender mainstreaming,” Peter Döge, has made the following observation: “Men who are between 25 and 45 years old work an average of 2 ½ hours in the household or in the business of raising children. This is of course a lot less than the amount of work done by women, but it is still rather more than ten years ago”. It’s a question of “not having to choose between either / or, but rather doing this / as well as that”. Away from confrontation, towards co-operation is the idea, he says.

This has become absolutely vital in times where inventions become marketable within the space of one or two years and therefore jobs having to compete against new developments may abruptly come to an end – whether they are held by men or women. In fact, the transition from an industrial society to a society where the service and the communications sectors have become important means that some of the talents and abilities of men are required to a lesser degree and the communication and social skills of women have a greater chance of being used in exchange for a good salary. The need for more team work, soft skills, flexibility and social competence is an established fact in a globalised world, where industrial and manufacturing jobs are moving away from Europe to countries far away in Asia or Latin America.

Emphasizing the social skills of women, Christian Pfeiffer, former Minister of Justice of one of Germany’s 16 states, Lower Saxony, speaks out in favour of the ‘weaker’ sex. He is reported to have said that, ”as criminologist, one easily becomes a committed feminist. There is no field in the world of crime where women play a significant role. If men reacted like women, Germany would be a much cosier place to live in.” Yet feminists are not popular and do not draw large audiences!

With all the given natural and biological differences between the sexes, total equality will never be achieved and should perhaps not even be aimed for. But inequality of the sexes can have terrible side-effects, as can be felt in India and China. According to the statistics, it is reckoned that around 40 million women are missing in India, due to selective abortion. The problem also exists in Pakistan. The figure for China’s missing women lies at 50 million. China’s one-child policy is to a large extent to blame for this effect. Peasants need a strong boy to help them with the heavy burden of physical labour on the farm. The responsible authorities in China have now devised new strategies to help families that raise a girl by granting them special financial subsidies for housing and for the education of this girl, to compensate the parents in a different way.

Yet none of the above-mentioned movements for an improvement in the lives of women can really compare with the revolutionary enlightenment and subsequent social progress that took place in the Middle East with the coming of Islam in the 7th century. Ties of blood had been given importance in the life before Islam – jahiliya. This didn't really include women, however, - the "causes" or "links" in family ties. Girls were murdered for fear of them being captured by opposing tribes and being a source of shame. Wives were treated as goods and "inherited" by male relatives without having any say in the matter. Women had no defined property rights. Inheritance customs of the jahiliya dictated that the male relatives - those most capable of fighting and defending the family - took everything even if the deceased left a wife and children. They would be left with nothing at all.

Islam came and changed all this and while confirming the blood ties respected in the jahiliya, Islam put much more focus on the women and gave them their rights of property and inheritance, prevented their murder and named family ties after them by using the word for "womb". The Qur'an and the Hadith or Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) are the sources from which every Muslim woman derives her rights, responsibilities and duties. Prophet Mohammad said: "Allah has forbidden you irritating your mothers, burying your daughters, withholding and ’give me’". Cutting family ties which should be maintained has serious consequences in this life and in the hereafter. It is one of the worst of the major sins.
Men and women are equal in front of Allah; this is in terms of worshiping, obeying, and glorifying Him. Since men and women both came from the same essence, they are equal regarding their human rights. Islam also granted women many civil rights; a Muslim woman has the basic freedom of choice and expression based on recognition of her individual personality. She is free to choose her religion. The Qur'an states: "There is no compulsion in religion. Right has been made distinct from error." Qur'an (2:256)

Muslim women have the right to choose their husbands and keep their names after marriage. Islam also encourages women to contribute their opinions and ideas; there are many examples of women who offered their opinions concerning religion, economics and social matters to Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). Also, a Muslim woman’s testimony is valid in legal disputes. “Seeking knowledge is a mandate for every Muslim, male and female.”
This includes learning the Qur’an and the Hadith as well as gaining knowledge in science and many other fields. Since both men and women have the capacity for learning and understanding, Muslim women must acquire the appropriate education in order to promote good behaviour and condemn bad behaviour in all spheres of life.

Yet, as everywhere, theory and practice can vary considerably. There is a connection between political oppression of people on the one hand, and the oppression of women on the other, as both are based on the principle of power. In fact the influence works both ways. The Egyptian television presenter Gamila Ismail has criticised that oppressing women has become an instrument to secure the power of Arab regimes. “This general lack of freedom, under which women also suffer to a large extent, will finally lead to extremism and terrorism as an expression of the desperation of helpless people”. A ‘tyrannical regime’ will promote every form of tyranny in a society – including the use of physical force against women as well as their discrimination. A tyrannical regime destroys the dignity of men and women, because it recognizes nothing else but the principle of power. But if this kind of power becomes an accepted social value, then it will also allow men to ill-treat women.

If the survival of mankind up to this point is to a large extent based on the potential of human aggressive behaviour in order to overcome ‘enemies’ in the form of wild animals, dangerous natural phenomena or other groups invading existing settlements - with regard to the projected 9.3 billion humans that are to exist by 2050, the survival may depend rather more on whether we are able to cultivate our softer skills as well!

Published in "Defence Journal" in December 2006