Saturday, December 29, 2007

The whole notion of men and women being “complementary but equal” is hypocritical

ned said, on December 28th, 2007 at 6:58 pm Dear Ali,
Perchance that this might be useful to this topic, I offer a mystical understanding of the male-female symbolism, the original dualism, as you insightfully put it, below. I believe this dualistic perception of man and woman as eternally separate is intimately connected to the perceived duality between Creator and creation as well. This is part of an essay I’m working on regarding the subject of gender and spirituality.
“The male and female represent an extended parable for the Divine and human life. In this instance, the masculine principle is the moving, approaching, desiring, penetrating, adventuresome divine impulse, which woos and seeks to unite with us in the realm of the feminine principle as willing, conscious beings, but will not enter without a complete and unreserved invitations, which is submission and reception, welcoming, and on both sides of course is Delight.
For those who by complete surrender receive the divine Presence intimately, there is a seed implanted, which in some spiritual traditions is called the Word, which must be nurtured, and must grow, and take on equally the qualities of (as it were) both parents meaning, in this case, the Absolute and the particular, the Divine and the human. This is a process which takes time, just like gestation, which is a living parable for it. And what is brought forth in the fullness of time, the product of Love in both its adventurous and receptive modes, and of ongoing suffering during the time of silence and waiting has all the possibilities in it of new life and energy for the salvation of the world.
Ultimately what emerges in this cosmic romance is the realization that it is nondual — that there is no divide between man and woman, Spirit and matter, Creator and creation.”
The crucial point here is that actually what the metaphor means is that *both* men and women (at the human and relative level) are to take a “feminine” position with respect to the Divine — and *both* will rise to their “manhood” through this relationship with the Divine. The metaphor is so beautiful, but look at the havoc it has caused in every religion and in every age because people took it literally! I always maintain that religious literalists are in fact materialists. They can only see physical thoughtforms, and not see the Reality pointed to by them — hence their spiritual poverty and moral hypocrisies.
The reason I bring this up is that I recently read “The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought” by Prof. Sachiko Murata which tries to justify the inferiority of women using precisely this sort of traditionalist cosmological reasoning, seeing man and woman as eternally opposed polarities of the universe. Murata quotes Sufi mystics like Ibn al-Arabi and Imam Ghazali to make her point. As a non-Muslim (but nevertheless as a spiritual aspirant), my personal understanding of this issue may not hold much water for an Islamic audience, but I found this book dry and mental, and found that Prof. Murata was just reading Ibn al-Arabi and the others in a purely intellectual way without ever touching the mystical core of what they were talking about. In other words, the book was too much head, and not enough heart (which was ironic because she was actually trying to show that the intellect is masculine and the soul is feminine, thus leading me to question *her* femininity ;-) ).
There was another book I read that reinterpreted the entire treatment of gender in the Quran in a Sufi way. All references to “woman” were interpreted as meaning the body, and all references to “man” were interpreted as meaning the soul, on a deeper esoteric level. This corresponds exactly to the Vedantic conception of the Purusha (soul) and Prakriti (nature, matter), and similar conceptions in other religions. This book was “Women in the Holy Quran: A Sufi Perspective” by Lynn Wilcox. What Wilcox was trying to get across, and what I’m suggesting from an esoteric perspective, is that both men *and* women belong to the realm of Prakitri. It is only delusion that leads men to think that they are intrinsically superior to women. The close we get to the Absolute, the more all these egoic distinctions start to blur and eventually disappear. My understanding is that everything is equal in the Absolute, the distinctions are all relative.
ned said, on December 28th, 2007 at 7:15 pm
One additional point I want to make is that the whole notion of men and women being “complementary but equal”, an assertion that traditionalists of virtually every religion often make (again using this cosmological reasoning), is hypocritical for many reasons. One is that in practice this sort of “benevolent patriarchy” always means that men get positions of leadership, value and meaning, whereas women are always relegated to the more boring or less intellectually challenging work. It amplifies the differences between men and women where what is in fact needed is for the man to develop more of his yin side and for the woman to develop more of her yang side. The whole thing is circular — it’s as if they are saying, men and women are eternally completely separate and different, because, well, we say so, and we’ll do everything we can to prevent anyone else from exploring other possibilities. It’s just so entrapping and spiritually toxic and doesn’t allow us to grow as human beings.
Referring to Prof. Murata’s book, I actually found her comparisons of Islam to Taoism pretty unconvincing — I mean I found it pretty unconvincing that she was talking about Taoism at all. She relied mainly on the I Ching, a text that is just as Confucian as it is Taoistic. The Tao te Ching on the other hand contains statements like the following:

“Know the masculine, but keep to the feminine: and become a watershed to the world. If you embrace the world, the Tao will never leave you and you become as a little child.” (Ch. 28)

So in the end Prof. Murata relies much more on Confucian notions of a divinely-ordained social hierarchy rather than the free-floating abandon and anarchism of Lao-tzu. And we don’t even need to talk about how much such rigid notions of gender have hurt people who are strictly speaking neither physically male nor physically female. As far as traditionalists are concerned, such people don’t even exist (or don’t deserve to).

1 comment:

  1. The great Indian Realizer Sri Upasani Baba maintained that the reason that there is so much chaos in the world is because of the imbalance in the relationship and natural polarities between the sexes.
    But he was not a strict traditionalist either. In fact he outraged the sex paranoid puritannical pious brahmins of his time by freely associating with and imtimately teaching women and installing them in positions of cultural responsibility in his Ashram. See.