'It is narrow-minded in their more privileged fellow-creatures to say that they [women] ought to confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings, to playing on the piano and embroidering bags.'
Charlotte Bronte expresses through her Victorian new-age feminist protagonist Jane Eyre, solidarity with the quest to raise the value of women in society, reflecting a struggle that has been long pursued in Britain. Since then, the feminist debate developed - Women have been keen to demonstrate their equality, with men as the benchmark. Today, feminism and women's rights have developed into a multitude of different strands in political discourse and literature.
But if we want examine how these views about equality and rights of women has affected real life in society, it is society itself we must look at. Moving away, from studying what is perfectly printed on the crisp leafed pages of books, and looking with the naked eye at what we see around us.
And if we do look around us in the liberal, predominantly secular society we live in today, we see one where on the face of it, what is expected from men should be expected from women, and vice versa. It is eye-brow raising to publically deem anything gender specific - housework, a 'woman's' job; being a CEO, a 'man's' job. To categorise anything to a particular gender, such as saying women are better maintainers of the home, becomes synonymous with subordination. And the thing is perhaps this is true, as being gender specific about society, in the Western political experience, always has been synonymous with subordination. Women being at home, as Rousseau said; was a reflection of their differing and lower capabilities to men.
But for a society, where the gender relations are shaped by the language of gender equality, it is head-scratching to come across comments such as those from the Fawcett Society recently, the UK's leading gender equality campaigner - They raised a concern about the gender pay gap possibly worsening in the UK, with women still earning 14.9% less on average than men for the same job. Gender pay gaps, disproportionate ratios of men and women in employment positions, sexual discrimination; are all bitter aftertastes to a seemingly perfect idea of gender between the sexes. There are no other value systems at play in secular liberal societies such as the UK which oppose gender equality, so what is going on?
Despite the talk on gender equality by politicians, you see the free market pushing a world which creates rumblings to this very idea - Business has capitalised on the gender difference to a maximum degree. The media, entertainment and advertising industry are bombarding us with images and messages of the gender specific view of a woman who is valued for her sexually alluring exterior, and not the great things she may have to say or the even greater things she may be able to contribute to society, whatever gender she was. When such a view of the woman dominates the public sphere and through a celebrity culture which reinforces it, it is inevitable the subjects of society will be scathed by such a view. Women are then people who are fit for eyeing up, and not the boardroom; as men commonly view them for their femininity and their allure before what work they can do. Yes not all men, but enough to be worried about.
As society tries to eliminate all gender specificity when it comes to roles in society, business again is doing the opposite - Because it knows human beings as part of their nature, do the opposite. We happily bring up their babies from the moment they were born in a gender specific world where baby suits are always blue and pink, boys play with cars and tools and girls, dolls and play kitchens. Although Equalities Ministers have been appointed by Government to ensure women are not pushed into gender stereotyped roles, gender specific play of our children does not phase parents. They view their child's choice of play as a natural difference of gender - Why is it that when we expect that little girls would be happy with a doll for Christmas, but we find the expectation that a woman should be happy with motherhood above all else a backward view?
Even if men and women in society are content with not having to fulfil traditional gender roles, statistics on family life in the UK depict a worrying picture of what a dogmatic view on gender equality, amongst other things, has done for our next generation. Sue Palmer, award winning consultant wrote Toxic Childhood detailing the effect the devaluing of motherhood by this need for the mother to work and fulfil her gender equality prophesy has had upon children. In a society where we are trying to brush away the gender differences in family life, more than ever, we are still deaf to the scream that our children are also the unhappiest ever, surveyed by UNICEF in 2007.
The truth is then that absolute gender equality is not something that can work as real differences between the sexes occur, and society must cater for these differences, embrace them, protect them - For the sake of men and women and for their future too. Muslim women who live in Western societies have themselves experienced gender equality and of course they have experienced the fruits of it but have also witnessed some of the contradictions. And in a world where we all seek to discuss and debate the sustainable future of humanity, Muslims wish to bring to the open an alternative they have held onto. Although often seen as establishing gender inequality, the Islamic shariah has been a tried and tested societal set-up in the Muslim world, which established equality for men and women for over 1400 years, as well as protecting difference.
A closer look at Islam and society when the Islamic shariah was implemented, reflects a consistent approach towards gender equality in as far as the sameness of gender allowed. In all areas of life where men and women are equal, Islam is obligated to treat them equally and they receive equal reward in all areas where gender has no bearing - being honest, kind; in all religious acts such as prayer, and the giving of charity. But where the sameness of gender then parts ways, Islam implements a host of rules and laws in the public sphere, which ensure gender difference does not inhibit women's progress. The Islamic social system, through laws such as hijab, segregation of the sexes, the prohibition of the sexual exploitation of women in media and advertising, takes any potential of sexualisation of women (and men) out of society, to reinforce and ensure women's contributions are fully valued as they should be, detached from her sexual appeal. Although the hijab and segregation have always been put forward as symbols of gender inequality, they are in actual fact vital tools to ensure society and people through them maintain total equality and justice.
As for gender specific roles, Islam is bashed considerably for its view towards the role of the woman being primarily a homemaker and nurturer of the family. However the reality of the gender equality experience shows a reaction to the rejection of the traditional women's role, by just advocating the opposite and not necessarily what is better for all and society at large. All this has done is muted the gender difference in society, devaluing the vital contributions men and women make from the gender specific skills they have to the society they live in. Islam embraces, celebrates and caters for gender difference as it takes into account the woman is the one who bears the child, breastfeeds it and has the closest bond with it, raising high and honouring this role. There are numerous evidences in Islam which outline mothers as having one of the highest status' in society.
Although being financially dependent on a man appears an old fashioned thing to do, Islam liberates the woman through taking her status above and beyond financial independence - Rather the man's responsibility to financially maintain his wife, sisters and children ensures women have the comfort to be able to raise their family with as much focus as they need, or work for the building of their careers, or just to accrue their own wealth.
Implementation of Islam in the past, as no country today implements the shariah; gave rise to women who were able to flourish in a society where they were valued for who they were. The founder of the world's first university was a woman, Fatima Al Fihri and even the earliest Muslim women, the wives of the Prophet (peace be upon him) are remembered not for the way they looked or even just their attachment to the Prophet (PBUH), but for being a scholar of finance, such as Aisha, politically astute such as Umm Salama, and charitable such as Zaynab.
Thus women should not have to 'confine themselves to making puddings and knitting stockings' - Not at all, they should do this, and have the infinite space made available to them through a society that can be created by Islam; to do a whole lot more.
Follow Shohana Khan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@ShohanaK