Honour vs self-determination
Is globalisation responsible for the current conflicts around sexual freedoms playing out in various parts of the world? This is the main question behind an interview with David Jacobson, a sociologist and author of the timely book Of Virgins and Martyrs: Women and Sexuality in Global Conflict.
The answer is yes. “As globalisation improves the status of many women, it also incites a ferocious backlash against them,” says Jacobson. “As a consequence, women’s sexuality has become this battleground and this backlash of the most patriarchal elements that control it.”
India is currently the ultimate symbol of these conflicting world views after a recent gang rape and murder in Delhi inspired some of the largest protests in the country’s history.
Who owns what?!?
It comes down to the sense of ownership, according to Jacobson. In a patriarchal honour-based society, a woman’s body belongs to the community. In a society based more on self-determination, it’s the individual who claims ownership. My body, my rules.
“Whereas rape to us is very clear — it’s an extreme violation of a woman that obviously by definition involves absence of consent — in highly patriarchal, traditional contexts, rape is really a subset of adultery. The rape is the violation not of the woman but of another man’s ownership of that woman. We see this play out in India and repeatedly across these very patriarchal parts of the world. There is this atrocious notion that a woman who’s raped is a) dishonoured and b) that she can to some extent save her honour by marrying the rapist,” Jacobson observes.
Traditional patriarchy cannot be simply voted away as a majority of a population modernises, the author warns. “These views aren’t political but deeply cultural… so we have to think of subtle and nuanced ways of tackling this problem.”
And as we tackle these problems, we must be sensitive to “some of the problems emerging in terms of men and in some sense a crisis of masculinity we see playing out”, according to Jacobson.
For example in some parts of the world, as women are doing great in school and at work, more and more guys are just getting drunk and dying early.
Perhaps humans can be inspired by nature’s remarkable flexibility when it comes to sex roles. ‘Pregnant Males and Pseudopenises: Complex Sex in the Animal Kingdom’ is the snappy title for the first in a series by Kate Shaw about what humans can learn about sex and gender from our furry and feathery friends.
As a biological construct, ‘sex’ is the division between boy bits and girl bits – with XX chromosomes here, and XY chromosomes there. “For every characteristic that we associate with a particular sex, the animal kingdom harbours at least one surprising exception,” writes Shaw. And as an example, the female hyena’s seven-inch rocket of a clitoris is only the tip of the iceberg.
In contrast to ‘sex’, ‘gender’ refers to what a particular society believes to be acceptable behaviour for a male or female. It's a strictly human construct and does not apply to other species. But apply we do!
Projecting our hang-ups
Humans – proving themselves, once again, as the strangest of all beasts – have the nasty habit of projecting their hang-ups about gender on the animal and plant world. "We tend to think that males spend their time being aggressive, defending their territories, and impressing the ladies, but there are many ways to be a male," says Shaw.
“A gender-specific lens leaves us prone to stereotyping both ourselves and other animals,” Shaw concludes.
Time to re-focus?
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