A friend from Egypt recently asked me, “Why do men oppress women?” She thought the answer might be that men like to dominate people. But her answer is quite possibly a circular argument. Especially, if by “dominate”, she means “oppress”.
I offered a somewhat different perspective. While I think there might be several reasons why men oppress women, the main reason, to my thinking, is that much of it is rooted in sex.
That is, many of the restrictions imposed on females by males seem intended to guard against females having access to any sexual partners other than their spouse. I suppose such restrictions on a female’s sexual choice might even have an evolutionary advantage: The males who are most successful in guarding their females from mating with males other than themselves are the most likely to pass on their own genes to the next generation.
A woman picks and chooses her sexual partner(s) from among the men she is able to attract. Some hundred or so years ago, in some parts of the world, it was popular to assume that women were a bit like cattle in that neither women nor cattle were thought to exercise much choice in who they mated with. But it is now known to science (at least) that women are by no means passive in choosing partners — if their society allows them to choose in the first place.
Exactly how do women choose sexual partners? Studies done in campus bars, cafeterias, and study areas show that women have a variety of “come hither” behaviors they display to the men they want to approach them. For instance, they might gaze at a man they like for a bit longer than necessary and then drop their eyes. That is a signal to the man that he is welcome to approach. And men who approach when they are signaled to do so are several times more likely to make off with the woman than men who approach without regard to whether the woman has invited their approach.
Put a bit differently, a woman exercises choice in courtship by first making herself attractive to men, and by second choosing among the men who are thus attracted to her.
Once you understand all of that, you can easily see how women’s sexual choices are sometimes restricted or even abolished. Consider, for example, the endless issue of how women are “supposed to dress for the sake of modesty”.
The other day, I saw a rather plain and chubby young woman dressed in a way that flaunted her sexuality. Her dress wasn’t attractive to me, but then I wasn’t her intended audience either. Her intended audience was most likely boys her age. And she appeared to me to have adopted a strategy of flaunting her sexuality in order to compete for boys with her more naturally attractive sisters. In other words, she was trying to increase her choice of mates.
Of course, girls who dress the way she did are the eternal targets of society’s censors. James Dobson, for instance, might be appalled to see a girl flaunting her sexuality in that manner. But I am not — I understand (or think I understand) a little bit of the girl’s feelings. So, my tendency is not to condemn her but to be concerned for her. I applaud her trying to attract as large a pool of boys to choose from as she can, but I worry that her method reduces her to only a sex object.
In sum, women who dress provocatively increase the number of men attracted to them and hence the number of choices they have when it comes to mating. Societies that limit or restrict how provocatively a woman can dress thus limit or restrict a woman’s choice in mates.
Moreover, it does not seem to be an accident that those societies which most limit a woman’s choice in dress (and, hence, mates) are also those societies which most limit other rights and freedoms for women. The oppression of women therefore seems to have a strong sexual component.
Before I was about 40 years old, I was of the opinion that sexual fidelity was extremely important to me. But around that time my feelings changed. I increasingly felt that having a partner who was free to be true to herself, free to develop her talents and skills, and free to love whomever she loved was more emotionally important to me than sexual fidelity.
Now, I’m not trying to say here that my former opinion was wrong and that my current opinion is right. Nothing as simple as that. It’s just that I’ve noticed at different times in our lives, we might have different emotional needs. When I was younger, I needed sexual fidelity from a partner. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered I much more need a free spirit. Sexual fidelity is fine with me if it’s freely chosen. But it’s not at my stage in life something I would attempt to impose on anyone.
I bring all that up because I think it might illustrate an important point. You can teach men that the oppression of women is morally wrong — but if that’s all you do, you will have lost the battle. For people, both men and women, too seldom refrain from doing something they believe it is in their interests to do simply because someone tells them it’s wrong to do it.
To willingly refrain from doing something, you must feel it’s not in your interests to do it. I don’t refrain from oppressing people simply because someone has told me it’s wrong to oppress people. I refrain because I know very well how oppressing people defeats me — how it screws with what I most want from others. So, if you really want to get men to quit oppressing women, you must somehow show men how it is not in their best interests to oppress women.
As for myself, I believe a caged bird is never so beautiful as a bird in flight.