The intent of Islam was to protect women and afford them some dignity, but what protection do women need these days?
Protecting women should not be an excuse to control them
Men like women, and women like men. This attraction is natural, healthy and powerful. Any effort by parents, schoolteachers, religious leaders or politicians to block or limit their interaction is likely to fail. Men in our societies also feel they have the added responsibility of protecting "their" women, a role entrenched by centuries of tradition and by what some believe to be their sacred duties.
Indeed, the intent of Islam was to protect women and afford them some dignity in an environment where they were often abused or treated as property. Before Islam began 1400 years ago, a woman in Arabian society was often considered a source of shame, and infant girls were routinely buried alive. Men were so used the idea of possessing women and avenging their honour that tribes waged wars of Trojan intensity if one of "their" women was slightly abused.
As a religious tradition that condemns slavery, Islam should allow Muslim women to benefit from the civil gains it has bequeathed them. But protection is different from control. Indeed, what protection do women need these days? Today, most Arab women live alongside their male halves in countries largely governed by the rule of law. As they become educated, women learn to manage for themselves and reject male dominance over their future. Males can have trouble accepting a loss of control. It's convenient, after all, to be in control.
Incidentally, convenience and control are probably the highest satisfaction one can have from being a man in a heavy-handed relationship. Only those who enjoy a relationship with an equal would ever reach the satisfaction of being accepted and loved by someone who has the power to say no. To rule over a weaker person is hardly a sign of caring, and certainly not of a gentleman. I am continually shocked by the actions of those modern-day Arab men, who have seen or even lived in other societies, who would never take their wives to dine with other couples outside their immediate family. Many send their sons to better and even mixed schools and their daughters to lesser schools - painfully conditioning the latter to expect less from life. This also tells them in an unequivocal way that much less is expected of them.
This does not seem like the protection of women, but protection of men's status. It is a deliberate act of concealment, of which examples abound. For instance, when women wear the hijab does it have to be black? Black can be the colour of authority and power, and can be stylish. But black can also represent depression or imply submission. I have asked numerous women about this choice. Their reasons ranged from the direct "when I got married, I had to use black, so as not to attract attention", to the unconvincing "it's faster for the morning rush to work". "Given a choice," I asked, "would you wear colours?" A majority said yes.
Men also feel embarrassed or protective over women's names. They rarely call their wives or mothers by their first name in public, as if it is inappropriate exposure. This is so ingrained in the psyche that women accept it as normal. When a man enters an elevator, many a woman quickly looks down, shy, ashamed and flustered. A more confident woman knows exactly how to stare down the most daring eyes with cold efficiency - if it is warranted.
Yet, for all the efforts to segregate and isolate, text message scanners cannot decrypt young hearts' coded signs. When faces are covered, nothing can deny the inviting sparkle of an eye. When airplanes take off, a mass uncovering routine ensues for those who have never subscribed to this mandatory protection. Isn't it just better to accept relationships as normal and spend time and resources in making them develop in a healthier fashion?
Anees Sultan is a writer and businessman based in Oman