Debunking myths

Dawn, The Review, Jun 26-Jul 2, 1997

It will perhaps be asked: religion, language and history belong to the domain of humanity, and therefore it is possible to look at them from men’s perspectives, women’s perspective or any other perspective. But how can you have more than one perspective about scientific truths, because science is, after all, science!

That is exactly the point: what we know of science is not what many of us would like to believe science to be. Science is not a body of facts. Science is not a collection of the laws of nature. Science is not the power that moves the universe. What we know as science, and what we ever shall be able to have in the name of science is a body of human words attempting to describe the facts as they best appear to those who describe them. Science is a collection of human statements that attempt to explain the laws of nature. Science is a word picture of the power that moves the universe – this word picture, this knowledge we know as science, is only what words can describe, and only that good. If Newton says: to every action there is a reaction, equal in force but opposite in direction, then it does not mean that this is what actually happens in the universe. This is how Newton describes what happens in the universe. And Newton, after all, is a man, a very honourable one though he may be. If nobody has been able to challenge Newton’s statement it does not mean it is correct: it simply means that either no one is clever enough to provide an alternate statement or, otherwise, no one is willing enough to. There shall always be the possibility of describing the facts of science, the laws of nature, the powers of universe in a different manner. So far, our civilization does not need an alternate description. Therefore no one is trying to find one. Our machines an dour lives are getting along well with Newton’s statements. That is why we haven’t found alternate statements. If there comes a time when the present civilization grows weary of its progress, and fed up of its toys, there will surely arise someone who will bring forward a different view of nature, and get accepted. The only difference this time is this: it need not be a man this time, it could be a woman.

Let us elaborate this point a little more. We are trying to understand that the body of scientific knowledge is not ultimate truth. It is a collection of words, just as poetry is a collection of words. Only, it is a different type of collection. In the third article of this series, “Men from Mars, women from Venus, no more”, we have already seen that poetry, literature and other forms of language are sometimes the most effective carriers of sexist biases, because language itself is a sexist apparatus that helps mould human minds to adjust with gender inequality. Now, if we come to realize that science too is a collection of words, then it will be obvious that science too is prone to perpetuate gender discrimination. But is it really nothing more than a collection of words?

Let us look at it this way: Since the days of Hamurabi, or at least since the days of Hippocrates and Plato, there have been people of finest rational minds. There have been people with the sharpest tools for sifting out truth from falsehood, fact from fallacy. And yet, none of them, simply none of them, before the age of Galileo, was able to give us the scientific statements that we have today. Why was it that within a couple of hundred years since renaissance almost the entire body of existing scientific knowledge was discarded and new lamps lighted in its place? The answer is simple: the post-renaissance world needed a certain type of explanation for the forces in nature. Not because these explanations would be truer than the ones previously held. Simply because they would be more appropriate to the new world view. Indeed the ancient world also had had its own Galileo’s, its own Newton’s. They could not be very effective because the traditional world view did not require that sort of knowledge. It was comfortable with the explanation of the universe in terms of God, angels and ghosts. Science is not a matter of truth or falsehood. It is, first of all, a matter of ideological convenience. Newton born in Greece or Baghdad would not have been Newton. He would have had to be either an Aristotle or Avicenna or an idiot. The mind of every age determines what it wants and the scientists merely live out its fantasies.

The case against science

So, we see that science is only one of the many possible ways of describing the happenings of the natural world. And the laws of science, as we know them, are determined as much by the mind of the age as they are by the process of scientific inquiry. In the article on women and history we have already seen that most civilizations in history have been patriarchal. Now we can understand that they have always demanded of their scientists to construct a universe where the feminine being and the feminine attributes of being are held inferior to the masculine being and the masculine attributes of being. Hence science has done as much as any humanities domain, if not more, to perpetuate oppression of women. Here are a few examples.

* Aristotle believed women had fewer teeth in their mouth than men. It was just a millennium and a half before the first scientist looked into the mouth of his wife and counted her teeth to find out that the father of biology was not always right, especially when it considered women.

* Health sciences, even the ones that deal with women issues exclusively, have remained in the hands of men until very recently. It is believed that the Christian witch hunts were actually attempts by the gatekeepers of patriarchy to wipe away some ancient knowledge of medicine that had come down to some women as the last remnant of the pre-historic matriarchal past.

* The feminist psychologist Dr. Naomi Weisstein’s paper “Psychology Constructs the Female” is a seminal work in feminist psychology. In this paper, first presented in 1968 and published in 1970, Dr. Weisstein maintains that psychologists, who were almost always men, described the female personality as if it is what it seems. They ignore the fact that social environment and expectations play an important role in shaping the minds of women, and their personalities. They ignore these roles because consciously or unconsciously they are themselves a part of that environment and do not want to admit the fact that personalities of women as we know them today are not necessarily what they ought to be. These personalities are what people like these psychologists and everyone else in the society want women’s personalities to be like. A true psychology would go beyond what meets the eye: it would take into consideration the external factors that affect the development of a woman’s self. There lies the root of oppression, and the male-constructed psychology is apart of it.

Among those who have taken lead from this stand-point are Phyllis Chesler (Women And Madness, 1972), Juliet Mitchell (Psychoanalysis and Feminism), Carol Gilligan, Nancy Chodorow (The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender, 1978) and Jean Baker Miller.

* Feminist psychologists have pointed out several examples of sexist bias in the works of Freud, the father of modern psychology. Far from learning from his observations of the minds of women, he began with preconceived notions about female psychology and analyzed his observations to suit these notions. Today, Freudian psychology is not to be taken as an interpretation of the human truth, but as a raw material for research on a sexist mind. There cannot be any doubt that psychoanalysis, the most useful invention of Freud, can still be a very valuable tool for opening up the human mind. However, the rest of Freud’s work can best be used as material for carrying out a psychoanalysis on Freud himself – to discover his own abnormalities that led him to see the womankind as essentially abnormal.

* Computer is an interesting invention. It can perform miracles in analytical, mathematical and industrial intelligence. True, it will perhaps never be able to imitate those human tasks which belong to the domain of emotional intelligence: recognizing the face of your dear ones across a room full of people, bursting out in tears when sad and in laughter when amused, feeling pity for the distressed and occasionally becoming unable to carry on work due to internal turmoil.

Now, isn’t that an interesting observation? A computer can do just those tasks which were deemed “masculine” at the beginning of the patriarchal civilization, at least a few thousand years ago. It cannot do those tasks which the patriarchy has always considered “rather too feminine.” If computer is the culmination of the human scientific achievement, then it is something that speaks for itself. “Man” has shaped his best creation in his own image. And that should be sufficient to tell us what direction the scientific development has followed throughout the journey of civilization. And we are not just speaking of biology or psychology here, but all sciences, for computer involves them all – chemistry, physics, mathematics, astronomy and the rest. If these sciences were “neutral” then it is amazing how they have all culminated in the development of an artificial intelligence which is so markedly “masculine” in terms of patriarchy.

If that is not the case, if we believe that computer is what it is because the emotional intelligence was simply not possible to copied artificially, then it points to another very interesting fact. The creation of artificial intelligence has proved that the so-called masculine attributes of rational thinking were not the most essential part of the human existence: they can be achieved by a box full of plastic and microchip. The most essential part of the human existence was the one which the patriarchy always considered “feminine”, “unbecoming of man” and inferior. For emotional intelligence is the part which cannot be reproduced artificially. It only belongs to the humans.

One just begins to wonder how different the history of the human race could have had been if it had realized this long ago. If all the great ones of history had taken pride in being humble rather than strong, and in being more prone to human feelings rather than buffooning to stand above them. Perhaps it is still good time for us to realize that being rational is not a masculine attribute any more than being emotional is a feminine one. They are both parts of the human consciousness, and need to be considered as such.

Women reclaim science

Second wave feminism is sometimes seen as rooted in biology, just as the First wave feminism was in politics. This is true to a great extent. Consequently, feminist scientists have made considerable contributions not just to the discovery of new frontiers in science but also explored alternate ways for using this scientific knowledge. A few examples follow.

Certain biological differences between men and women may be taken as biological facts, e.g. those related to reproduction. Yet it is up to each individual scientist to decide: (a) whether menstruation, childbirth and lactation is a norm or a deviation; and (b) how important are these differences and do they need to determine gender roles in those areas which have got nothing to do with these differences, e.g. work and education.

Both women and men secrete what we may call “male” and “female” hormones. Then how far are biological differences between sexes responsible for determining mental capabilities and “brain sex”? There is now sufficient evidence to dispel the myth that women are more emotional and men more rational.

It will require a careful scrutiny of scientific knowledge, especially how it is worded, to dispel the cruel philosophy of biological determinism, i.e. the belief that biological difference determine other aspects of an individual’s life. The language used for describing scientific observations is essentially the same one that which is used for other walks of life, and it will always remain the same if it has to make sense at all. Therefore, it is very likely, almost inevitable, that the world views of the scientists will affect the finished form of their ideas.

Carol Gilligan’s work In a Different Voice (1982) is sometimes considered a landmark in psychology, and not without reason. She has established this basic sociological difference between male and female expectation: Society prepares men to see their roles in terms of autonomy, and therefore to fear intimacy. It prepares women to see their roles in terms of connectedness and therefore to fear isolation.

From this standpoint it is easier to understand the essential shortcoming of the mainstream psychology. It is based on the notion that the male experience, driven towards autonomy and isolation, is the norm. Women who do not conform to this role model (which is almost all of them), are seen as “abnormal” and they are prescribed remedies which are not actually needed. For how can you say that men do not need to be taught some lessons in connectedness?

What feminist psychologists have been able to establish as a result of their contributions is this: society has divided the human experience into two, giving one half to men and the other to women. None is a whole, and therefore none should be treated like a whole. What we could see as a target for future is to bring together the two halves of human experience and discover its completeness. Since nobody is more likely to misunderstand a woman’s mind than a male psychologist, the target can only be achieved if women in every society come forward with their own contributions to reshape the understanding of the human experience.

This articles is part of the series “Women Studies”: Let’s say no to a peurile feminism | Women and cinema in Pakistan | Women as prophets in the Quran | A woman’s Islam? | Gender roles in education | Women’s right to divorce in Islam | Liberty, equality, fraternity | In religion’s wake | ‘Men are from Mars, women are from Venus … no more’ | ‘History, she wrote’ | ‘Debunking myths’ | Women in the Quran | Portrayal of women in the stories of Sadat Hasan Manto

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