A look at Dr Kamran Ahmad’s new book on the impact of gender roles on society
Dr Kamran Ahmad is a gender activist, psychologist, and a social worker who has spent his working life in different parts of the world working for the United Nations with people suffering from traumas of various kinds. Among other things, he has worked with battered women in California and talked to men with violence-related issues. The book’s basic argument is that the gender socialisation of our Pakistani society– and by extension, other male dominating segregated societies – harms not only women, but also men.
He argues that our society tells men never to show their tender emotions though they are expected to exhibit rage. This makes it difficult for them to be tender, playful and expressive which, of course, is an impediment to forming relationships with one’s children and expressing affection to one’s wife in public. It also makes it difficult to cry, which is a great impediment to psychological wellbeing since being sad, being moved and having the courage to show it is part of our being. Another social role that is imposed upon men is that they are the breadwinners. He argues that men are expected to work even if they no longer want to or do not have to. Thus, instead of seeking career paths that are self-fulfilling for them, they have to embark upon careers that they do not enjoy and which, so to speak, incarcerate them in the straitjacket of the daily grind.
The situation can get so bad that even if the women of the family can earn a decent living, the non-working male will perceive it – and he will not be alone in doing so – that his masculinity is threatened by a career choice which a woman has the liberty to take for granted as being the societal norm.
There are chapters on sexual harassment, women’s clothing and rape, for instance. In these, Ahmad does not deviate from the standard liberal positions on them to any marked degree. He emphasises that men are endowed with self-control. Hence, it is not the clothes women wear that “make men rape them” but the unequal power dynamics between the rapist and his victim. To support this well-known argument, the author refers to the rape of servant girls, boys studying in all-male institutions, especially religious seminaries, where most pupils are from very poor families.
The third major aspect of the book is philosophical. Kamran Ahmad takes issue with the concept of honour in our society. He argues that women were considered property as male-dominating societies were concerned with keeping the patrilineal tree known. So, in order for the man to know that the children were really his, the women’s sexuality was kept under control. To make such control more effective, they too were socialised in the values that made “honour” a function of their bodies. Thus, women could get killed for so much as talking to a man and for contracting a marriage of their own choice. Another issue he has taken up is that the division between the male and the female element is the ideological basis (including religion as an ideology) of a society. His argument is that the textual basis of Brahmanic and Islamic orientations in South Asian religious traditions leads to a highly puritanical and stringent code of behaviour. However, there is an ancient female element also that permits dance, song (qawwali) and is manifested in both Hindu and Muslim mystical traditions.
The book has certain drawbacks that need to be pointed out. The author does not provide references to any sources of psychology or biology or any other subject which he seems to know very well. While I appreciate that the book is highly accessible and readability decreases with notes and references, one cannot offer insights – provocative insights at that – without the theoretical foundation upon which they are based. His research methodology is also not explained. For instance, the contention that women can “get away” by investing less labour or money in the marriage than men, is apparently based on anecdotal evidence. One could argue that this may be true of very few people, so few that it is more a function of privilege and class than anything else and that the vast mass of women work in the fields, at home and look after children. In the middle classes, women work outside the home and look after the children, cook and serve meals and wash dishes afterwards. Men often do not share any housework. So, if the author had given the size of the sample and how it was taken from the population, we would have benefitted more. Also, while he is among the few in Pakistan who have referred to the findings of biology and psychology in the nature-nurture debate, he has not referred to the sources of these findings.
It should be added that none of the criticism I have offered detracts from the intellectual worth of this book. Nor do his basic arguments stand vitiated. It is quite clear that traditional gender roles do oppress both men and women which is the main idea advanced in this book. It is also true that it is because of a racy and non-academic style that this book is so interesting and readable. However, my own academic training urges me to ask for more rigorous proof from the writer. I should point out, in all honesty, that I am not the most appropriately qualified reviewer for this book. It should be reviewed by a professional psychologist who will be able to place it in the literature of that discipline. I have reviewed it, however, as an interim introduction to the public of a book which, in my opinion, should be considered a major milestone in gender studies and should help the reading public in Pakistan to consider gender roles in a new light.
Between Saints and Sinners: Traps and Triumphs of Treading Life as a Man
Author: Kamran Ahmad
Publisher: Lahore: Sanjh Publishers, 2021
Price: Rs 990
The reviewer is an occasional contributor