Marginalisation of Women – Historical Perspective

Published on : 08 Oct 2013
8 min read
Category : Women in Leadership

Most of us get caught up in passionate and sometimes shrill debates on why there are so few women in leadership positions in our social and commercial institutions. Very few of us pause and want to examine it with a non-partisan and clinical lens.

That women have been systematically marginalised is an incontrovertible fact. Examining what has led to it is important to correct it. As is the case with any illness, prescribing medication presumptively will only frustrate the parties involved with no cure in sight. At best it will be a placebo. Medical science tells us that the cure to chronic illness is different from the one for acute illness. The marginalisation of women is a hyper-chronic illness, which has 13,000 years of socio-political history behind it. It is imperative that we understand the roots — psychological and sociological, before we attempt to fix it.

Let me try and get to the bottom of this. When we as humans, some 13,000 years back, were hunter gatherers, the social organisation resolved the roles for the female and the male, for the young and the old and for the able and the disabled. The two main survival needs of any community were surviving the present with enough nutritious food and expanding in numbers by having more members in the community. The later became the key to prevent a community, if not the species, from becoming extinct. Bigger communities gave themselves a higher probability of a constant supply of young, who were the key for hunting, food gathering and being fertile enough for procreation. In a world where disease and death were at the door step, this was an evolutionary necessity.

The one who went on the hunt was at a greater risk of being killed or dying when hunting. So these communities resolved that the child bearing members should not be exposed to this higher risk. Men biologically were not child bearers. This selected them for hunting and gathering food by venturing away from their transit settlements. Thousands of years of this social conditioning, helped them acquire social power within every community. Here arose the curse for women, to the bearer of a hundred sons!

The paradox is that while men acquired social power, women though critical for the longer term survival of the community lost social power and acquired deification. The early deified God in practically all the pre-Buddhist religions was the “Mother Goddess”. Was this the original devious ploy by men to acquire social power and deny women their place under the sun? We will never know the truth. But we can hypothesise safely that this early selection of social roles has something to do with the relative social power equation between men and women over many millennia.

There was an epochal chance for this power equation to change when the hunter gatherers adopted farming and started to settle in permanent settlements around 7000 BC. During this phase of the evolution of civilisation, the early permanent settlements which stored food and livestock were at a risk of attack from rival settlements for plunder and pillage of the stored food and abduction of livestock.

The men through the 4000 years of hunting had honed their martial skills, mainly strategies for planning, organising and directing attack and defence. So even during the second phase of the evolution of civilisation, men gave themselves the superiority in the social power structure. Here arose the status of the protector of the community — the tribal chief, which around 3000 BC morphed into the status of the king. In addition to this, they had excluded the women from training and skilling themselves in the use of weapons. Since the early tools were mostly hunting tools or meat harvesting ones, the men monopolised tool-making artisan roles.

The next in line in this social power structure during the pre-literate period were those who produced the food, collected a portion of the produce for the central granary as tax, kept it safe, maintained accounts and regulated the distribution of grains to the artisans who were not involved in agriculture: the first bureaucrats. The social advantage which the men had acquired during the hunting phase came in handy. Though these roles had very little requirement of martial skills, since by now acquisition of social power required martial orientation, the men became inheritors of this second in line, in the social power structure as well. At this stage the women would have found it near impossible to challenge the competition of men, for this coveted social position without an ability to take up arms or patronage from the prima donna — the tribal chief or king. There were rare instances of the women being the prima donna like the mythical Amazons in the Odyssey. But they too were too infrequent and ephemeral.

The third phase of the evolution of civilisation was decisive. This set the tone for the next 6000 years: the emergence of script for the spoken languages of the ancient world. The scribe now jumped up in the social power hierarchy. The scribe, the giver and keeper of the law, social norm giver and interpreter and presider over the rituals, now was second only to the king himself. By now religious or tribal rituals had long taken centre stage. The law and the social edicts required a revelation from the Gods themselves. This required social intermediation.  Though by now the kings claimed lineage from one God or the other, since most were illiterates, the new role of the priest became paramount. Since he revealed the approval of the gods and legitimised the king, he now was second only to the king in the power structure. It is debatable whether the scribe and the priest were the same. It would suffice for our examination that the two became one sometime in pre-history.

Given that the religion largely centred around the mother goddess cult, here was an opportunity for the women to leapfrog at least to the second layer of the social power structure as the priestess. This certainly did not require any martial abilities. We do not know whether the script for a language was developed jointly by men and women. But it will be a safe bet to hypothesise that 7000 years of exclusion from the heart of the social power structure would have made it very difficult for women to have had the final say in the adoption of a chosen script and the norms around it. Unless she was the consort of the king, it would have been impossible for any individual woman to muscle her way into the development and adoption of the script. During the succeeding period, in most societies, men devised the norm to largely contain literacy among women.

By this time, the vested interest in preserving and protecting membership to the social power structure was complete. The rare queens who managed to break the ancient glass ceilings had to undertake risks which were way beyond what men had to or had to get there through patronage.

The story of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Hateshepsut in 1500 BC, illustrates the uphill task of women acquiring and keeping power. She had to physically transform as a man or at least clothe herself as a man for her to claim and keep the throne, even though she was the Queen of the deceased Pharaoh. Her successor Tut Moses III, in the succeeding years, systematically erased every memory and reference to her by gouging out of every pillar and stone, her image and name. We all know the story of the “Virgin” Queen Elizabeth I during the 16thcentury AD. Why Virgin? Because a woman cannot be at the head of a royal lineage. Sultana Razia of the Delhi Sultanate, during the 10th Century AD, was killed by the conspiratorial men at her court. For every 1000 kings we recall, we can, at best, recall one or two queens. So by the medieval times, 500 years back, it was a normal state of affairs for women to be excluded or prevented from the social power structure.

By the 2nd century BC, trade between countries overland and by sea became the new hunting gathering, apart from war for territories and resources. Social norms prohibited women from participating in these overland or sea trade journeys. That they were the gender which bears the child, once again became the cross they had to carry and the proximal reason for their prohibition from these trade ventures. By now land as an inheritance was firmly in the hands of men and especially with those men in the higher echelons of the social power structure.

The monotheistic religions that blended religion into politics in a systematic manner, between 600 BC and 1900 AD, used religion to formally shut women out of every social power structure. It is strange that the few polytheistic religions had a greater tolerance for women to be at least the consort of the all supreme male God or his priests. The only surviving polytheistic religion — Hinduism — during this period adopted this norm with gusto. Women were made out to be the objects of distraction and temptation to the celibates and hence had to be recast as mothers — child bearers. The status of mother goddess was also taken away. Even the renaissance between 1400 AD and 1600 AD betrayed women by making them objects of beauty or piety and nothing more. The industrial revolution came and went, bypassing women as bystanders.

Women were, as a rule, excluded from acquiring education or learning skills to be artisans. A context was created, whereby even if they had learnt and been proficient they had no place to deploy and harness it. This cruelty and injustice was done not by norming their exclusion from education, but by extinguishing their motivation to learn because it would have been worthless. Manu, purportedly the ancient Indian law giver, reduced them to the ignominy of a material belonging of a man, with no separate identity or rights. Independently all ancient societies embedded this in their social norms and laws. This ensured that women could not acquire wealth. They were the wealth or the harbinger of wealth: Dowry. They, thus, became the object of trade and wealth. Marriage, apart from progressing one’s lineage, became a trade. Strange that though the power to bear progeny was with the woman, she was socially powerless.

By now the four sources for acquiring power: Martial abilities, priesthood, education and trade were shut out from the reach of women.

They still could have had one last opportunity to sneak in, if not break free from their yoke. This was when democracy arrived in the 18th and 19thcentury AD. Even that would not be possible. Insult was added to injury by denying women the right to vote on the pretext that they were illiterate or still in most parts of the world denied individual identity. The man was the citizen and the woman, his consort, had no individual existence. This was to be one more nail on the coffin.

The most recent opportunity to break free of 13,000 years of yoke appeared in the 20th century. The two World Wars, which ravaged the world, paradoxically forced the world to recognise, value, and free women. By then it was 150 years since Liberty, Equality and Fraternity became the clarion call to rid society of kings, 75 years since slavery was abolished in its last bastion and 20 years since class exclusion was challenged by the Marxian philosophy. The yoke which predated caste and class subjugation finally found a glimmer of hope.

In both the wars men died in droves. The new warfare required sophisticated arms to roll out of the factories. When most of the men went to the war front, there was a scarcity of manpower. So by compulsion women power had to be enlisted for producing armaments, tanks, aeroplanes, frigates, aircraft carriers, clothing, rations and medicines for war and society. Shops and civic administration had to be run by women. Strange it may seem that women found inclusion and significance in greater numbers, when they entered to do what for 13,000 years they were excluded from. Their upward climb in the social power structure had to be, if not as warriors but as artisans, who produced weapons, food, clothing and medicines and as traders.

This broke once for all, the social sanction to stereotype women as only child bearers, tender nurturers, sensitive nurses, entertainers, home makers, and those who accepted adversity stoically. It is irony that today some of the women achievers invoke these very same stereotypes to eulogise women, little understanding that imputing any special characteristics to men or women, only serves the purpose of preserving gender bias.

If 13,000 years have been discriminatory, unfair and inequitable to women, has the last 60 years been any different? That will be in my next blog post: Marginalisation of Women – Recent perspective.

Until then what is your view?



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