MEN AND WOMEN LIBERATING THEMSELVES - A LETTER TO BETTE DAVIS

MY SPECIAL FRIEND OF TWENTY FIVE YEARS  

Dear Bette,

The social, economic, religious and political changes of the last century have not only changed the psychology of men and women but also transformed the dynamics of the intimate relationships between them. One of the most significant movements of the 20th century was in the Women’s Liberation Movement. When I studied the literature created by Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Virginia Woolf, Simone de Bouvoir and many other feminists from the West along with the writings of Ismat Chughtai, Kishwar Naheed, Ishrat Aafreen, Fehmeeda Riaz, Farogh Farahzaad and other feminists of the East, I became aware of the struggles of women individually and collectively.  Those writings made me very sympathetic to women’s suffering. Such sensitivity helped me grow as a person as well as a therapist and over the years a number of female therapists have referred female clients to work with me in psychotherapy so as to improve their self-esteem and the quality of their intimate relationships. Working with these women and listening to their stories helped me appreciate their dilemmas and develop insights into the mysterious relationships between men and women.

Many women writers that I read have tried to get in touch with their inner most feelings of hurt, anger and resentment that they had been harbouring for decades in their personal lives and for generations in their familial and communal lives. They have chosen to share them with others through their writings, a form of communication much more lasting than the sometimes-closed ear of a spouse or relative.

Meiling Jin wrote,

My poems are all jagged at the edges

Because I am a woman

Who is jagged at the edges

I speak of only what I know

Zhana shared on behalf of millions of women experiencing anger,

Anger is something I can see, touch, taste

It comes in many forms, ranging from mild irritation

to overwhelming blind fury.

Heart pounding, blood rushing, orgasmic anger.

I am not angry.  I am anger.  I have become anger.

After realizing the intensity and pervasiveness of those sufferings, many women tried to change their conditions.  Some of them focused on changing the social, economic and political traditions that were unjust, prejudiced and unfair.  Those movements helped women to accomplish their legal and political rights.  There were other women who focused on the psychological damage that had happened to women by working to strengthen their sense of self worth, self confidence and self image.  Some not only became isolated from others but also became alienated from themselves.

Dorothea Smartt wrote,

Part of me

Is a stranger to myself

Dead

To myself

I cannot hear the rhythm of my body

Do I even know how to listen?

Anais Nin wrote extensively in her diaries about the psychological journey of a woman to liberate herself.  She believed that political and social changes were good but not good enough to liberate women.  Women have to work harder to believe they are equal to men as human beings and reverse generations of conditioning that they are second-class citizens who are inferior to men. Nin also recognized that some women have to go through psychotherapy and obtain professional help to improve their self-esteem and develop healthy intimate relationships.  She also realized that for women to work in isolation without getting men involved in their struggle for liberation in the long run is not healthy.

Although I feel that the Women’s Liberation Movement has been very significant in raising the social consciousness of men and women all over the world, I also feel that it has not fully resolved the ethnic, class and cultural contradictions that directly or indirectly affect the gender struggles.  I feel that women all over the world can be seen on a broad spectrum.

On the one extreme are millions of women who are not even fully aware of their role in life as second-class citizens.  Then there are women who have gradually become aware of their status in life but feel very resentful, angry and bitter. Their anger, whether it is against men, families or religious and cultural/political institutions, makes their lives very painful. Even the differences of opinion between different feminist groups can become an additional stress.  When I asked a group of angry black working-class women whether they felt more sympathetic towards white women, black men or Chinese working-class women, they looked at me quite perplexed.  Some stated they had never thought about that issue.  It is not uncommon for class, religious and ethnic differences and conflicts to undermine the collective gender struggle.

On the other end of the spectrum are those enlightened women who have reasonably resolved their contradictions and have gone beyond the negative, angry, painful and suffering phase.  They have found healthier and more constructive alternatives in life. Some of them are creative and dedicated enough to organize communal activities whether it is in education, art or the cultural/political realm, with enthusiasm and strength, to achieve higher levels of existence.  Those women who have reached that stage are secure enough to include sympathetic men in their struggle.  Many second-generation feminists belong to this group.

It is also fascinating to note that while women in Europe and North America are preoccupied with their economic, legal, political and sexual orientation rights, women in Asia and Africa are still struggling with the basic issues of education, voting, and freedom to choose a life partner or work outside the family home.  Many are frightened that they might be stoned to death if they get involved in pre-marital sex with men they genuinely love, while others struggle with the atrocity of circumcision, genital mutilation in their childhood.

The more I study women’s literature, the more I feel that the real struggle is between those, primarily men, who want to maintain the status quo and those who want to improve the individual and communal lives of women.  I agree with Jo Freeman, who has beautifully synthesized the feminist perspective in the following few words,

“The traditionalist notes historically women have always had less power, less influence and fewer resources than men and assumes that this most accord with some natural order.  The feminist perspective looks at the many similarities between the sexes and concludes that women and equal potential for individual development.  Differences in the realization of that potential, therefore, must result from externally imposed restraints, from the influence of social institutions and values.”

People involved in psychotherapy and genuine soul searching achieve that goal at an individual level while education and political struggles try to move in that direction at a social level by offering new role models and paradigms.

While I met many women socially and professionally who had difficulties relating to men socially and romantically, I also came across many men who feel lost and confused relating to women, especially liberated women, as they do not know how to communicate and relate to them.  The rules of the game have changed over the decades, but most men who grew up in traditional families are not aware of the new expectations and have a hard time following them.  That is why I feel that a new dialogue has to take place between men and women to establish and create new traditions and new rules that are mutually respectful and are born out of a genuine respect and understanding between people who care about and love each other.  Such a process has to take place between individuals as well as groups, organizations and communities.

In the last two decades I have met a number of men in my personal and professional lives, who felt quite confused while negotiating their social and romantic relationships with women.  Let me share with you a personal example to highlight the dilemma of men.  Whenever I go for lunch or dinner with my female acquaintances and friends, I am never sure what to expect. 

Some women are quite traditional.  They believe that if I invite them for lunch or dinner, then I should pick them up, pay for the meal and drop them back at the end of the evening.  They do not believe in sharing the cost and are quite firm and rigid about this.  Many of them believe that the Women’s Liberation Movement backfired and women lost more than they gained in the process.  They feel their grandmothers were more respected in society then they are.  They are not only comfortable but quite in favour of well defined roles in relationships and are quite open about saying, “We love it when men open doors for us and treat us like ladies.” They believe that those liberated women who are struggling to be full-time workers, mothers and housewives are trying to be superwomen, they are acting unnaturally and are considered to be making a big mistake.  They hold these women partly responsible for their misfortunes.  I personally feel such women are prisoners of the past and are not willing to evolve and accept changes that are being fought for by the few.

The other group of my female acquaintances and friends are on the other extreme.  They are obsessed with a concept of 50 / 50.  They believe that because they are liberated and equal to men, they should carry their own burdens.  They proudly say that they do not want to exploit men.  This preoccupation with equality results in complicated negotiations every time we go out to dinner.  Many say, “You pay for lunch this time and I will pay for it the next”, or “You pay for your lunch and I will pay for mine”, or “Let us divide equally each time including the tip.”  We sometimes end up counting pennies in front of a waiter, which I find embarrassing.

With some of them I feel that instead of a genuine human interaction based on caring, warmth and affection, the love model, the relationship has adopted the characteristics of the business model. I sometimes feel that these women have become prisoners of liberation.  They interpret the concept of equality so rigidly that it creates unnecessary and unnatural hurdles for the relationship.  I call such women pseudoliberated.

Luckily I also have female friends, like you, who have evolved beyond those rigid traditions and are more open inflexible in their thinking.  They feel that who pays what, when and how much is less important than the human beings involved, their feelings of comfort and respect and what they can afford.  I feel most comfortable with them.  We don’t have rigid rules and expectations.  We don’t follow who should pay, rather we follow who feels like paying and if one does not have the money, one does not feel embarrassed asking the other to pay.  Such an interaction is more comfortable for me and not much different than that with my close male friends.  I consider such women genuinely liberated and not bogged down by rituals.

It is also ironic that is almost impossible for me to have a genuine friendship with most Muslim and South Asian women I meet because their social behaviour is controlled by their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons.

The issues between acquaintances and friends become more complex when they become lovers.  When I discussed intimate relationships with men, I find them also, like women, on a wide spectrum.

On the one extreme are those men who are quite traditional and have a macho image of themselves.  These men are the product of a sexist and patriarchal society.  They believe that they are superior to women and behave as their bosses.  They are generally self-centred, selfish, narcissistic and controlling.  They can be quite caring and charming but only on their own terms.  They generally have double standards (for example, many of them have extramarital affairs but expect their wives to be faithful).

On the other extreme are those men who try so hard to be gentle and kind that they become placid and spineless.  In some cases their spouses leave them stating they were too nice. Superficially they seem very understanding but in reality they lack self-confidence and sell-worth.  It is very hard for women to have a genuine and honest relationship with them as they have a hard time making decisions or saying no. Their need to be liked by their spouses and lovers is so strong that they cannot be honest about their feelings.  Many such men get abused by their wives and yet they rarely complain or report the abuse to get help because of their male pride. Many mental health professionals believe that we need shelters for abused men also. Such abused men are the opposite of macho men.  They let women hurt and exploit them.  They do not realize that for a happy and healthy relationship both parties have to be strong, confident and  equal.

I also met some men who are prisoners of 50 / 50 model and expect their wives to pay half of the bills even if they earn only half of what husbands earn.  I also call such men pseudoliberated.

Over the years I have realized that the liberation of men is quite different than the liberation of women.  One of the fundamental differences is that when women become aware of their role as second-class citizens in this society and in history, they want to change themselves and their environments.  They gradually realize that by redefining themselves at personal, social and political levels they will gain a lot of power.  So many women have become actively involved in the process and have succeeded in achieving some of their goals for themselves and their “sisters”.

On the other hand many men are too timid, believing that if they redefined themselves, they would lose the control and power that their forefathers have enjoyed for centuries.  That is the major reason they are resistant to change.  I have come across only a few men who I consider genuinely liberated.  Such men are Humanists and are sensitive to inequalities in life.  They realize that for centuries what they considered their rights were actually privileges and even unfair and unjust privileges.  They know that our society has been so male dominated for so long that most men are not even aware of it.  Such a bias exists in most aspects of our lives:

·        In religious circles, people call their God, ‘Father’,

·        In families, women take their husband’s name or retain their father’s name.  Children don’t take their mothers name. A tradition that does make much practical sense since nobody can be one hundred percent sure of their father but everybody is sure of their mother,

·        In common use English language, the male pronoun is used for men as well as for women.

Genuinely liberated men believe that relationships at a personal, social or political level need to be reviewed and changes need to be made at each level so that men and women can enjoy equal rights and opportunities.  They know that sexual liberation is but one aspect of human liberation.

I have seen the process of liberation in men beginning in two different contexts:

1.      As a positive or a negative response to the liberation of the women in their lives.

Such men realize that women they used to associate with are growing and becoming independent and they have to liberate themselves to maintain a relationship with those women.  Some men succeed in that journey while others become angry and resentful, in many cases, the relationships end on a bad note.

2.      As a part of personal liberation.

This change is more natural and rewarding.  Some men during their emotional growth realize that many attitudes they have grown up with were not very healthy and they must cast off these biases to gain a more mature outlook on life.  These could include attitudes towards people from other cultures, religions and races.  In this journey they also become sensitive to women’s struggles and suffering.  They liberate themselves by changing their attitudes towards themselves and others, including women. 

So for such men the experience of liberation in their relationships with women is a part of a larger experience of human liberation.  Arthur Schlesinger in his article, The Crisis of American Masculinity wrote, “…if this is true, then the key to the recovery of masculinity does not lie in any wistful hope of humiliating the aggressive female and restoring the old masculine supremacy.  Masculine supremacy like white supremacy was the neurosis of an immature society.  It is good for men as well as women that women have been set free.  In any case, the process is irreversible; that particular genie can never be put back into the bottle…. The key to the recovery of masculinity lies rather in the problem of identity.  When a person begins to find out who he is, he is likely to find out rather soon what sex he is.”

These men usually realize that this process of liberation is quite complex.  It has intellectual, philosophical, emotional, social, religious, political, cultural and many other dimensions and sometimes they are successful in some areas more than others.

Changing oneself is more difficult than one realizes.  Some men are successful on their own after a lot of soul-searching while others need professional help from a psychotherapist.  I feel fortunate to be part of that journey with many of my male patients.  It was a rewarding experience for both of us.  I learned as much from them as they might have learned from me.  I also met some men who were fascinated with the idea of liberation but once they found out the emotional price they had to pay for that change, they backed away.  Others who had a keen interest and were genuinely motivated went through the process step-by-step and finally achieved a higher quality of life and more rewarding intimate relationships.

I believe we are evolving to that cultural stage in human evolution where women are discovering their masculine side and men are getting in touch with their feminine side.  More and more men and women are achieving a balance of power in their relationships.  Many couples are able to redefine their roles and negotiate their expectations as equals in their relationships.  They are able to be friends as well as lovers and bring out the best in each other.  I strongly believe that growing together is better than growing alone.

Affectionately, Sohail

March 2004