ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — Some lessons learned while spending time in a different culture come from paying attention to the wide diversity in how we humans arrange ourselves socially. Equally crucial lessons come from seeing patterns in how people behave similarly in similar situations, even in very different cultural contexts.
This week in Pakistan, as I have been learning more about a very different culture than my own, I was reminded of one of those patterns: Patriarchy makes men crazy.
The setting for this lesson is the International Islamic University in Islamabad, where I am teaching a three-week course on media law and ethics as a visiting fellow of the university’s Iqbal International Institute for Research and Dialogue. Institute Director Mumtaz Ahmad brought in me and my Canadian colleague Justin Podur, who is teaching a course on critical thinking, to bring new perspectives to the students at what is a fairly orthodox university, and the dialogue has indeed been rewarding.
As is the case in my courses at the University of Texas at Austin , no matter what the specific subject of the course — freedom of expression, democracy, and mass media, in this case — I often raise questions about how our identities — race, gender, class, nation — structure our position in a society and understanding of the world. Given the gender segregation at IIU — I have male and female students in my class, but they are housed on different campuses and much of the regular instruction is in single-sex settings — it’s difficult not to circle back frequently to gender.
One day while I was talking about race, I pointed out that while white people in a white-supremacist have distinct advantages, there is one downside: It makes white people crazy. The students’ expressions suggested they weren’t sure how to take that, so I explained: White supremacy leads white people to believe they are superior based on their skin color. That idea is … crazy. Therefore, lots of white people — those who explicitly support white supremacy or unconsciously accept such a notion — are crazy.
My students are mostly Pakistani, with a few from other Islamic countries in Asia and Africa ; all are brown or black. They tried to be polite but couldn’t help laughing at the obvious truth in the statement, as well as the odd fact that a white guy was saying it.
I then moved to an obvious comparison: We men know about this problem, I said, because of the same problem in patriarchy. In male-supremacist societies, men have distinct advantages, but we often believe that we are superior based on our sex. That idea is ….
This time the women laughed, but the men were silent. They weren’t so sure they agreed with the analysis in this case.
The next week a power outage at the university helped me drive home my point.
When we arrived that morning and found our classroom dark, we looked for a space with natural light that could accommodate the entire class. The most easily accessible place was the carpeted prayer area off the building lobby, and one of the female faculty members helping me with the class led us there. I sat down with the women, and one of the most inquisitive students raised a critical question about one of my assertions from our previous class. We launched into a lively discussion for several minutes, until we were informed that the male students had a problem with the class meeting there. I looked around and, sure enough, the men had yet to join us. They were standing off to the side, refusing to come into the prayer space, which they thought should not be used for a classroom with men and women.
Our host Junaid Ahmad , who puts his considerable organizing skills to good use in the United States and Pakistan , was starting to sort out the issue when the power came back on, and we all headed back to our regular classroom. I put my scheduled lecture on hold to allow for discussion about what had just happened. Could a prayer space be used for other purposes, such as a class? If so, given such that space is used exclusively by men here, is it appropriate to use it for a coeducational classroom?
It’s hardly surprising that students held a variety of opinions about how to resolve those questions consistent with their interpretation of Islamic principles, and a gendered pattern emerged immediately. The women overwhelmingly asserted that there was nothing wrong with us all being in the prayer space, and the men overwhelmingly rejected that conclusion. I made it clear that as an outsider I wasn’t going to weigh in on the theological question, but that I wanted to use our experience to examine how a society could create a system of freedom of expression to explore such issues democratically.
The lesson for me came in how the discussion went forward. The women were not shy in expressing themselves, eager to engage in debate with the men, who were considerably more reserved. After a contentious half hour of discussion, we moved forward to my lecture. During the break, the men huddled to discuss the question of the prayer space. When we reconvened, one of them asked if a representative of the men could speak again on issue. He began by saying that he had hesitated to speak in the previous discussion because he felt it was obvious that the women were wrong and he had not wanted to hurt their feelings or impede their willingness to speak up by pointing out their error immediately.
I suggested we resolve that question first. I turned to the women and asked, “Will your feelings be hurt or will you be you afraid to speak if he is critical of your arguments?” Their response was a resounding no.
I turned back to the man and made the obvious point: We now have clear evidence that that your assumption was wrong. The women are telling you directly that they are not shy about debating, and so you can make your points. When he did — and when the women disagreed — they let him know without hesitation. From what I could tell, his argument did not persuade many, if any, of the women that their judgments had been wrong.
What struck me about the exchange was how ill prepared the men were to defend their position in the face of a challenge from the women. It was clear that the men were not used to facing such challenges, and as they scrambled to formulate rebuttals they did little more than restate claims with which they were comfortable and familiar. That strategy (or lack of a strategy) is hardly unique to Pakistani men.
To modify my previous statement about the negative effects of privilege on the privileged: Patriarchy makes us men not just crazy but stupid. The more our intellectual activity takes place in male-dominant spaces, and the more intensely male-dominant those spaces are, the less likely we are to develop our ability to think critically about gender and power. Sometimes when faced with an incisive challenge, men become aggressive, even violent; sometimes men retreat with an illusory sense of victory; sometimes men sulk until women give up the debate. Individual men will react differently in different times and places; it’s the patterns that are important.
Cultural diversity exists alongside universal patterns. The United States and Pakistan are very different societies, but they are both patriarchal. Patriarchy takes different forms in each society, and the harms to women can be quite different, but my observation holds in both. It doesn’t mean patriarchy doesn’t sometimes also constrain women’s thinking, nor does it mean women are always right in debates with men. To identify patterns is not to make ridiculous totalizing claims.
There’s one more valuable lesson I took away from this episode: I have to be vigilant in challenging my stereotypes about women in Islamic societies. I can be quick to assume that Islamic women always capitulate to the patriarchal ideas and norms that dominate their societies. While I can’t know what each woman in the room was thinking, there was a consensus that they would not accept the conclusion of the men without challenge. In front of me were women with their heads covered (the hijab) and some with the full face veil (the niqab). Others had scarves draped around their shoulders, their heads uncovered. One of the two most forceful women in the debate wore the hijab and the other was uncovered; I couldn’t predict the content or tone of a woman’s response from her dress. No matter how much I know that intellectually, I still catch myself making assumptions about these women based on their choice of head covering. The class discussion reminds me to remember to challenge my own assumptions.
These conclusions are hardly original or revolutionary, but they bear regular restatement:
It is crucial that we remember the reality of cultural diversity and encourage respect of that diversity, while not shying away from critical engagement. That’s especially important for those of us from privileged classes in affluent imperial nations, who often are quick to assume we are superior.
It’s just as crucial to look for patterns across cultures, to help us understand how systems of power shape us in ways that are remarkably consistent and to help us develop better strategies to resist illegitimate authority and transform our diverse societies. That is important for us all who care about justice.