One of the few advantages of age is memory. You have a lot more of it, diffused across a wide range of matters.
Which is why last Sunday, contemplation of our garagiste’s admirable assistant still in her summer shorts, reading Katherine Whitehorne in The Observer and absorption of the latest news of terrorist depredations in the Middle East provoked a good deal of reflection.
First off, all of us – including the woman in question – are glad she has a figure that can handle the shorts. She is a hard-working and competent person and it is good she doesn’t have to go to work in a sack. The shorts reminded me that men and women are biologically designed to be physically attracted to each other. This has been the cause of much art and literature and indeed trouble. I’ve enjoyed Katherine W’s writing as long as I can remember. In news columnist terms that is since at least the 1960s. Reading her again last Sunday reminded me that she once came up with the amusing conceit of supposing men and women reproduced by pollination. She envisaged cocktail parties of people gently swaying as the pollen wafted around the room. It was a short entertainment piece so could not be parsed for logical consequences and implications. Still, it begs an interesting question at the heart of inter-gender woes.
There are or were a few Pacific islanders who had no idea that sexual intercourse produced babies and who therefore enjoyed sex for its own sake. This made life for visiting sailors great fun until they (the sailors) infected everyone with syphilis. But in general, the societies of the world have tended to create systems in which the female’s primary role is to produce (male) children and the male’s job is to keep them safe from other males, much as stags do with hinds. In between the activities necessary to the main tasks of breeding and cooking, the women picked berries and danced to keep the men of their tribe entertained. Men merely killed animals – and each other – and made up epic verse about their deeds to recite when drunk.
Interestingly, different bits of the world population adopted different ways of fulfilling Darwin’s doctrine of natural selection. Some groups went off and raided to find new bloodstock. Others made every effort to confine breeding to their own tribe. I leave it to you to figure out the relative merits and defects of either strategy – in the long- or short-term.
As these primitive early notions refined themselves, so did religions. Animism and multiple-god-populated beliefs gave way in the Middle East and West to monotheism. Few religions have ever been very favourable to women and the monotheistic ones have been less so than other, more eclectic, belief systems.
In our justifiable horror at extreme Islam we should not forget that Ultra-Orthodox Judaism prescribes restrictions on – and proscribes actions by – women of ludicrous severity, such as singing in public with men in the audience. Nor is Christianity immune from serious critique in terms of its ambivalence about women and in its foundation belief that nakedness and sex are shameful and must be confined to approved contexts.
Yet depending on their seriousness and the level of their host society’s sophistication, these conspiracies of religion merely reflect the ambivalence that men in all societies seem to have about women. At a very fundamental level it appears to flow from the fact of ‘being born of a woman’, with all that entails in terms of both the physical reality and the consequent nurture. This is made worse in cultures where women are made mysterious and male children treated as little princes.
So it is that a conflict is created: part of the male genetic inheritance is fulfilled by that drive for power and dominance. The hormonally-driven emotional turbulence of adolescence all too frequently continues into adulthood, and here men fail to reconcile their feelings (positive or negative) about Mother Woman with their expectations and feelings about Companionate Woman.
Much misery results if the process of development is distorted either by adverse experiences or the imposition of specific beliefs about gender. Generally speaking, this is as true for women as for men. But not when it comes down to the specifics of sexual violence.
The wife-beater in Bodmin and the schoolgirl rapist and the groomers of Rotherham have a lot in common with the gang in Delhi who raped a young woman with an iron bar or the raiders of Boko haram and IS who kidnap and sell women to their soldiers. They have a real problem with their own sexuality and they are the victims of a belief system that denies the validity of a normal social and biological process in which there should be neither fear nor shame and equal honour and respect for both genders.
There are serious arguments that to imprison young men in an atmosphere of fear, ignorance and guilt about sex, coupled with a combination of exaggerated respect for – and mystery and suspicion about – women creates the potential for oppression and violence. There may be specifics in Islamic culture and the sexual morphology it creates (well dealt with by Bernard Lewis in his book What Went Wrong? Western Imact and Middle Eastern Response and more contentiously by Dr Nicolai Sennels et al in their symposium published in 2010). But though pervasive in Islam, these dysfunctions are far from uniquely confined to that religion.
It used to be dodgy Vicars and Scoutmasters when I was younger. Now, sadly, it is Jimmy Savile and a raft of deviants who abused young people in children’s homes and music schools, and who were protected by a conscienceless cadre of officials and minor politicos. Has it got worse or are we now so much more sensitised?
Personally, I am very glad to live in the present day: sex can be presented and represented freely and, if you will, vulgarly. It beats the days when pictures of naked women had to be bought slyly and the airbrush was heavily used to eliminate the main point of interest. Those, too, were the days when nice girls certainly didn’t. So, while it’s great that nowadays nice girls do, it’s also worrisome that women still have to be so circumspect in their daily lives and that so many justifiable feminist grievances stubbornly persist.
We will never reproduce by pollination and the sexes will continue to fancy each other and making a bit of a shambles of an already messy biological arrangement. But as we face the hideous realities of religious primitivism in both the Middle East and Africa, it is hard not to notice that it is women who are the most victimised – whether as mothers or wives or sexual beings. Behind the localised political rhetoric is a bio-social war. We bien pensant moderates should remember that the most important global conflict is the ancient one being fought for equality between men and women; equality of esteem, opportunity and treatment. It is being fought everywhere and is on everyone’s doorstep.