Discrimination against Women: Possible Reasons

Inspired by a blog post by Rosa Rubicondior here – The Evolution of God (click)

I must point out that I am no sociologist or anthropologist, so what follows is absolutely pure speculation.

I believe that in every small group, the human attributes that further survival, and thereupon comfort, are coveted. So obviously, those in possession of such attributes are held as more important members of the group than those not possessing them or doing so to a lesser degree. It is not difficult to imagine that in early days, these qualities were physical strength, endurance and agility. These qualities protected an individual as well as their group from dangers of living in the jungles. These qualities helped produce food – earlier as hunters-gatherers and later as farmers. And these qualities were mainly possessed by men. Women were more apt to nurture children – as they ‘specialized’ in it as well as because they would be less capable of doing the above things compared to men owing to physical limitations. Also, as various tribes started expanding they ran into each other and had conflicts. Again, those who engaged most directly in these armed conflicts were men. So, though women would nurture children, they would usually not be looked upon as ‘saviors’. Therefore, the emotion of gratefulness and awe would have been difficult to develop towards them. Whereas, it would be easy to grow very grateful towards a man if he would bring you food when you would be hungry or drive away an animal about to attack you or kill few enemies. In addition, the same qualities could be used by men to intimidate women.

Moreover, in olden days politics and governance must have also developed on lines of physical might. So, women must have largely been excluded from those affairs. Women would not be able to subjugate men, but the opposite would be easier to do. These gender differences must have got institutionalized and passed on from one generation to the next.

Now, if one tries to see that ‘God’ is a super-human, it is not difficult to understand that why those qualities were attributed to ‘him’ that were considered most coveted. Though, it seems pagan cultures did also respect other ‘forces of nature’ that were seen to be feminine, but that must have happened much later.

All this was accompanied by institutional discrimination against women in all spheres of life (including religion). Now because a woman would be largely restricted to her home to nurture of babies (which must have been almost all of her life, considering how high the fertility rate used to be in the past to compensate for high infant mortality rate) and do household work (which would require less physical strength than those jobs done by men), she would see less of the outside world, and her counsel would not be sought on issues like military strategy, or taxation regimes, or in those days, even religion. This, because unlike today, in olden days people must have been convinced that religion (and associated appeasement of God) are as important as all other areas of ‘planning’ to survive and grow ones tribe. Plus, as religious positions must have been coveted, with their own accompanying perks, men would not allow women to occupy them.

But as we as a species have surged ahead owing to industrial revolution, we have started coveting different qualities than mere brute strength and agility. Intelligence, communication skill, ability to plan and organize, etc., are today considered much more important. It is also being increasingly recognized that women could be as good as or even better in these areas. And hence with time, women are gaining status equal as that of man. Perhaps hopefully, a time will come when there would be no or little gender-specific discrimination.

As to why an element of sexual jealousy entered relationships is difficult to speculate. Maybe, if a man would feel jealous of other men getting intimate with ‘his’ lady, he would protect her, and along with her,Β also the children. This is what could have promoted the practice of prolonged co-habitation either through genetic or memetic means. And to avoid conflicts between men over women, which would have led to unnecessary killings, a practice like that of marriage evolved, which would be publicly recognized by the entire tribe.

23 thoughts on “Discrimination against Women: Possible Reasons

  1. Good blog. There is also the Marxist view that political power flows from economic power and men are physically more able to assert control over resources.

    Evolutionarily, of course, men are what they are because women made them that way through female sex-selection. It was in the interests of a woman’s genes to be passed on through cooperation with a strong mate who would be more able to provide for her and her children.

    • Rosa,

      I’m very sorry, your comment had totally slipped out of my mind, so am replying now.

      I am not sure how much autonomy did a female of human species have to actually ‘select’ her partner. E.g., if a physically-weaker-than-some-other-man-but-stronger-than-most-women man would want to mate with a woman, how could the said woman stop him from doing so? I think, rather it was the competition between two men that allowed the ‘stronger’ one of the two to mate with the woman and owing to element of sexual jealousy, he would not allow or even kill a competing male showing interest in his ‘chosen’ women. What do you think?

      The above thing might sound very scary and crude, but I believe that is how the olden days were. I am glad such brutishness has almost ceased to be. πŸ™‚

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  2. well i know you have a written a whole article on the question .. finding possilbe reasons agains woman discrimination …

    well i am sorry but as far as i am concerned THERE IS NO EXCUSE ..

    there shud be no excuse its WRONG simple … it shud not hav existed- it shud not exist END OF
    and the excuses well i dont want to comment on them fir there shud be none πŸ™‚

    Bikram’s Question time

    • Bikram,

      Welcome to my new blog!

      Yes, the problem is grave and it has to go, but pointing out the reasons it has existed does not amount to justification of its existence (what you refer to as ‘excuse’). My pointing out that HIV can cause AIDS does not amount to an endorsement of HIV’s existence and transmission.

      Thanks for your views!

  3. Hi K
    Something I find particularly interesting in my experience is that women often discriminate against other women, and judge them more harshly than men do. I have worked and studied in different fields and am raising a young family. I have found that various men I have met on my life journey have actually been more willing to give me a ‘fair go’ and a chance to take risks and prove myself. I can’t say the same about the women. It’s not that they have been difficult, but more that they have expected conformity in my thoughts and actions, something that I am not able to provide.
    I am only a sample size of one of course.
    I guess people discriminate against the ‘other’. We like rules and conformity because it makes life more predictable and hence easier to manage.

  4. Sioneve,

    So, you tracked my new blog, read and even commented? Wow! That’s a really pleasant surprise. πŸ™‚

    You said: “I guess people discriminate against the β€˜other’”. But that somewhat goes against the observation of women discriminating against other women, no?

    Even though you said you constitute a sample size of only one, given your background in neurology, amateur interest in psychology, understanding of statistical concepts and overall intelligence, I would take your observations quite seriously. πŸ™‚

    Personally, I think girls, at least in India, are trained right from the childhood to conform. It is not that boys are not expected to conform, but the punishment and ridicule involved in case of girls/women if they do not conform is much greater than for boys/men. Perhaps, the idea that “to conform is good” gets more so reinforced in case of women and quite obviously they apply more stringent standards of conformism, especially if they themselves would be conformists. One more thing that could be at play is a certain kind of envy. Owing to their ‘conscience’ they might not be able ‘not conform’, but quite consciously want to. So, when they some other woman ‘not conform’, they feel jealous that she is ‘getting away’ with deviant behavior and enjoying herself in the process. And obviously, they would try to put checks on such behavior they themselves want to indulge in. Because they would be convinced that that kind of conformism is only for females and not for males and that thus the latter are within their ‘right’ to not conform, they would not become the object of jealousy.

    What do you think of the plausibility of the ‘hypothesis’ I suggested in my post? That is what I am quite curious about. πŸ™‚

    Thanks a lot for reading and commenting!

    Take care.

    • Haha! Thanks, Sushmita! But how am I to believe your brain is woken out of laziness on reading my posts, if in response you just type in 5 very short sentences? πŸ˜‰

      Take care.

  5. Well I guess like always I am going to leave my 2 bits hehe.

    Btw firstly I have the same point of view on why the magnitude of super beings are Gods…ie males rather than females. In a way lots of things around us are just reflections of other things and I think religion is a big reflection of social beliefs (and also the other way around but most people would see how religion shapes society and not the reverse).

    I would assume from a sociological / anthropological point of view you are pretty close to being correct.Where I think though you are wrong, is in your optimism of gender equality. It won’t happen. What might happen after many centuries might be that women because the stronger sex but equality won’t prevail. At the end of the day even gender bias is nothing but power play. There will be always some women who will be stronger than most men around them but on the whole women will always be worse off than men.

    Also this discrimination that happens in our society doesn’t help better the situation women are in. They don’t get a proper education, they don’t get enough opportunities, they cannot easily be financially independent etc. Since they are girls they are told that they should obey their fathers/husbands. In their own homes too, where they should be ruling since they are the care-takers they are the weaker sex.

    Anyway like always I can go on and on. But it is always refreshing to see educated men of today realizing how important their mother, wife, sister are and seeing them not just giving respect to the women in their lives but also freedom, gratitude and opportunities.

    We will never be at the ideal place but at least for some women life is getting better.

    • Wow Deepali, you too found my new blog without prompting! It is always nice to have ones old readers back. πŸ™‚

      And I very, very much look forward to your leaving your two bits and in fact, even more. πŸ™‚

      Yes, you’re very right as to how religion shapes society, but it is also very much the other way round. After all, religions are created by humans. I do not believe that ‘God’ exists, yet there are so many attributes that people associate with God. Even the people following the ‘same’ religion actually believe in ‘different’ Gods in terms of attributes they attach. In psychiatry, there are tests like the inkblot test (click), wherein, what the person thinks of blots of ink on paper is used to determine their personality attributes. I think what a person thinks about ‘their’ God is fundamentally a reflection of what they themselves are. In fact, there was a scientific study regarding this, which you will find in this blog post by a teacher of Philosophy: My Imaginary Friend (click). So analogously on a larger scale, what a society follows as a part of their ‘own’ religion is a reflection of what its core instincts are. Though, I speak a lot against religion, I am aware that religion is created by people like you and me with God only knows what motives! πŸ˜› But that is precisely the reason I believe religions must not be considered as immutable and sacrosanct, and the elements that hurt individuals (or group of individuals) must be systematically removed rather than sacrificing their welfare and right to happiness at the altar of purported sacredness of religion.

      ‘Gender equality’ would itself be difficult to define. So, in a way I agree that that stage would be difficult to reach. And more important, that is the reason I was being so guarded (“perhaps hopefully”), so I am not as optimistic as you might have gauged me to be. πŸ™‚ But a lot also depends on what time frame we are talking here. I think things would be lot better in next four to five decades, by which two generational changes would occur. When I say ‘equality’, I mean removal of prejudices. The nature of prejudices is such that they always find a way in the minds of people. And some of those prejudices happen to be gender-specific. πŸ™‚ So, that way real gender equality might be difficult to achieve.

      Also, I need to point out that power struggle is always context-specific, unless and until we are talking of physical strength. Women can use many devices to coerce men, and in fact, in my observation they do use. Also, just like how there would be few men who will always be stronger than most women, there are indeed a few women who are ‘stronger’ than most men. πŸ™‚

      I’m glad that you brought in the vicious cycle of girls not being allowed education and then their remaining susceptible to negative discrimination. But I have noticed that in villages (at least in Gujarat & Maharashtra), even this cycle is being broken. All my female cousins are lot more educated than their mothers. Also, hardly any of my female cousins were discriminated against ‘much’ in terms of provision of education for simply being females. And these are the cousins whose parents had grown up in village. E.g., a few of my ‘bua-jis’ had never entered a school! So, that way the change I have seen merely in one generation is phenomenal. πŸ™‚ But of course, mere education does not improve things completely. We do have a greatly sexist attitude in most areas (and not all of those sexist beliefs actually hurt women, some hurt even men).

      Thanks a lot for reading and commenting! Finally, succeeded in making my comment longer than yours! Phew! πŸ˜›

      Take care.

  6. Nice article and thanks for sharing with me πŸ™‚ I think it is important to question these things and try and understand where things come from and how we got here.

    I don’t think we have all the answers yet though. Cultural anthropology is still mostly male dominated. And hence research tends to be male centric IMO. We don’t see too many pictures of a female apes evolving, do we.

    I agree with you that the hunter/gatherer professions probably show how our physical and mental capacities evolved. e.g. It’s possible that men were able to strategize better and women were able to intuit/listen/relate better perhaps. However, these gender specific roles are shifting now and who knows what our brain scans will show in 1000 years ! (Would be great if I could re-incarnate as a fly on the wall just to see these scans πŸ˜‰ ).

    As Taslima Nasrin mentions (I favorited her tweet to you a couple weeks ago btw), there were matriarchal societies throughout history with women at the center of power. We don’t have to go farther than Kerala to see traces of this history. More research must be conducted so we make less assumptions. For now, all research talks about a patriarchal societies (which may be what they were). But I think science is at its best when assumptions are challenged to get to the truths whatever they may be. πŸ™‚

  7. riffraaf,

    Welcome to the blog!

    Thanks for a wonderful, well-thought comment!

    Yes, somehow that all the apes shown to evolve into man were males. That never struck me as odd, but now that you point out, yes, it is indeed odd. And that’s one of the reasons I thought it apt to congratulate your for pointing this out. I guess, females would always be more astute than males at recognizing gender-discrimination! Or, I could be wrong, of course. πŸ™‚

    Hehe! Amusing to know an atheist like you thinks wishfully of re-incarnations! πŸ˜› I hope, you retain the riffraaf brain even as a fly. πŸ˜‰

    On the whole, as I had mentioned very early into the post, I am not a historian, nor anthropologist, nor sociologist. So, all the conclusions are mine. They are based more in observing people’s psychology and behavior on the streets rather than on reading up history (which I am actually very poor at). The dynamics of power-play between individuals is always interesting to watch. πŸ™‚

    I agree that we need to understand the genesis of whatever prejudices and institutions that exist in the society. It will serve two purposes in this particular case of gender discrimination – men will become aware of the wrongs they are doing, second, many women might also not feel victimized for essentially what were crimes of the past. I have seen many women think that males have always been plotting historically to curb the liberty of women, but I find that a too extreme way of looking at things. In fact, the idea of egalitarianism that makes such good intuitive sense to us currently, is fairly recent in human history if I am not wrong. So, lot of cultural baggage, childhood conditioning, perhaps a few genetic/psychological factors and lastly, ulterior motives are steeped against males regarding females as their equals. That, such factors exist, is not an excuse to let them influence our psyche, but becoming aware of them would sensitize us to our prejudices, and perhaps, at least a few conscientious males would ‘make mental adjustments’, which would result in their seeing gender as a non-issue. And of course, as time progresses and women become more assertive, even those males who are not yet convinced about gender-equality, would have a lesser say in the society. Their children’s nurture would be less steeped in male supremacy, and (again) hopefully, that is how things will keep on improving till December of 2012, that is! πŸ˜‰

    I have no idea how matriarchal societies evolved? Just a wild guess is that because of some reasons, such societies would have engaged less in warfare, so that males’ brawn power did not come to be that much coveted, or almost paradoxically, they had been devastated so much by warfare (many wars entailed killings of all males, especially adults and teenage) that few males were left to boss over the grown up females. But yes, those are just wild guesses.

    Thanks, again!

  8. Most people assume that attributes that further survival are coveted. From what I see, what’s coveted most is crack cocaine, illicit sex, and gambling. In modern terms, nuclear war, global pollution, overfishing, overpopulating, desertifcation, wrecking the whole damn atmosphereβ€”not survival. Archeology is a long litany of cultures that overharvest and trash their local environments and have to go somewhere else, so I don’t give much weight to humans thinking logically and choosing the best survival strategy.

    Common knowledge is wrong as often as not. One of those cases is prehistory, when cavelady Jane waited around to reward her mighty manly huner mate with nooky for bringing home the mammoth. Essentially that picture that was based on zero evidence and its authors being men, who think with their dicks. Today, converging lines of evidence show that it is BS.

    Modern hunter-gatherers, for example aren’t like that at all. The fact that the women bring home most of the food should not be a surprise, or that most of it is plant foods. What would you rather do, go hunt down a bear to kill it with a sharp stick, or pick some berries? So to start, here’s an intro to modern anthro models.

    Another is primitive skills / survival camping, which is a kind of hobby of mine. Imagine going out to live in the jungle: then go do it, and see if it turns out to be the way you imagined it. It won’t, and trust me, you won’t focus on hunting big game. Also, the required qualities of endurance, agility and even strength are possessed by both genders; they’re not out there having cage fights. Sure, you’d choose mostly men to go battle another tribe, but that is an infinitesimal fraction of living. This whole physical limitations of women thing is bs.

    Except for one area, which you seized on; men can use their larger size and upper body strength to intimidate (i.e. beat the crap out of) women . Also of course women are tied down by pregnancy, and nursing. The big thing though, I think, is where you talk about how the emotion of awe, and how it would be easy to be grateful to a man who brought you food. The fact is it’s nearly always a woman who brings you food, and they are notoriously not appreciated for it. The ones we make heroes out of are the Rambo types, who Kick Ass And Take Names! A guy only has to fill that role once and his reputation as a Hero is secure, even if he’s a lazy mooching bum the rest of his life. We idolize killers.

    β€œWe” here means patriarchal societies, like ours, that are agricultural, warlike, hierarchical. Other types exist. The US constitution came largely from the Iroquois Confederacy, where all decisions had to be approved by a council of women. The trick is for such cultures to defend themselves against warlike neighbors. As to jealosy, the Polynesians and Aleuts were both famous for β€œsharing their women”, maybe like bonobos. Again, we tend to think of patriarchy as the norm. Here’s a link.

    • Uzza,

      As I’d tried to clarify in the beginning of the post, I’m no anthropologist or psychologist to speak on these things with any authority. But for many things in life, especially, things that appear weird (e.g., the degree to which gender-based discrimination is prevalent), I have developed my own theories. Unfortunately, I am not even as well-read as you seem to be. My academics have left very little time for this kind of reading, but I hope to catch up as now on I won’t be that busy. πŸ™‚ So, my speculations on this topic were not at all based on any knowledge understanding of history, but simply on what I call ‘power-dynamics’ between common people as I get to see it in my daily life.

      I must say, I have become even less confident after reading your well-thought out comment.

      But following is what I would like to point out, in the hope that it might make you think of few new things.

      1. Man nowadays seems to not covet life, simply because survival is not as challenging as it used to be say, just 100 years back. So, most people take basic survival for granted. They don’t have to think about it actively. And thus, it is instantaneous pleasure that has become more coveted. In fact, the amount and frequency of violence, I suspect has decreased a lot in this century despite an actual enhancement in lethality of weapons possessed. Perhaps, it is because of reasons such as these people take to narcotic drugs, smoking, fatty food, sedentary lifestyle, gambling, etc. despite knowing they are harmful to health. Also, though the final result might be disease/death, but at least while indulging people feel pleasure. So, it is not a case that survival is not coveted (an attestation to that fact would be amount of funds spent on medical research and how much people are ready to pay their doctors once they get ill or fear death). But yes, if your point was that there is a huge margin for people to get sane, then yes, I agree. πŸ™‚

      2. I get your point on food being brought by women. But is it possible that fruits/berries did not have it in them to provide for fats, something that would be quite required to survive cold climate. Plus, there has always been a debate whether humans were herbivore or omnivore. Traits like presence of canines and inability to digest suggest that humans were indeed omnivorous. And of course, one does not need to hunt down a bear for food. What about hares, birds, etc.? Here, it needs to be factored in (something that both you and I pointed out) that even if women might have been capable of hunting animals, they would have been incapable for long periods of their life because of pregnancy and having to take care of young kids.

      2. Strength & agility are possessed by both men and women, agreed, but I believe (based on say, performance in athletics) that men possess more of them. Yes, it would be a different matter whether these abilities translate into better hunting skills. Also, it needs to be looked into whether these skills would better equip men to protect their family from wild beasts and human enemies compared to women.

      3. Yes, I have very little experience at camping. πŸ™‚ But, is it possible that in old days the fauna was much different from what it is now. E.g., in India we keep on hearing how tigers (only over a thousand of them left) and lions (only a few hundreds left) are on verge of extinction, because they were hunted down rampantly after the advent of firearms.

      4. Physical intimidation is certainly one thing that must have played a role that is difficult to fathom. It certainly must have been great. But is it not possible that abused wives would poison their husband or something, if they truly felt that men were a liability in their lives, rather than being an asset? As it is, hunters used to apply poison to their arrows, so the women would also know how to prepare the said poison.

      Nothing of what I have asked you above are rhetorical questions. I truly want to know what you feel.

      And if you could believe me, I have not tried to glorify ‘power’ and ‘subjugation’. In fact, this urge to prove ones power to others is, I feel, one of the biggest problems of most individuals and societies.

      One of the biggest reasons, I am skeptical of women being equally capable of warding off beasts and hunting, is because the kind of traits the either genders get sexually attracted to. I do not know what element of cultural conditioning goes into it. But from what I have observed, women do tend to find ‘Rambo’ kind of men attractive. Whereas, there would be few men who would get attracted to a female Rambo! πŸ˜€ I think the reason for that could something similar to what I tried to point out in the post (sense of gratefulness towards men for being saviors), or do you think the subconscious mental process is something like this:

      Woman: “Wow, he’s so muscular. I wonder how well can he beat the crap out of *me*!”

      Man: “Wow, she looks so delicate, so ‘feminine’. I wonder how helpless she would look in defending herself against my abuse!”

      The latter sounds plausible, for I suspect a few men quite consciously think like that. But former (what the woman would think looking at a muscular, well-built, tall man) sounds very weird, against all kind of human logic.

      I know there are exceptions to the above (very) generic model on how societies might have evolved.

      I repeat, I’m only trying to understand things as best as I can. πŸ™‚

      Thanks for your patience!

      Take care.

  9. This is an interesting post and I think you may be onto something. I wanted to point out that even in hunter/gatherer societies, women also did some hunting, usually it was small game but it was still hunting. I only studied a little bit of cultural anthropology but it seems some of the early societies were probably more egalitarian.

    Then there’s the issue of colonialism which also contributed to discrimination and oppression of women. For example in African tribes where women had more freedom and rights, as soon as colonialism took over, women soon became second class citizens.

    • RenKiss,

      Welcome to the blog!

      Yes, it is possible that the women in olden days might have hunted, but perhaps with lesser efficiency and frequency owing to being gestating or tied with nursing most of the times – of course that is one of my speculations – and something that even Uzza above seems to be supporting.

      I wouldn’t know, but it is indeed possible that African societies were more egalitarian vis-a-vis genders and that it is (European) colonialism that induced anti-feminine bias, in which case we need to ask as to how did Europe acquire an anti-feminine bias if its society was largely fair to both the genders to begin with.

      Thanks for your inputs!

    • RenKiss,

      As my disclaimer goes at the starting of this post, I am no expert. I was only trying to come up with a *very* generic model on how things might have happened. And any generic model is bound to have some stark exceptions. Of course, I am not even implying that my generic model is accurate.

      Moreover, my inferences were more from observation of individuals rather than study of history or of society. Meaning, I was trying to extend the psychological struggles (for dominance) between individuals of this day to those that had lived and died in the past. Of course, there is a great chance of my going wrong thus. πŸ™‚

      What you pointed about industrialization is very interesting. I think colonialism led to degradation of woman’s status at many places, but perhaps renaissance and industrial revolution led to improvement in woman’s status where these movements originated, i.e., in Europe. πŸ™‚

      Thanks for reading and commenting! πŸ™‚

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