Men and women wearing traditional period garb take part in a medieval festival in Belgrade, Serbia, on Aug. 27. (Photo: AFP)
We are in a time of worldwide cultural transition that has had no parallel since the beginning of humankind, and it deals with the relations between men and women.
The eternal doctrine of “separate domains” that has been in place for over 4,000 years is crumbling nearly everywhere, as women progressively enter nearly all the professions formerly reserved for men.
Most men are uncomfortable with these changes and resist them either overtly or covertly. Not all men are as blatantly retrograde as the Taliban, still, the sexual harassment of women is a fact of life in almost every country.
The novelist Joseph Conrad put it well: “Being a woman is a terribly difficult task since it consists principally in dealing with men.”
But there are at least a few men who think differently. They have started by taking a personal interest and responsibility for doing “women’s work” (changing diapers, cooking meals, cleaning the house). Some have even chosen and taken delight in being “house dads” while their wives are employed full-time as the sole breadwinners.
Though many cultures, even today, resent the confluence of domains and argue for traditional categories, technology is increasingly making the distinction between 'male' and 'female' obsolete.
The first major event that brought women into the public workforce was war, especially the world wars. Women took men’s place in factories, and in doing various administrative tasks.
The second equally important event is the spread of 'user-friendly' technology, which makes it irrelevant whether you are a male or female operator.
All of this has happened at a swift pace in three or four brief generations. This is the story we wish to understand today.
How do men and women interact?
In feudal societies, both sexes had well-defined roles from which neither could stray. Women particularly were confined to the home and children, to the cloister or harem — and dared not break free.
Unlike men, who were different, and could roam wherever they wished.
The keynote of modern life, however, is freedom, not just spatial, but also mental and emotional.
First comes the desire to want more, the wish to be different, and the urge to remove constraints — these always precede the quest for freedom, and they help bring it about.
But for much of human history such freedom was only granted to men, and more, to certain kinds of men. But rarely, almost never, was it conceded to women.
Interaction in the public domain
It is men who dominate the public domain, which is entirely related to control and power. This is where patriarchy resides — men in control of others (slaves, children and women).
Today in many places we don’t have slaves, but we increasingly have “migrant workers” who are often little better than serfs. They are accepted unwillingly, largely underpaid, and often made to feel unwanted. Even more so when the migrant is a woman.
There are two related issues: first, the nervousness of women who work in a "public situation" dominated by men (their colleagues, their bosses). Men are known to tease and demean women, by word and gesture.
Women who enter the public domain must ‘put on’ the mask of control, or else they will be despised as vulnerable — a contemptible female trait (tears, physical weakness, pettiness, menstrual sickness…)
The process of becoming ‘defeminized’ starts here.
The second issue is more subtle. It refers to the fear of husbands, that "if she goes out to work, she'll want to go out to bed." All the restrictions on a woman’s freedom start with this repressed fear of men — “I can’t control her!” — and the bogus appeals to religion.
Sadly, in its prohibitions against women priests and deaconesses, the Catholic Church shows itself hardly better than many other medieval religions with its obsessions of what to eat, what not to drink, and what to wear.
Men don’t like to show their ‘weaknesses’ in public, such as crying, being frightened, or losing bowel control. However, they have no problem in expressing rage, using foul language, getting drunk, flirting, or indulging in sex play.
If the former are seen as weaknesses and ‘womanly,’ the latter are considered ‘manly’ and to be proud of. The more violent the behavior, the better!
Thus men become admirable to other men — and perhaps to many women too!
On the other hand, when men allow themselves to be vulnerable (that is, when they are wounded, or hurt), they become immensely attractive to women. They then get in touch with their feelings.
Getting in touch with their feelings means they can fall in love, which is quite different from merely having sex.
Romance is when we stimulate the imagination of love, both in the man and the woman. Romantic love embraces sex but goes far beyond. Romantic love is always interpersonal and opens us to the ‘mystery’ that each person is.
Most of all, it establishes a relationship that both sides desire to be permanent. This is what is commonly, but not universally, called marriage.
Modern living has substituted sexual techniques for romantic involvement. In the age of the machine, we hope that the right technique/technology will bring success in human relationships.
Perhaps technology is helpful in some ways. But making love has more to do with the imagination than with technology.
Men discover their emotional side either in a close relationship with a woman (usually, but not necessarily, sexual love); with a mentor or spiritual guide (someone who leads you beyond the present); or through experiences that ‘shatter normality.’
Thus, being on the deathbed of a close friend, or being a doctor in a field hospital during wartime makes us reconsider what is “normal.”
Such experiences are called “liminal” — they push one over a “threshold” (limen). One isn’t the same after that. All liminal experiences take one to a different level of being.
Changing roles for men and women
The challenge for all men is to show greater understanding and sensitivity to women everywhere, especially to those not of one’s culture. Practically speaking, it means encouraging their participation in things a man would otherwise do alone. This is a new learning opportunity in how to grow fully.
It tells men there is a feminine aspect that is theirs. And to women, that they can access their masculine energy.
We are at an age where technology has made inroads into every area of human life. Spacecraft and satellites are familiar to us, as are smartphones, pacemakers and computers. Artificial Intelligence is the topic of the day.
At the same time, an important aspect of contemporary living is our awareness of the environment. Climate change and global warming have made us aware as nothing ever before, that the earth is a living, sentient reality, and that nature severely punishes those who ill-treat her.
The Eastern way, philosophically at least, has ever been to combine opposites, to live in harmony, positive and negative, consciousness/thinking and unconsciousness/feeling.
Relations between men and women, preclusive and antagonistic for centuries, but now inclusive and complementary, may yet point the way to a new future on this planet.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.