Listen to the Feminine
by Jeremy Henzell-Thomas
It has always seemed presumptuous, even somewhat preposterous, to me for men to pontificate in an authoritarian manner about the role of women in Islam as if the feminine principle is something which needs to be rigidly confined or patronisingly relegated to a narrow domain of activity. This can be especially jarring when it is comes from hectoring male figures who show no evidence of the psychological and spiritual integration which depends on the development of the feminine principle within themselves. To remind myself of the dangers of male authoritarianism I collect magnetic stickers which I give to my wife to post on our fridge. My favourites are: “Everyone is entitled to my opinion”, and “How many roads must a man walk down before he is lost”.
I say this not in the least because I want to uphold a unisex agenda which obliterates the precious differences between the sexes, for, as the Qur’an says, “everything have We created in pairs” (51: 49), and “We have created you all out of a male and a female…” (49:13). It is this elemental polarity underpinning the whole of creation which is the most obvious expression of divinely ordained diversity. The dance of this polarity is the excitement we call “love,” for “…among His wonders is this: He creates for you mates out of your own kind, so that you might incline towards them, and He engenders love and tenderness between you: in this, behold, there are messages indeed for people who think!” (Qur’an 30: 21).
Yes, “vive la difference”, but at the same time the Qur’an tells us that diversity is ordained for us so that we may come to know one another, and this applies not only to nations and tribes but also to the realm of gender relations. So what does it mean for men and women to know one another? My approach to this is a psychological one, because we need to realise that no human being is complete unless he or she has integrated what is complementary to his or her own sex. It is this integration of what is complementary which is the deepest kind of “knowing” of the “other”. Integration can never arise from a distanced kind of “tolerance”, still less of course from the denial of the worth of the other, but arises from active and direct engagement with and profound respect for the creative principles which the “other” embodies.
Let me express this in a more concrete way. It is often said that the kind of man who is particularly attractive to women is the warrior-poet, that is, the man of distinctly masculine qualities, notably courage, who yet has a poetic soul. Conversely, the kind of woman most treasured by men is the woman of spirit who displays actively intrepid qualities without sacrificing her softer feminine nature. To integrate himself, the man weds to his innate quality of “spirit” a “watery” element of soulfulness and the woman weds to her innate quality of “soul” a “fiery” element of “spiritedness”. Neither takes too much of the “other”, for this would unbalance the authenticity of what it means to be a man or a woman. Too much “soulfulness” for a man can make him languid and effeminate (we have all seen those pictures of effete Victorian poet-aesthetes languishing on couches) and too much “spiritedness” for a woman can make her insensitive and strident (and we have all met exemplars of the new breed of women who believe they have to sacrifice their positive feminine qualities in order to succeed as “managers”). But a man with no taste of the feminine soul is in the grip of a masculine one-sidedness which distorts positive strength into negative aggression, domination, brutishness, and an inability to relate, and a woman with no taste of the masculine spirit is in the grip of a negative feminine one-sidedness which makes of her a “handless maiden”, passive, fragile, swooning, limp and dependent. In Aristotelian terms, these vices arise from excess or defect of an essential virtue. For perfect exemplars of integrated people who embodied the golden mean, we need look no further than our Prophet Muhammad and his first love, Khadijah.
I suggested in my last article for Emel magazine that one of the most pressing needs at this time is for a new breed of ambassadors who can find the points of convergence between the best of all traditions. The key quality that such a task demands is the ability to relate, and this underpins all the qualities I itemized in that article: emotional maturity, psychological insight, social intelligence, communicative competence, aesthetic awareness and inter-cultural sensitivity. We could add to this the quality of empathy.
I also suggested that these relational qualities are typically developed not through those occupations traditionally valued by Muslims as a means to acquire money and status, such as engineering, medicine, computer science, and law, but through an education rich in the Humanities. Studying literature, for example, is a good way to develop understanding of human character and relationships, humane values and the moral consequences of actions. The cognitive, social and affective benefits of music education, drama and other creative pursuits are well documented by research. All such activities promote a sense of connectivity. Of course, the ability to relate is also nurtured in the home and wider society through a network of family and social relationships, and this is a strength of Muslim society as a whole, so I am not in the least suggesting that Muslims without an education in the Humanities are incapable of relating effectively to other people or other perspectives. But what I am saying is that there is a particular need at this time to bring out those essentially feminine, relational qualities in a climate which has dangerously overvalued the masculine and therefore threatens our capacity for integration, both within ourselves and within culture and society.
And let us be clear that this imbalance, while so easy to see in authoritarian perversions of Islam rooted in fear and hatred of women, is very much present in Western society too. This may sound surprising, because we associate Western civil society with female emancipation and gender equality. But I am not making a point about legal rights to “equality”, absolutely fundamental as these rights are to any decent society, whether based in Western concepts of civic society or in the Qur’an itself. There are blatantly evident imbalances and injustices in the Muslim world which need correction through legislation, but the imbalance in the West is not essentially a legal matter; it is a psychological problem caused by an over-valuation of a masculine outlook, and to remedy it we need psychological insight. It is not difficult to see that the relational and affective mode which I associate with the feminine principle is increasingly at risk in a culture which gives such eminence to thinking, managing and controlling over feeling, cooperating and nurturing. The bias towards thinking over feeling in Western culture, especially in corporate and business environments, is well-known by occupational psychologists who use the MBTI (Myers-Briggs Type Inventory) to produce personality profiles. MBTI practitioners are trained to make corrections for it in scoring questionnaires.
Increasingly dominated by an unbalanced masculine managerialism, we go implacably about our business, striving, competing, achieving, performing, multi-tasking, outwitting, texting, ‘phoning, e-mailing, upgrading, optimising, ratcheting up standards, modelling best practice, driving forward the agenda, pushing the envelope, managing risks, managing time, planning short-, medium- and long-term goals, strategising, formulating policies and putting them in place, imposing sound commercial disciplines, meeting targets and deadlines, building cohesive teams, brainstorming, giving power-point presentations, rooting out dead wood, appraising, inspecting, evaluating, assessing, monitoring, testing, improving efficiency, providing quality assurance, specifying performance indicators, checking tick-boxes, defining outcomes, imposing systems of accountability, pressurising, oppressing, bullying, fast-tracking, networking, and of course, delivering. Brian Thorne, Professor of Counselling Studies at the University of East Anglia, has written about some of the casualties of this culture who increasingly populate his consulting room for therapy, and my oppressive list of frenetic activities and judgmental processes is an extension of his. Have we forgotten that to “deliver”, in its original meaning, is to “set free”, not to enslave either ourselves or others?
Even teachers these days no longer teach; they “deliver” a curriculum, or a policy. We should resist not only the kind of language which reduces education to a kind of soulless managerialism, but also the kind of language which equates education with the postal service. Are teachers only there to “deliver” programmes of study, as if they were pre-packaged one-way parcels, mere items of content to be transmitted into letter-box brains? In authentic spiritual traditions, the teacher is not only responsible for the instruction and training of the mind and the transmission of knowledge, but also with the education of the whole being. Such traditions never divorced the training of the mind from that of the soul. In the Islamic tradition, for example, the teacher is both a muallim (a transmitter of knowledge) and a murabbi (a nurturer of souls).
Nancy Kline, in her book Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind compares a ‘Thinking Environment’ with what she calls ‘Male Conditioning’. In the Thinking Environment, people Listen; in the environment controlled by Male Conditioning, they Take over and Talk. Familiar territory? Have you ever been to a conference where, despite the request of the Chairman that people restrict themselves to short comments or concise questions, someone (usually a man) stands up and launches into a twenty-minute monologue? Let’s explore the other dichotomies Nancy Kline sets out. Here they are: Ask Incisive Questions/ Know everything; Establish quality/Assume superiority; Appreciate/Criticize; Be at ease/Control; Encourage/Toughen; Humanize the place/Conquer the place; Create diversity/Deride difference. It’s pretty obvious which pole of each dichotomy belongs to the Thinking Environment and which to Male Conditioning.
In the epilogue to his remarkable book, The Passion of the Western Mind, Richard Tarnas affirms his belief that the resolution of the crisis caused by the over-valuation of the masculine in Western culture is already emerging in various movements which reflect an epochal shift in the contemporary psyche, a fulfilment of the longing for a reunion with the feminine, a reconciliation between the two great polarities, a union of opposites. This can be seen in the “tremendous emergence of the feminine in our culture…the widespread opening up to feminine values by both men and women…in the increasing sense of unity with the planet and all forms of nature on it, in the increasing awareness of the ecological and the growing reaction against political and corporate policies supporting the domination and exploitation of the environment, in the growing embrace of the human community, in the accelerating collapse of long-standing and ideological barriers separating the world’s peoples, in the deepening recognition of the value and necessity of partnership, pluralism, and the interplay of many perspectives.”
I would add the important caveat that we are now at a point of maximum intensification of those negative aspects of masculine consciousness, as they attempt to forestall the impending paradigm shift described by Tarnas. This rearguard action, a typical occurrence as old paradigms redouble their efforts to prevent change, includes the co-opting into the masculine camp of a new legion of women who have embraced an unbalanced masculine modus operandi and have themselves abandoned the emerging feminine values which Tarnas sees as the main hope for the epochal shift in the contemporary psyche. Similarly, alongside the increasing awareness of the ecological is a potentially catastrophic acceleration in the assault on bio-diversity and in climate change; alongside the growing dissolution of ideological barriers separating the world’s peoples we have the pernicious doctrine of the Clash of Civilisations which threatens to engulf the world in catastrophic conflict; alongside the deepening recognition of the value and necessity of partnership, pluralism, and the interplay of many perspectives, we have the resurgence of dangerously divisive forms of unilateralism, isolationism, nationalism, patriotism, militarism, machismo, supremacist ideology, triumphalism, and other forms of narrow identity politics. In all of this we can see the common thread of an autonomous solipsism which destroys relationship, and which has reached the stage where it has assumed a pathological character, a kind of societal and cultural autism or malignant egophrenia.
Never has the need been greater for a concerted effort to challenge those “corporate and political policies” which sustain the old paradigm. And it seems to me self-evident that the gift for relationship at the heart of the feminine psyche needs to guide this effort, whether that gift is offered by women or by men who have integrated it into their own being. This endeavour goes beyond the task, important as it is, of presenting Islam with a human face; it can help to transform not only the perception of Islam in the West, so that Islam is no longer misrepresented as inimical to women, but can also contribute to the transformation of Western society itself through the rediscovery of its own soul. This is the challenge for us: to go beyond our own solipsism, our own absorption in our own community, and to reach out with all our gifts to improve the society in which we live for all its people. In that task, intrepid Muslim women who honour their living connection with the feminine can guide us all.