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The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself. – Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
The rise of the global feminist movement has forced men to reconsider their roles and privileges.
When women in the west achieved universal suffrage–which much of the world still has yet to accomplish—they did so despite virulent male opposition. When women first attempted to study in institutions of higher learning, they did so in spite of widespread male criticism and hostility. When women made significant inroads into the paid workforce, they did so in defiance of the masculine status quo. When women were finally granted the right to enter into contracts and own property, it required another long struggle against the laws of the male-dominated court systems in many countries. The feminists’ fight for women’s rights has always required dedication and perseverance.
The origins of the word “feminist”–which the Oxford English Dictionary says first came into use in 1852–almost exactly parallel the beginnings of the Baha’i Faith. Perhaps that’s no coincidence:
In the world of humanity… the female sex is treated as though inferior, and is not allowed equal rights and privileges. This condition is due not to nature, but to education. In the Divine Creation there is no such distinction. Neither sex is superior to the other in the sight of God. Why then should one sex assert the inferiority of the other, withholding just rights and privileges as though God had given His authority for such a course of action? – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 161.
Since the Baha’i teachings so clearly and completely assert the equality of men and women, and have done so since the very beginnings of the Faith in the mid-1800’s, Baha’is all over the world have had a hundred and fifty years of experience—about six generations–in raising children on equal terms. Educating and training Baha’i girls has led them to a very high level of accomplishment, which has, in turn, impelled and encouraged Baha’i boys to try to match their sisters’ achievements. In the ensuing generations, well-educated mothers have then raised even more accomplished girls and boys.
This new standard of equality, where boys and girls have the same school curriculum, the same course of study, the same expectations and the same opportunities, helps diminish and eventually do away with the societal problem of male privilege. That syndrome—the expectation that maleness is the social norm, and femaleness is not—supports the patriarchal nature of society and over-empowers men, leading them to believe that they possess the right to be right.
In other words, male privilege harms males. Traditional gender roles make boys into fake men.
When societies promote male privilege it contributes to a sense of entitlement—which not only perpetuates systemic bias that damages girls and women, but also negatively affects the development of boys. Any un-earned accolade, reward or privilege, as most educators will testify, can lead to an inflated, inauthentic sense of self-esteem. Eventually, as the child grows to adulthood, that lack of authenticity often gives rise to a diminishing reservoir of male self-worth, an inner conviction of falseness and counterfeit accomplishment.
Eradicating a sense of male privilege in boys, even when it permeates the society they grow up in, can offer them the gift of real accomplishment in their lives. Rather than the un-earned academic distinction or the promotion or the recognition that comes from privileging the masculine; equality can bring boys a lasting sense of genuine attainment and fulfillment:
The world of humanity consists of two parts: male and female. Each is the complement of the other. Therefore, if one is defective, the other will necessarily be incomplete, and perfection cannot be attained. There is a right hand and a left hand in the human body, functionally equal in service and administration. If either proves defective, the defect will naturally extend to the other by involving the completeness of the whole; for accomplishment is not normal unless both are perfect. If we say one hand is deficient, we prove the inability and incapacity the other; for single-handed there is no full accomplishment. Just as physical accomplishment is complete with two hands, so man and woman, the two parts the social body, must be perfect. It is not natural that either should remain undeveloped; and until both are perfected, the happiness of the human world will not be realized. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 134.
Few boys or girls want to attain anything unfairly. Any bias or prejudice produces unfairness, and even more importantly, any un-earned privilege produces unfair expectations. In many cultures, we expect that men will be financially successful, professionally accomplished and physically strong. Any man falling short of those unfair expectations becomes something less than the society’s male privilege will countenance, and often gets branded a failure as a result. Those unrealistic expectations, driven by unhealthy privilege and stereotypical male gender roles, often cause boys and men to strike out against others or become self-destructive.
That may explain why homelessness, substance abuse, addiction, mental illness, criminal behavior and imprisonment disproportionately occurs among men.
So if you want to raise boys who become authentic, satisfied and happy adults, you’ll definitely want to make sure they understand they’re equal to girls, and girls are equal to them.