Can women be fully empowered without disempowering men?

This topic brought to my mind two opposing pieces of literature that I had recently read – a book called Princess about life of a Saudi princess, another an article on the domestic life of boxing champion Mary Kom. They could not be more poles apart. I will primarily be talking about the book and using Mary Kom’s tale to highlight the stark contrast.

Princess tells the story of Sultana, born into the royal family of Al Sa’ud with no amenity or luxury too costly to be out of reach but no real freedom to speak of. The book is a first person account that takes us from her childhood to her 30’s. It talks about the indignities she has seen heaped on her ilk. As she aptly says in the book, “The whole life of a new born baby is decided by the genitalia it is born with”.

She talks about her father having multiple wives, her sixteen year old sister being married off to a sixty-two year old and being brutalized post marriage and having no one to support her so much so she attempts suicide, a friend being killed for the crime of meeting men, foreign women who come to work there being tortured and raped. This is the plight of women she has seen since entering this world. Being one of ten sisters and a brother, she talks about the importance given to her brother and how all her sisters including herself are treated as objects – not to be heard from, to be traded off like cattle in the name of marriage, to live life in accordance with male whims. Women have no voice in matters of their life – education, marriage, the number of children they want to have. They are seen as baby producing machines whose worth is decided by the number of male heirs they produce.

The book also talks about female genital mutilation and brutal punishments meted to women such as solitary confinement in a darkened room for life – that too on flimsy grounds. Women’s sexuality is owned by the man of the house and any hint of impropriety is punished brutally even if perpetrated on the woman. In the book, a woman is punished to death by stoning. Her fault – she was gang raped and the authorities that be took the word of the men who raped her – that she was promiscuous and seduced them. The book also talks about men of God raping children and without an ounce of guilt, preaching how women should behave.

It’s a world I shudder to ever step in.  Let’s look at the titular topic in the context of this world. Men draw their power from disempowering women to extreme extents. Women are considered inferior to men and have to toe to the whims and fancies of men. All the laws are extremely biased against them. They are not even allowed to testify because there testimony is not considered trustworthy. The religious authorities called Mutawas run riot on their lives.

Are these men empowered? Can men whose power comes from subjugating others be called empowered? We may as well call Hitler, Pol Pot, slave owners empowered. It’s simply the wrong way of looking at things.

If women in this kingdom are empowered like their counterparts in many parts of the world, will it disempower men? Men sure will feel so because they have been conditioned that way all their lives. That’s the script they have been handled since birth, since time immemorial – that they are the lords of the universe and women have been placed on this earth to do their bidding. They are bound to be growing pains to reach the other side – to a world where the universal truth that “we are all born equal” is  an accepted dogma.

On the other end of the spectrum is the story of the boxer Mary Kom and her husband K. Onler. Onler gave up his career to support the family while Mary pursued hers. He says emphatically,”It’s said that behind every successful man is a woman who sacrifices her dreams and goals. But why should only the woman make the sacrifice? Mary has struggled so hard to achieve all that she has; she shouldn’t have to throw it all away just to follow the societal norms.”

Does this story talk of a disempowered man? The men conditioned in dogma will think so. But isn’t what he has true empowerment? The freedom to choose whatever role he wants to play, not what society expects him to play. We are still living in the paradigm where we see men as the primary bread earners. We have stepped into a paradigm where it’s not an incongruity to see women work. But for a man to give up his career to support the family while the woman works is still a step too far. But can we step into that utopia? We sure can. Hopefully, we can create a future where a person’s worth being decided by genitalia has been confined to the dustbins of the past.

We will all be better for it – men as well as women – when we will be able to harness the potential of every human being on this earth.

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