Is it not time for women to philosophize? A call to thinking

د/عزة رمضان

By: Dr. Azza Ramadan

Professor of Philosophy & Creed, Al-Azhar University


          While I was flicking through the TV channels today, I was struck by a black and white Arabic movie titled ‘Adou al-Mar’ah (Enemy of Women) that I had watched years ago when I was in preparatory school. I decided to watch it to see the difference between my previous and current perception of the movie. However, a few minutes later, I forgot about holding this comparison and shifted to considering the idea itself!

Regardless of the movie’s plot twists, I am concerned about its “main theme” in the first place, i.e. men’s perception of women. In other words, what are the factors that shape and develop this idea?  What is its background? What are its consequences?  Is it true, as the hero of the movie claims – quoting opinions of philosophers and scholars – that women are inferior to men, and their mission in this life is limited to being a wife and a mother?!

Such questions and others led me to think. In fact, it is not the first time to reflect on this issue and think about all these questions. I cannot explain if this reflection is because I am a woman, or due to studying and teaching rational sciences. A few years ago, I had the chance to meet the German orientalist, Professor Joseph Van Ess at the University of Tübingen in Germany. He was astonished when he knew that I am studying Logic and Theology at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. For him, it was unfamiliar to know that there is a “female” scholar who is interested in studying this branch of knowledge. His reaction reminded me of an incident that occurred on my first day of my third academic year at Al-Azhar University when I had to choose a specialty among the three specialties in the section of Fundamentals of Religion (‘Ususl al-Deen). On that day, I willingly asked the employee in charge of the department to register my name in the Creed and Philosophy branch. I will never forget her response: “Are you sure?!” She elaborated that everyone who registers their name in this branch does not willingly do so! Rather, female students are usually registered based on their grades!

In the curricula, which included ancient oriental thought, Greek Philosophy, medieval philosophies, and modern and contemporary philosophy, I was always waiting for a name of a famous “female” philosopher, or a renowned “female” scholar of rational sciences, but unfortunately my expectations weren’t met.  I could not help questioning the reason why there is no renowned female philosopher along with renowned names of male philosophers? Do women really lack the talent to philosophize and meditate? Are women not interested in philosophy and rational sciences in the first place? Why did women succeed in the fields of governance, literature, poetry, medicine, and physics unlike philosophy? I know that there are some female philosophers, and some specialists have dedicated one or several books about them, but are their names known to the public? If so, do they have an integrated philosophical view qualifying them to be called “philosophers?”

To bridge this gap, Mary Ellen Waithe introduced a four-volume series on the history of women philosophers. However, as soon as she started setting the criteria for selecting female philosophers, she found herself in a dilemma that motivated her to try using a special definition of philosophy. However, the attempt to resolve this dilemma comprised a problematic female perspective in itself; meaning how could women philosophers come up with   knowledge production of their own mindset when philosophy in its traditional sense is a male-oriented product!

Waithe, however, has already implemented her project in several stages that in turn produced several questions, the most important of which are: What is the history of philosophy? Did the philosophers fail to undertake the task of great philosophy, which means exploring the basic assumptions the philosopher depends on to discover where the truth is? Did we come to a different understanding of the nature of philosophy itself based on our knowledge of women’s intellect?

This project, in fact, was not the only attempt in this domain. There have been many attempts to document some women philosophers, the most famous of whom were “Theanu”, the wife of Pythagoras along with some of her peers, and Alexandrian “Hypathia”  who was known as a the martyr of philosophy. In the modern era, we had “Hanna Arendt” and “Simone de Beauvoir” who started from scratch when she came up with the question: What is a woman? However, when Beauvoir is mentioned, we must distinguish between two important things: feminist philosophy and feminist movements as, in this article, my interest is focused on feminist philosophy in an attempt to answer the question on women and philosophy.

  A group of researchers explains the reason why women do not engage in philosophical thinking and refrain from treating its deep-down macro issues is that they do not have adequate opportunities to develop their skills due to either social circumstances or tribal traditions. Other researchers, on the other hand, maintain that the reason is due to the existence of biological differences between men and women, which consequently lead to differences in the manner of thinking between the two genders. Therefore, they hold women as unable to philosophize. We do acknowledge that difference is a universal norm and a scientific fact; however, we should not   exaggerate in emphasizing this difference and referring everything through the lens of this perception.

During reading in this topic, the escalation of hostility and a sense of persecution experienced by Sally Haslanger has caught my attention. She said, “In my experience, it is very hard to find a place in philosophy that is not actively hostile towards women and minorities”. In this respect, some might agree with Haslanger that philosophical institutions perform an ideological role in protecting male superiority and this perspective has created a problem in dealing with women inside the circles of philosophy, especially in the West, despite all areas of enlightenment, and equality projects they claim to be superior to the countries of the East.

From the historical perspective, a question arises as to whether male historians possess the courage of Emmanuel Levnas who clearly stated that he adopted a purely male philosophical perspective in his approach to knowledge production? Such a statement saves us a lot of research and study, and decisively attests to the fact that male historians have intentionally disregarded women philosophers.

According to another view, there is no conspiracy against women philosophers; rather, female philosophers have already existed but their scholarly contributions have been lost! However, this opinion is not convincing since the entire body of works of male philosophers or thinkers, from the beginning of ancient Eastern thinking, are recorded and preserved in one way or another. So why were the works of women in particular lost? This reason, in my view, brings us back to the conspiracy theory again!

In our modern age, there are many intellectuals and philosophers who have occupied themselves with the contributions of women philosophers, yet the inferior view of women was dominant. Nietzsche, for instance, viewed women as “a trap made by nature”, which attests to his male-biased views in general. Hegel, on the other hand, questioned women’s ability to be part of the cosmic realm. Women willingly discard engaging in intellectual activities according to Kant, or as Marx remarked that the entire issue depends on women’s own choice.

To this effect, researchers concluded that there are three main reasons explaining this matter: historical and documentary reasons, and these, in my opinion, are the weakest. Other reasons are centered on the view about the natural differences between males and females, and the last is related to the male philosophical perception of women as being unable to philosophize.

Considering these reasons and attempting to answer the previous questions, it might produce an answer to the important question that some people ask—perhaps to embarrass religious figures—why was Prophethood and the Divine Message restricted  to men? In addition, why did God not send female Prophets to people? It seems that the issue is not limited to women’s mental ability, but rather to her biological and psychological nature. This responds as well to the claim that Islam or religions in general regard women as inferior to men, which is totally erroneous. Men and women are equal before God with respect to considering the obligations that leads to reaching the truth about the Creator in the end.

The Prophet of Islam (peace and blessings be upon him) said, “Women are sister-halves of men” which was clearly proved during his lifetime and the time of his Companions. Women back then had significant political and scholarly contributions and that extended to sharing the responsibility of ruling with men as occurred under the Caliphate of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab (may God be pleased with him). Islamic law (Shari’ah), consequently, has assigned the responsibilities according to the nature of each gender in order to maintain societal balance. However, it never prevented women from engaging the domain of thinking and reflecting and never considered them inferior to men. Supposing the existence of some primary texts that are erroneously interpreted to prove male superiority over women, this is ultimately resolved through clarifying the contexts and reasons for which these texts were revealed and pointing out the sound lexical aspects to prove that Islam did not wrong women. In the Islamic Sufi heritage, we have examples attesting to the lofty status of women that not only maintain equality between the two genders, but rather preferred females to males, like Sheikh ibn ‘Arabi in his book “Fusus al-Hikam”.

In conclusion, we admit that the issue of female philosophers is a multi-faced topic that requires extensive research to understand and analyze its dimensions. To be objective, we might realize after conducting research that a great deal of this problematic issue is related to women themselves and their inclination to decide upon their own interests, priorities and responsibilities.

Honestly speaking, I did not intend through this article to indicate certain reasons or favor some over the others as the issue stands beyond the capacity of individual research or opinion. This article is all about a call to think and bring the issue to the table of research and discussion through various perspectives with the hope of reaching the real reasons. Thereupon, we could engage in treating these reasons according to our ability with a view to fully benefit from women’s scholarly contributions and foster their role in life.

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