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Not Just Religion, Science Needs To Take Its Fair Share Of The Blame For Gender Discrimination Too!

Posted: October 20, 2016

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Those who put all blame for gender discrimination on religion forget to take into account the many ways science can be anti-women too. A balanced view. 

A recent encounter in a group of progressive minded people has got me thinking. A few members there keep highlighting religion’s treatment of women, particularly in Islam (‘the book‘), as an example of how religion is anti-science, anti-women and, ergo, that only science is pro-women.

I am usually suspicious when men speak on behalf of women, because almost always they use women as tools for framing their own agenda which is often self-serving and is rarely genuinely born out of concern for women. Don’t get me wrong, many men can be sincere. But you can almost immediately spot the difference.

I argued that the field of science, in practice, is anti-women and sexist too and illustrated my point by sharing relevant links of women’s testimonials of their experiences as scientists, as well as the overall effects of sexism on the field of science. I also argued that the field of evolutionary biology has privileged male physiology. Emily Martin’s brilliant essay on how scientific language in textbooks has created a romance between the sperm and the egg that reflects traditional gender roles is illuminating in this regard.

Of course these nuances didn’t matter to the gentlemen arguing on behalf of science, who plodded on to repeat that science is objective and pro-women because science only documents the natural world and it has benefited women. As if religion has not, by the same token, given women a sense of group identity and belonging, and in many instances the only opportunity for social interactions outside the family unit.

Clearly the point about sexism in research objectives, the allocation of resources etc, all mentioned in those links, didn’t make any difference. The simplistic view that because religion has a book that stipulates how women are treated, and science does not (“does science talk about stoning?” Not religion either in most parts of the postmodern world), it somehow absolves science and scientists from being anti-women.

I further said, to posit science as an opposition to religion is a logical fallacy because both are located in society and cannot be independent of it. Science, which is the study of the physical and natural world and not in itself the objective physical and natural world, is not gender-neutral, culture-neutral, caste-neutral, class-neutral or race-neutral. Religion is the product of patriarchy and not the other way around. Science has often provided the basis for discrimination, such as how the idea of natural selection and ‘male dominance’ has been interpreted and translated to show women to be the ‘weaker sex‘. The application of science to promote racism is all too well known. Eugenics is the most unfortunate example.

Having introduced the gender angle into the discussion, it didn’t take long for the tenor to go further south. A post linking the story about India’s alleged third rank in battering of husbands soon went up, as an example of gender equality. My response to it, which proves that the information cannot be verified because the source is untraceable, was what I have also posted here on my wall. But when the thread started taking on a tone of trolling behaviour, I decided to call it for what it was and opt out of further discussion.

Predictably, I was labelled ‘feminazi’, which sadly goes to expose the hollow concern for women among some people extolling scientific objectivity. Obviously it is OK to use women as metaphors, but when women speak for themselves and pose a coherent counter argument, it does not take long to slip into gendered labelling. One is accustomed to this by now, so it is not surprising, but it catches me off guard in such situations, I admit.

While I have no love for religions that refuse to reform, and they must be challenged for their faults, I find the arrogance in the name of scientific temper quite baffling. It also strongly points to the fact that there is marked ignorance about humanities and social sciences among those who use science to attack religions.

And, feminism is still a dirty word to some scientists.

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Vinutha Mallya is a book editor and journalist based in Bangalore.

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