illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)
There's no inherent "half of the sky".
Following my previous post (gplus.wallez.name/XEAFHM4tH8X), I received many private messages, a minority of them advocating for the separation of women from men.
Of course, it's invariably in the name of 'protecting' women… but many oppressions have been framed as 'protection': such views constitute the basis for "blaming the victim" (e.g. women 'should' dress modestly, for their own protection; women 'should' not go out unaccompanied, for their own protection; etc.).
What follows is written in response to a feminine perspective, however equivalent lessons can be drawn in relation to a masculine perspective (e.g. men thinking of isolating themselves from 'temptresses') so I hope it may provide food for thought to all.
Separation doesn't work; the very idea relies on the illusion of a 'self' inherent enough to exist independently from what it is separate from.
I'll give a clear example below on how the illusory nature of such a view is quickly apparent.
This is extremely important because it does touch directly on duality (in buddhist terms, the 'wrong' / 'ignorant' take on discrimination).
If you just put women together —e.g. in a monastery or simply a school,— it does not 'naturally' result in peace! The same with men…
Because duality is re-introduced by the ignorant mind on the very next distinction it is able to appropriate: new separations will appear, based on fair skin vs. dark skin, intellectual vs. manual, religious vs. non-religious, heterosexual vs. homosexual vs. bisexual, high caste vs. low caste, elder vs. younger…
The separation between men and women is neither better nor worse than e.g. the caste system, or racism, or any other discrimination: it is a case of letting an aversion dictate one's life!
Please don't tell me gender is any more intrinsic than age or skin colour: you don't choose one any more than the other, and one can "split the sky in two" with the adequately-selected age threshold, or skin shade… There's nothing magical about constituting half of the population: in some countries, you could simply use political affiliations for splitting the population in two!
An aversion might have an historical justification, but freedom from the aversion (or transcendence of the aversion) is never the same as simply complying with the aversion.
Avoidance is not freedom
If we see the debate in terms of protecting women from 'lower' men (a seriously biased mental fabrication if it's a general assessment) , we can compare the separation of genders to the fight vs. any other deleterious phenomenon, e.g. alcoholism.
In relation to a 'risk' of alcoholism (which may have substantially materialised in the past), what matters is to reach a state where seeing a bottle will not start a chain reaction leading to being drunk… Having no bottle to see for a little while might help to break the unhelpful habit, but ultimately it's about freedom and choice, not avoidance of all bottles forever. Ideally, the former addict is cured when (s)he can see a bottle and can choose not to drink it.
Nibbāna is very clearly defined as "freedom from lust, aversion and ignorance." Letting 'aversion' drive one's life is still being a victim of the circumstances at hand, a robot driven by external conditions, similarly to letting 'craving' drive one's life. Nibbāna is 'beyond' mental projections, it is not simply the appropriation of "the 'right' projection".
This being said, of course, it may prove useful for a short while to avoid temptations when one is trying to break bad habits… This is notably the case if one believes "I cannot live without this-or-that"; avoidance allows to realise that, in fact, one can live without! The key is in the temporariness of such strategy though; avoidance cannot itself become a habit, otherwise it was merely replacing lust with aversion, without any ungrasping of the external object!
Freedom is attained when women do not fear men, not when they embody fear and protect themselves! Freedom is when one lets go of aversion.
Freedom is attained when men do not threaten women, not when they automatically act on their impulses regardless of how inappropriate or unwelcome these are. Freedom is when one lets go of lust.
Men and women cannot be separate (and not just for biological reasons), they have to learn to live wholesomely together.
If women abandon a 'space', men will fill the said space, find where the new boundary is, and push further. Any unwholesome tendency has to be addressed, it cannot be ignored or it will simply perpetuate itself!
Example? Men may 'suggest' to women to wear a ħijāb (e.g. to copy the wives of the prophet, although there's no rule in the Qurʼān requiring to do so!), then the suggestion may turn into a rather forceful imposition, and go from "loose" veil (with some hair visible) to "tucked-in" ħijāb (no stray hair), then it may no longer be just a scarf but a niqab (face hidden)… And in the end, in the name of protecting women, a victim of rape would be slowly stoned to death, even if she was wearing a niqab when the crime occurred! Clearly, 'protection' in name is not enough to make a rule effectively 'protective'.
If women withdraw, men will follow until the ignorant tendency that threatened women ceases; wrong views don't magically correct themselves though, paññattis don't spontaneously cease (they're not dhammas, there's no automatic reality check; corrections can occur only when an observer elects to "see things as they are", in order to cease its own suffering: gplus.wallez.name/TDK3TW1zNn3).
The only way forward is creative engagement. The engagement may be non-violent, à la Gandhi or Luther King, and it hopefully is from all involved (including 'bystanders') but it's still engagement.
Engagement may take different forms, and temporary withdrawal may play a part (in breaking habits, in correcting views, in healing…) but temporariness is key. Even in the most ascetic cases, e.g. 'forest' theravādins, withdrawal is only until arahantship, then one who has conquered all signs of selfishness will come out to guide others; and their withdrawal is equanimous (it is equally from men and women… it is not out of aversion, but out of cultivation and focus! Intentions do matter; these practitioners won't run away if someone comes to them, they might even teach the visitor thus cultivating generosity).
Moreover, women want to send positive signals to the men who evolve in the right direction. Let's think for a second about the helpful men, those who —with or without the 'feminist' label— care about their mother, partner, friends, daughters, colleagues… those who simply care about human rights and respect and harmony (and cessation of suffering)! Do women really want to tell these men "I'm not engaging with you because, no matter what you do to improve the world, you're a man, you're dangerous, I don't trust you", is this the one 'motivational' message to send without exception (gplus.wallez.name/JPFt9VDF1Dy) ?
As it happens, when women need (e.g. for healing) temporary withdrawal, the 'good' men are those "holding the space" for them, so that the 'wrong' men cannot push the boundaries… Gratitude is part of the engagement (gplus.wallez.name/Uqqpdv9f6qq), and it cannot be just about men protecting women (from other men) out of gratitude for what they receive(d), it's also about women not putting all men "in one bag."
Women have to ask themselves: how would the 'good' men know they're doing something 'well' or 'right', if women don't give feedback, if women refuse to talk to them? It's one thing to wish these men to be good listeners (there's no magic reason for it to happen overnight but, at least, it's possible) but it's totally unrealistic to ask men to become mind readers or to suddenly 'see' what they're ignorant of…
Equivalent lessons can be drawn from a masculine perspective.
The feminine bodhisattvas don't limit their interactions to women only, no more than the masculine bodhisattvas limit theirs to men. Realising selflessness is not optional on the Path, and once it's realised, there's no appropriate "half sky" (whatever the criterion): all sentient beings have buddha-nature.
Don't disengage out of aversion! Cultivate gratitude for those who make the effort of cultivating peace and reconciliation, support them if an opportunity arises! Guide and inform those ready to listen! Amend your prejudices (whatever they are, about whoever), your projections from the past into the present, your generalisations blinding you from what's changing and what's progressing! Free from past preferences and past 'definitive' conclusions, creatively engage! Build bridges (a stable bridge is well anchored on both sides, so work with both sides: no half sky)! Take responsibility for the peace all sentient beings hope to enjoy (gplus.wallez.name/Z38n35NGvyB)!
photo: Tārā (possibly © Deborah Bowman)