Mon, 03 Oct 1994

Men versus Women: What we should do now

By Th. Sumartana

SALATIGA (JP): A tragedy reminiscent of the Lorena Bobbit case happened in Bogor, near Jakarta, last month. Lorena Bobbit, an American woman, shook the nation when she cut off her husband's penis in June last year.

The two unrelated incidents, and other similar incidents that might have occurred elsewhere since then, have prompted a reflection on the relations between men and women in our modern age.

Life indeed has more worth than all of the above implies. But, as in the case of a gun that will not explode unless the trigger is pulled, do we have to destroy the gun to eliminate the crime, while the trigger puller is set free?

John Bobbit was never a personification of his penis, and therefore his crimes would not be punished simply by cutting off that part of his body.

Within this line of thought, a point of view has emerged that the feminist struggle has the potential to become "female fascism". This is being viewed as the error made by the feminists who sided with Lorena.

There seems to be a polarization developing between men and women. The tension between the two groups seems to heighten with each passing day. The independence of one from the other is reflected in the polarization between the lesbian and gay groups. Neither one is willing to admit that it might need or is even related to the other.

Also, it seems that in this overpopulated world, procreation, which yields offspring, is coming to be regarded as a detriment, if not something that is undesirable altogether. Apparently, some women simply do not want to go through the painful process of giving birth. One wonders whether, perhaps one day men and women will live separately and human regeneration will continue through some kind of hybrid hermaphrodites. Who knows? Just like the tales of the gods who can reproduce on their own.

As it is now, the polarization of the sexes has emerged and become an option to any man or woman who wants to be completely independent from people of the other sex. Will the roles of men as fathers and women as mothers who give birth to and nurse their children gradually disappear from the earth?

We will leave the case of Lorena and her husband to history! And history itself never remains silent for long. At the least history will leave it to all of us how the relationship between men and women should be maintained in the future.

Will Lorena Bobbit become a heroine of modern civilization? Maybe. History on that score is still to be written.

"What crazy ideas!" people on both sides of the issue of male- female relations may retort. At the fringes of the two stances lies the seed for further arguments.

It seems that if trends continue as they have, every relationship between the sexes will contain uncomfortable friction. A friendship will become harder to maintain in relation to the tasks faced by human beings in their roles as man or woman. Peace will also become more difficult to keep and enjoy together. Differences in the family will become more challenging than the Arab-Israeli problems. They will become even more difficult to resolve than the discrepancies between the rich and the poor that have come out of our nation's economic development.

One thing that has been so often forgotten by husbands and wives is the fact that the anatomy of households has undergone rather fundamental changes. Tradition has melted away. The marriage bond has been made more complex by increasing participation in decision making and other matters by all of the members of the family. And relativity has become a factor in all of these matters as well.

We are now left with this question: Are we, as men and women, well-equipped for anticipating the changes that are bound to occur in the future? Changes in the form of increasingly complex tasks and options may become too difficult to absorb within the traditional institutions that we now have. Sooner or later the trends will certainly produce changes that I suspect will cause extended crises, as well as insecurity, in the family, which is the smallest unit in all human communities.

Such crises may turn out to be very tantalizing to individuals as they face the changes of image and roles in terms what they are supposed to do within their family and community.

When all of this becomes a reality, what we will need is a criterion for the new tasks that will have to be agreed upon by everybody in human society. Needless to say, the community will need a new definition of the concepts of family, happiness, or whatever else it is that gives meaning to life. Therefore, men and women must begin to think very hard and look into the future at the decisions that they will have to make together.

Is all of this a curse or a blessing? Most of us tend to think in a much too simplistic way and therefore we tend to look at it either as a blessing or a curse. In fact, the changes facing us are actually neither. They are just changes that may bring both good and bad in a balanced proportion. Sacrifices may have to be made, but there should be blessings in them for both sides. The most important issue is how both men and women can take advantage of the changes and work toward new rights for themselves without taking away the privileges of either.

Any shift in roles or adjustments in gender relationships should not be allowed to turn into a zero-sum game. At least, both parties should find ways to avoid being too much disadvantaged by the coming changes. Careers, occupations, and self-confidence have turned from mere catchwords into realities for women, as they have for men over the ages. The necessary preparation for men in facing the changes taking place among women must involve making them more aware that change is indeed necessary and unstoppable.

Naturally, such a situation has the great potential to cause extended conflicts and tremendous pain to all human beings, regardless of their gender. We certainly need wisdom to tackle this complex problem, for this reality -- whether we want to accept it or not -- is part of the ongoing consequential process of emancipation and democratization involving all members of the large community of the modern world.

The writer teaches at the post-graduate studies department at Satya Wacana University, Salatiga.