Boys Will Be Boys… Reflections on Gender Identity and Relations

The risk-taking tendency

A further aspect of inherited gender difference is presented in the issue of risk-taking. Primordial humanity allocated willingness to take risks differently among the sexes, not for constructed “social” reasons, but for reasons of biological survival. To achieve the power and status requisite for transmitting his genetic material, the male had to take risks.

In the historically very few years that have elapsed since such times, this norm does not appear to have changed. Consistently the figures show that risky activities and sports attract more men than women. Gambling, motor racing and bungee-jumping continue to be overwhelmingly male activities. Men are statistically more likely to ignore seat-belt laws. Despite the popular stereotypes of women as dangerous drivers, the great majority of lethal road accidents are the fault of men, because they indulge in hazardous and aggressive styles of driving. More than twice as many boys as girls die through playing dangerous games, and this statistic is remarkably consistent throughout the world.


The precise mechanisms in the brain which generate this behavior are only now being understood. The mechanisms are called neurotransmitters, hundreds of different varieties of which activate emotions and bodily movements. One of the most important is serotonin, which has as one of its functions the task of informing the body to stop certain activities. When the body is tired, it generates the desire to sleep; when we have eaten enough it tells the body to stop eating; and so on. It does this by linking the limbic system (which is the kingdom of the nafs, and which generates primal impulses to attack, be sad, or make sexual advances), with the frontal cortex at the front of the brain, where our ability to assess and plan our actions is thought to be located.

Studies indicate that men typically have lower serotonin levels than women, and conclude that the higher risk-taking behavior characterizing successful Formula One drivers, for instance, is likely to make that choice of career an almost entirely male preserve, whatever the amount of social engineering that feminist societies may attempt.

Universities can reduce gender disparities by adopting alternative modes of assessment, but after graduation, the real world is often less amenable. Risk-taking is a necessary ingredient of success in many, perhaps most, high-flying professions. Psychologist Elizabeth Arch has recently shown that the “glass ceiling” in many professions, which supposedly excludes women from further promotion because of prejudice, may in fact have a biological foundation.

Conspicuous success in business, for instance, demands the taking of risks that do not always come instinctively to women. As she says, “from an early age, females are more averse to social, as well as physical, risk, and tend to behave in a manner that ensures continued social inclusion”; and this is largely innate, rather than socially constructed.

One expert who has devoted his research to the implications of neurotransmitters for gender behavior is Marvin Zuckerman. He divides the serotonin-related human quest for sensation into four types. Firstly, there is the quest for adventure and the love of danger, which is associated with the typically low serotonin levels of the male. Secondly, the quest for experiences, whether these be musical, aesthetic or religious. Zuckerman detected no significant difference between male and female enthusiasm for this quest. Thirdly, disinhibition. The neurotransmitters of the typical male allow the comparatively swift loss of moral control over the sex drive, when compared with women. Fourthly, boredom. The male brain is more susceptible to boredom when carrying out routine and repetitive tasks.


An Islamic Viewpoint

What are the religious implications of this? There are feminists who point to these factors as evidence for the categoric moral inferiority of men. Islamically, however, they can all be understood, and addressed, in ways that again demonstrate the conformability of the fitrah, as understood by Islam as a quasi-metaphysical quality, with the purely physical processes and geography of the human brain.

The first of Zuckerman’s distinctions is not necessarily to the discredit of men. Courage is, after all, a Prophetic virtue; and without emotional surges the Muslim would make a poor horseman, or warrior, or risk-taking builder of an Istanbul mosque. Secondly, with regard to the category to which the lubb, the inner core of humanity, most fully relates, it is clear that scientific evidence exists for the spiritual “equal opportunities” of the sexes.

The Qur’an locates the source of religious faith in the lubb’s ability to experience the divine origin of God’s signs in nature. Men and women are clearly equally good at this. Likewise, faith-sustaining aesthetic achievements such as music, literature, crafts, and architecture, are likely to be no less effective for women than for men. The Qur’an itself is perceived as beautiful and true by both sexes without distinction. It is on this level, then, (and only here) that we can meaningfully speak of the equality of the sexes.

The third of Zuckerman’s categories appears to place men at a disadvantage; but in reality this applies only to the secular. In the believer, the virtue described in the Qur’an as taqwa, which is produced from the faith generated in the second category, overcomes this shortfall. The spiritual technologies of Islam allow a compensation for the serotonin lack and a proper disciplining of the darker passions which dwell in the limbic system.

The actualized Shari`ah is, in a sense, the victory of the frontal cortex, and allows the male to retrieve the balance which is already implicit in the female metabolism. No doubt this is why “women are deficient in intellect and religion.” It is not that the Creator has given them innate disadvantages in the quest for understanding and salvation, but rather that He requires men to make more effort to reach their degree of fitrah.

The fourth (the quest for novelty, and the dislike of repetitive tasks) privileges women over men in the duties of the home. Insofar as modern office jobs are repetitive and tedious, women are clearly also gifted with more stamina in the workplace as well. Whether the biologists can demonstrate that men should, or are likely to, occupy fifty percent of jobs requiring attention to repetitive tasks, seems unlikely.

A further explanation of the “glass ceiling” phenomenon may be located in the primordial female tendency to nurture. Consistently through the pre-modern world, women were primarily involved in care for the young, the sick, and the elderly. As the feminist writer Carol Gilligan observes, “women not only define themselves in a context of human relationship but also judge themselves in terms of their ability to care.” Girls are “more person-oriented,” while boys tend to be more “object-oriented.”

Historical biology, and anthropology, can help us to understand why these key behavioral differences should exist. How they exist is also now discernable, thanks to the molecular biologists and the endocrinologists. The male and female fetuses begin life in the womb almost identical. The key difference is the XY chromosome couple which signify the male, where the female has an XX pair. The function of the Y chromosome is to trigger the release of androgens which approximately two months into pregnancy initiate the development of the male gonads. (Hence the view of many biologists that the female is in fact the basic human shape, and the male a divergence from it-the opposite of the Aristotelian view.)

These androgens, however, do more than shape the reproductive organs of the unborn child. Between the sixteenth and the twenty-eighth week of pregnancy, they also trigger fundamental divergences in the male and female brains. At this point, congenital deficiencies can produce not only forms of hermaphroditism of the kind recognized by classical fiqh, but can also affect the behavior of the subsequent person.

A well-studied example is the problem known as CAH: “congenital adrenal hyperplasia.” This results from an abnormal secretion of androgens in an XX fetus, that is, a child that is genetically female. The child suffering from this condition, which in its classical form may affect one in every 20,000 births, is typically born with both male and female reproductive organs; and the male ones are routinely removed by surgery. Although the females appear normal and are fertile they display very distinct behavioral patterns, because of being bathed in male hormones while still unborn. The numerous papers published on this phenomenon conclude that the CAH females may be characterized as “tomboys.” They are more aggressive, they like games with rules, and they are ready to take more risks than girls who have been born without this defect.

Mirroring the CAH girls are the boys who suffer from the genetic abnormality of an additional X hormone. These XXY boys are superficially normal males, but their behavior is typically feminine, lacking competitive and risk-taking impulses, and showing a preference for play with girls in cooperative and non-aggressive games.

CAH and XXY studies are increasingly cited as evidence of the immense influence which hormones exert on gender behavior. Further proof is now emerging from studies on women who were given hormones to overcome difficulties during pregnancy, an increasingly common practice and one which is thought to be responsible for producing an increasing number of children whose behavioral traits do not tally with their bodily gender features. Female criminals, for instance, frequently suffer from abnormally high testosterone levels, and these are often the consequence of earlier medical interventions.

I want now to move on, and deal with some of the consequences of these discoveries for our understanding, as Muslims, of the society to which we aspire, and whose guidelines are set out in revelation. Clearly, older feminist polemic against Islam on the grounds of its “essentialism,” its belief in the inborn nature of male and female traits, will no longer hold water. In the Muslim world itself, the new science, and the new feminism, are not yet known, and secularists, from the Turkish government to Taslima Nasreen in Bangladesh, continue to insist that gender differences, and inequalities in the workplace, can be wished away through social engineering and the inculcation of new attitudes. This was the mentality invoked by the Turkish government in preparing its 2001 gender equality legislation.

Living in the West, and being more in touch with contemporary trends in science and social theory, we can easily see how thin such polemic has become. Intelligent thinkers such as Greer are no longer demanding “equality.” It is not that they are demanding inequality or injustice instead: far from it. Instead, they are recognizing that our awareness of the categoric difference between the sexes makes the whole concept of “equality” rather too simpleminded. Men and women are neither equal nor unequal. We can no more say that men are better than women than we can say that “the rain is better than the earth.” To use the old language of “equality” is in fact to be guilty of what the philosopher Wittgenstein called a “category mistake.”

Modern Muslim theologians who have assimilated the new insights insist that the demand for “equality” is less helpful than the demand for opportunity and respect. Here there is clearly a congruence between Islamic discourse and the new difference feminism of Greer, Gilligan and a growing number of others.

It remains for us now briefly to sketch some of the ways in which the Shari`ah and science now vindicate each other. Equality is no more envisaged by nature than it is by the law of God; indeed, the law of God, for us, is commensurate with natural law. Since we reject ideas of the radically fallen nature of our kind, we acknowledge nature, that is the fitrah, as inherently good. Christianity, wherever it followed Augustine, believed until the eighteenth century that unbaptized infants, and miscarried fetuses, would be tormented forever in hell since their unregenerate nature, stained by original sin, could only lead to damnation. Jansenists and some evangelicals still hold to this disturbing belief.

Islam is non-sacramental; or rather, we acknowledge that the remembrance of our Lord is the only sacrament necessary. And the natural order, as the Qur’an richly documents, is a world of signs which point to its source, and to ours. Hence the fitrah of our kind, discernable we may say through consistent patterns maintained in Homo sapiens across the globe and the generations, cannot be displeasing to Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala.

Perhaps one of the most interesting questions which modernity poses to traditional religion has to do with divine providence amid a world which is now unimaginably more ancient than our ancestors suspected. There is no dating by numbers in the Qur’an or the Hadith, but medieval Muslims typically thought that the world was about five thousand years old.

Now, whatever view we may take of Darwin, we must accept that our species is tens of thousands of years old. Recognizably human remains have been recovered, and reliably dated by radiocarbon methods, which show the antiquity of humanity-unless we are, by misunderstanding the logic of piety, to deny scientific evidence entirely. In 1997 the world’s oldest cricket bat was dug up in the county of Essex (of course). It is recognizably a bat, designed for some form of game, and is apparently 40,000 years old.

Our theological question would therefore be: If Essex Man, in time out of mind, had the self-awareness and the humanity and the sophistication needed to play cricket, surely he was also a creature accountable to his Maker. In other words, the story of salvation is much, much older than we ever suspected. To claim that humanity had to wait for most of its history before learning about its source and destiny requires an intolerable interrogation of the divine justice.

Now, this antiquity of our species fits in with Islamic salvation history very elegantly. The hadith indicates that there have been 124,000 prophets. The Qur’an says, Wa-li-kulli qawmin had-[for every nation there has been a guide.] The existence of cricket matches in Chelmsford thirty-eight thousand years before the hijrah is not a problem for us: Homo religiosus existed then, just as did Homo ludens, and presumably had access to a chapter of revelation which has since disappeared.

For Christianity, of course, the problem is more acute. Medieval theologians struggled with the fact that millions lived before the coming of Christ, and hence died without receiving the sacraments or accepting him as savior. Complicated theories of post-mortem evangelization, or of the harrowing of hell, were developed to make this challenge to the divine moral coherence less scandalous. Today, with our awareness of humanity’s antiquity, the theology is harder still: Why should a loving God have waited for a million years before sending His Son to redeem humanity?

For us, as I have said, this is a non-problem. For every nation there has been a guide. And, as Surat Al-Insan says, {Has there ever come upon man a time when he was not something remembered?} And a necessary concomitant of this acceptance of the dramatic, splendid length of prophetic history, so commensurate with the grandeur of God and the universe, has to be that recurrent and biologically-grounded patterns of human society must be considered as in some sense normal, and hence as divinely sanctioned. Moreover, our conviction, as Muslims, that the human being has been created “in the best of forms,” that “we have ennobled the children of Adam,” makes any attempt to decry the natural endocrinology of our bodies blasphemous. We are as we have been created, and Allah, blessed is He, is the best of creators.

This is why we say, respectfully ignoring the protests of old-fashioned feminists, that men and women, in a God-fearing society, will tend towards different concerns and spheres of activity. Our aim, after all, is human happiness, not political correctness. Any attempt to impose a crudely egalitarian template on the data of the Qur’an and Sunnah, and of the seerah, and the recurrent patterns of Islamic social history, will underestimate them drastically. Walaysa al-dhakaru ka’l-untha, says the Qur’an: [the male is not like the female.] Egalitarianism is reductionism, and diminishes the bivalence of our kind, whose fertility is apparent in many more ways than the merely reproductive.

We insist, therefore, that our revealed law, confirmed so magnificently in its assumptions by the new science, upholds the dignity and the worth of women more reliably than secularity ever can. A materialistic worldview, which measures human worth in terms of earning power and status and access to sexual plenitude, will inexorably glorify the male. For the male, conditioned by the androgens from the time he was almost invisibly small in the womb, is assertive: his metaphors are projection, conquest, single-mindedness.

As the facts of science trickle down into popular culture, and as old-style equality feminism breaks down, the male is going to be magnified as never before in history. Materialistic civilizations will, in the longer term, favor and revere male traits. In the shorter term women may appear to be overtaking the men, because of the energy generated by the congratulations of modernity, and because of the reciprocal atrophy of male identity and self-regard. But in the longer term, unless the logic of Adam Smith’s capitalism is mysteriously terminated, the future belongs to the androgen.

As Muslims, we refuse such a favoritism. Inevitably, given the nature of the fitrah, there must be aspects of Shari`ah which favor the male in functional, material terms. Ours is a religion of absolute justice. But because we reject any identification of human worth with conspicuous functionality, or power, or status, or consumption, we are able to insist on the worth of women in a way that is not possible outside a religious context. For we have not been created for the idols worshiped in the pages of GQ or Loaded magazine. The biological advantages of the male, which, unless one day a massive reconstructive surgery and hormonal reprogramming is carried out on every one of us, do not for us denote superiority, as they must for the secular mind when it follows its own arguments through.

The key to understanding this is supplied by our rich theology of the Ninety-nine Names of Allah. And these reveal what the biologists describe as gender dimorphism. That is to say, just as procreation bears fruit through the shaping received from androgens and estrogens, so too creation itself is bathed in androgens and estrogens. The entire cosmos is gendered; in fact, it comes into being, and attains the complexity of manifestation after the experience of undifferentiated unity, through the interaction of the divine Names, where the supreme and governing category is the polarity of Jalal and Jamal. I have attempted some further reflections on this principle of a hormonally-coded cosmos in another place. (

The gender issue ramifies massively into every other area of religion, and far more could be written. What I have tried to do in this essay is show that an opposition to the Shari`ah is an opposition to science, inasmuch as science is currently affirming an innate distinction between the sexes, a distinction that Allah ta`ala clearly calls us to celebrate rather than to suppress.

The social architecture of Islam is very different to that of the modern secular West: That should be a source of pride to us. We are permitted to speculate, however, that the disastrous social problems now overcoming the West, and westernizing classes elsewhere, will combine with the new science to provide a revised definition of gender and social roles which will, in the longer term, convince our critics of the superior wisdom and compassion of the Prophetic social model. Wa-akhiru da`wana ani-l-hamdu lillahi rabbi-l-`alamin. (Our final prayer is all praise to Allah Lord of all the worlds.)

  • Kingsley Browne, Divided Labours: An Evolutionary View of Women at Work. (London, 1998).
  • Germaine Greer, The Whole Woman. (London, 1999).
  • Anne and Bill Moir, Why Men Don’t Iron: The New Reality of Gender Differences. (London, 1998).
  • N. Koertge, ”How Feminism Is Now Alienating Women from Science,” Skeptical Inquirer (March/April 1995), 42-43.
  • Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice. (London, 1990).
  • K. Hoyenga and K. Hoyenga, Gender-Related Differences. (London, 1993).
  • A. Booth, “Testosterone and Winning and Losing Human Competition,” Hormones and Behavior (1989), 556-72.
  • E. Maccoby, “Gender and Relationships,” American Psychologist (April 1990), 513-20.
  • D. Halpern, Sex Differences in Cognitive Abilities. (New York, 1992).
  • Nuh Keller , Evolution Theory and Islam. (London, 1999).
  • N. McCrum, “The Academic Gender Deficit at Oxford and Cambridge.,” Oxford Review of Education(1994), 3-26.
  • Jared Diamond, Why Is Sex Fun? (London, 1998).
  • A. Burgess, Fatherhood Reclaimed. (New York, 1997).
  • [kindly please note that the link has changed]
  • Ian Gemmell, “Injuries Among Female Army Recruits,” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (January 2002), 23-27.

* First Published in 20004.

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5