Plato and Gender Equality: In Context of Sabarimala

-Mr. Ayush Mishra


This article aims to juxtapose the exclusion of women in Sabarimala with the ideals of gender equality (or lack thereof) in the works of Plato. Part I of the article would briefly highlight the social standing of women in the ancient Greek society and Plato’s portrayal of women in his initial books of The Republic. Part-II would present a three-tier analysis of the arguments that Plato puts forward in his Republic in the context of gender equality. Part-III would test the original arguments of exclusion in Sabarimala on the touchstone of Platonic ideas and also respond to the feminist critique of Plato.


Part I: Status of Women in Ancient Greek Society

Political subjugation and ascribed status of social irrelevance was the acrimonious reality of women in the Athenian Society. Contemporary scholars have found the situation of women to be marginally better than that of the slaves of that time.[1] The prevailing political and social structures demanded women to live by their traditional roles of private homely existence with focus on child bearing and nurturing. Weak, prone to grief, incapable and politically useless were the phrases in vogue in Athens to describe women. So was the entrenched pattern of patriarchy and prejudice, that even Plato in his initial works (Books I-IV of Republic[2]) has used women just in sexual capacity for the satisfaction of the passions of brave men. Not only are women assumed to live their lives by being bound within the four corners of the male desire of marriage and the societal requirement of legal procreation, they are also viewed as mere commodities that could be possessed and kept inside one’s houses. The degree of absence of recognition and respect for individual agency of women could be gauged by the fact that women, rather being viewed as “creatures of desire”, were viewed as “creatures desired”.[3] They were nothing more than particular creatures that were desired by the dominant male class for their own satisfaction of carnal pleasures. Any political participation and appointment in governing structures of the state was prohibited.

Part II:  The Republic- Coup D’œil Into Book V

Substantial discussion around gender commences in book V of Plato’s Republic. The overarching thread, in this book, is related to debating the larger notion of justice. In the course of this discussion, the idea of blatant exclusion of women from the political life is highlighted as a possible impediment to the realisation of the ultimate goal of true justice. Plato makes two radical propositions and anticipates giant waves of criticism and scorn for them. The first one is with respect to proposed equality of both the sexes and relates to inclusion of women in the guardian class. The second one relates to the management of the social life of these guardians and even proposes abolition of the institutions of marriage and private property among them. Let us unfold his arguments vis-à-vis gender equality.

1.The animal analogy

 Plato employs the analogy of dogs[4] to address the critical issue of education of women. To put it succinctly, Plato asserts that the female guard dogs are in no manner different from the male guard dogs and they stand at an equal footing with respect to guarding and hunting. He uses this analogy to explain why he believes that the birth and education of women should be governed by the very guidelines that govern men. He argues that for women to be able to compete with men and perform the very tasks that they do, they must receive the same education as men do across all sectors viz. war training, gymnastics, art, music or any other kind of education that the male guardian class receives.

2. The metaphysical argument: understanding “nature”

Plato uses the example of a bald man and a long-haired man to explain the concept of every person having an inherent nature, which may be a reflection of the soul they possess. He argues that women differ from men only to the extent that a bald man would differ from a long-haired man i.e just superficially and with no substantial difference between them as both of them share the same nature.[5] After the above-mentioned dogs’ analogy, Plato cements his proposition by giving more concrete arguments rooted in the understanding of arts, knowledge and intellect. He says, suppose there is a female doctor and a male doctor and both of them are skilled in their profession, then both of them will exhibit the very same nature, by virtue of them being skilled at the same profession and thereby sharing that art. He even extends this argument to other fields of knowledge like war, music and other forms of art. He therefore, argues that for women to perform the function of a guardian, they should receive the same kind of education as men because both of them would be performing the same work and would be handling the same kind of problems and would thereby exhibit the same nature.

Moreover, Plato asserts that the soul possesses a separate and distinct identity and the female bodies may be said to be only biologically different from men, and that too just in the realm of reproduction. He says that:

“If a critic can do no more than bring up the one distinction between man and woman, that the one be-gets and the other bears children – we shall say that for our purposes  he has offered no proof of difference at all. We shall continue to affirm that our  guardians and their wives should perform the same”[6] (emphasis supplied)

3. The pragmatic/efficiency argument

Plato claims that by not educating the women of our society, the only thing that we do is weaken our state.[7] For the social structures to remain concrete and for the betterment of the society, women must be educated and be allowed to share the burden of governance and protection. The state incurs moral and physical loss by not being able to use women in the warrior and guardian classes. He argues that the education of women is very important not only for the women themselves, but also for the betterment of those men with whom these women are in connection with and also the children that these women will have.

Part III: Testing The Original Arguments Of Exclusion On The Touchstone Of Platonic Ideas

The Supreme Court of India in September, 2018 held that the practice of the infamous Kerala temple disallowing women from entering it’s premises is unconstitutional. The primary rationale of discrimination of women vis-à-vis the temple entry was anchored in an artificial understanding of the biological differences between male and female bodies and a further division within the female class (as it only covered women from the onset of menarche to menopause, which is roughly around 10-55 years of age). The factor which was at play in creating this divide was the mis-constructed notion of “impurity” which was attributed to menstruating women. It was essentially the reassertion of the age old hegemonic and regressive caste system which dwelled on such abhorrent conceptions of purity and impurity, depending upon an inevitable biological aspect of a woman’s life. The notions of “impurity during cycle”, “women polluting the temple” and “women leading to deviating men’s celibacy” were used as justifications to exclude women from entering the temple and also from other social activities.

Plato would not uphold this artificial discrimination that is created for the purpose of praying between men and women and women inter se (based on a completely inevitable biological aspect of life). He would argue that the biological difference between man and women will not have any effect on their “nature” as both of them will share the same purpose of going into the temple, i.e. to offer their prayers to Lord Ayyapa. Both men and women will be going in the same capacity to the temple and will exhibit the same nature, and as there should be equality of treatment and privilege between people of the same nature, this exclusion of women would be considered wrong by Plato.

Moreover, Plato was strictly against the idea of resolving a privilege or a post for someone just based on his/her sex. Therefore, any discrimination of which the only reason was sex was frowned upon by Plato, as is evident from this extract from the Republic.

“… that sex cannot be criterion in appointments to government positions. No office or privilege should be reserved for a singular sex. All the capabilities with which nature endows us are distributed among men and women alike. Hence, women will have the rightful opportunity in every task, and so will men … As Guardians of the state, then, women and men are naturally the same.”[8]

Plato was obsessed with the abstract ideas and forms of “virtue”. Throughout the book, Plato has only spoken of “Human Virtue”. Not even in a single place has he used the expression “male virtue” while commenting upon the eminence of human character and excellence of human worth. Therefore, it makes it clear that the definition of virtue, if there exists one, would surely be genderless and apply to everyone equally.[9]

Responding to Feminist Critique

Feminists have posed serious questions on the credibility of the Plato being called a proponent of sex-based equality.[10] Their primary concern is that the fact that Plato argued for gender equality to increase the efficiency of the state system and not because he was enraged by the fact of the very existence of inequality in the state, makes his activism misplaced and his reasoning flawed.[11] However, I argue that trying to locate modern day notions of feminism in the ancient Greek society is a futile exercise. Moreover, the critique that Plato trumped ‘public efficiency’ over ‘personal fulfilment’ is severely misplaced and arises due to an incomplete understanding of Plato. It is to be noted that Plato did not see ‘public efficiency’ and ‘personal fulfilment’ as two mutually exclusive goals. On the contrary, for him, one leads to the other. He believed that by directing a person towards the kind of work for which she/he is carved out and best suited for, one is helping them to simultaneously attain personal fulfilment and also prove themselves productive for the community at large.

Concluding Remarks

Plato must be perceived as an active critic of Athenian democracy who admonishes not only the established views of regressive culture, but also the politics and governance of virility. His arguments vis-a-vis distinctive understanding of human nature are commendable and as argued by Steven Forde, must be considered by contemporary advocates of gender equality.

[1] Salkever, S. G., “Women, Soldiers, Citizens: Plato and Aristotle On the Politics of Virility”, Polity, Vol. XIX, No. 1986, p. 235.

[2] Any Reference to Plato’s Republic, from here on, would be based on the translation by Richard W. Sterling and William C. Sco W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1985. ISBN-13: 978-0393955019 (Hereinafter referred to as Republic)

[3] Brown, W., “Where is the Sex in Political Theory?” Women and Politics, Vol. 7, No. 1, 1987

[4] The Republic, p.142

[5] Ibid. p. 147.

[6] Ibid. p. 145.

[7]The Laws VII 805a, 813e.

[8] The Republic, pp. 146-147 (455e & 456a).

[9] Steven Forde, Gender and Justice in Plato, American Political Science Association, The American Political Science Review, Vol. 91, No. 3 (Sep., 1997), pp. 657-670.

[10] Julia Annas, Plato’s “Republic” and Feminism, Cambridge University Press on behalf of Royal Institute of Philosophy, Philosophy, Vol. 51, No. 197 (Jul., 1976), pp. 307-321.

[11] Ibid. p. 307.


Mr.Ayush is a final year, B.A., LL.B. student at NALSAR University of law, Hyderabad.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.