Fundamentalists and Ostriches April 13, 2012Posted by Jodi in Politics, Women.
This morning I listened to public radio while brewing tea and cleaning up the kitchen. The topic of the call-in talk show was the “War on Women” that’s allegedly being waged from both sides of the political spectrum, now that Hillary Rosen made an ill-chosen comment about Ann Romney’s nonexistent resumé. Generally, I appreciate the even-handedness of the guests on public radio, but this morning turned out to be an exception. Both men, perched atop their political poles, were such caricatures of their respective parties and made such caricatures of their opponents that I could stand for only 10 minutes of “discussion” before flipping the dial to off. Note to politicians: I like a good cartoon as much as the next gal, but I certainly won’t vote for one.
Sans radio voices, one of my own voices reminded me of an article that I wrote for the student newspaper at my college last semester, before any of this became a political issue. It’s relevant to this conversation, so I’ll share it here:
“Fundamentalists and Ostriches”
As an assignment for French 201, I read an article from the newspaper Le Monde, which reported that women in Saudi Arabia will have the right to vote in municipal elections four years from now. The news so surprised me that I double-checked my understanding by reading a similar article on an English website. Sure enough, on September 25, Saudi King Abdallah announced that he will allow women to vote in the 2015 municipal elections and will begin appointing women to the Shura Council, an advisory body with limited powers. He made his decision after consulting Muslim clerics in this most conservative of Islamic countries.
Though this announcement is a big step forward for the women of Saudi Arabia, many injustices remain. Because laws are based on fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic scriptures, women in Saudi Arabia have the rights of children. The government forbids them to travel without the supervision of male members of their family. Women may not drive cars or work outside of the home. They may not even undergo surgery without permission from their male family members. In addition, four years leaves plenty of time for the king, an absolute monarch, to change his mind or to be influenced by clerics who don’t want voting rights extended to women.
For my part, I’ve grown weary of male religious leaders who think they know what God wants women to do (or, more often, not do). Muslim clerics tell Saudi women, “You can’t drive. You can’t travel. You can’t choose what to wear in public. You can’t make decisions about your health.” In my case, fundamentalist Christian leaders here in America told me, “You can’t live on your own because you must have a man in authority over you. You shouldn’t desire to work outside the home; it’s better for you to stay busy at home with your children. You can’t be in a position of authority in church or in government.” Thankfully, I live in a country in which the government doesn’t, in most cases, enforce the rules of any religion. I no longer listen to men who tell me I can’t, and I hope for Saudi women that they will soon be able to do the same.
There’s something else to consider, though. For the same French class, I’ve been reading a collection of fables entitled Contes pour enfants pas sage (Tales For Naughty Children) by Jacques Prévert. The first story follows a young boy, Petit Poucet, who wanders in the forest and encounters an opinionated ostrich. This bird despises Petit Poucet’s parents for a few good reasons: they neglect him, beat him, and try to exert unreasonable control over him. She urges the boy to run away with her. When he protests the thought of never returning to his parents, the ostrich orders him, “Climb on my back. You won’t see your parents again, but you will see the country.” She doesn’t ask him if he wants to go with her; in fact, she eats the pebbles that he had scattered in order to find his way home, leaving him with no choice but to obey her. Ironically, in the process of liberating Petit Poucet from his parents, she steals from him the freedom she loves so much for herself.
As a woman discontent with the restrictions of Fundamentalism and looking for a new place for myself in the world, I identify strongly with Petit Poucet. Though I left the “You can’t” of my past, I find the message often replaced with “You must”: “You must get a job. You must make money. You must support yourself. You must leave behind traditional gender roles.” As often as not, these orders come from my own head, from my own stereotypes and mistaken ideas of what it means to be free. But what I really want to do is write, and it’s likely to be many years, if ever, before I attain financial independence in my chosen path. In the meantime, I’ve found freedom to pursue my goals by retaining some of the traditional roles of my upbringing. My husband supports our family financially, and I remain the primary caregiver for our children. When the kids are in school, I have time to attend classes and write. This works well for all of us. If I listened to the ostrich telling me I must run away from everything in my past, I would be miserable.
I know many women who, by all indications, feel content and fulfilled in the environment of conservative Christianity. What was restrictive to me is a stable and comfortable place for them. They remain where they are without coercion. Similarly, many Muslim women choose of their own volition to wear veils and head coverings, and countries like France, which now prohibits hijab, become thieves of the liberty they claim to provide. What is most important is that women have freedom make choices for themselves, whatever they choose. The best communities ask their members, both male and female, “What do you want to do? For what are you best designed?” and provide the environments necessary to pursue those desires.
We should be neither fundamentalists nor ostriches.