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Female Trouble

By Sandy Asirvatham | Posted 11/28/2001

Having lost my hoped-for holiday-weekend fun and productivity to congestion, fever, chills, headache, and (insult added to injury) menstrual cramps, I am now pounding out this column at the last minute and trying to recall (out of the depths of febrile delirium) exactly what I'd been planning to say this time around.

I vaguely remember sitting on the couch on Sunday night (and shivering under two layers of clothing, plus a wool hat and scarf, with the heat cranked to 70), thinking how wonderfully lucky I was to have been born a woman in the United States in 1965, as opposed to Afghanistan in 1985 or India in 1935 (like my mother), or most other places and times in history. There I sat in pain and discomfort while my husband--who, having luxuriated in turkey, apple pie, and football on Thursday, had spent the rest of the weekend completing a major plumbing project, filling penny rolls, and doing laundry--generally comforted and fed me in cheerful accordance with that whole "sickness or health" clause of our marital vows, and even made a special trip to the grocery store to fill my request for Stella Dora Swiss Fudge cookies.

I was in no condition to be picky about entertainment, so I suffered through that crappy Star Wars: Episode I on Fox and allowed myself a few moments of genuine annoyance that, in Lucasland, women can be mothers, queens, and maybe even fighter pilots, but they apparently can't be Jedi knights. Then, in the spirit of Thanksgiving, I allowed myself a few moments of gratitude for the fact that I'm in a position to be annoyed by such trivia.

In a similar way, I find myself vacillating between annoyance and gratitude at the way Laura Bush has chosen to speak out against the mistreatment of women under the Taliban and to support the notion that any reconstituted Afghan government should include women in prominent roles. It is, of course, a good and proper thing that such information and ideas are finally getting aired, whenever and however. But women's groups and human-rights advocates around the world have been actively publicizing this issue for five years now.

Indeed, long before Sept. 11, the pressure brought to bear by American feminists played some part in the U.S. government's decision not to formally recognize the Taliban government. In September 1998, senior writer Janelle Brown reported that American feminists "were not merely complaining of sexism, but insisting that the oppression of women in Middle Eastern Muslim countries is a sign of greater fanaticism that could be expected to use terrorism to attack its enemies." These political advocates have always known what male-dominated governments still have so much trouble comprehending: The degraded status of women in these countries is not just a matter of cultural or religious difference, but a leading indicator of tyranny and terror.

"The oppression of women [by Islamic extremists] serves a dual function," Brown wrote. "It works as a demonstration of political might and as a convincing rejection of the West. What better way to show your defiance of the United States than by symbolically cloistering your female population from the 'corruption' of the sexually liberated American woman, as seen in movies, advertising, and TV? . . . [T]hose who have tried, often unsuccessfully, to draw attention to the plight of women in the Middle East have long believed that scrutinizing women's rights there--and elsewhere in the world--is one of the best ways to track anti-American sentiments and the potential for terrorism."

I would have much preferred to hear President Bush, our actual elected leader, speaking out at length on behalf of Afghanistan's women (not to mention Saudi women, Yemeni women, Kuwaiti women, Pakistani women . . . the list goes on) rather than delegating this task to his nonelected helpmeet. The status of women--or of that symbolically freighted, seemingly indivisible duality, "women and children"--is not a "women's issue." It should not be cordoned off from every other aspect of this conflict, or from world politics at large. It is exactly at the heart of the matter.

If it is hard to see things that way, it is because we continue to labor under longstanding patriarchal assumptions, as benign as they might be in comparison to the Taliban's. (That we have yet to abolish the outmoded job and laughable title of "First Lady" is a case in point. Equally revealing: In the rush to anoint heroes following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the media gave short shrift to the heroines--the many women firefighters, construction workers, and police officers who worked on the wreckage.) Theocratic tyrants everywhere and in all times attempt to control interactions between the sexes, and their preferred route to such control is the female body. We should know this well from our own religious right.

In a future column I'll have more to say about what those homegrown terrorists have been up to lately. Meanwhile, there are two or three more fever/chills cycles to get through, more cookies to be eaten, more sexist television to bitch about (Victoria's Secret, anyone?), and a relatively unshackled female life to be contemplated with gratitude.

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