Posted in: Islamic Gender & Religious Apartheid, Feminism
Published on May 21, 2018 by Elise Ehrhard
Women's Role in Female Oppression
A few months back, a friend shared a video on social media showing the frightening practice of "bride-napping." It is still popular in various parts of the world, particularly in the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The friend's post included a tagline about how men kidnap women in many parts of the world and force them to marry.
As I watched the video, it struck me that men alone were not engaged in the entrapment. Female relatives actively assisted the "grooms." The men would grab the women, and then a mob of female relatives would hold her hostage in a room to force her into the ceremony through a chaotic mix of threats and sweet, cajoling voices.
A Western feminist might argue that the women do this under male pressure. But why presume that a groom's mother, eager for a daughter-in-law to take over the housework and provide her with grandchildren in her old age, would not encourage her son? After all, in Kyrgyzstan, the abductor's grandmothers invoke a curse on the bride if she rejects him. In the words of one abducted bride, "I couldn't leave also because if his two grandmothers cursed me, I could never get married again."
When discussing female oppression throughout the world, Westerners rarely discuss the role that women, particularly older women, play in "perpetuating patriarchy." Western feminists speak as though females are devoid of personal agency. Such a way of thinking denies reality and leads to wasteful and ineffective "solutions" to real-world problems.
Perhaps one of the best examples of such waste is in the fight against female genital mutilation. In African cultures, the grandmothers of the community enforce the practice and shame children or grandchildren who resist. Even when men protest, the women override them. In the 1980s, celebrity supermodel Iman described how her grandmother forced her to be cut in Somalia against her father's wishes. A notorious historical case of women overriding male attempts to ban the practice came out of the Meru tribe of Kenya in the 1950s. When male elders of the tribe banned female genital mutilation in 1956, the women of the village grabbed their own razors and cut themselves.
Prominent African women have justified FGM on matriarchal grounds. Dr. Fuambai Ahmadu, a University of Chicago fellow from Sierra Leone, argues that African women who embrace FGM "embrace the legitimacy of female authority and particularly the authority of their mothers and grandmothers."
Yet for too long, feminists, with notable exceptions such as Germaine Greer, failed to acknowledge the anthropology of this practice. NGOs wasted money on futile efforts that insufficiently addressed its cultural roots.
The role of women in perpetuating customs of this type can be seen throughout history, from foot-binding to ancient systems of concubinage and polygamy. Therefore, we should not be surprised that a higher number of female than male Muslims in France favor a full-face covering for women. Nor is it shocking when a modern British female academic argues for legal recognition of polygamy. Polygamy is disastrous for children, but it does enable mothers to be the more exclusive object of their children's affection. Freud could have a field day analyzing a polygamous household.
Khaled Hosseini's novel about polygamy in Afghanistan, A Thousand Splendid Suns, imagines an ending where the two wives in the polygamous union work together to fight back against the home's patriarch. Hosseini probably hopes that if women could unite and gain more societal power, polygamy would be a thing of the past. Actually, women in polygamous societies do find a way to gain more power, but it's often by doing things like killing another wife's children.
A more accurate rendering of how women interact in polygamous communities is found in the classic Chinese film Raise the Red Lantern. It is a journey through intense psychological realism as concubines plot different ways to undermine or eliminate their rivals. Any woman who survived the seventh grade will recognize the female character who most successfully destroys the others. If you do not have time to watch a film, then just go back to the Old Testament and read about Sarah and Hagar.
Why do few female scholars publicly discuss female-on-female oppression? Perhaps they worry that acknowledging our internal battles would reduce our power. But women need not fear such a loss. From the perspective of evolutionary biology, female power is innately secure. Boys are emotionally tied to women from the womb. The last word of dying soldiers on battlefields is usually some variation of "mommy." If activists really want to overturn patriarchal structures, it would probably be more useful to look at how enmeshed the relationship is between mothers and sons in a particular culture than to look at men alone. (This is especially true in the aforementioned polygamous societies, where the father is a more distant figure and the relationship between mother and son is more deeply entwined.)
Furthermore, women have a determinative influence on social structures because we are the gatekeepers of sex. Men must ultimately meet female societal expectations if they are to hope to have a mate.
Yet few female voices want to delve into the ways women wield power in misogynistic systems. Rare Western writers like Phyllis Chesler, author of the classic Women's Inhumanity to Women, bluntly acknowledge it. Chesler acknowledges it because she survived tyranny as a new bride in Afghanistan, including manipulation at the hands of her female in-laws.
The Western world is not immune from the reality of women oppressing women. Recently in The Atlantic, writer Olga Khazan dared to broach the question of why some powerful women bully rather than encourage other women within corporate structures. Khazan admitted that even asking such a question appalled a number of the women she spoke to. Yet to address oppression in any cultural context, we need to talk about the ways in which older or more influential women uphold practices that are harmful to younger ones.
Looking globally, we cannot ignore matriarchal control within the domestic cultural sphere. For example, Westerners too often assume that a woman is under the rule of her husband when she marries in a "male-dominated" society. It's more complicated than that. Often, she is under the rule of the husband and the mother-in-law. The mother-in-law's authoritarianism can be more controlling than the husband's. In addition, the husband is deeply susceptible to the emotional rule of his mother. If he allows his wife more freedom, he faces intense maternal guilt.
A true test of whether a society is authentically open to positive change lies not merely in whether men are willing to accept or embrace female advancement, but whether older women are, too.
A fine example of such potential for positive reform could be seen during last year's protests in Iran. Protest footage included video of both young and elderly women in the chador, publicly showing solidarity with women who chose to take off their hijabs.
If such footage is reflective of what is really happening behind the scenes in Persian culture, there may be hope for Iran. And if anybody were to actively engage the question in other cultural contexts, we could likely find other places to feel optimistic. If not, at least we could honestly address causes of female subjugation by taking into account the behavior of both sexes.
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