In A Thousand Splendid Suns, Khaled Hosseini begins with a sort of lushly sentimental tale that is just enough tinged around the edges that I am not completely surprised when the idyllic woodsy house where Mariam is raised gives way to war-torn homes in Kabul, Afghanistan. I wasn’t totally surprised at the tumult that ensued, or the devastating, state-sanctioned oppression of women.
I was, however, surprised to see in such obvious relief, the parallels between how fundamentalist faith groups view the female.
Among the restrictions the Taliban placed on Afghanis in 1996:
No parakeets (?)
For women, the restrictions were more encompassing:
Stay inside at all times
Male must accompany women in public
May not show your face
No “charming clothes”
No eye contact with men
Girls did not attend school
Women were forbidden from working
To be fair, the list of sanctions did include some policies for men, such as the length of the required beards and when to pray. But, the greatest amount of restrictions were placed on women. In fact, when religions seek to mandate behavior, they usually focus their efforts on women.
Women in Kabul in 1996 were not full humans; they were property needing to be tended, hidden, secreted away. Girls could be married off without their consent before full puberty. Every possible outward sign of female-ness was to be hidden. Because women are gross. Women are intended for male pleasure and making babies, no more, no less. Women were to tend to male needs, and had none of their own. The female form was something which caused shame.
In 1996, I was an independent contractor, working from home, choosing my clothes, makeup, jewelry and when to do what with my husband. My freedom of choice stands in stark contrast to the picture Hosseini paints.
Now, in 2014, women in some (big) Christian communities are held to standards that not even the composite sketch of perfection who never even actually existed, the Proverbs 31 woman, are subjugated to male “leaders.” Women are told what and how they can dress, how and when to have sex and with whom. Women are still expected to be the virgin whore. Her body is not hers, and she must both be alluring and not a temptress. She must be pure and then she must satisfy. And when she wants to make choices about her body, she must ask the government. Try googling “modest is hottest,” or “purity culture.” I looked for relevant links, but they just made me palpably agitated.
Later in the novel, in 1997, a character must deliver a baby via unmedicated Cesarean section. All of the supplies have been shuttled to hospitals that care for men. There is no antibiotic. There is no anesthesia. There is only pain and filth and a ripping through an abdomen, to save a child, a male child.
In that same year, I sat in a sterile hospital room, surrounded by bleeping machines and all manner of drugs for all manner of complications, delivering our first child, a daughter. Later, I became a doula and birth advocate. My practice philosophy was and will forever remain that women don’t know or are not given choices. When we have choices, we can use our minds and our bodies to make the decisions that are right for us. It grieved me that in America, few women knew that unmedicated birth was a viable option. It grieves me more that our sisters in other countries have no choices at all.
I know what people think when I use the word “choices.” I know they think it’s code for abortion. It’s not. It’s about believing that women are capable enough humans to handle their own reproductive health. Choice is about education, respect and control. Choice is about lowering the teen pregnancy rate (which cheap birth control actually does do).
I’m baffled by this idea that men or leaders or governments can control a woman’s body. I continue to feel sad, bitter, and at the edge of rage that the way God created me ( and my fellow women) is a thing to be contained, minimized, hidden, kept under wraps. That it is somehow someone else’s place to decide that my body, my curves and slopes and thighs and ankles, my shoulder bones, my ear lobes, are offensive.
Reminds me of a line from the poet of our ages, Eminem: “You find me offensive? I find you offensive for finding me offensive.”