The Woman Condition
The Woman Condition
I read a story recently about a woman who survived an acid attack. She was doing the dishes when her infant cried out. She left the dishes to pick up the infant and her mother-in-law didn’t think that was right, so she pummelled her.
The woman woke up days later in a hospital while being treated for an acid attack. Apparently, the mother-in-law, joined by the husband, beat her unconscious and then sprayed her with acid (Nitric or sulphuric). When she woke up she realized her chin was fused to her neck. (see: http://acidsurvivorspakistan.org/). She and her child were now safe in a hospital run by the Acid Survivors Foundation. That’s how commonplace the attack is… it merits its own foundation!
Now call me crazy, but if I were doing the dishes and my kid called, I’d drop the dishes and go see my child. If anyone touched me I’d call the cops. I believe that’s assault and battery to say the least. Ah, but yes, I’m an emancipated woman in the States. She was a young bride in Pakistan.
These days I’m riveted to a book about Greg Mortenson’s adventure to build schools in Pakistan (Three Cups of Tea, Mortenson, Greg & Relin, David Oliver, Penguin Books, 2006). In it, Mortenson describes the “central feature” of every marriage ceremony he’s seen to be the “anguish” of the bride at being separated from her family forever.
“Usually at a wedding, there’s a solemn point when you’ll see the bride and her mother clinging to each other, crying. The groom’s father piles up sacks of flour and bags of sugar, and promises of goats and rams, while the bride’s father folds his arms and turns his back, demanding more. When he considers the price fair, he turns around and nods. Then all hell breaks loose. I’ve seen men in the family literally trying to pry the bride and her mother apart with all their strength, while the women scream and wail.”
Mortenson goes on the explain that if the bride is from an isolated village and the grooms family from far away, the girl may never see her family again. In the story about the acid attack survivor in Pakistan, the woman says there is no bitterness. In spite of her injuries, and her suffering, she says that she has forgiven her husband and in-laws. “They are like my own mother and sisters,” she says.
Women and girls as young as 10, 11 and 12 continue to be married off in Muslim middle east and central Asia. And they continue to turn up battered and bruised, or even dead as was publicised the case of in Yemen recently. But the tradition continues. The practice of dowries only legitimizes the treatment of these young women and girls as ‘property’ by the acquiring family (the groom’s), and fuels the greed that motivates the selling family (that of the bride) to pawn off their daughters at a younger and younger age.
Over and over again I read that young girls in poor countries are either shipped off to work in appalling conditions at too young an age, or are handed off to marry under horrifying conditions at too young an age. If they are wed to a family from further away than their legs can carry them, they become isolated and completely dependent, emotionally as well as physically and economically, on the groom’s family. Once the girl has been heavily paid for and she is hauled away from anyone who would protect her, what is to keep her safe from harm? Most of these young brides come from large families where the ties between siblings are great. The older girls usually care for the younger siblings as a parent would. They are attached to each other and become each other’s best friends and protectors. Once the bride is wrenched away, she is psychologically bruised by the separation already and is likely to form the kind of “kidnapper’s affinity” that we in the states term as a psychological defense mechanism and treat with therapy once the hostage is free. In the case of marriage in these countries the girl is never free – unless she dies or lands in hospital run by a foundation with a mission to protect her. That explains why a woman beaten and peppered with acid may forgive the perpetrator of the attack.
With the tradition of the dowry paid and the girl taken away, It seems girls are a commodity while boys are a prize in many underdeveloped corners of the world where poverty is chronic and education is rare. There are entire swaths of Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Indonesia and the African continent and beyond that are completely illiterate. Further, with an unforgiving landscape, they are often isolated and with little or no technology around them they have limited knowledge of the rest of the world. The most common agents of change in these societies seems to be women who recognize first that the cycle of abuse termed “tradition” is inhumane. But it is difficult to demand change when you know nothing other than what your tradition has shown you – and when you have little right to speak your mind.
Nonetheless, women are increasingly attempting to bring about incremental change. Some have spearheaded schools and worked convincingly with local clerics to allow, indeed endorse learning as a tenet of Islam – not to be relinquished from girls. In other countries women are increasingly attending universities and holding off marriage into their twenties. But poverty is still the greatest threat to safety and to education. Just as food is a luxury to the poverty-stricken masses in the underbelly of the world where few people ever look, so are schools and the time to attend them.
In their stead comes Tradition. A tradition that makes the poverty bearable with folkloric tales of harder times passed and heroes sacrificed, but also enables the refusal to find a solution. For as long as it is culturally acceptable, indeed “traditional” to marry off a child at the age of 10 because the family is poor and needs the money, or the family is poor and needs one less mouth to feed, then there will never be a demand for that child to stay at home and learn to read or write so she can, if nothing else, teach the same to her children. If the tradition of education catches on then perhaps the children of a few generations down the line can realistically contemplate a life outside of gripping poverty. But for as long as money is paid for the illiterate child taken, she will helplessly have to endure abuse until she dies a slow and horrific death. How can this message not be a simple enough one for us to spread to every corner of earth?
People often ask me who I’m fighting for. I’m not fighting for the mother-in-law that beats the bride. I’m not fighting for the suicidal jihadi. And I’m not fighting for the women who perpetuate the cycle of abuse by enabling it or mindlessly following a religion that they say condones it. I am fighting for the women who instinctively know the tradition is wrong, but can’t find a voice to say it, a way out of it, or a safe place to speak it.
There are hundreds of NGO’s and small non-profits that help women escape brutality. And although abuse around this world is massive in scope, there are small efforts that aggregated together are making a difference. A search on the internet will turn up pages of statistics on increasing numbers of girls in underdeveloped countries attaining an education, marrying later, and questioning aspects of their tradition. Now that the jump-start has been ignited, it is incumbent on us all - as the fortunate women who live in lawful societies - to add to the voices of change and enable the droplets of multiple efforts to evolve into a sea change for generations after us to calibrate.