Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Growing Up Middle Eastern and African: Women

Yesterday, one of the male students from Afghanistan came to my office to pick up an immigration document for a woman in Afghanistan who is trying to come here to study English. He had been an interpreter for the U.S. military in Iraq and in Pakistan before he came here to improve his English and to begin a degree program. We talked of Benazir Bhutto's visit here sometime back and of the plight of women in Pakistan. We talked about what his friend from childhood, the woman wanting to study English here, is doing to better life for herself and for others in their village.
"It's much much worse for women in Afghanistan," he told me. "I tell other men there, 'The way you look at a woman walking down the street -- it's not how you want anyone looking at your mother or your daughter.' Women cannot vote in the upcoming election without men. Women are beaten and are raped. Girls are taken as brides. Their genitals are mutilated. It's very bad. We have a long way to go. I am here, and she is there, and we must do what we can. We must be patient while we do what we can."
Today, one of my blogger friends from the USA who lives in Africa muses about marriage. He's one of my favorite bloggers, and I have had the privilege of eating a meal with him here in Texas. David Ker (aka Lingamish) in a post today writes some things that are troubling but important for many of us here in the West to hear:
"I really hate labels like feminist and complementarian. But I use them a lot....
Here in Mozambique, race and gender roles are more clearly defined than those in modern America. I thank God that my daughter is not growing up an African. The exploitation and predation of young girls in Africa is a horror. And that carries through to adulthood where a woman’s options are very few. Interestingly, two of the most famous living Mozambicans are women: Luisa Dioga, the prime minister, and Olympic gold medalist, Maria Matola. Mozambique is in quite a few ways like the society found in Jane Austen’s romantic novels. A rich man is the quickest way for a woman to rise in society.
My hope for my sons and daughter is that they will grow up watching their parents struggle through life together trying to fulfill a vision that we can only realize together. May they be proud of our successes and learn from our mistakes."
(Ker begins that post of his today by quoting an English translation of a French proverb:

Marriage is like a fortress besieged: those who are outside want to get in, and those who are inside want to get out.

I'm making this parenthetical note, this aside, just to muse about how relationships between women and men, in marriage especially, and as mothers and fathers especially, may work for change.  And I think change comes mostly with intentionality to effect change.

The quotation Ker uses is appropriated by a Chinese couple whose literature in China has been quite influential; I'm thinking now of the novel Fortress Besieged by Qian Zhongshu whose work was inspired by his the work of his wife, Yang Jiang. And then that makes me think of the work of Lydia H. Liu, who studies Chinese appropriations of the West, and who makes this important comment in her book Translingual Practice: Literature, National Culture, and Translated Modernity: China, 1900-1937 [page 195]:
“The unmarking of the male gender as a gendered position… has the function of masking the true condition of gender politics in the universalizing discourse of modern literary criticism. This is the condition that concerns me most as I continue to ponder the meaning of national literature from a gendered point of view….
Her observation [Rey Chow’s observation] is timely and important, because it shows us that feminist gender criticism is not just about real women and sexuality – critics whose work is not theoretically informed by feminist gender criticism invariably express an interest in the so-called images of women or women writers – but rather, as Joan W. Scott, whom Chow quotes here, would put it, it is a way of reading and intervention into the dominant theoretical and critical practices.”
The ubiquity and universality of male dominance over females is something that can't go unmarked.  There is much work to do, and it is gendered work through ways of intervention that continue to be marked, if labelled and marked "feminist.")

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