Women Unbound – The Red Tent

If you’ve been following my blog lately, you’ll know that I’ve decided to participate in the Women Unbound challenge. This challenge asks us to read both fiction and nonfiction books written by women authors as part of a group enlightenment/discussion surrounding women’s issues. As a participant in this group, I will post my reviews of these books here on Tasting Grace. But I’m not going to do a traditional book review where I give the synopsis and my thoughts, end of story. What I’d like to do is give a hint of what the book is about, but then talk more about what questions the book raised and what it made me think about. So if you’re not a participant of the challenge and/or haven’t read the book (or even if you have!), or even are not particularly chuffed about women’s issues, please stick around! What I’m hoping to do is pose some things to think about and hopefully engender a discussion here and try to get different people’s thoughts and share ideas. And hopefully learn something really fascinating in the process.

redtentThe first book I read was The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. It’s a very beautiful book that tells the tale of biblical figures from a woman’s perspective. It tells the tale of Jacob and Leah’s daughter, Dinah, from Dinah’s own perspective and weaves a story of four sisters wed to the same man and raising his children together. It tells of her marriage and “rape” and the carnage and aftermath which ensued. With a wealth of historical detail and deep emotional connection, the book opens a window for modern readers to see what life was like for the silent figures in the Bible: the women. I highly recommend it, and if you like historical fiction and books about the bonds of kin, this book might just be your cup of tea.

There are three things that struck me while I read the book. The first regards ceremony and rites. In the early parts of the book, Diamant delves a lot into what women did together. As they were not members of the public sphere, their lives involved much cooking and child-rearing, yes, but they were also very connected inter-personally and spiritually. Diamant talks at length of the community of sisters who see each other through major transitions in life and celebrate together moments like the moment when a girl sheds blood for the first time and becomes a woman: the time when women learn that blood is the price for giving life. As I read on, I realized that we have comparatively little in the way of ceremony and rites-of-passage. Part of this might be due to the way society has progressed: that with science and learning that fertility festivals do not actually increase fertility and dancing before the cloud gods does not produce rain that we have learned more about how the world works. But I wonder if maybe we haven’t lost something along the way. We have proms and marriage and religious holiday traditions (and what we do have has largely become uber-commercialized and sometimes engenders at least as much stress as joy), but most of us no longer celebrate things like when a girl becomes a woman and a boy becomes a man. Important passages go unmarked and unrecognized and there is little sense that these life transitions are indeed special and worth attention. Mothers show daughters how to use a tampon and they both move on without another thought. There is little of the sacred feminine, little celebration, little sense of community, sisterhood or brotherhood surrounding the different stages of life. Comparatively. Perhaps the biggest coming of age surrounds crossing an arbitrary age barrier delineating the legality of driving and drinking alcohol. Which neither are things that say anything substantial about people’s relationship with the larger community. And I wonder: to the extent that some of these communal celebrations have disappeared, have the binds that tie us as a society weakened?

The second thing that came from this book was a very real sense of what it was like for women to not have any choices in life. When things really mattered, very often, choices are made for them by men. It took real manipulation and chicanery to take control of one’s own fate. And what Diamant illustrates so deftly is that women in this time could not even cry foul at injustices. Not only were they not allowed to, they could not even conceive of the possibility of claiming an act against them had been unjust. It simply was the way things were. It is a difficult thing to wrap our heads around now, when we can look and say, “Why didn’t she complain? Why didn’t she fight against her oppression?” There were socio-cultural blinders preventing these women from even entertaining the possibility of fighting back. It’s easy for us to judge in hind-sight, to see outside the social frame of the time with the benefit of a different perspective. But it does raise the question: what are we blind to? Are there things that we don’t even see because it never occurred to us to question them?

And finally, there is a moment between Dinah and a dear friend of hers who says, “Dear one…I am so honored to be the vessel into which you pour this story of pain and strength.” I am so honored to be the vessel. Herein lies what I believe to be one of woman’s most incredible strengths. We have the strength to endure, to survive, to sacrifice, not only for ourselves, but also for others. When we falter, our mothers, sisters, daughters, and friends become the vessel when there is too much to bear. (I don’t mean to say men don’t do this too; men can be incredibly caring, strong, and supportive.) But can we recognize in our sisters fellow vessels of the world’s burdens? Can we, even where there are betrayals between sisters, forgive and live with an undivided heart?

If anyone has thoughts on any of this, I would love to receive them. I would love to have a discussion and hear what others think. I hope you all find this fascinating too.

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11 thoughts on “Women Unbound – The Red Tent

  1. I agree on those points. The first one especially hit home. As a whole society, America doesn't really have transitional ceremonies, but we do in my family. When I was thirteen, my mom and I went and had a weekend at the beach. We did fun things, but also had time, just the two of us, to talk about things. What it meant to be a woman, Birds and the Bees and whatnot. My brother and dad also went away on a weekend to do the same thing.

    We have to grab what we can to make those traditions, and make sure there are things that aren't commercialized.

    For your second point, women rarely cried out against their lack of rights, because they didn't know that it wasn't right. Here is their religion and family structure strictly based on the male point of view. Anyone of power is male. The women are not allowed to do anything other than stay and keep house. They don't even get to choose their husband. They are so busy getting through the day that the time to think about their circumstances doesn't really come up. When your day begins before dawn and ends after sunset and you barely have a moment to breath (And I'm talking about being really busy. Not "I have to drive an hour to work, work in an office, stick food in a microwave/oven to cook it…"…..no, more like "I have to carry the water 2 miles in to clean the dishes after cooking the bread in the morning") It was a constant cycle of busy and made it very difficult to have a thought of your own.

    This stuff ALWAYS fascinates me. Maybe it's why I was a Sociology major?

  2. That's awesome that your family created those traditions. This makes me, if I have a daughter, want to do something special for her when she moves from girlhood to womanhood. I discussed this with my husband's stepmom a couple of days ago and our little step-sister (who is 12) is very likely to come to this stage very soon and we discussed how we want to do something fun and special for her then too. Just us girls celebrating, sharing stories, talking about the birds and the bees, bonding, and having our own way to mark this rite-of-passage. I'm very much looking forward to it.

    Part of me wishes these rituals were more widespread, but now I think about it, if they really were, they probably would become co-opted by corporatism just as Christmas, Valentine's Day, etc. have. To keep it real, to keep it genuine, maybe it does need to be a family thing.

    Heh. I didn't know you were a Soc major! Yeah, this stuff is really so fascinating to me too (poli sci is not so far off).

  3. I LOVED this book as well though it has been years since I've read it. My women friends and I have always said a red tent concept would be nice…somewhere to go, just women, to be together, hang out, no responsibilities for a while, etc.

  4. I’m adding this book to my reading list. Apparently there is much to think about here.

    There was a definite “rite of passage” for girls in my own family. I wrote a short story about it many years ago and will be interested to hear your opinion of it, Jade. Our rite was not a consciously planned, fun event, it wasn’t actually discussed or explained, and it had nothing to do with the onset of menses but it was very important for each girl and, once experienced, it permanently changed her position in the family. By observation from earliest childhood, each girl was aware of it and longed for it even though it meant some changes that might appear more negative than positive. Those negative changes were much more than made up for by exactly that sense of mutual support and solidarity – sisterhood, if you will – that you mentioned in your post above.

    As much as I agree that time spent (especially one on one) with children and young people as they grow is important, I question whether a pleasant outing with the agenda of addressing developmental changes actually functions as a rite of passage. It can contribute to a more open relationship with the young person, facilitating communication (one hopes) about topics that may not have been freely discussed before. That is wildly important but not quite the same as an experience that actually marks a transition in status, responsibility or position for the young person. Such a celebration can help make the young person aware that changes are coming and may even reassure her that she has the support and encouragement of older women but it is not the same as the transition itself.

    In any case, inventing a “rite of passage” would require some very serious thought. Depending upon her degree of awareness, the particular girl’s personality and the state of the relationship before such a growing up party, some girls could be profoundly embarrassed by the whole thing while others would be deeply annoyed that a parent would think they are still such a child. At worst, I suppose, it may be only a celebration of a physical change over which the girl has no control – yet another subliminal message that her body is the most important part of her. And if she is one of many who really suffers physically and emotionally every month, she may wonder why the women in her life saw fit to celebrate at all.

    Physical changes are inescapable transition points and nowadays probably the only ones many women ever experience. But no matter how emotional one may become during menstruation, it is not the same as recognizing on an emotional and intellectual level that with one culturally significant step one is no longer “child” with the freedom and lack of accountability that usually goes along with that but rather “woman” with all the new responsibilities and possibilities that involves. And the fact that it is culturally significant – not just personally meaningful or enjoyable – is key, I think. Perhaps it is just my definition of the term, but I think a “rite of passage” has to mark a real transition that takes place at that point and it has to mark a change in how the girl relates to her society and how that society relates to her.

    There has been a shift in the last 50 years or so to open pathways formerly claimed exclusively by men to all women quite regardless of biology, psychology or personal preference. At the very least it has become politically incorrect to speak of “woman’s place” or “woman’s role”. What had been the expected life of women became unacceptable to many who were striving for liberation. As is often the case, change first meant throwing out the good along with the bad. When I had my children it was pretty generally considered reactionary (and lame) to be ONLY a stay at home mom. Thank goodness there has been at least some pendulum swing back toward recognition of the value and complexity of child raising. We are closer to having real freedom of choice now that it is acceptable to choose many of the same things our grandmothers valued.

    Still, we’ll probably never go back to a time when women were expected to fill a domestic, maternal role as a matter of course. Women have become aware that choice can be a two edged sword. There is no automatic position for women to fill any longer. There is no common path we all follow. There may be no patriarch to tell us what we can and cannot do these days but we must now invent our lives in ways our grandmothers did not have to do. Now each woman is expected to make up her own life as she goes along – independence at the price of being an accepted part of a larger societal whole; opportunities at the risk of wrong choices. We are supposed to have the freedom and opportunity to do anything we like, right?

    My question, then, is: is it possible to have a “rite of passage” to a state that no longer has a generally accepted definition? How can one be accepted into “womanhood” if there is no consensus about what that must mean?

  5. Thank you so much for this wonderful, thought-provoking response. I'm still mulling over a lot of what you said. You've so eloquently described something I (and many others) have been wrestling with: this notion of choice being a double-edged sword, that with freedom comes not only responsibility, but also risk and judgment.

    It's really interesting what you say about how the meaning of "womanhood" is nebulous. What does it mean to be a woman anymore? And where are the dividing lines between girlhood and womanhood? I don't think any of these things are very clear anymore. Even at college age, at 20 or 21, an age where previously woman were considered positively "old", we're now still kind of "college girls/college women". I don't think I was fully appreciated as a woman until I got married, really. Decisions that you make taking into consideration a serious "boyfriend" are not taken seriously. The minute you say "husband", then your decisions begin to earn respect. And even still, I'm not sure womanhood is fully realized until you have children, or suffer the unfortunate circumstance of trying to have kids only to discover you are barren. So menses are just one step in a very, very long transition, one that continues to lengthen.

    Maybe, if there were to be a ceremony that is meaningful, instead of calling it a "rite-of-passage", it would be called an "initiation rite" or something like that, for here is where the transition into womanhood begins. It happens around the age that girls notice that boys start to act differently around them, and they in turn feel differently about how they relate to girl and boy friends. And I think, (at least how I would want to approach it with my daughter) in the home, it would be important to start including the girl in various household duties like cooking, cleaning, and various other responsibilities (if it hasn't already started) so she can learn how to manage a home of her own one day.

    Regardless of whether there is a ceremony though, I think it's important to recognize the first menses, to give her support, encouragement, a feeling of sisterhood, and to encourage comfort with our bodies and a positive self-image. To learn that the menses are not something to be ashamed of. Though your point that for many, it can be the cause of excruciating pain is an important one to consider. I think maybe that the key point is that this time is important and our bodies are sacred, and that whatever the girl experiences (whether pain, pride or pleasure), she should know that her feelings are normal, understandable, and that others can relate (even as the feelings are likely to evolve); and help her find ways to manage both the physical and emotional feelings so that she develops a positive relationship with her body. I'm just thinking it shouldn't go unrecognized or unacknowledged because a girl shouldn't feel that she is left alone to deal with all these strange and potentially frightening changes.

    This also raises questions about how to talk about self-respect, sex, losing one's virginity, and developing positive relationships with men. But that's a whole other can of worms to deal with, so I'll leave that one alone for now!

  6. This is a very insightful review of a book that I loved the first time I read it (it had lost its gloss somewhat the second time).

    The rites, traditions and celebrations were what I loved to read about most. Perhaps as a tradition you could present this book to any girl in your life when she becomes a woman. The Red Tent celebrates womanhood and is the perfect choice for the Women Unbound challenge.

  7. I have not read the other comments, but I've meaning to read this post and I'm doing it when I should be working! You raise many valid points that are close to my heart. Celebrating milestones. Milestones that are truly important and monumental, not the ones Hallmark believes we should celebrate. I can say that I had that wedding that I wanted. We were married by the JP with our parents, a set of grandparents, my best friend, and T's brother. It was small, intimate and about US, not the party. To me, saying our vows to each other was about us, not about those far reaching family/friends that weren't part of our daily lives. To me it was perfect. I do think celebrating womanhood is important. I know how much I love having girlfriends who "get" me. And, as sad as this may sound, I have only one in the same town as myself. I have many online. I think I would feel very deprived if I didn't have these relationships I've built through blogging.

    The point you make about perspective of the time is something I keep hearing in RCIA (T is going to be converting to Catholicism, and this is the process). We are being taught that the bible is not literal. We have to think about what was being said and what the context (historical and cultural) of the situation is in order to understand what is being said in the bible.

    And where you quote about "the vessel"? Struck my heart. This is so true. I believe that men can be compassionate and loving, but there is something different about it when a woman "gets" you. Something so deep and raw.

    I am now looking forward to reading this!

  8. Your wedding sounds like it was very beautiful and special. Toby and I also wrote our own vows and it was very meaningful to us because it was our own words and our own promises to each other we were making. And in terms of ceremony, one part that was really special for us was a Thai ceremony (we did both an American style wedding and a Thai Buddhist wedding) where after the couple married, holy water made by the monks during the wedding, is carried in a large vessel, and each family member and friend (starting with the family elders) comes up, takes a conch shell and dips it into the holy water and pours the water over the couple's joined hands and wishes the couple blessings, gives advice and hope for a happy marriage and offers support for the couple. It turned out to be one of the most intimate and touching, emotional moments of our entire wedding because of the one-on-one interaction of love, hope and support between us and all our loved ones. Many a tear were shed. :)

    Female friendships are really so powerful. I didn't have many growing up. I was one of those girls who tended to get along better with guys than girls (especially in high school). But thankfully since then I've developed some really important friendships. Only 2 of them live in my town, others are strewn about the US – and one just moved to Morocco! But these online friendships have been very important to me too. I've only started blogging seriously just some months ago, so the relationships are still new. But I've learned a lot from the people I've found online and value that very much.

    It's interesting you mention what you're talking about in RCIA. I just read an interesting blog post on this topic. You might find it interesting too, though perhaps your group has already discussed these things: http://womenunbound.wordpress.com/2009/11/23/gues

    I hope you enjoy reading The Red Tent! I would be happy to hear what you think of it. (And of The Lovely Bones when you finish that!)

  9. I feel like my comment may be a bit paltry, as it's shorter than all the others!

    I read The Red Tent some years ago. I was nervous as it's based in a religious story, which I'm not all about. But it was really good and though I have no real knowledge of the religious story, the book was very well-written. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

    I also agree with your comments on women being vessels and able to deal with a lot of emotional heartache- not only our own, but others', too. It makes the world a more empathetic place.

  10. I really appreciate your review style, and that you are posing questions the book raised for you. That's insightful, interesting, and different.

    I'm planning to read the book soon, and I will revisit your post then.

  11. Thank you so much! I really appreciate your comment and I'm very much looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the book when you get a chance to read it.