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.
The 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.