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.

reclaiming our….

If you take a little gander over at my right hand column here, you’ll notice I’m reading a book titled with that one little c-word. I’ve been wanting to write about it, about the things it makes me think about and wonder, though I’m having a little difficulty pinpointing exactly what I want to say. Mostly because 1) I don’t want to come across as some kind of crazy femi-Nazi when I cry out for women’s rights, and 2) I think this book is SO important, something EVERY. WOMAN. IN. AMERICA. needs to read. And I don’t wanna mess it up when I talk about it. So because it is so important, I am going to talk about it, and I apologize ahead of time for the rambling.

So the reason it’s called…what it’s called… is because it didn’t use to be a bad word. It used to, in ancient times, just mean woman. But because, in the way of history, what is associated with women often carries negative connotations, so the word acquired negative meaning. And so on, through the ages. Inga Muscio, the author of this book, says we need to reclaim this word, reclaim it in a positive sense, in a way reclaiming ourselves: our womanhood and our femininity. (Because vagina, apparently, means “a sheath for a sword”, and we ain’t nobody’s sheaths, thankyouverymuch.)

“There will remain much sadness in the world until people are willing to rise to the task of facing the world’s pain in the bathroom mirror.” She talks a bit about how we hold ourselves to unrealistic beauty ideals (how cliche that sounds, but I promise, you feel the truth of it deep down, emotionally, when she talks about it), often basing almost our entire self-worth on how we think others think we look. (I would say men, but in all honesty, I think women dress up to make other women think we look good, mostly to compete with other women.) And we hate ourselves when we think our thighs are too chubby, our tummies and arms are too flabby, our knees are too knobbly, our noses are too big, our lips are too small, or whatever whatever, because it’s all a bunch of crap. And we hate it so much, we mutilate ourselves with knives and needles and chemicals and machines, trying to meet these ideals. And we hate ourselves when we look in the mirror. While we live in a patriarchal society, I’m not sure there’s much use in blaming men so much as just realizing how we engage in our own persecution and oppression. Yes, we engage in our own persecution and oppression. And we hate on other women who don’t meet our standards of professionalism, creativity, beauty, ideas on breastfeeding, child-rearing, etc. instead of supporting each other and realizing we each just do the best we can. Why do we hate on other women so much? I dunno. I mean, yeah, we’re great with our friends (most of the time). But other women? We can be so catty with each other, can’t we? This is why the problem of achieving equality is so damn hard: because the inequalities are so subtle, so hidden, so insidious, and because we can’t get rid of the self-hate.

This is also the part where I part ways with corporate feminism. I don’t think we prove our power or achieve equality when we act like men, when we play cut-throat in the professional world and pooh-pooh the “mommy track”. I think we gain power and equality when we demonstrate how vital and important a feminine perspective is: when we run offices like collaboratives rather than hierarchies, for example. When we celebrate people in all endeavors and place value in all creative/academic/professional pursuits because each person has an important role to play and service to perform: the homeschooling mother, the baker, the florist, the accountant. When we say what happens in the home is every bit as important as what happens in the office, in the classroom, or on Capitol Hill.

Muscio also touches on rape, and how because of the way our bodies are built, we are subject to violations that some persons can do in the space of a coffee break, but that have ramifications that last a lifetime, or lifetimes, into the next generation. The statistics on rape are appalling, especially when you look at the numbers perpetrated on young children, and that is only counting the ones that are reported. “If you haven’t been directly targeted, someone in your family most certainly has. And if it has affected your family, it has affected you too, possibly in deeply personal ways, in phobias or neurosis, in anxiety or self-esteem issues. No one is exempt.” If you think you haven’t been affected, remember: silence is the perpetrator’s best ally, and “denial is one of the most common responses to heinous abuse”. Muscio is not far off the mark in saying we exist in a rape culture, when those of us who have not been raped feel lucky for having escaped it thus far, when the persecutions of rapists are so meager, and when so many movies in Hollywood glorify it, portraying it in a way that is sexy rather than offensive. (FYI: for those who have suffered from sexual assaults, or those who would prefer to avoid movies with violent sexual scenes, there is a website Movies That Trigger where someone has compiled a list of movies containing such scenes so you can be properly forewarned and avoid movies that may trigger panic attacks or depression.) For this reason alone, we should learn how to protect ourselves properly and develop strong systems of support – because any woman who has experienced sex that wasn’t entirely on the up and up can probably have an inkling of how deeply traumatic those violations can be. Even I, who abhor guns, am gearing up my guts to learn to shoot. I dislike them so thoroughly I will absolutely never own a gun, or keep one in the house (especially when I have kids), but one never knows when one might be presented with a situation in which one has to use a gun. So it’s best to know how to do it safely and properly.

So I don’t agree with every thing she says, but it is a good feeling to be shaken up sometimes. To be metaphorically slapped in the face and forced to think differently about something, even if it’s just for a while. Even if you don’t change your mind. To have someone lovingly tell you, “Wake the f— up.” Because it is gratifying to wake up, even if it is to disagree – if you honestly consider her point and really, really figure out why you disagree – and even more so when you are shaken out of your rut long enough to be reminded to love yourself. That you deserve to be loved, and most of all, that the love has to start with you, when you look in the bathroom mirror.

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