There is a story in today’s New York Times about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and its concerns about women’s rights. I will share just one tidbit to illustrate the absurdity of their efforts. “A woman needs to be confined within a framework that is controlled by the man of the house,” said a Brotherhood “family expert.” He further explained, “ Even if a wife were beaten by her husband,” she must be shown, “ how she had a role in what happened to her.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/15/world/middleeast/muslim-brotherhoods-words-on-women-stir-liberal-fears.html?_r=0)
The empowerment of women in my country, the United States, is one of the most significant developments I have watched unfold in my lifetime. The importance of this development is very much related to having been born into a very traditional, patriarchal, and impoverished southern family in the United States in 1952. Of course, I knew nothing of family politics in those early years as “power structures” was a notion that I didn’t learn about until much later. But once I had completed college, began reading the social sciences, philosophy, and literature voraciously, I became aware of their presence and began to interpret my own personal life from the perspective I gained.
My Dad was the “head of the household” and he had the Bible to affirm this status. He and the local church emphasized his supremacy and the duty of his wife and six children to dutifully obey his authority. And for years we complied though early in our lives we began to see the inconsistencies in his teachings and in his day to day life and our loyalty was increasingly with mother.
A key feature of dad’s power was control of the purse strings and on that note he made a politically disastrous move in the late 1950’s when he coerced mother into taking a job at a nursing home. She later would recall how she hated doing taking this job, she hated leaving her children alone in the evening hours, and hated not being able to provide the “mother-hen” love that she showered upon us her brood But she, of course, had to cave in at some point and relent because our financial needs were pronounced and dad was the “head of the household.” She worked a bit more than a year before he changed his mind and wanted her to quit though at that point she liked working, her sense of accomplishment was rewarding, and the increased disposable income was a welcome relief from the tedium of abject poverty. But, still dutiful, she acquiesced and quit her position. But, within the year she returned to work, probably because of economic need but also I’m sure because of her wish to return to the life that she was discovering in her job.
This return to work sealed dad’s fate, setting in motion forces which would allow my family to modernize and, more or less, join the world. For, mother thrived in this job as a nurses aide, gained the confidence of her boss, even enrolled in nursing school (LPN school) and completed her licensure requirements. All this time, she was bringing in steady income and this income actually superseded that which dad made in his work as a laborer in the community. Meanwhile, we kids were growing up and becoming more and more aware of dad’s short comings and, admittedly, were always being enticed by mother’s love and not-too-subtle frustrations and anger at her husband.
And, to make a long story short…and perhaps I will try to develop the story more in the future…mom finally succeeded with her quest for independence and left dad, along with her brood, in 1969. This was necessary as dad had become increasingly depressed, hostile, and had even threatened aggression on one occasion. Within two months of this separation, dad had died of an heart attack.
The point of this personal anecdote is that when women gain employment, they gain empowerment, they have the opportunity to find an identity, and to engage in the world. But when they make progress of this sort, it does pose threats to the family dynamic and, in sociological terms, to the social fabric. For one of the bedrocks of traditional, conservative cultures is the subservience of women. If women gain liberties…if I might misapply the wisdom of Todd Akin and making, admittedly, a contorted statement…the gods might just “shut this whole thing down.” Men want control.
The Muslim Brotherhood stance is very telling and I can imagine how it has the Saudi political/religious establishment “shakin’ in their booties.” If they allow these “uppity” women to make any further inroads into their political fiefdom, it will place profound stresses on the social and cultural fabric. But, reality is that a dynamic culture must allow stresses to occur and to find that as they address these stresses they can benefit immensely. But, of course, Egypt is not a dynamic society. And the “gods” always fight change, “tooth and toenail.” (And this same dynamic can currently be seen in my country particularly with the far-right extreme of the Republican party.)