Tuesday, June 27, 2006

That Which Cannot Be Imagined

This weekend I was in Amherst, Massachusetts, home of the University of Massachusetts. I had not been there for many years. I was telling my friend about what it was like going to college there in the late 60's when the Woman's Movement was just getting on its feet. My friend Barb would come over for coffee and bring with her these mimeographed or printed pamphlets by "new women" - voices like Gloria Steinem, Letty Cottin-Pogrebin, Robin Morgan, Betty Friedan, Germaine Greer.

I remember one leaflet that we went over with a fine tooth comb. We, in our early 20's, were both married, far from virginal. It was titled "The Myth of Vaginal Orgasm". We talked about it in hushed whispers. Who knew?

How gigantic was this time in history? The very substance of who we were, right down to what we thought we knew about our bodies, was up for grabs. And we knew so little.

I recall a NY Times article that began with a "Brain Teaser". A father and son are in a car accident. They are rushed to the hospital. The father dies on the way, while the son is taken to the operating room. Later, the doctor comes in and says: "I can't operate on him, because he's my son." Who is the doctor?

The "surprise" answer was, of course, that the doctor was the boy's mother. But in the early 1970's, this did not come as a natural answer, and good liberals were banging their heads against the wall for not having been able to figure it out.

It was simply impossible to imagine the right answer because our learned prejudice blocked the possibility of one. We simply did not see. I was a feminist then (as now), and you know what? I couldn't guess the answer back then. Was that funny or tragic? You tell me.

Years later I read Alice Walker's "Possessing The Secret of Joy" and heard for the first time about clitorectomies, female genital mutilation -- an imposed savagery that effects literally tens of million of women worldwide. Shortly thereafter I saw a BBC special with a reporter who went to an African village where several mothers were taking their 7 and 8 year old daughters to a hut where their genitals were about to be mutilated by an old woman with a broken bottle used as a knife. The girls looked frightened. One mother was weeping quietly.

The little girls went into the shabby hut and soon there was the sound of agonized screaming as these little baby girls were sliced open. One mother, the one who had been weeping, ran off to a bench under a tree and rocked back and forth crying, holding herself.

The reporter, bless her, was kind to the woman. Here is my memory of what happened.

Reporter: Is that your little girl?

Mother: Yes, my baby, my baby....

Reporter: (places her arm around the woman, who almost collapses into that act of kindness) Did you tell her what was going to happen?

Mother; Oh no -- I didn't. I could not. I have had this myself. I know what it would be for her. I could not tell her.

Reporter: (gently) Mother, if you knew - and you are so hurt by this pain for her -- can you help me know why you brought her here today?

Mother: (looking up at the reporter helplessly through tear-streaked eyes, as though she is stunned that the reporter has to ask) Because...because...this is what it MEANS to be a woman.

Even now I have to pause to take this in. "Because - this is what it means to be a woman."

I am haunted by the African mother who believes that pain and torment, brutality to children, denial of sexuality, that all of that is what it MEANS to be a woman. It is as much a part of how she knows she is female as her breasts or her menses. I do not know how to undo that. How to unravel the torturous knot of that soul-contorting lie.

How have we come to define who we (or anyone else) can and cannot be? I speak in this post of women, but that is only because I know its effects best as a woman myself.

This cannot be what God wants for us, cannot be what he calls us to. This is exactly what the Kingdom of God is up against -- this agonizing and consuming fog that doesn't even let us imagine a future that differs from the one we have --a savagery that cuts off hope, dreams, that eats souls.


Blogger samtzmom said...

No, I can't even imagine it Mata, can't even. By the time I was a school age kid, we were at least pretending that women were equal, yet we all knew in many ways, it was just given lip service. Just like all our glbt brothers and sisters are facing now. Maybe one day....

6:44 AM  
Blogger Ginger said...

Wow. An extremely powerful post. Thanks.

(By the way, my mom has been a doctor my entire life and I didn't figure out the riddle either. Now how do we explain that?)

9:32 AM  
Blogger Mata H said...

Ginger -- it is amazing, no? How deeply our pre-conceptions are burned in.

9:29 PM  

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