While we may all want to think that we’re so much better than the Taliban, in many respects behaviour in North America is simply better hidden than it was under the Taliban regime. No where is this more evident than in the way we treat women.
I grabbed The Underground Girls of Kabul a number of months back because the cover and title sounded interesting. I naively assumed that there would be vast differences in how women are treated and that the society I lived in would be far superior. Instead, I was continually reminded of previous reading that centered on how terrible men are in their treatment of women in North America.
Let’s take a look at some of the issues raised by Jenny Nordberg.
Most women in most have to forgo embracing being strongly feminine to infiltrate the male workforce1. Female lawyers and executives, to name two jobs, are expected to suppress femininity in a quest to fit in with the male default. We saw this same idea expressed in many ways in Invisible Women. Being “male” is the assumed default and proper way to behave. Any deviation from it is aberrant and must be suppressed.
This male default extends beyond dress and into behaviour, with women paying the price. If they’re assertive like men they get labelled as a bitch, and yet they’re only trying to play by the same rules men have set out.
Another thread often repeated by Nordberg is women bearing fault for male behaviour2. In Afghanistan this is about women remaining covered so they don’t advertise themselves as “available” to men and if they do, then any unwanted sexual advance is the behaviour she deserves. We see a similar parallel in most developed nations as a women is supposed to be “sexy” but if you’re too sexy, then you’re easy and your worth is lower.
The thing that annoys me most about this is the abdication of men for any responsibility for their own behaviour. They treat themselves as animals who can’t control their own urges instead of acknowledging they made a choice and any women is a victim.
Power has always been held by those who manage to control the origins of life by controlling women’s bodies3.
Under the Taliban regime control of women and their bodies became a twisted symbol of manliness4. Unfortunately, we’re in the same boat for much of male culture in North America.
This was made evident by Peggy Orenstein in Boys & Sex as she showed us the pervading dialogue of men revolves around sexual domination and conquest. This language is used as a signal by men to show how manly they are because they can control the bodies of women.
Women who enjoy sex are also “whores”. It’s about stealing any pleasure from them and ensuring that only men get stuff5.
One striking example of the fallacy of gender vs birth sexy was made obvious as Nordberg talked about the capabilities of the bacha posh.
bacha posh is the term for girls dressed as and pretending to be boys to bring their family “status”
When dressed as boys there is nothing that these female’s can’t do in their families eyes. Riding horses, shooting guns, physically standing up for their female relatives are all things that are easily accomplished by these females dressed as males. But change their clothing and suddenly they’re some frail flower that must stay inside and be protected. That obvious fallacy alone shows that it has nothing to do with birth sex, and everything to do with the [[moral ecologies]] surrounding the perception of gender6
When it comes to a better way to help women gain and maintain freedom, Nordberg suggests men need to be included in “gender” projects. To the men, because the “gender” projects didn’t include men in any way they were viewed as a threat and “anti” men. Thus as soon as the foreigners pull out or loose interest, the men come back and enforce the old way as soon as they can7. The author suggests that instead men need to be brought into these initiatives as partners in bringing reform for women.
Yes you should read this book. It was an tough look at how women are treated and the lengths they’ll go to for any semblance of equality. Just don’t read it with some smug assurance that the society we live in is better. We’re better at hiding the same behaviours and beliefs and limits, but the treatment of women as less than, by men, stretches deep roots in to every culture I’m aware of.
Read it, and examine how you hold beliefs that limit the women you come into contact with. Then make a change.