I don’t have a box for this

When Daniel and I first got married, our friend Scott hired us to work in the call center (and for that, we are forever in his debt).  The work itself was intriguing and even fulfilling, but the pseudo-cubicle, headset and productivity reports stole bits of my soul each shift.  On the first day of training, I met a girl whose name I can’t even remember.  She was Somalian, and during the first week we had some of the most intriguing conversations, mostly about her.  I was a newlywed, and although she was younger than me, she’d been a wife for far longer.  She told me many stories about her growing up years.  In hushed tones, she told me about her female circumcision and that of all her friends as small girls in her homeland.  She tried to explain the intricacies of her Old World marriage in this New World, of the oppression in her home with a husband who loved her as a man might love his hired whore, seeing her as not a woman, a person, a soul, but as a vagina, a uterus, and a servant.

This week I am reading Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, a book whose cover and title would never have compelled me to take an interest were it not for my book club.  By page 28 I was texting my friends telling them I HATE THIS BOOK!  There was no consolation in their responses Just wait . . . it only gets worse.  Great, so I’m stuck reading this book about foot-binding (the description of which made me taste bile) and the role of women in 19th century China that sounds like my personal description of hell.  “Raising a girl and marrying her off is like building a fancy road for others to use.”

We marry into new families, go to our husbands sight unseen, do bed business with them as total strangers, and submit to the demands of our mothers-in-law.  If we are lucky, we have sons and secure our positions in our husbands’ homes.  If not, we are faced with the scorn of our mothers-in-law, the ridicule of our husbands’ concubines, and the disappointed faces of our daughters.  . . .there is little we can do to change our fate.  We live at the whim and pleasure of others . . . .

Throw in a little genital mutilation and you’ve got modern day Africa.  Take away the cohabiting with the in-laws and you’ve got the marriage of any one of your friends or neighbors.  These women were faced with lives of little more than sex and service; they lived lives of unworthiness, lives of never being known (the lucky few might be paired as “old-sames,” an emotional friendship that lasted throughout their lives), lives of deferring and submitting in the most fucked-up sense of the word.  And I’m only half-way through the book.

This book is painful for me; everything in me is gearing up for a book-burning.  I rarely encounter this sort of frustration.  Normally I’m irritated over a style preference issue or just crap writing.  But it’s not the book; it’s the story, the history–the present.  It makes me feel ill.  Everything in me–EVERYTHING IN ME–REJECTS this commonly-held belief the world over that it is ever–EVER–appropriate to subjugate or mutilate someone else, whether that is in their physical person, in their mind, or in the gentle soul within them. And yet we watch it happen every day.  We let it happen.  We make it happen.  God, forgive.

*That over-emphasized statement at the end is meant only to be a personal statement; feel free to read into it any other implications your personal worldview lends.

  1. rick said:

    It is interesting that this book is out, yet there are people who do not believe that evil exists in the world. If anyone ever argues with you that missionaries are “cultural imperialists” you will now have a couple reasons why it is necessary.

    • alltheseblessedthings said:

      Do you mean that by bringing our culture we will bring the freedom necessary to rid the world of evil?

      • rick said:

        No, I don’t make the artificial distinction that some make between our religion and our culture. I believe our religion is part of our culture and that as we spread the message of Freedom in Christ and also demonstrate it by our lives, that it will become infectious and permeate the nearby culture, much like yeast works when kneaded into dough (see Matthew 13 for additional parallels between every day things and the Kingdom of God).

      • alltheseblessedthings said:

        I don’t fully agree, but I value your position. Thanks for clarifying.

      • rick said:

        And I would love to have you elaborate on your disagreement. Since this is a blog, I was necessarily brief, perhaps too brief. What is it that you understand me to be saying that you take exception to?

      • alltheseblessedthings said:

        I’m not sure how to explain in this one-dimensional conversation manner…. Firstly, yes, how can anyone look at the world and not admit to the existence of evil (or whatever term bears the same definition in their belief system)?

        Second, I think there’s a HUGE discrepancy between our faith and our culture. Yes, religion is part of culture, but I’m more inclined to think that in so many instances, culture is not permeated by it as much as it is permeated by culture. It’s nearly impossible to assess our personal (and corporate) faith without seeing it through the thick lens of our own background, upbringing, family values, denomination, nationality/race/gender/socioeconomic standing, our personal worldview. (Is there really such a thing as objectivity?) Whether that is a right or wrong assessment, I don’t know.

        Our pastor told a story once about his professor who stated, “You’re more American than you are Christian.” If we traveled the world, how often would we find other Christians who share our same standards of an “upstanding Christian life,” I wonder (you know, the one with all those rules I’ve written about before)? And how many times do we go into the world, carrying with us the heaviness of an American-based faith, overhauling amazing cultures and plowing through their “pagan” lives with our standards of what is acceptable and Godly? The religious McDonaldization of the world.

        I fully agree that missions work is necessary and fruitful, but I’d argue it’d be practically impossible to not bear some sort of cultural imperialism into the field. I, too, believe there is freedom to be had and that it should affect our nearby culture, especially in areas of human rights and dignity, but how often do we even see that in our own neighborhoods and cities, let alone the world? If we are so changed by our faith, why do we not take care of our poor and burdened? Why do we care so much about our political voice for what we claim is right and stand by as daily we are given local opportunities to act as agents of change?

        So, not complete disagreement. I want to believe the yeast/dough analogy (for this is how it should work), but I just don’t know it it’s the right one for me.

  2. Lizzy said:

    I understand (not really) cultures that are excessively oppressive to women. It’s nothing new – it’s been going on since the beginning. Cultures, governments and religions are carefully organized to support the oppression. My biggest problemo with the Snow Flower nonsense is that it is just so played out. Not a new perspective, a new twist on the story, better/different characters, just the same people going through the same motions in a story that’s already been told a thousand other times.

    • alltheseblessedthings said:

      It’s definitely been around. So you took issue with that the story has just been retold so many other times? I’ve not read anything like this before, so it’s been devastating.

    • alltheseblessedthings said:

      What the What?! How’ve you been keeping a blog a secret from me?! Naughty girl.

      • Lizzy said:

        No secret at all my love. Quite the opposite, I was surprised (maybe too strong a word) that you didn’t know! My issue wasn’t solely that it’s been told before, just that it was told with so little emotion. No heroine, no drama, no reason for the book to be written, in my opinion.

  3. Lizzy said:

    Also, I’m so so very happy you mentioned “dignity” in your response to what’s-his-name in the above comments. That seems to be what gets all the way to my core.

    • alltheseblessedthings said:

      I wonder if the author chose to write in that tone because in so many ways, the women’s lives needed to be void of emotion. In every area there was an expected and appropriate manner of behavior….

      The dignity issue is a big one to me because it deals with a person’s self-pride. Not pride in a wrong sense, but pride in a confidence/assurance/dignity sense. Anyway, as I see it, in stories of Jesus, when did he ever act in a way to rob a person of their dignity?

      I’m counting down the days….8 to go!

  4. Ilona said:

    The frustration levels rising are the result of your consciousness being raised. Now… the next question is to look at the historical reality and ask: What is it that has made it different for you and what is it that *allows* you the indignation. Because your sense of what is right or just doesn’t come from nowhere, and then if you see what empoers that sense, it can become something other than frustration and sadness.

    At some point I have found that I have to do something with the bigger world sense of justice and the desire to be part of what makes life better for the oppressed. Otherwise it all just collapses into futility and self-absorption. That isn’t a place where the big heart is able to stay for very long.

    === other parts of the conversation:
    The lack of a “new take”….

    I don’t think that because something is an old story that it has necessarily been told to the extent that it should be. Case in point – the way this book is affecting you. We take for granted that our familiarity with something is broadly shared, but important truths ought to have reiterations… simply because communication operates that way.

    We do mix up our culture “good” with the gospel “good”. We shouldn’t. At the same time the recognition that people influence people just by exposure and proximity creates changes. At some point we make a value of good and evil. That where the carefulness resides… in the distinction of good and evil. Too many times it was given the cultural bias.

    back to women and oppression….
    in our judgment of what is good or evil in the treatment of women, the view of women… what is cultural? What is on a firm moral basis? And why do we distinguish it as being on a “firm moral basis” rather than simply judging on what seems right to us (and being unable to say that treating women that way isn’t right for someone who feels it is)?

    I’ll stop now.

    • alltheseblessedthings said:

      I’ve been trying to figure out where the indignation comes from. I feel it (although I would say indignation is not nearly a strong enough word) with many things, expressly for abuse toward women (and children now that I have some), but also for certain people groups. Usually I start to feel defeated before even beginning to act because trying to rights wrongs in the world is so BIG. I’m starting to find ways to act on the feeling locally and globally.

      I can recognize that there’s a cultural bias to my feelings, and most definitely a moral bias. It’s hard to judge from a “fair” position because I’m definitely a feminist in every good sense of the word (egalitarian is a better word…but in my particular culture–the Southern culture, the Christian culture, the mom culture–it looks much more like feminism).

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