I am currently participating in a Middle Eastern literature study through October. Every other Thursday evening, I go the local library and hear a guest speaker lecture on the book we’re reading. I am currently reading Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz, which is the story of a Muslim family living in Cairo, Egypt, during the early 1900s when the British were occupying Egypt. I’m only about 40 pages into the story right now, but the most overwhelming impression I have so far is the description of how differently the women are treated in the family. They are subordinate to the males to the point that the wife really seems no different from a paid servant, and even as a mother, she cannot risk rebuking her son if he needs to be because he is male and she is female. Females eat separately and always after the males have eaten. Females are not allowed to leave the home or even be seen inside the home, so there are shutters on the windows to prevent anyone from seeing the women inside. One of the characters, the younger daughter Aisha, has risked a very dangerous action when she leaves the window shutters open wide enough to see and be seen by a handsome police officer. In just a few chapters, I can see what an incredibly repressive society these women live in back in that period of time. Of course, modern day Muslim Egyptian households are probably not as strict in their duty to keep women subordinate. Egypt is not one of the places where a woman has to be fully covered from head to toe in the restricting burkha when she’s in public or risk imprisonment, but that is the rule in some “modern” Middle Eastern countries. Afghanistan is currently like that under the rule of the very religious extremists, the Taliban. Saudi Arabia is another country where the “veil” is required of women in public places. Of course, a lot of Middle Eastern women have had to fight to not have to be hidden away by the veil or restricted in many other ways by having their education severely limited and other atrocities. These brave women have literally taken to the streets to demand more equality with men. While some Muslim women choose to cover themselves because they prefer to be modest, they still want the right to an education and a career, and in most Middle Eastern nations, these women “have come a long way, baby.”
I wonder sometimes how it would feel to have the freedoms I cherish, but admittedly, sometimes take for granted, stolen from me. What if I were prohibited from having my teaching career? What if I had to make sure I was covered from head to toe before I could risk going out in public for fear that a religious police force would grab me and beat me or worse? To tell the truth, I can’t imagine any of that. I see it in movies happening to foreign women in far away places, and I shake my head and commiserate as well as I can, considering I can wear anything I want and go anywhere I want and do anything I want in this country. And I think I’m just about as equal as I want to be in this country.
But am I really? In the United States today, women only make 77 cents compared to the dollar the men make. Why is this? It really is best explained by reviewing women’s place in the job market. Prior to WWII, women basically didn’t work outside the home except for in a few professions such as nursing and teaching. When the industrial revolution hit the U.S., women were seen fit to do low paying labor jobs in sewing factories. Eventually, women were allowed to go to a “business college” where they learned to be low paid secretaries. No one saw anything wrong with the inequality because women could be taken care of by their husbands and their fathers. WWII brought a change to the workforce as women were needed to take the place of men in typically masculine jobs while the men were away at war. But were they paid the same wages as the men? No. Again, they were viewed as inexperienced and unskilled, and thus not worthy of making the same wages as the more experienced, more highly skilled male workers that they replaced. The problem is that after WWII, women did not all return to their homes to put on their aprons. A lot of women wanted to keep those jobs and even get better educated and acquire more skills, so they would be more competitive in the workplace. And progress was made. Still, today, on the average, women are earning 23% less than men earn for the same work at the same level. That is not okay. Listen to what the presidential candidates say about the discrepancy. McCain says that women just need more education and skills, and then they’ll be able to compete with men and make a more equal salary. Obama says that women are educated and skilled and that it is basically outright discrimination to underpay women for equal work, so since the corporations won’t do what is right, there should be a law forcing them to do it. McCain says that would be too costly for corporations to have to pay equally for equal work. Well, boo hoo for the corporations! It was costly to the plantation owners to have to actually pay their slaves wages for their work instead of owning them as property, but slavery was obliterated anyway. It may take us awhile in this country to do the right thing, but eventually, we always do it. And so, there is greater hope on the horizon for women in our country.
Still, even if we ever get the equal pay for equal work issue settled, we still have another, perhaps more insidious, form of discrimination against women, not only in our country, but in the Western world in general. Weight discrimination is evident in the pictures we see in magazines and in commercials on TV and on billboards. The ideal woman is portrayed as someone who looks as if she has a drug problem or an eating disorder, and unfortunately, she probably does. The ideal woman we’re seeing these days is not just thin; she’s skinny. And it seems that the ideal woman keeps getting skinnier and skinnier all the time. If you look back at pictures of women who were considered sexy back in the 1950s when I was born, these women have voluptuous curves. Their shoulders and arms are round and supple. Their waists are in natural proportion to their busts and their hips. Their thighs are likewise well-proportioned. The overall feeling of these women is soft and sumptuous. By comparison, today’s super models and photoshopped actresses look more like young adolescents except for their breasts, which seem abnormally large in relation to the waif-like frames they are attached to. And look at their faces, too. They don’t look their age at all. Every wrinkle and sagging bit of tissue is digitalized away. So, what we see is not even real most of the time, but merely an optical illusion created on a computer. Yet, we are made to feel that we ought to look like these altered women. And we go along with it for the most part, feeling guilty if we are not a size 6 or smaller or if our face doesn’t look exactly as it did when we were 20. We buy into this conspiracy, literally. We spend money that would best be spent in some other more useful and less vain way than to getting thinner and looking younger. Why? Because we’re told that bigger and older is ugly. So, getting thinner and looking younger has become a multi-billion dollar industry.
Why aren’t we out in the streets raging against this social regime the same way some of the Middle Eastern women have been raging against the extremist religious regimes? Why are we not as upset about society telling us that we are too ugly to be seen if we don’t conform just as the protesters of the mandatory veil are outraged that they are hidden from the world against their wills? Is it just easier to accept what society says and go along to get along? So, if we are not thin or youthful in appearance, do we have to proclaim that we’re on a diet or working out at the gym and getting ready to have plastic surgery to pull up the sagging skin just so we won’t be totally shunned? “Well, at least she’s trying to do something about it!” they will say.
What I wish we would do is what another Middle Eastern woman from Morocco says she does when someone says something about her expanding hips in her later years: She says to her critics, “All I need to survive is a loaf of bread, some sardines, and some olives. I don’t need you at all, so I don’t care what you think.” And we could also take to heart what Kate Winslet said when she found out that GQ magazine had digitally cut away a third of her waist, hips, and thighs, without her permission, before they put her on the cover: “This is who I am and what I look like. Like it or lump it!”
If we don’t start adapting that posture, we really can’t say we’re any freer in our culture than the women who are forced to wear the veil in theirs. It’s just a different kind of veil being imposed on us.