For several decades the feminist movement has worked towards balancing the scales, bestowing equal rights to women such as voting, education, and in the work force, and protecting them from discrimination, neglect, and abuse. Typically our antagonists have been the Y-chromosome toting counterparts of our species, men and their obsession with power and dominance, working hard to keep the product of their broken rib beneath their thumbs. Thanks to many a blue-stockinged suffragette, we've managed to push forth and claim our place atop the mountain, even if it's just a small corner of it. But what do we do when our biggest nemesis is not men, but other women who have been manipulated by cultural standards and brain-washed into believing that the way things are is they way they should be? How can we save women from themselves?
Though the outside world is constantly changing and evolving, usually for the better in terms of the feminist movement, our first exposure to societal norms is from our families and more importantly, our mothers. And given that, at times, change is so gradual within the family system and values transcend so many generations, some of us are still living in the 50s. My mother still refuses to leave the house without make-up on, my father still believes tattoos warrant public scorn and make me look like a shameless street walker. I shunned make-up and am already looking at a third tattoo possibility, but it is rare that an outside influence can have such an impact on individuals that their values grow to be so drastically different from their families. With small alterations here and there, many of us follow suit and adopt the standards our family has presented to us, and it's not easy to rise above that, socially or psychologically .
As these values are being planted and sown in our heads, we are heavily laden with a sense of obligation to our families and their expectations. Many a movie and book have been created chronicling the free-spirited child who goes against the grain by rejecting their family's ideas, ignoring their wishes, and following their own heart to some fantastic happy ending. Unfortunately, life isn't always as perfectly drafted as a movie and it's harder to step off the beaten path than we'd like to believe. After all, they are our family, and while famed psychologist Salvador Minuchin argues that boundaries between ourselves and our families have to be distinct, there has to be a healthy balance of connection to our families as well; a total emotional cutoff could also be detrimental, which makes completely turning our backs on them virtually impossible. And though we hate to admit it, sometimes it's easier to sacrifice our own happiness to avoid that look of disappointment on our parents' faces.
There is a balance that can be found between social and familial expectations and personal fulfillment. What is considerably more difficult to combat is the psychological manipulation in the family that breeds women to believe that these expectations are the norm, and they're actually doing the righteous thing by meeting them. In high school I had a Mormon friend who was intelligent and capable of achieving great things. Unfortunately, being raised in a family where women were expected to stay home, spawn several children, and manage the household while the husband brought home the bacon limited her future. Her mother, aunts, grandmothers, great-grandmothers had all done the same, and she would be no different. She took a few classes at the community college while openly admitting she was biding her time until "she can find someone and get married". Convinced this was a fully independent choice she was making, she took pride in her decision to be a stay-at-home mother, but when you've been exposed to nothing more than stay-at-home moms, when you've been raised to believe that this is what good Mormon girls do, how independent is this choice, truly? Likewise, many Muslim girls have been exposed to nothing more than women who wear the Hijab or Niqab and told that this is the morally proper thing to do. They argue it's their choice to cover their heads and fight for the right to do so, but are they truly making the choice to wear one, or is it the extreme cultural influence that veils them every morning?
Now don't get me wrong, I have nothing against stay-at-home moms or women who choose to cover themselves. I have seen children of career women become domestic goddesses and soccer moms, I've seen Muslim girls who chose to cover themselves even though their mothers never did and their friends won't. I simply question their ability to freely make such decisions when pressured by family and culture. Only when a woman has not only been given the equivocal option but true encouragement to explore any and all opportunities before making such a choice can you truly argue that they decided for themselves. When the system simply says "do what makes you happy" rather than do this or that, that's freedom. To stay at home or pursue an education and career, to cover or not, it's your choice, but ensure it's YOUR choice, not someone else's.
Such issues are factors that impede the growth and progress of the feminist movement, but the seriousness of these cognitions extend far beyond domestic situations and head garments. In Africa, Female Genital Mutilation continues to be a tragic practice that effects anywhere from 100-140 million females worldwide. FGM involves, to varying degrees, the cutting of the vagina, be it the ciltoris, the labia minora, or sewing the vaginal opening partially shut to avoid intercourse until marriage. The method has sparked outrage from human rights groups all over the globe, demanding legal action be taken, but the problem lies not in the judicial system of these countries, but the cultural mentality of the villagers who continue to cut their daughters, most of whom are consenting mothers. Again, a cultural practice has transcended the generations, convincing women that this is not only expected, but acceptable and revered, and they stand by, sometimes even holding their own daughters down as they struggle through excruciating pain to make them honorable women. How do you break that mentality? How can you change decades of thought and practice in one generation to save young girls from the continuing oppression of their own mothers?
Some try to use the argument that cultural norms are different and we have to respect the various practices of others. They view our opposition as ethnocentrism, a blind opinion from the egotistical west who tries to control the world, alter other ways of life, and deject our fellow citizens of the world. While an appreciation for methods and beliefs that are different from our own is always crucial, there is a line to be drawn when it oppresses a group of people and when it causes psychological, emotional, or physical harm, whether or not the women experiencing it and the women perpetuating it can see it. So now we have a war to fight on two fronts: we need to work together to protect ourselves from oppressive men, and even more so to protect others from our own, but success can't be found with one when we have weak links in our own ranks. The most we can hope for is to continue the education as Waris Dirie has and remove the blinders of yesterday's ideation so we can see the ways of the world for ourselves today, moving forward and becoming free-thinking independent women.