Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Ways of the World and Women

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.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Good, the Bad, the Gray

As we grow and navigate the murky waters of this sea that is the development of our personal morality, we frequently take short cuts, divert our journey, and just plain get lost. Who we grow up to be, what causes we support, what values we stand for, and how we conduct ourselves as human beings is determined by a wide array of factors. From the beginning we are flooded by the influence of our parents, then religion, school, friends, and the media, all of which usually pull us in various directions as conflicts arise and dissonance sets in. It's all we can do to keep our heads above the surface, let alone swim through the crashing waves of the expectations of others. Everyone has an idea of who we should be, others try to control it, but where and when do we find that for ourselves?

Sometimes we look to others for guidance: mentors or role models. Some of us are fortunate to find these people in our everyday lives. Some of us end up looking to public figures for such support and rely on superficial personas filtered through magazines and television to help us find the right path. Unfortunately, instead of gracing worthy figures like Mother Teresa or Archbishop Desmond Tutu with our quiet reverie, sometimes we mistakenly bestow our admiration upon the likes of ill-fated Disney Channel starlets and foul-mouthed shock-seeking rappers. In our young and impressionable ages, we follow whatever example they've set and find ourselves wandering aimlessly once we've matured enough to realize the folly of our ways. Then it's time to set out on our own journey.

With any luck, one might sit down and sift through the grit and bullshit we're fed and critically evaluate the options presented for multiple issues of life and the world at large. Through careful analysis and self-reflection, we can determine what's truly important to us, what really doesn't matter so much and why, and then set out to take a stance on either side of the argument. Comparative research may be conducted, or we might fall into the clutches of some fear mongering propaganda machine and make a knee-jerk decision with more emotion than rationale. Wherever we may land initially, it's a stepping stone in the right direction once we decide to follow our own minds and begin to develop our own moral dichotomy of what's right and wrong.

The most frequent pitfall I've seen of morality development, however, is intense conviction stemming from emotional decisions fueled by propaganda. This is how extremists are born. Individuals find a cause, attach themselves to it like leeches, and rarely waiver in the face of adversity or just plain common sense. They fall victim to their own confirmation bias, shutting out any facts that contradict their viewpoint and embracing whatever information supports it, no matter how illogical it may be. In open debate, they argue in circles, pull out baseless statistics, and eventually resort to ad hominem attacks when they have nothing left to give. These are the people we need to worry about the most, because people who swallow and follow are falling victim to the same process that created religious extremism and the Nazi Party. Having a sense of morals and values is critical, but so is the process of how one builds those ideas.

While it's important to have a strong sense of who you are and what you believe in, it's also important to note that our systems need to remain permeable. Ideas, thoughts, beliefs could change over time as information changes and emerges. Centuries ago, someone said the Earth was flat. Had we resigned to that explanation without question, without exploration, we would still believe this today (some people still do). We always need to be questioning and debating and our positions evolving. Nothing should be set in stone. Some beliefs may never change, others may find you swaying to the polar opposite opinion, but the person who makes up their mind and closes the case is usually the draconian bastard that rots the collective intelligence of humanity.

I've found as I've gotten older, gained a better sense of how the world operates and how it relates to me as an individual, that my once extremist views on various issues have relaxed and fallen to the happy medium. Rather than once imposing my beliefs on others, as my church would have had me do years ago, I've slipped into a comfortable "live and let live" approach to people in the world. Rather than falling victim to propaganda, I find myself researching more and weighing the facts with critical analysis. Rather than allowing others to determine who I should be, I've taken their advice and the examples they've set and I've incorporated what I find valuable into my own system. And more recently, I've learned that things are not black and white. Finding myself in what I will aptly refer to as a Robin Hood Dilemma, I found myself violating some ethics and compromising my personal integrity (which I hold dear) in order to benefit a larger cause and help people who would otherwise be lost without it. Okay, so I'm still struggling to rationalize the last one to myself, but a minor lesson altered my viewpoints on life; exceptions must be made, lines must be blurred, and there is always a gray area that is never easy to land in or get out of.

A friend once asked "would you rather die young knowing your convictions or live to be 80 but always questioning who you are and what you believe in?" As an individual who has shed and rebuilt several convictions as epiphanies, information, and common sense arose, I can guarantee that being stripped of everything you once held dear and then trying to develop a new belief system and a sense of morality can be a dark and confusing time that leaves you blind and unsure of yourself. It's a hell no one should be condemned to, especially not for a lifetime. However, in this day and age when it seems society is polarizing to either lack of values or intense convictions, it seems to be a rare gift to have a comfortable, sound belief system, especially for young people. But morals and values, even on an individually subjective basis, is the backbone of society and the cornerstone for one's personal integrity. So get cooking, find what you stand for with a sprinkle of influence, a dash of common sense, a computer for research, and some bullshit repellent.