A Feminist Resurgence?

Women’s Liberation -that’s what we used to call the women’s movement when I was a teenager. It sounded like a good idea to me, even though I didn’t really know what it was all about. Girls had always seemed to bring out the best in guys, so I was all for it. I still am. But I have to confess I never dreamed there would be a fifth column. Feminism v. anti Feminism? I didn’t even know there were two sides to the issue until the Cat thing surfaced: http://www.cbc.ca/newsblogs/yourcommunity/2014/07/confused-cats-against-feminism-lampoon-online-anti-feminist-movement.html  I have to admit that the humour sucked me in…

Like most men, I know only some of the basic facts about the Feminist movement. For example, I know about the three waves: the First one got women the vote; the Second was the Sexual Revolution of the sixties; and the Third one… Uhmm… Maybe I’ve got it wrong, but I think it tried to make us all the same somehow – apart from genitalia everything else was culturally engendered. I suppose that all three are all equally important, but it seems to me that the first two were progressive –goal-oriented- while the third was…well, speculative at best, ideological at worst. A dogma.

As a male who loves and respects women, that last wave sort of washed over me. I always thought we made our own paths through life according to our unique talents and motivations. Where there was discrimination, we challenged it; where there was misinformation, we educated; and where there was something for which we were not suited, we adapted. Life is compromise –for both sexes.

But I fear I am embarking upon a road where even angels fear to tread –male ones, anyway. I mean no harm, and I take no sides, but I am truly baffled. The Movement, as I understand it, was an attempt to redress the obvious inequalities in societal attitudes to women. Such things as voting rights, education, safety from violence and equal pay for equal jobs are obvious. They needed a voice –time on the dais. What was perhaps swept under the cultural carpet, however, was a woman’s right to have a say in personal things: life style, contraception. Abortion. The right to make an informed choice when something affected her. And not just a right –rights have a habit of disappearing aux moments critiques– but a mechanism of enforcement. Laws that work. Feminism was a boon: not only did it lay the ground work for legal protection, but by dint of its strident voice, made it heard by those in power.

But rights must also extend to those who disagree. And as a movement ages, it risks a continuing evolution of the needs of those it was originally intended to serve. It risks having to justify itself to its adherents. In other words, it risks having to change along with them. And, increasingly, this does not necessarily entail cultural or political confrontation so much as cooptation: if the other side has something valuable, or is doing something worthwhile, make it look as if it was your idea all along… and then make it your own.

Times change. When I first started in practice as a specialist in gynaecology, I had the good fortune of having a female colleague as partner in the office. But it was a time of assumed misogyny, I’m afraid. A time of confrontational politics and patients. The prevailing wisdom seemed to be mistrust of male doctors. Mainstream Feminism was struggling through the brambles of disparate ideologies –some were conciliatory and accommodating while others were, well, reactionary and contumacious. I was young and inexperienced in the specialty and the times were aflame with societal struggles.

“The tables are turned, eh?” one of my recalcitrant patients said after refusing to be examined. She had agreed to see me when my partner’s waiting list became too long and her pain too great.

I sighed, closed her chart, and sat back in my chair. I didn’t know what to do.

I could see a worried look creep onto her face. “Look, I’ve told you my problem and you’ve seen the ovarian cyst on my ultrasound… Why can’t you just book me for the OR?”

I smiled bravely. “I suppose I could, but if you don’t trust me enough to examine you, why would you trust me to operate on you?”

She thought about it for a moment. “Well, you delivered my friend’s baby…”

“From the doorway?”

Her eyes narrowed for a moment, and then she laughed. “You turn tables back, too, eh?” And with that she got up and walked into the examination room. “Changed my mind,” she said and closed the door behind her.

A reputation is only as good as the first mistake; an ideology only as relevant as the experience it serves. I am a feminist if it serves my patients; I reserve the right to disagree if it does not. But I live in hope that I have misunderstood, and that evolving feminism is still as relevent and as crucial for society as ever. And I can wait -will wait- as Shakespeare advises: “How poor are they that have not patience! What wound did ever heal but by degrees?”

A Patient Named Cindy

I enjoyed Cindy (not her real name); how could I not? Short, plump, with uncertain hair of indescribable colour that was tossed on her head like a salad begging for dressing, she captured my interest the first time I saw her in the waiting room.

She was pretending to look at a magazine, all the while sneaking amused glances at the more staid and nervous patients waiting for their turns on the obstetrical pedestal. Her heavily made-up eyes whispered fashion but her dress screamed Walmart. I could see others in the room look away in embarrassment –confusion, more likely- but Cindy just smiled: a queen supremely aware of the distance between her and her court. Regally bemused at their furtive glances, she would sometimes confront the faces hiding behind their own pretended reading, inadequately camouflaged with turning pages, or pointing out a picture to a curious child.

Something about her made them uneasy. Maybe it was the hem of her sequined dress that she wore distressingly close to the edge of her more brightly coloured panties. Or the tattoos on her legs that stretched ever upwards even beyond the hem. But I suspect it was that she knew they were looking and didn’t care. Relished the attention, actually…

And yet the attention her clothes seemed to invite was as unimportant to her as the screen in a movie theater: you needed to stare at it, but it wasn’t really the center of your attention. It was the vehicle necessary for you to appreciate the show. And Cindy knew she was the show.

It was hard to be formal with her –she was so… out there. She did not invite –she would not permit– the usual power pyramid so rampant in a medical office: she was Cindy, and I was the doctor –with a small ‘d’. She needed advice, and I was its purveyor. Period. If she needed shoes, or a dress, she would have gone somewhere else. I was merely the seller of medical suggestions; she could pick and choose from the assortment offered.

When she sat in the chair by my desk that first time –provocatively again, over-revealingly again- she stared at me for a moment, probably wondering if I would react. But I only smiled, kept my eyes riveted on her eyes, and asked her why she had been referred.

A hint of a smile touched her face briefly and then immediately exploded into a delightful and disarming laugh. “Guys never know where to look when I sit like this,” she said, adjusting her posture to a more socially acceptable form and sliding her hem back down over her knees. “You can judge a man by where he puts his eyes, don’t you think?”

“And..?”

“And I suppose I can trust you,” she said with an expression that seemed older and wiser than her twenty-three years.

“Well,” I said, carefully avoiding the mine-fields she had already sprinkled around the conversation, “what can I do for you?” I thought it was the most direct way to elicit a usable response.

A smile so large it nearly split her face in two suddenly materialized. “You know, doc, your question almost makes me dizzy… It’s usually my question. The one I  have to start with as well.” I have to admit that I shifted uncomfortably in my seat. She noticed it, of course. Cindy would. She straightened politely in her chair and dropped her smile to a category B and shrugged. “Sorry. Everybody says I’m a bit direct. I think it goes with the job.”

“Which is?” I asked when I recovered a bit of my usual equanimity.

The smile turned wicked. Naughty. “I’m a hooker.” She thought about the word for the briefest of moments and then added: “Well, actually I usually use the word ‘escort’ but I figured you’d see through that right away. Most men don’t –or at least pretend they don’t. Guys are like that –they like to pretend that you’re not doing it just for the money.” She stared at me for a moment, as if waiting for me to respond. Then she shrugged dramatically. Theatrically.

I casually picked up my pen as if I were going to write it all down and, as with everything I did, she noticed. It was almost as if she felt she could control me with her words. She did, I suppose…

“You want me to stop wasting your time and tell you why I’m here,” she said with a loud sigh and leaned forward across my desk. Normally I feel a need to protect the space on my desk –over the years it has become an extension of my authority, my personal space- but she did it so naturally, it caught me off guard. Anyway, before I could react she said “I want to have a child,” and sat back, retreating into neutral territory.

I must have looked puzzled –You couldn’t hide anything from Cindy, because she answered my expression before I had even framed a question. “Even strumpets want babies, doc.” Then she smiled at my apparent amusement with her vocabulary. “We also read sometimes…”

“Anyway, I came more just to size you up today…” She tittered at her unintended trade-talk pun. She was silent for a moment –something I came to realize was an uncommon jewel with Cindy – and then her eyes twinkled and her whole body smiled. “I think you’ll do, doc. I think I like you.” Praise indeed.

I never succeeded in helping Cindy with her infertility issues, but all the same, she became a regular distraction in the waiting room. She modified her clothes and hair styles, of course, but I had the impression they were all for the same effect. She found ‘regular’ people banal, uninteresting, and so she teased them. Goaded them, really. She seemed to relish harsh looks, and her body language spoke novels about the seating arrangements she usually provoked. She was the only relaxed one in the room, and she knew it. Loved it. Craved it, maybe.

One day, when I peeked around the corner to see if a particularly obnoxious patient had arrived, I noticed Cindy sitting in the corner seat with a heavy looking briefcase. She had placed it between her lewdly open legs, almost daring anyone to try for it. And she had an oddly satisfied look on her face.

When her turn finally came to be invited into the office, she started talking –as usual- before I could open the chart. Not that I needed a chart for her. After preliminary investigations had suggested that the reason for her failure to conceive was that her Fallopian tubes were no longer open –blocked, perhaps, by one of the many episodes of infection she had encountered in her life on the street- I had tried to refer her to an infertility clinic. She hadn’t liked their attitude after one visit, so she kept coming back to see me.

“Got something for you, doc,” she said, positively beaming. “I wrote a novel,” she said, anticipating my question. “I thought you might like to read it before it’s published,” she continued. My eyebrows must have twitched, because she immediately continued. “Yeah, one of my…friends is a publisher; we did a trade.” I didn’t ask.

But I did read it when I got home that night. It was short –fifteen chapters and more of a novella- but amazingly well-written. It didn’t surprise me – Cindy was obviously bright and a shrewd observer of mankind (I use the word advisedly). What did surprise me, however, was the subject matter: the medical system in general and me –disguised, of course- in particular.

It was a story of the life she knew best: she and her friends in the business –the violence of the street, the drugs, the john-encounters, but more poignantly the unsuccessful attempts of the women to be taken seriously. To be treated as needful humans, not occasionally-moving receptacles. Her words were street-harsh, but no less effective. Certainly no less persuasive. It was a book written from the heart, not from the mind, and this made it all the more compelling to me.

The story was one of suspicion of life outside her world. How it disappointed and disparaged the protagonist and her friends; how they mistrusted outsiders by necessity –survival was knit by acquiescence and tribe. Even in illness and need, they felt themselves alone, bereft of help from a mistrustful and unkind society whose judgments were cruel and who forced impoverished expectations of treatment on them.

Then the woman decides her need for a child is so great, and her attempts to become pregnant so unsuccessful, she needs some outside help. So she visits various clinics where the doctors don’t take her seriously. Her friends just shrug and shake their heads. Of course there’s no help out there for people like her –people like them.

But she persists and manages to get a referral to a specialist –a male specialist is all she could get, but she decides to visit him anyway. The waiting room she finds herself in is middle class and she thinks the women sitting there are so intense she is amused. Not a good sign, she figures, but she has gone this far so she is determined to persist.

When the doctor finally leads her into his office she is struck by one thing: a tall carved wooden statue of a thin native woman holding a baby. It is sitting on his desk and there is a plant beside it through which it peeks with curious eyes. And it is smiling. The carving seems to talk to her about refuge. Safety. And it comforts her. This is the man who can help her, she decides. He’d put the carving on his desk beside a beautiful plant for a reason.

And the story ends with her feeling hopeful. No, he can’t help her, although he tries. But that is the point for her: he tries. And that’s what really matters. Not the result, not the abnormal tests, not even the fact that she probably can’t have a baby. Somebody heard her cry of desperation; somebody listened. And maybe that’s what she really wanted all these years: someone who cared.

I have to admit I cried. My god, is taking notice of someone that important? Is what some of us are searching for merely to be heard? Noticed? To be distinguishable from the background?

You know she never returned to the office after that. Maybe she was too embarrassed, or maybe she had no further need, but I really hope her novel was published. And I hope the man who had promised her a voice, became one and not just another moveable shadow in her life.

Can Anyone Laugh?

Frailty, thy name is woman, Hamlet said, upset about his mother’s behaviour. Perhaps Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc had bad memories of the play. In a recent speech on moral corruption in Turkey, he is quoted as saying that : “Chastity is so important. It is not only a name. It is an ornament for both women and men. [She] will have chasteness…. [The woman] will know what is haram and not haram. She will not laugh in public. She will not be inviting in her attitudes and will protect her chasteness.

http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2014/07/deputy_prime_

minister_of_turkey_says_women_shouldnt_laugh_in_public.html   

She will not laugh in public? This part, at least, is so patently stupid that I wondered whether it hid a voracious appetite for literature and philosophy -some reference or other to something pedantic or arcane. He is reputedly well educated and intelligent; perhaps he was naively mindful of Nietzsche and his assertion that laughter is an escape from the prison of reason and logic, while also having the potential of expressing social conflict. Maybe Arinc is afraid that women may have reason to stir up social tension.

Too academic? Okay then, suppose he has read Henri Bergson who felt that laughter may eliminate eccentric behaviour because it derides those who deviate from social norms… On the other hand, maybe he hasn’t: I suspect this is a bit more of a Mobius strip than Arinc would like.

Well, there’s always Plato, who didn’t feel that laughter had much value for human experience and in fact may be malicious. He argues that laughter is a malicious reaction to the domination over a more unfortunate member of society, and those occasionally engaged in laughter are exposed to something base which should be avoided. (Many of these quotes are from Sewanee Senior Philosophy Essays:

http://www.sewanee.edu/philosophy/Capstone/2002/Greenfield.html)

But of course Arinc would then be cognizant of the various classical theories of laughter – the three most mentioned ones being: Superiority Theory which is the one advanced by Plato and which suggests that “all laughter is a response to the comical ignorance in others.” And then there is the Relief Theory engendered by stress or anxiety. Another would be the Theory of Incongruity which is a reaction to something unexpectedly inappropriate…

But these don’t seem to capture the thrust of his argument. Maybe he understood the impenetrable words of Thomas Hobbes: “The passion of laughter is nothing else but sudden glory arising from sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly.” –although isn’t that just the Superiority Theory disguised by words..?

My own theory is that he was unduly influenced by the Wikipedia take on Herodotus:

For Herodotus, laughers can be distinguished into three types:[32]

  • Those who are innocent of wrongdoing, but ignorant of their own vulnerability
  • Those who are mad
  • Those who are overconfident

Why not Wikipedia? It’s easily found, easily assimilable and, in a pinch, easily editable. And it would be simplistic enough to appeal to people who are only half listening to his speech. Who only half remember his words. Too bad he didn’t plagiarize the page –then he could have been exposed for more than just propounding a silly statement. But no, he decided to try on the philosophical garb of religious authority.

And yet, when I actually stop and think about what he said, I have an uneasy feeling that his comments were not steeped in philosophy –Western philosophy, at any rate. They seem to emanate from an assumption that women are beginning to assume a too prominent –too equal–  role in Turkish society. You note that he uses the term ‘haram’ to contain a woman’s actions. As I understand the term, it is an Arabic one of Islamic jurisprudence employed to designate any action forbidden by Allah, and referred to in the Quran as such.

Clearly I am not an Islamic scholar and may be way off the mark, but I cannot seem to find any prohibition on laughter –male or female- in my research. It doesn’t appear to be haram… So what is Arinc talking about? Occuring as it does in a speech for an Eid el-Fitr meeting July 28, it is not likely to be a simple off-the-cuff remark.

http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/women-should-not-laugh-in-public-turkish-deputy-pm-says-.aspx?pageID=238&nID=69732&NewsCatID=338

No, I suspect this was an ill-conceived, and terribly naïve attempt to curb the rising power of women in Turkey. It no doubt disturbs the sleep of those in power –those with vested interests in maintaining the archaic status quo. But by using the religious card, it is all the more abhorrent. That any religion –any culture, for that matter- would proscribe laughter for its adherents is itself ridiculous. Unbelievable. Risible…

At the risk of parsing the stereotype, let me return one final time to Shakespeare –this time to Valentine in The Two Gentlemen of Verona:

“That man that hath a tongue, I say is no man,                                                                                   If with his tongue he cannot win a woman.”  

Listen up Arinc; the world is waiting…and laughing.

A Right to Die?

Death is a word most doctors avoid; it is a defeat. Anathema. It is, in all their texts, in all their studies, blasphemous. Heresy. And my specialty is certainly not immune. In Obstetrics, it is an especial desecration: we are so used to dealing with the opposite that the very word, let alone the concept is an apostasy. Omega has no place in the delivery suite –it is an alpha space. It is where humanity begins, a place where, in the moment, mortality is banished and there is no dark night of the soul. It is a place of hope and expectation –it should not be otherwise or all is lost…

But we cannot sweep the inevitable behind a curtain for long; the curtain moves; the patterns change and we mourn and then celebrate the new. It is necessary: too soon we all will find ourselves and those we love in the company of the mourned.

It is hard to put ourselves in that place, but we feel with Dylan Thomas when he writes:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

It seems natural to cling to the only thing we have experienced: Life. We have crowned it with sanctity and clothed it in holy vesture for a reason –it is all we know for certain. All else is faith. Persuasion. Myth. Hope.

Most of us do not meet Death in our daily lives. Indeed we insulate ourselves and our children from it as if it were a disease -a contagion which, once met, may consume us by its very nearness. As if breathing it, watching it, or touching it contaminates us. As if by ignoring it, we will postpone our own personal encounter and move our name further down the roster.

And yet there is much to be said for attending to it, however peripherally. We fear the sudden stranger more than the as yet unexpected visitor whose name we almost recognize, and whose expression we acknowledge, however reluctantly.

This is not to say we should surrender the ghost without a struggle –the terms are sometimes negotiable. It’s the codicil of which we must be mindful -what else it requires. Or subtracts.

Anguish –suffering- may be a part of the human condition, but when it is endless, irremediable and pointless, one may well question its prolongation. Horace’s exhortation: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori goes a bit too far, perhaps, and is clearly intended for different a circumstance, but it is at least an acknowledgement that even Death may be preferable to Life under intolerable conditions.

The point of this essay, as you may have guessed, is to question how much suffering is too much, and whether there is ever a moral –and perhaps ethical– need to intervene. The obvious consequence of that intervention, however, is where the controversy lies; if the suffering is too great, is intolerable, immutable, should there be a right to death? Must we do everything in our powers to prolong the agony? Or can we –should we- grant passage into that other realm of which we know so little -the dark Magisterium of others? And what if the sufferer herself requests it? Does that change anything –or do we merely assume she is asking under duress and therefore cannot be believed? An excuse not to act.

I was drawn to the subject by an article in the BBC news in which no less a personage than the retired South African Anglican prelate Desmond Tutu commented on the right to die: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-28282323  The article also discusses, and has links to, the issue of ‘assisted dying’ and various church and UK governmental positions on it.

Assisted dying is an issue that is troubling, to say the least. Ironically it has risen in importance in tandem with our ability to prolong life, but not necessarily mitigate suffering. That we are able to transit a woman with advanced ovarian cancer to an ileostomy bag and a wig may seem like progress to some, but unduly punitive to others. That someone might feel cheated, not just of health but even of hope, is understandable. We are tempted –dare I say inveigled?- to make treatment decisions not fully understanding that what is offered may not be a cure, sometimes not even an amelioration, but simply a postponement. We are all fond of wishful thinking –even doctors.

But then what? What does one do when further survival is not only pointless, but intolerable? When analgesia is not enough? When deterioration is felt in the core of one’s being and this devalues that which we have always held sacred: our ability to recognize the person we have always been? Surely mercy should dictate our help, and compassion our decision. I hope that in a society as humane and sympathetic as ours purports to be, no one actually conflates aquiescing to a request for help in ending unbearable suffering, with ending a life without a reasonably and ethically obtained consent. And now that even some in the Church are beginning to espouse a right to die, the laws should change. Must change! The laws would force no one, but perhaps enable those who wished to die to do so with some dignity, however tattered, still intact.

I remember a Bill Moyers interview on television many years ago with the American mythologist Joseph Campbell –a man who had a profound influence on me when I was young, both for his writings on comparative religion and mythology, and for the advice that you should ‘follow your bliss’. I think he was dying at the time of the interview, and looked unwell. But there was still an inextinguishable twinkle in his eyes that revealed the man I had always admired -although it was deep inside, and peering out bravely through the curtain of his wrinkled face. I’ve forgotten his exact words in the interview, but his smile convinced me of his belief. He said he thought of his body as a car he’d driven all his life. It had been good to him, and he knew every dint and scrape it had sustained. But when death came and the car stopped, he said he’d merely open the door with a sigh and walk away.

He died in 1987, long before the current assisted dying movement had taken root, but one hopes that when the time came, it was Joseph that got out of that car still following his bliss –not some stranger changed by drugs and wild with pain, raging against the dying of the light.