Sheep in Wolf Clothing

I suppose it has always happened -there’s very little that’s really new around; I still wonder why it’s necessary, though. Even through the lens of my white male privilege –my through-a-glass-darkly upbringing- I continue to wonder about these things. Why, for example, do I even have a lens? Was it necessary simply because in the chromosomal lottery, I got the Y? Or is it rather because others lack one? Others? There’s a difference, I guess: one side brings children -even the Y’s- into the world, and nourishes them until they are old enough to be independent; the other side… what, fears  that ability, despite experiencing it themselves? I’m sorry, I don’t understand. Call me naïve, but does that not make us interdependent? Partners in survival?

Anyway, despite my anguished jeremiad, and notwithstanding my somewhat childish credulity, I love it that people have always pressed against boundaries. Crossed borders. Transcended gender constraints. Limits which have been arbitrarily imposed have been challenges from time immemorial.

Until we searched, records of past successes were unfortunately few in number -hidden, or at least difficult to access- not necessarily because they failed, but more often I would suspect because history is written by the dominant. Controlled by those who commanded the prevailing power structure and had greater access to whatever educational resources were available at the time. Military and church, after all, were predominately unisexual, so it seemed rare to read about females that stood out for things other than pandering to male needs, or gaining fame as consorts to royalty.

A few exceptions proved the rule, of course. To pick only a few of my favourites of the many historical examples we were once offered: the fourth century Greek mathematician and philosopher, Hypatia; Lady Li, an artist in tenth century China; the twelfth century polymath Hildegard von Bingen. She was not only a Benedictine abbess, but also a philosopher, natural historian and writer -and she first came to my attention for her musical compositions; Fanny Mendelssohn, a composer and pianist, the talented sister of the more well-known Felix. And then there was the nineteenth century novelist Georges Sand, albeit perhaps more famous for her association with Chopin (and other famous men of the time) than her writings.

The list has recently become much, much longer -and growing- as we begin to delve into historical documents more thoroughly. It would seem that our knowledge of the past is directly proportional to the prevailing ethos –the effort expended… There have always been women who’ve excelled, but there have not always been people who wanted to hear about it…

I do, though; I’m always inspired by anyone who is able to critically assess that which represses them, and come up with a solution. I suppose most of the answers are variations on the same methodology, and yet they still make me want to cheer. An article I found in the BBC news was particularly heartening I think –especially its little twist:

It’s the story of a woman in Tanzania who ran away from an abusive husband and ended up in the ‘small Tanzanian town of Mererani, in the foothills of Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro – the only place in the world where mining for a rare, violet-blue gemstone called tanzanite takes place.’

Only men were allowed in the mine so, like in a fairy story, she disguised herself as a man and went to work. She called herself ‘Uncle Hussein’. ‘”I acted like a gorilla,” she says, “I could fight, my language was bad, I could carry a big knife like a Maasai [warrior]. Nobody knew I was a woman because everything I was doing I was doing like a man.”’

And, just like in a real fairy story, ‘after about a year, she struck it rich, uncovering two massive clusters of tanzanite stones. With the money that she made she built new homes for her father, mother and twin sister, bought herself more tools, and began employing miners to work for her.’

But, as in all parables like this, ‘her cover was so convincing that it took an extraordinary set of circumstances for her true identity to finally be revealed. A local woman had reported that she’d been raped by some of the miners and Pili [Uncle Hussein’s real name] was arrested as a suspect.’

Of course, the truth was soon revealed and she was released. ‘But even after that her fellow miners found it hard to believe they had been duped for so long. […] Pili has built a successful career and today owns her own mining company with 70 employees. Three of her employees are women, but they work as cooks not as miners. Pili says that although there are more women in the mining industry than when she started out, even today very few actually work in the mines. “Some [women] wash the stones, some are brokers, some are cooking,” she says, “but they’re not going down in to the mines, it’s not easy to get women to do what I did.”

She has married again, although ‘Finding a husband when everyone is accustomed to regarding you as a man is not easy, Pili found, though eventually she succeeded. “The question in his mind was always, ‘Is she really a woman?'” she recalls. “It took five years for him to come closer to me.”’

‘Pili’s success has enabled her to pay for the education of more than 30 nieces, nephews and grandchildren. But despite this she says she wouldn’t encourage her own daughter to follow in her footsteps. “I’m proud of what I did – it has made me rich, but it was hard for me,” she says. “I want to make sure that my daughter goes to school, she gets an education and then she is able to run her life in a very different way, far away from what I experienced.”’

I love the kind of story of someone encountering and then overcoming seemingly overwhelming odds. I suppose we all do –it’s a classic fable, isn’t it? A veni, vidi, vici episode to be sure. But I am still saddened that it has to be like this. Not that there have to be challenges, you understand –it would be a boring world that offered none- nor even that only a few manage to see it as an opportunity, a fence that needs climbing. No, I’m sad that after all this time, whether out of fear or mistrust, there are still walls like this.

And yet, I remember lines from a poem by William Ernest Henley –‘Invictus’: ‘In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance my head is bloody, but unbowed’. And, more especially, the last stanza: ‘It matters not how strait the gate, how charged with punishments the scroll, I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.’

Let us all hope so…






Happily Ever After?

I suppose we all revisit our childhoods from time to time –those memories have a special hold on us. But they are stories thick with varnish, and when analyzed too closely, soon fall apart in our hands like dreams. And yet, handled gently, stories are what we are –they are our names- and that we awaken the same person from day to day is like reading further in the book.

Maybe that’s why fairy tales can have such a fascination for children –escaping into an imaginative narrative that is as magical and surprising as their own. A time to believe we can become the story –maybe even are the story. For most of us, it was an enchanting time of fairies, and wishes coming true; of escape from tragedy, or finding a special person in the deep, dark forest; of finding happiness in the midst of sorrow.

Well, at least that’s what I thought was happening as I snuggled in the arms of my parents when one of them read to me before I went to sleep each night. But we only know what we are told, I suppose; we only understand the world that is laid out for us. I certainly never suspected an agenda; I never thought to ask if what I heard was only a manifestation of the time of writing. And I certainly neither questioned my mother’s world-view, nor my father’s integrity –I assumed I was being told the truth about the once-upon-a-time days.

And yet, viewing them through a modern lens, I suppose their faults were obvious. Not my parents’ –they, too, were products of their own times. No, I mean the stories that I found so innocent and sweet, had rougher underbellies than I had reason to suspect. In fairness, I think we acclimatize to the things to which we are habitually exposed. Who can smell the garlic on their own breath? And so, the undergarment of sexism in many fairy tales came as a revelation to me.

And I have to say that on first glance, I suspected this was yet another example of historical revisionism –the reinterpretation of the umwelt of another time through the sensitivities and biases of our own. There is some of that, to be sure –we do not easily appreciate the perils and depravities that were rampant in medieval Europe- but even so, we can no longer blindly accredit tales of infanticide or child abuse, nor turn a blind eye to attitudes like misogyny or tropes like the evil inherent in non-conformity that may have been prevalent and believed in that time. And, indeed, it often seems to be women that are treated unfairly in these tales, when appraised by modern eyes.

The danger is that by ignoring the hidden message, we risk normalizing it. Condoning it by not pointing out that we no longer sanction that kind of behaviour.

Of course, it can also go too far -come too close to serving an agenda that seems more retributive and spiteful than merely corrective. Some of the fairy-tales –Cinderella, or even Sleeping Beauty (despite the apparently more malevolent early versions)- have a sweetness and charm that, at least when examined only superficially -as might be the case by a child- spin a message of hope and rescue for even the poorest among us.

But that said, I have to confess that I never really thought about the main character -in most of the ones I remember, at any rate- being almost always a girl. Think of Goldilocks, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel… Even Gretel in the Hansel and Gretel story. And the frequent portrayal of old and eccentric women as witches, or at least as malicious step-mothers. I suppose that Jack in the Beanstalk was a refreshing exception, but nevertheless, point taken.

Perhaps it’s my age, or a comment on my epoch, but have to say that I didn’t realize the extent to which these stories were recognized as violating the currently prevalent societal ethos.

A few years ago I remember seeing Ada, a young twenty-something woman for antenatal care. It was her first pregnancy and she was bursting with dreams and bubbling with questions about problems she hoped to avoid in the pregnancy. But one of the things that made her stand out in my memory was her hair. She had incredibly long shiny black hair that hung down to her waist when she didn’t try to confine it in a messy bun on top of her head. She was extremely proud of it, and told me she rarely had to work at keeping the sheen that was so striking to everybody in the waiting room. She was used to stares, she would tell me with a big smile on her face.

And yet, as the pregnancy progressed, she found that not only was the length starting to annoy her, but she was also beginning to find clumps of it on her brush each morning. I tried to reassure her that, although not the rule by any means, it is not uncommon to lose some hair in the course of a normal pregnancy. This usually corrects itself three or four months after delivery.

“So I’m not gonna go bald, then?” she said with a twinkle in her eye. I shook my head and smiled. “My husband says it’s probably because the long hair weighs so much it’s pulling on the roots and weakening them or something.” Her expression suddenly changed and instead of twinkling, I found her eyes wandering over my face like robins listening for a worm. “He even jokes about me being a black-haired Rapunzel…” A look of concern appeared, and her eyes immediately flew home. “He says maybe I should cut it shorter while I still have some left. ‘Remember the witch’ he says.

“We had a big fight about how unfair that was…” She glanced at me for my reaction, and seeing the puzzled expression I was unable to hide, she shrugged. “The story hides behind the idea that long hair not only allowed her captor, but also her rescuer to reach her in the tower.” Suddenly her look was a glare. “In medieval times, men were the oppressors –they had the towers- so why make some old woman the villain?”

I wanted to say it was just a story, but she beat me to it. “Ted says it’s just a story –a way to allow a prince to rescue her…” Ada turned her eyes into predators and suddenly unleashed them on my face. “I told him it seemed a bit contrived to me. An example of assumed male privilege, and Woman’s desire to be rescued. Of course he was a prince, and of course that’s what she needed…”

I suppose my face said I still didn’t follow her logic, because she immediately softened her expression and touched my arm. “I majored in medieval European literature in university –Ted was messing with the wrong woman…”

She smiled and sighed at her reaction to her husband. “Poor guy. I really gave it to him,” she confessed with a chuckle. Then she twinkled her eyes again. “So, doctor, was Ted right? Should I cut my hair shorter?”

I shrugged to indicate that I wasn’t at all sure. “Are you certain Ted wouldn’t miss it?”

She sighed. “That’s the problem with princes, isn’t it?”