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Life Arts

Socialized into Subservience

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In some areas of the world, for instance, a wannabe-husband can still obtain a wife through payment of a goat or a cow to the bride-to-be's father. In other societies, patriarchal custom dictates that the bride's family pay a dowry to the groom's. The custom in the western world of a suitor asking a father for his daughter's hand in marriage has pretty much disappeared. "Who gives this woman to this man?" is also disappearing from wedding rites. Little thought, however, is given to the symbolism of the father and daughter marching down the aisle to the altar where the groom waits to receive her.

Beginning with the engagement, Satmars have an ongoing and elaborate celebration of this event and of the wedding itself: exchanges of expensive gifts over the engagement period, the furnishing of the newly-weds' apartment, instruction classes for the young wife, the wedding ceremony, etc. [Pp.122-168]

Patriarchal control of women's bodies -- in reality, women's lives -- is still seen as fundamental to maintaining the system. Surely, the most extreme example of this objective is the practice in the sub-Saharan areas of Africa of female genital mutilation that is performed on girls, some as young as six or seven, in order to assure potential husbands not only that their wives are virgins but also that they will not be promiscuous after marriage.

Toward this end, the Satmar litany of rules seems endless. Singing is forbidden for females older than 12. [P.88] Wearing clothing featuring the color red is forbidden. [P.61] Girls are required to step off sidewalks to give way to men. A similar community on Long Island posts signs designating separate sidewalks for men and women. [P.93]

With the exception of Yom Kippur when women go to the synagogue's "women only" area, women and girls are expected to pray at home whenever the men go to the synagogue for worship -- on the Sabbath or daily for morning and/or evening prayers or when they celebrate a significant date on the religious calendar by building a bonfire and dancing in the streets. [Pp.83-4]

Thus, while men are bonding in these gatherings -- in the public arena, one might say -- women are home alone, perhaps with one or two female relatives, isolated through the institution of marriage from other women in their community. It is this isolation that over the centuries has held back the progress of women toward freedom, justice, and equality.

As Rosalind Miles has pointed out in Who Cooked The Last Supper?:

"No other subordinated class, caste or minority lives as closely integrated with its oppressor as women do; the males of the dominant culture have to allow them into their homes, kitchens, beds. Control at these close quarters can be maintained only by inducing women to consent to their own downgrading." [P.103]

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In the Satmar community, Yiddish is to be spoken at all times and only Yiddish reading materials are permitted. Feldman recalls Zeidy's warning of how English would affect her:

"English acts like a slow poison to the soul. If I speak and read it too much, my soul will become tarnished to the point that it is no longer responsive to divine stimulation." [P.89]

New York state requires that English classes be held in the private Satmar school that all girls attend. However, the short stories brought into the school by English teachers from the outside are redacted by the school censor, blacking out any sentiments that might "tarnish" Satmar beliefs. Even the word "college" is blacked out since post-secondary education is viewed as a waste of resources. The students actually know so little English that even when in high school they can not read the language more proficiently than a fourth grader. This taboo also makes the local public library off-limits for all Satmars. [Pp.91, 89]

The girls spend the first hour of each day repeating prayers. At other times they listen to their teachers' instructions on how to be faithful Satmars. [P.87]

During a male cousin's visit of several months, Zeidy asked Deborah if she knew the rules about being with men. Feldman's response:

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"We learned some of them, sure. I know a girl can't be on her own in a room with a man, even if there are other women there, too. She can be on her own with two or more men. You have to leave the door unlocked if you ever end up in a situation with a man. No touching. No singing, of course." [P.65]

Since modesty was a key objective, it was the topic for daily lectures:

"Every time a man catches a glimpse of any part of your body that the Torah says should be covered, he is sinning. But worse, you have caused him to sin. It is you who will bear the responsibility for his sin on Judgment Day." [P.36]

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Now retired and a writer, I am a feminist and political activist, a radical Democrat (have come to dislike the term "progressive"), and a blogger. Have done political tours of Cuba, Nicaragua, Honduras, West and East (way back when)Germany, China, (more...)

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Somehow, in the most patriarchal societies, men wi... by Bob Stuart on Wednesday, Jan 16, 2013 at 9:16:33 AM
When you set the yin-yang symbol a-spinning, it al... by Ned Lud on Wednesday, Jan 16, 2013 at 10:08:37 AM
Both Bob and Ned have submitted comments that are ... by Mary Wentworth on Wednesday, Jan 16, 2013 at 1:10:35 PM