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Life Arts

Socialized into Subservience

By       Message Mary Wentworth     Permalink
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A critical feature in patriarchal societies is not only forcing women to bear the burden of complying with outrageous restrictions, but having to pay the penalty when men transgress. Miles notes:

"The battery of social and legal controls also indicate the exact areas of masculine anxiety; and there was no part of the female body that did not in some way give rise to panic, fear, anger or deep dread. For women were dangerous in every part of their anatomy from top to toe." [P.104]

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The rules in the Satmar community reflect this effort to relieve male anxiety. Women's hair is a particular concern, being viewed as a sexual come-on. Many Muslim women wear the hijab -- a head scarf -- to keep their hair covered in public. But a married Satmar woman, like Jewish women who are members of other orthodox sects, must wear a wig whenever she leaves her home or receives company. Some years ago, however, a local rebbe ruled that Satmar women must also shave their heads:

"Going to extreme lengths will make God proud of us, he'll never hurt us again, like he did in the war," Bubbe said to her granddaughter in explaining why she agreed to this indignity." So at home Satmar women wear turbans to cover their baldness. [P.25]

In some Muslim societies as well as in the Satmar community, married women, which in practice means any woman over sixteen, must cover their bodies in long-sleeved dresses that fall below the knees. In some Muslim societies women are required to wear burkas, a garment that covers a woman from head to toe with a latticed window that gives her enough vision to move about with caution. In the Far East, the required dress has been the kimono. It was only after World War I that women in our Christian country shortened their hemlines -- right up to the rebellious mini skirt of the sixties.

Satmar men, like men in other religious groups, believe that during the first half of her menstrual cycle a woman is "unclean" and must be viewed as "untouchable" in any way by her husband. He must not even receive an object from her hand, the possibility of contamination is so great. At times a rebbe might have to be consulted to determine if a wife is "clean, pure" again, before she and her husband can resume a normal relationship for the final two weeks of her cycle. [Pp.139-141]

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In 1967, in an effort to mitigate women's oppression, the United Nations passed a Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women. Only seven states have not ratified it: Iran, Nauru, Palau, Somalia, Sudan, Tonga AND the United States.


In this document, Article One declares:

"Discrimination against women"is fundamentally unjust and constitutes an offence against human dignity."

Article Two mandates:

"All appropriate measures shall be taken to abolish existing laws, customs, regulations, and practices which are discriminatory against women, and to establish adequate legal protection for equal rights of men and women."

Article 6 (2a) states:

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"Women shall have the same right as men to free choice of a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their full and free consent."

In the past secular governments have been reluctant to challenge beliefs and practices that not only discriminate against women but are actually abusive because they were deemed to be religious and, therefore, sacrosanct.

In her unflinching assessment of her Satmar community, Deborah Feldman has underscored the reality that even today women live in oppressive conditions.

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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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