We feel badly and even guilty for the sexual violence done to women in Africa, for the poverty and exploitation of women in India, for the plight of the Muslim woman who has to cover herself up as if in shame for being a woman. As Western women we do this from the vantage point of our presumed superiority, our own comfort, our own self-righteousness, without acknowledging how our complacency feeds into the whole. We presume that liberty is defined by external display and whimsical frivolities, and we direct our energies to fitful tantrums of one kind or another. There are no parallels with the spirit that moves the women we pity. We are largely incapable of sharing in the inner wisdom that arises from them.
We feel sorry for the traditions of so-called primitive cultures without understanding them. Without respecting them. We cannot understand the need for women to be among women to feel nurtured and understood. Instead we side with men and with the needs of the mythical couple. In our actions and constant preoccupation, coupling and the meaning it brings to our lives is continually and overpoweringly present. No matter how outwardly dependent an Asian or African woman is to the male hierarchy, what we fail to grasp is that inwardly there is a world richer than our imagination, a force stronger than our loudest cries. Their spirit is free.
Their struggle is ours, only we don’t know it. They call for their voice to be heard in a hardened world. They strive for recognition and respect as women, while we ask to be treated equally and content ourselves with the surface. They fight to preserve themselves in their difference, while we strive to prove ourselves equal to a man.
The Arab Spring and African movements could never happen in our homes because we believe we are already free. Are we? Can we compare our social and economic hardships to theirs? Our privations with the brutality that assails them? And more importantly, can we match the spirit of these women?
We do not see our insensitivity. Cavernous depths inside contain secrets: treasures, traps, magical coves and revelations, unknown worlds and haunting terrors. We don’t particularly want to know about the inner forces; they interrupt our stubborn sense of purpose. Those remnants of ancient womanhood still living under primitive conditions in different regions of the globe have something we lost. They have preserved their innermost self. Only in a society where appearances count more than substance, might we still contend that we are privileged.
We tread on shallow waters where we have always been, where our ancestors were, with new outfits, vocabulary and gymnastics that spell progress, arrowed towards where it is supposedly safe and secure. Our risks are actually small, our battles argumentative. We are not likely to make life and death mistakes, least of all (God forbid!) experience the inner pull of unknown forces. The tremendous effort we exert in hiding and ignoring ourselves results in mighty inner wounds as we dam our spectrum of possibilities. To be normal is, in fact, to suffer one form or another of incapacity. Our struggles are ludicrous compared to those of the world we deem underprivileged. The real issue is always freedom from self and for the Self.
In the kind of world we live it is also easy to diagnose physical and mental incapacity, but not so the psychic and psychological lesions of the normal person. It is simple to acknowledge physical abuses and inequalities elsewhere than your own home, but not so to recognize the absence of feminine values and sensitivity in our own. We cannot see the scars, palpate the symptoms, or predict the effects. We can only feel that something is not right. That something is terribly wrong.
I was deeply touched by the CNN interview of the three Nobel Peace Laureates for 2011: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Tawakkul Karman, and especially Leymah Gbowee. In my opinion, the Nobel committee rewarded the original Inner Woman. The quality of feminine dignity the three women displayed outweighed even the surprising details of their lives and struggle.
Western women pursue truth and justice, have attained incredible heights of achievements, but few can be said to excel for the integrity that supports the indignation exhibited when there is nothing left to lose. In this respect our sympathy feels hollow. Janis Joplin was my rebellious heroine in the 60’s, but for all her heart-wrenching bravado she chose defeat.
In the face of unbearable loss a strangely powerful renewing energy arises in the hearts and minds of sensitive suffering people. I am reminded of the American Southern Blacks during the time of Martin Luther King during my youth. In the 1960’s this was religiously inspired in the Christian faith. For the three Nobel women Laureates it was based on the right to be and, in the case of Leymah Gbowee in Liberia, on the unity of Christians and Muslim women, a Faith beyond faith.
It is unfortunate that the full video of the CNN interview is not available. The brief segments that appear on YouTube cannot transmit the power of these women’s presence, or the body language and powerful silences in between, but they give us a hint.
I wish to focus on one scene in particular. It was one of the missing fragments where the interviewer, in addressing Laymah Gbowee alluded to the sex strike used against Mugabe’s forces. He then specifically asked about an incident where she stripped naked as a last resort to negotiations. After some hushed giggles from the audience, the room fell absolutely silent as a fierce energy rose and rose, and then she spoke with resonant eloquence.
Instead of submitting to failure or trusting an unseen force, she resorted to an aspect of herself more precious even than life: her body as a reflection of soul. Hearing her, identifying with her for those moments, I could almost taste similar feelings of outrage in history: the futile hope of dying worlds, gladiators, Christian martyrs, Samurais with impeccable codes of honour, dignified and highly educated Jews chanting to the ovens, fervent kamikazes in WWII, and the desperate impotence of modern day people who immolate themselves. Oh that feeling of total and irredeemable injustice and despair!
I recall Ms. Gbowee’s almost imperceptible shudder to the implication of the interviewer’s question to someone who had witnessed the pain of massive rapes. It filled the room, it poured out through the TV screen. As she said, when there was nothing further she could do to force the men in power to listen, she had stood tall and defiant, and slowly stripped her clothes. Rather than roar, destroy, or self-immolate, this one woman’s gesture spoke more loudly than words.
The chieftains were so shamed that they were forced to ask themselves what had they done that their women had to take such measures. That one woman’s pristine purity of purpose at that moment stood for all women.
Where a Western woman might have exhibited herself or commiserated, she remained vulnerable and irrepressible. Woman as she IS: ancient and holy, proud, fragile and powerful.
Now I ask you, who in truth are the women who hold up the world? If men have lost their capacity to respond and no longer hold us in the sanctuary that is our birthright, maybe it is we who need to change. It is we who need to make a stand IN A FEMININE WAY in dignified defiance of the indignity into which our civilization has fallen.
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