HUSBAND, MAY I? by Esther Nelson

esther-nelsonFor several weeks now, I’ve been going through and disposing of stuff that has accumulated in my house over the past three or four decades.  One of the more interesting finds was the following letter, written by my husband, when we lived in Saudi Arabia from 2000 – 2004:

May 1, 2001

Travel Letter

To Whom It May Concern:

My wife, Esther Ruth Nelson, has my permission to travel to Bahrain, Iran and other countries on May 1 – 30, 2001.

Dr. Theodore P. Nelson, P.E.
c/o Saudi Aramco
P.O. Box 8239
Dhahran 31311
Saudi Arabia

The letter carries the stamp of my husband’s professional engineering seal, giving it an official aura.  The people who arranged my travel insisted I keep the letter with me at all times.  As it turned out, I never had to show the letter to authorities in either Bahrain or Iran, but it was an insurance of sorts, just in case.

Back in the U.S., many of my friends were scandalized that I had to procure such a document.  Women in the U.S., at least officially, don’t have to obtain permission from their husbands (or male relatives) to move about freely.  Women and their supporters have worked long and hard to be seen as fully human, not as chattel.  Women can vote, drive, inherit property, initiate divorce, enroll in school, open a business, and control their reproduction without permission from a husband, brother, father, or son.  Many of us consider all these things to be basic human rights.

Some of my friends, though, noted that wives getting permission from their husbands to act outside certain set parameters (cooking, cleaning, child-rearing) was a cultural phenomenon.  These friends didn’t think it appropriate to pass judgment on cultures that operated differently from our own.  They insisted that we should understand this whole permission thing in the context of women’s own environment, and not impose our Western paradigms on societies that are not ours.  Sounds good, but leaving it there exposes some huge problems.

One of my university colleagues had a female student tell her recently regarding FGM (female genital mutilation) that the practice was part of “their culture” and we shouldn’t judge them for it, nor interfere.  What about honor killings?  These questions point to a larger one, forcing us to ask: What’s our moral responsibility when we see people’s autonomy violated including at times being battered and killed?  What constitutes appropriate (in)action?  The subject is complex, layered, and multi-faceted.

I don’t have pat answers, but think this whole thing of who gets to tell whom what to do (often manifested as permission granted by a husband towards his wife) is wider than just those living in Muslim societies.  Lila Abu-Lughod addresses the subject within an Islamic context in her book, DO MUSLIM WOMEN NEED SAVING?  In a brief YouTube video, she explains:

Just this afternoon, though, as I was sorting through things (still), Dr. Phil was on TV with a thirty-ish-year-old husband and wife along with the wife’s parents.  So much dysfunction in this family, yet what struck me was that the young wife, in narrating her story, said, “I asked permission from him [her husband] to get my mother some birthday presents and a cake.”  Dr. Phil checked with the husband, “Is that true?”  Yes, it was true.  “I’m king of my castle,” the husband added.

Dr. Phil didn’t address the permission aspect.  (Anyway, I’m pretty sure Dr. Phil buys into the hierarchical set-up in marriage with husband/father as “head” of the home right below God.)  The question I have is this: How different is my husband’s travel letter giving me permission to roam about the Middle East for a month and this husband’s presumption that it was his prerogative as king of his castle to exercise authority over his wife’s purchase of presents and a birthday cake for her mother?  (He had recently purchased a gun, a car, and a motorcycle for himself.)  The husband was not exercising official authority like my husband did (albeit my husband was “forced” to do so by the state if I expected to travel without him), but no need.  His wife had internalized the “truth” that her husband had every right to call the shots and insisted that she fall right in line with his wishes and demands.

There are various ways we women fall in line.  One of my women friends asked me recently if I were going to an upcoming lecture.  I wasn’t planning to.  “Are you?” I asked.  “Yes,” she replied, mentioning that her husband really wanted to hear the speaker.  I wanted to ask her, but didn’t, what SHE wanted to do.  I have no doubt that she was looking forward to the event as well, but why is it so natural for us to couch our desires (as evidenced in our language) in with our husband’s?

Isn’t this deference that so many of us give to the men (often husbands, but not always) in our lives an “unofficial” subservience?  I’m not talking here about a healthy give-and-take relationship that evolved, mature adults enjoy.  I’m talking about the way the larger society presses in on us to keep the status quo where men are kings in their castles (their word is law) and heads in their homes (they get the final say).  We often comply with our culture’s patriarchal expectations.  At times, we do so out of habit.  It feels familiar–even safe.  Many times we find it easier to go the way of least resistance and not make waves.  To rock the boat invites censorship and possible loss of relationship.  We hope our deference will make things run smoothly.

That smooth sailing we look for, though, remains elusive when we diminish ourselves in an attempt to procure what is rightfully ours.


Esther Nelson is an adjunct professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, Va.  She has taught courses on Human Spirituality, Global Ethics, Christian-Muslim Relations, and Religions of the World, but focuses on her favorite course, Women in Islam.  She is the co-author (with Nasr Abu Zaid) of VOICE OF AN EXILE  REFLECTIONS ON ISLAM and the co-author (with Kristen Swenson) of WHAT IS RELIGIOUS STUDIES? A JOURNEY OF INQUIRY.

Categories: Activism, Feminism, Feminist Ethics, Gender and Power, General

Tags: , , , ,

12 replies

  1. Great post. I agree with you about cultural relativism. Maybe there are no objective values clearly given by the Divinity, or clearly evident to every rational person. We need to be sensitive to other cultures, but, I agree with you, after thinking long and hard about whether we are imposing our values on others, we can and must make judgments about what we, from our own finite and relative points of view, consider to be right and wrong, just and unjust. Sometimes that means making the judgment that cultures and cultural worldviews are unjust. I always find it helpful to begin with a critique of my own cultural inheritance. There is plenty to criticize there, but we cannot stop there when we see injustice being done.


    • Thank you, Carol. Leila Ahmed clearly shows in her memoir, A BORDER PASSAGE, that this term “justice” is a fluid concept. What is “just” in one era becomes “unjust” in another era as culture moves forward. She uses the analogy of our Constitution. We’ve amended that document as issues the authors of the document never considered arise. Nevertheless, the whole idea of what is “just” becomes quite sticky when one’s understanding of the sacred text is considered infallible. And I think your focus on beginning with a critique of one’s own inheritance is absolutely necessary. Appreciate your comment.


      • It is true that justice is a fluid concept, with notions of what is just varying in different cultures and at different times and places. This recognition, does not, (I would say) absolve us from deciding for ourselves, from our present standpoints, what we think is right and what we think is wrong–while also recognizing that our own perspectives may change in the future. Thus, for example, I would say the US Constitution was wrong not to grant the same freedoms to white and black women and to black men that it granted to white men. Similarly, it is wrong to practice or to allow the practice of FGM.

        The RC doctrine of discernment is useful here. We don’t need to make snap judgments. Rather we take our time and think these issues through to the best of our abilities, taking into account the opinions of others, of other cultures, of alleged authorities, and every perspective we can, and then we come to our own judgment. At the same time, we recognize that we could learn more in the future, and thus our judgment could change.


  2. Hi, Esther, lots to think about in your post, and very finely written, thanks.

    As regards, “I’m king of my castle.”

    We need better public role models for the men themselves to imitate. I’ve been following Bernie Sanders as a candidate for President and he seems to me different than most men I’ve seen in politics. He would certainly be an unusual sort of model. And I wonder if Bernie were President, would his persona have any effect on feminism and women’s rights? In fact when that little bird landed on his podium a while ago, I began to clap my hands instinctively. Sanders said the bird represented a dove and was a sign of NO MORE WARS. NPR had this headline for the event: IT’S QUITE CLEAR WHO MOTHER NATURE ENDORSES FOR PRESIDENT. Love it all.


    • Thanks, Sarah, for your comment. I also loved that symbolic incident where the bird landed on the podium where Bernie spoke. I agree that we need more positive male (as well as female) role models in our society. Not sure if Bernie’s persona would have any effect on feminism and women’s rights. I tend to think not since we seem to think that men who are “nice guys” go over and above that which is necessary to be a decent human being. Like husbands who do housework and child care. “What a nice guy to help her out like that,” we say. Yet, on so many levels we make it so difficult for women to go out into the work force and bring home a paycheck. Limited child care, for one. Do we think women are being “nice” when they add to the family coffers? I believe patriarchy–the social system in which we live–needs to be dismantled. How to go about that? That’s the question for me!


  3. Very interesting post, Esther. This is a common belief system in many nations. I am not surprised to read Husband’s answer. It is a practice socially accepted, like a norm to behave in a way that pleases your husband and his family. You would laugh out loud when I say it is considered a good quality of a wife and expected by the both families. Sometimes a must have. I do wish situation, notions and society change for good.


  4. A very thought provoking post. I very often think about where the line is drawn between basic human rights and imposing values on another culture. I personally believe interference is necessary when it comes to physical practices such as FGM. In my version of a perfect world, women would not be considered property that requires any kind of permission from a male relative; that is just my opinion, and I am clearly in no position to declare what is right and what is not.
    Again, I would like to compliment you on your writing. This post is written so well, and provides so much to think about. Bravo!


    • Thank you for your generous comment, sailthroughmythoughts. Appreciate you weighing in on this rather fuzzy subject of when to (or not to) interfere in another’s (individual or nation) business. Things quickly become complicated when we think about slavery being considered “just” in the U.S. not so long ago. Today we no longer consider slavery to be “just.” We are in a constant state of flux and, hopefully, following that long arc of justice that Martin Luther King Jr. spoke about.


  5. Very insightful blog posts, the idea that the women in the relationship has to consult the man with everything they do boggles my mind. One should not lose their individuality when they are in a relationship. Relationships are about working together, being equals, not one person working for the other or one person being more superior. Sadly the idea of “the head of the household” is so deeply rooted in religion and society that it becomes a normal thing for some people.


  6. Very insightful blog post, women should not have to consult their husbands about everything. One should not lose their individuality in a relationship. Relationships should involve to equal individuals working together, not one person calling all the shots and deciding everything. Sadly the idea of “the head of the household” is deeply rooted in religion and even today’s society that it becomes the norm for people.


  7. This is a great post and I really enjoyed reading. Your post caught my attention because this is something that I feel I have struggled with. Growing up Hispanic there has always been the automatic belief that the man is in charge but my mom being a single mother showed me that I do not need permission from any man. My mother did use the terms “man of the house” to describe my oldest brother but she did it to teach them responsibility. Other then that my mother always took care of things. I never thought to ask a man for permission so reading your post is very unreal for me. At the same time I am Hispanic and seeing my grandmother look to my grandfather for support or reassurance helps me in understanding.


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