For 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
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
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.