I watched the film Women Talking the other night and thoughts about it are swirling in my head. In a strict, conservative religious community, women are being regularly drugged and raped, but they are assured that in spite of their bruises and pregnancies, they are imagining the assaults. They are treated as slaves, are not allowed to learn to read or write, and are denied contact with the world outside the community. They have never seen a map and have no idea how to navigate the world. They meet in secret to discuss their options: do nothing, stay and fight, or leave. They are trapped not only by their situation but also by the chains of the patriarchy and the mandates of their fundamentalist religion.
Their religion teaches them about pacifism, so how can they conceive of fighting back. It preaches love and forgiveness, but how can they love and forgive their attackers while they and even the youngest children are being violently raped? They elect to grab control of their own lives and leave the colony even though it is all they know.
It is so hard to process how deeply this film resonates with me, because even though I feel quite independent and powerful, I realize that I still wear the blinders imposed by the patriarchy and even by religion. I remember years ago when my children were little, my friend Kaky Webb pulled me aside and asked me why I was so controlled by my then husband. “I am not a bit controlled by him!” I protested. But she then ticked off on the fingers of her two hands all the ways I was silenced by him. “Who makes the major decisions in your family?” she challenged. I believed at the time that we made decisions jointly, but she asked: Who decides where you live, what car you drive, and who does all the work around your house?
It dawned on me that he made all the decisions and I had to jump when he said jump. I had to quit my job when he decided to change where he worked, and he made the decision about which houses to buy in the new towns. Because my mother’s life was decided by my father, it was a subconscious choice that I obey my husband. He was a nice enough guy, so of course I would do “my part.” I did everything around the house and worked full time as a teacher. I wasn’t resentful, because I chose to work and I believed that my other full-time job was house and kids.
This morning on Instagram someone posted “Women are expected to work as if they don’t have children, and raise children as if they don’t work.” I felt guilty if I had to stay home with my children when they were sick, and long-winded faculty meetings made me late for daycare pick-up. My mother-in-law was very opposed to my having a job outside the home because, as she put it, “Your job is to take care of your husband. Because you have a job, he is putting on weight because the meals you prepare are full of starches.” I knew I would lose my mind if I did not work, but I carried around guilt about all the ways I was failing my family.
I have never been a fundamentalist like friends of mine in other states who believe they are made from Adam’s rib and are created to serve men, but I have done more than my fair share of serving. I call it something else: hospitality, love, kindness, and community, but it is still a situation where I won’t sit down when we have guests because I can’t do enough for them.
Don’t get me wrong. I am very content in my life and enjoy making other people happy. Watching Women Talking was like ripping a scab off a wound, though, exposing the ways I relate to others, especially men, is controlled by forces outside myself. I’d enjoy hearing from other people about how your behavior is controlled by expectations.