16 November 2007

day 16 :: women [retroactive]

Sitting in a circle with Sudanese women. I’m asking questions about their lives. “What do you do if you really don’t like the man your parents have chosen for you to marry?” Ensues long, giggling story about pretending to like the man and then eloping with another man at the last minute, but how that can only be done if he’s willing to match the dowry offered by the first one.

Then they ask me questions, “Are there elopements in the US?”

“Are there blind people in the US? Lame people? Mad people?”

“Tell us the truth. Everyone says that things are wonderful between men and women in your country. How do men and women really interact?” I think, and then say that in some ways things are easier for women in North America, that it’s unlikely they will be beaten, that they can choose their husbands, but it is still not perfect.

Sometimes I feel sheepish and uncultured. “If people have so few children, who cares for the old people? Who cares for the blind people?” It’s embarrassing to admit to institutions that have replaced family.

“What kind of dowry do men pay for women?”

There is uproar when I say, “None. In fact, the only real expense is the party for the marriage and the woman’s family pays.”

Women younger than me have four children, or five. They want more. They want ten, or eleven. The older ones will care for the younger ones, and eventually the parents, and school is free now, if it’s close enough to walk.

Eventually they have to leave, because they are late to make supper and their husbands will beat them. “It is because of the dowry,” they tell me. “The men pay cows for us, so they own us. You are lucky to have no dowry.”

“If you pay your own way,” I say, “you own yourself.” They smile and cheer.

Another day in a group of women and men, a woman asks me what she should do when her husband beats her because she comes home late for the cooking because her literacy class runs long. “What would you advise?” I fumble and finally admit that I don’t know. It’s not an issue I ever expect to face, and I don’t know what to tell a woman about how to stand up to a man who has absolute power over her, legally, socially, and culturally.

Instead, I talk about education and Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the female president of Liberia, a female president in a world where many “modern” “Western” societies, including my own, have never elected a female Head of State. I tell them about human rights, and that everyone, because everyone is a person, should have the right to make decisions, even as small as staying at her literacy class when it runs late. I say that every culture, every society, has things that are right and things that are wrong and deciding to change the bad things doesn’t mean undermining the culture. I tell them that change is slow, and men and women have to work together, have to change things together.

I feel inadequate. I don’t have a real answer.

There is nothing like Africa to make a feminist of a person, for women on this continent and my other one.

And to make me feel like my three years of law school taught me nothing practical whatsoever.


traci said...

another thought provoking and well written post. ;) there is one think that jumped out at me though... is it really true that it is "unlikely" a woman will be beaten in the US? i suppose you are right, given the much higher risk that exists where you were. still, though our society has done away with dowries, an unacceptable number of US women are beaten by boyfriends or husbands. it's the number one reason a woman ends up in the ER, and i remember reading a study once that suggested up to a full 1/3 of women experience some form of violence perpetrated by a boyfriend or husband at some point in life. i know what you mean, though.

ps. i'm so glad you're home!!!

Monday's Child said...

I liked reading this... and you're right, there's nothing like Africa for making us feminists...