Friday, June 10, 2011

Two Stories about Women

I’ve just finished reading two stories about brave women, with the courage to defy centuries of tradition. They are quite different stories, and I am sure that at least one of the women would resist the comparison.

The first was a wonderfully readable study of George Eliot’s life through her writings: George Eliot, by Jenny Uglow. Eliot, of course, adopted the masculine pseudonym as a way of having her writing taken more seriously during a time—the mid-nineteenth century—when even a woman of profound native brilliance and stunning self-discipline would work for free as an assistant editor of a prestigious journal and then apologize to the editor for not being a sufficient “help-mate.” She managed to lead an extraordinarily life and leave behind a body of work as admirable as much for its reflective erudition as its beauty. But the struggle this cost her is evident in her own personal story as well as in her work. We see a flash of her frustration with this in a passage from the first edition of Middlemarch, about the insights that the locals did not have into the heroine’s character: “it was never said in the neighbourhood of Middlemarch that such mistakes could not have happened if the society into which she was born had not smiled on propositions of marriage from a sickly man to a girl less than half his own age—on modes of education which make a woman’s knowledge another name for motley ignorance—on rules of conduct which are in flat contradiction with its own loudly-asserted beliefs.”

It is the first of these hypocrisies that calls to mind the other brave woman: Nujood Ali, an amazing Yemeni who in 2008, at age 10, ran away from the man 20 or more years her senior to whom she had been forcibly married. Although her husband had agreed to postpone sexual relations until the child was older, he instead forced her to have sex the first night of their marriage, with the approval of his mother and sister. Nujood defied her rapist, her parents, and her extended family by running away, showing up at a city courthouse alone, and demanding a divorce. She is still a child in some sense, but after her childhood was robbed from her, she proved herself more mature than far too many so-called adults.

You can read Nujood’s story here, in an article by Cynthia Gorney in National Geographic on the disturbingly common practice of forcing young girls to marry boys and grown men: . The youngest bride in Gorney’s story is 5 years old. One is but little comforted by the knowledge that the groom in this case is only 10.

Despite George Eliot’s courage in the face of persecution, I think she would be the first to protest a comparison between her own situation and that of these terribly abused young women. We trivialize the horror of abuse when we apply the term too widely. But I don’t intend to suggest that all of these persecutions are on a level. Instead, I think Eliot might have something to teach us about how to work towards bringing these horrors to an end.

Eliot wrote long, intricate novels, attempting to show not just how a person’s character can be her salvation or her downfall, but also how that character develops in the first place. Only by sympathetic attention to this development can we possibly hope to understand another person, let alone judge her behavior.

Among the most helpful things about Gorney’s story is the way in which she explains how the practice of child brides supports and is supported by local communities. These webs of support make the “outsider’s impulse”—to which Gorney herself confesses—to rush in, “Snatch up the girl, punch out the nearby adults, and run,” at best futile and at worse catastrophic for the child we would like to save. The suggestion is not that we should sit idly by and let these practices continue, but that the Indiana Jones approach just will not fix them. This story should therefore by required reading for any outsider who feels inclined to blame women from such cultures for “submitting” to such treatment. That there is even one Nujood Ali suggests a profound wellspring of intelligence and courage among these women. We must learn the patience to listen to her story, as well as that of the hundreds of other girls and women who do not escape. This kind of listening is only a beginning, but it is an absolutely necessary beginning. And it is a small part of what George Eliot was trying to teach us.