To celebrate the one year anniversary of our move from New York City to Rockland, Dan and I decided to unpack the designated non-essentials that had been stowed in boxes in a $250 per month storage space and then transported practically by circus train to our new and fabulous suburban garage. My job was to go through the myriad boxes of videos, and it was in one of these that I rediscovered a stunning documentary a friend of mine produced in 1999 about women in Afghanistan under the rule of the Taliban. What would it be like, I wondered, to see this video again, post 9/11?
I waited until Dan had taken the kids to the park, and watched the videotape in the intimate, perhaps safe, space of my bedroom. Once again, the film had much to teach me about the lives of these women, some of which has hauntingly stayed with me: Any house in which a woman lived had its windows painted black; 72% of women jailed were there because they had been raped; the phrase gender apartheid.
What was startling about watching the documentary now, was the familiarity of the subject matter & how less exotic and in fact, ubiquitous, the images of these women in their long veils, their oppression, the apartheid have become.
Later, out of sheer curiosity, I Googled the word burka and a list of Websites appeared on-screen. The first link had snappy copy (let's put the fun in fundamentalism, boys and girls!) advertising burkas for sale. In the name of research and because I couldn't help myself, I clicked.
At the top of the Web page was a photograph of a female "model" wearing a burka, or more accurately, there was a photograph of a burka with a woman hidden underneath standing upright and more stiffly than any mannequin I've seen, which at least usually have those wonderfully lively Vanna White hand gestures molded into their plastic appendages. Next to the photo was the link to make the purchase, and below it, the ad copy which boasted a lovely silk fabric designed the way the Taliban like their women-folk to dress. The text also mentioned that this collectible ethnographic Muslim costume from Central Asia was "very slightly worn, if at all".
Very slightly worn. That was the phrase that got me. Sensations of paranoia immediately crept over me like a veil or a sickness. So, this was a used burka. Why was it used? Where was its owner? It looked to be in excellent condition, why didn't the original owner still need it? Why did I doubt the owner's liberation? Would you sell your burka if you had been liberated? How did the burka come to be sold?
I have always been sensitive to just how far women's rights go. I'm not exactly sure why my radar on this is so keen, but I can take a few guesses: The most vivid or concrete reason is linked to my first real taste of vulnerability. I was in my early twenties and had gone to a wedding in an unfamiliar town, and was looking for the train station to get back to New York City. A man in a battered maroon Lincoln Continental followed me into an alleyway. I was backed up against an industrial garage, with nowhere to run or hide. The man got out of his car, closed the door and stood next to it, about ten yards away from me. I knew he wasn't there to square dance.
It is amazing how self-preservation can ignite clarity. In the few seconds it took for him to get out of the car, I flashed on a documentary I had seen about rape. The film explained that rape was about power, not sex, and that many women who survive rape (including a friend of mine who'd be dead now otherwise) had done so by talking to the rapist, talking him down really, simultaneously making themselves (the victim) more human and neutralizing the power struggle. I looked the predator in the eye and said coolly, "How ya doin'?" He nodded and said, "Good. How are you doing?" It very much had the flavor of a cowboy stand-off in a Western, Who's gonna draw first? Something moved in my periphery. I flicked my eyes at the fence next to me. The fence divided the alleyway from a backyard and at that moment the homeowner was coming out of the back door of his house. I yelled, "Call the police, this man is going to rape me!" The rapist looked me in the eye; it was the look of praise, as though he was impressed that I had called it what it was, played it as it laid. He backed up a few feet towards his car, slowly, again, as though I were going to pull a pistol.
The other man, the homeowner, didn't make a move, but instead took a few steps towards a lawn mower. I knew instantly he wasn't going to make the call. The man with the Lincoln and I exchanged looks. The homeowner yanked the power cord and the mower ripped, the air jiggering with the familiar roar of a suburban gas-fueled motor. A voice came out of me, louder than any I had ever spoken in: "This man followed me into this alley and he is going to rape me and you have to call the police!" The homeowner cocked his head the way people do when they don't want to listen, and then pushed the mower across his lawn. Now the man at the car looked at me angrily & though the homeowner wasn't going to call the police, he wasn't going anywhere either. The man quickly got into his Lincoln and drove away.
I have three friends who weren't as lucky as me. Three. Two were gang raped.
And then there was my mother. Human rights was my mom's prevailing goal for the inhabitants of planet Earth. Mom's determination to make the world a better place knew no bounds. She was an activist, made money being a campaign manager, and was friends with some heavy-duty women's libbers & as they were called at the time & like Bella Abzug. Yet, Women's Liberation went only so far for my mom. She was never going to stop calling herself Mrs. Simeon Eisman, or burn her bra, or give up wearing make-up or cease feeling completely, girlishly dependent on her husband. When I was in college, she told me that it didn't matter what major I chose because ultimately, I'd be getting married and that my future husband would support me.
Is it possible to live in this world without a dick and not at some point in your life experience disrespect, or bodily danger, or made to feel like a commodity?
It is awfully interesting, sobering even, to have this perspective in the world, to come from a place where I distrust women's safety in the world, to feel our human rights are at best, shaky, where a day doesn't go by that I am not aware on some level that somewhere on this planet at any moment exists gender apartheid, and to then give birth to a baby girl.
* * *
I was pushing Burke in his stroller on First Avenue. I was thinking I was tired, and then I thought, My breasts are sore. My gums feel funny. And I've been forgetful. And I knew. I was pregnant.
I wondered then and I wonder now if I didn't have the monumental distraction of a two-year-old, would I have noticed I was pregnant sooner. I probably would have. The amnio confirmed what I'd already suspected: I was having a girl. I felt as though I had guzzled an estrogen-laced goddess potion. "There's too much girl in me!" I repeated those words out loud, under my breath, into the mirror and inside my head. My hormones had gone berserk. I raged, cried, sweated, hungered; I was exhausted, my lips were unaccountably purple, my heart pounded. My pregnancy with Burke had been so straight-forward, and Burke himself was easy peasy. Esme, on the other hand, had colic and screamed for the first four months of her life. They simply came out different. I dressed Esme in Burke's baby clothes and quickly discovered that she looked ridiculous in some of the more "boyish" outfits. I have to confess that buying little girl clothes was a lot more fun than the same old same old boys stuff. I also didn't think I would have to buy a single new toy. But Esme had distinct interests of her own and none of them included things with wheels, cockpits, sirens or superheroes. It simply never occurred to me that gender would play a role in their interests, at least not while they were babies. But Burke had a passion for things with wheels from before he could even sit up. For Esme, it was babies. A trip to the toy store with Esme inevitably resulted in the purchase of a little plastic and foam squishy person. The grandparents were also good for a baby doll or two and lots of stuffed animals. One time we were in Tompkins Square Park and Esme picked up a small rock, held it to her shoulder and gently patted it. What hath I spawned? I wondered. This was the cockeyed equivalent of the first time Clark Kent's mother watched her infant son lift an automobile. I had to ask myself, What exactly am I dealing with here?
I am fond of saying that if you opened up Esme's brain, it would be pink inside. Esme is devoted to the color pink and to princesses, worships at the altar of make-up, ballet, girls namen Alyssa, clothing, hairstyles, baby dolls, cats and her father. Did I mention she's three-and-a-half? I am claiming absolute innocence. I have never encouraged this fanatical behavior. As a matter of fact, it is she who accuses me of not embracing Pink. Why don't you wear dresses?" she asks accusingly. I didn't even wear a gown to my wedding. I wore a beautiful -- at least I thought so -- cream-colored pantsuit of satin and silk of my own design. Esme recently watched the wedding video. Her jaw dropped when she discovered that I didn't wear a gown to my wedding. Her devotion to Pink is such that the only thing to do is to hope that perhaps she'll outgrow some of this and to keep reminding her how important it is that she's smart and athletic and a good person. How many times a day does she hear from strangers -- at the supermarket, from other mothers on the playground -- how beautiful she is? I always make it a habit to add, "And she's smart and athletic, too" because I feel she needs to hear that. Okay, maybe I shouldn't have let her watch Disney princess movies, but I watched them when I was a kid and I turned out all right.
Actually the more I watch princess movies and the more I read classic fairytales, the more I realize just how non-non-dysfunctional my family was. What's up with those stepmothers? What are the fathers thinking marrying these women? Or did they all have spells cast on them? I didn't learn until recently that Maleficent is Fauna, Flora and Merriweather's sister! How can this be? Who the hell were their parents? And why is she so tall? Anyway, it's easy so blame the mother isn't it? (But what nitwit hangs out in forests with birds and tiny animals? Isn't she afraid of ticks? And who saves Cinderella's but mice! Having lived in New York City, it's very hard for me to rally to the idea of rodent intervention. To me Snow White is the penultimate un-P.C. princess story. Her life is put in danger because she's pretty (even with that bob); she does all the housecleaning and cooking at chez dwarfs; she's so trusting that she lets herself be fooled and gets drugged by a hag because an ugly old woman can be trusted, right?); and, to top it off, she lies in state like a museum piece until Prince What's-His-Name revives her with a kiss. (Interestingly, Snow White is Esme's least favorite of the bunch. I couldn't tell you why, but I like to think that even she thinks this one is pushing it.)
Until Esme came around, I was very much out of touch with the whole fairytale thing. I've always heard the feminist hard-line, that these stories teach girls that they need men to save them from the hell that is their lives. But now that I am deeply immersed in the culture of the princess, I have come to realize that it is so much more complicated than the guy-saving-the-girl thing. The nicest guys are either rodents, henchmen, dwarves or ogres. For the most part, the princes seem okay, but what do we really know about them other than them being (mostly) white, good-looking, royalty who are easily manipulated or aided by women? And the only thing they seem to think about is getting married. If only! There must be university libraries filled with dissertations on princess stories. But as Esme will gladly tell you, ultimately, these tales are all about the dresses. It's all about those last frames of celluloid and those final pages and what, alas, the princess is wearing. Whatever came before the dress, is the literary equivalent of underwear, the foundation as it were, layer after layer of underclothes building up to the gown.
I was so relieved when Esme decided to go as Princess Fiona from Shrek for Halloween that I actually made the costume myself. (take a wild guess whether she went as Fiona before or after she became a(perma-ogre.) But still. Fiona rocks. At least nowadays there are a few princesses who verge on enlightenment. Belle from Beauty and the Beast reads books and falls in love with the Beast while he's still beastly (of course, she ends up with the after-Beast who is a strapping, gorgeous redheaded manâ€¦ whoops). Ariel from The Little Mermaid defies her father (and then completely gives up her individuality to become a humanâ€¦ whoops again).
I don't worry about my son's safety in the world in the same way as I do my daughter's. Burke is a middle class white male born in the last years of the 20th century in New York; he is smart, and he's tall for his age. I've seen him negotiate the playground bully with his intellect, strong chest, and his edge, effective like armor and disarming like a sudden blow. Dan wants Esme to study karate. I don't disagree. She's smart, has a great sense of humor, and is a class-A scamp. But her persona is all about being ultra girly-girlish, a knockout, a living doll, an eye-full and all the other cliché compliments she catches every time she's out in public. It scares me. "Does she model?" I am asked on regular basis. "No," I say. Why would I want her to be a commodity? I'm hoping she'll be a doctor or an attorney; Dan thinks she'll be an MBA in the fashion industry. Perhaps.
I don't want anything in women's paths & particularly my daughter's & to trip us up. Down with too-long hemlines! And please, I pray, in the years to come, the racks at trendy department stores will not be filled with designer burkas. I don't need to see burkas as a fashion statement. The trend in corsets is bad enough. Personally, I just want to be comfortable. Not invisible.
Helene Fisher's "And the Bride Wore Pants" was excerpted from her upcoming book Between Rockland and a Hard Place: An East Village Mom Moves to the 'Burbs. Helene lives in Rockland County with her husband and two kids. Want to talk about it? Check out the hipmama.com forums.