Reflection 167: Two Women

December 24, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

I give you two women from two different cultures. One raised to expect a great deal of praise and attention for being pretty, the other to expect to make her way by doing her share of the work. Each making herself happen within her respective culture according to survival values shaped in childhood to reflect the needs and yearnings of her family, particularly of her mother. Two women, two childhoods, two cultures, two ways of being in the world—two different lives, one in Afghanistan, one in California, a nation unto itself.

Actually, I don’t give you two women at all but rather two photographs of women, one I’ve had on my wall since (I think) the fall of 2001, scanned from the pages of (I believe) The Christian Science Monitor; the other scanned from a 1959 photo reproduced on page 13 of the current issue of AARP The Magazine, November/December 2009. I regret I don’t know the names of either photographer because I’d like to give credit to those who created these stunning portraits.

I present these photos side-by-side as symbols of what it might mean to be raised in two different cultures opening onto two different styles of consciousness expressed in two contrasting ways of being women in the world. Compare and contrast; feast your eyes:

Woman 1

Woman 2










Imagine local men (and women for that matter) meeting these women. Put yourself in their place. Feel what they might feel. Imagine the parents and siblings with whom these women grew up. Imagine their playmates, special friends, neighbors, mentors, teachers, spiritual advisers. Imagine these women trading places, the one switching from herding goats in Afghanistan to herding goats on the outskirts of Los Angeles; the other drying off, taking a stroll through the outskirts of Kandahar in her bathing suit. Run through the routine once again—same women, same dress, different cultural settings. What sorts of response do they get? How are they regarded? How are they judged? How are they treated?

I smile when I look from one photo to the other; I can imagine others frowning, getting upset, wanting to take some kind of action. Someone mutters, “Such things shouldn’t be allowed.” “Obscene, I’d say.”  This is not just a matter of aesthetic dissonance. It’s a question of what’s considered proper for how a young woman conducts herself in public. What is attractive to one might be an outrage to another. (In the interest of full disclosure,) I find both women exceptionally attractive to an equal degree. But in doing so, I take their respective cultures into account. These images depict alternative ways of being women in the world, and the range of such possibilities appeals to me. But the world is divided into regions where one possibility might be appropriate and the other less so.

The local culture we grow up in provides a range of options for expressing our biological values. Moving from one culture to another, we remain the same men or women, but might be expected to conduct ourselves according to the prevailing norms of the places we visit. We’re the same people, but are looked at differently, so come across differently. How we present ourselves as sexual beings is a sensitive issue in every culture. Largely because the relation between the sexes is the fundamental reason we have cultures in the first place. This is such common knowledge, I am almost embarrassed to bring it up. Which I do precisely to make the point that this is the sort of thing that led to nineteen men from a foreign culture to board four airplanes on September 11, 2001 with deliberate intentions of inflicting as much harm as they could on a people with a history of (inadvertently) offending the manhood and religious beliefs of people like themselves.

This was an incident in which males from one culture took a stand against a different culture for, as they viewed it, flaunting its ways and beliefs in an insensitive, arrogant, and offensive manner. When manhood is threatened, watch out!—a punch in the face is sure to follow. Few in America saw the blow struck on 9-11 from a sociological or cultural (rather than criminal or military) perspective. But the outrage felt in response to how Americans conduct themselves abroad as if to elicit some kind of reaction is, indeed, more an inter-cultural than a military matter. If 3,000 innocents had not died, two landmark buildings been leveled, and the HQ of the U.S. military not been attacked, in such a case we might not have lashed out by bombing Afghanistan and subsequently invading Iraq. But all that havoc did occur; the die was cast.

After eight years of war, we can reconsider whether or not that was the most appropriate response we could have made. Certainly the families of those who died are unlikely ever to change their minds. But the families of soldiers and civilians wounded or killed in the aftermath might pause to consider why their sons and daughters bore the burden of revenging the first wave of deaths. Once begun, where does the carnage end? Which prompts me to recall the following rhyme:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Not that 9-11 is comparable to loss of a horseshoe nail, but once loins are girded and weapons primed, how do we ungird and unprime them? Once offense is taken, can it ever be forgiven? More likely by the seasoned and wise than the ardent and young.

Which is a tremendous burden to place on the two women from two different cultures I introduce at the head of this post. A burden somewhat similar to the one thrust on Helen of Troy, Boadicea, or even Mrs. O’Leary’s fictional cow credited with starting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. My point is that cultural differences have consequences, sometimes profound ones when accustomed ways of expressing biological values are made an international issue because so passionately adhered to as if they were innately human. The values are certainly human, but the particular ways they find expression in different cultures are regional at best. The fault lies in taking local customs and attitudes to be universal or God-given virtues, with the result that only deviant infidel sinners would dare present themselves differently.

When it comes to the culturally accepted ways through which we give form to individual consciousness, values, and person-hood, extreme absolutism and fundamentalism are no virtues. Acceptance of cultural relativism gives leeway to those whose practices differ from our own. On 9-11, no such allowances were made. As if only one of the women pictured above were right to conduct herself as she does, making the other categorically wrong.

The Catholic Church, with considerable help from its rich out-of-state friends, recently spent millions of dollars to squelch legal acceptance of same-sex marriages in Maine. Right-to-lifers are equally fervent in their intent to outlaw abortions, distribution of condoms, and anything else that smacks of family planning. There it is again, that heavy-handed approach to how human sexuality is expressed. Heavy-handed because not just thumbs but whole palms and many hands are pressed hard on the scales of justice. These are just a few further examples of how our upbringing and life experiences impact the shaping of our biological values. When I see a photo of Rush Limbaugh mouthing off, I see a child three or four years old. I regard many members of Congress with the same X-ray vision. There’s a lot of it around these days, variations on the basic attitudes we acquire in childhood. Hardened and polished, like fake diamonds, they gleam with the brilliance of universal truth.

I think everyone should have photos such as the two I offer in this post on their refrigerator door as an example of how differently we export our internal selves and attitudes to the external world. Each one of us does it for him- or herself because, for genetic, epigenetic (not predetermined), and experiential reasons, we are all personally unique. In the words of Gerald M. Edelman:

From the very beginning of neuroanatomy, there are rich statistical variations in both cell movement and cell death. As a result, no two individuals, not even identical twins, possess the same anatomical patterns (Wider than the Sky, 29).

Given our diversity, it is remarkable we are able to sort almost seven billion people into only eight thousand different cultural groups. To ask or expect that all cultures conform to a standard imposed by any one of them, or by any group or individual within a culture, would be,—and if attempted, is—absurd. Rather than decry our variability, we would do well to celebrate it every day of our lives. Think how dull life would be if we all held to the same beliefs, thought the same thoughts, and conformed to identical standards! What could we talk about that we didn’t already know? I say, vivre la difference, not just between the sexes, but within them as well—as my two examples so beautifully illustrate.

Two Pomegranates