abaya.jpgA few days ago, Joss Whedon had a post that has haunted me ever since I read it after I got back from vacation. The post was initially about a horrifying video that had been taken of a young woman in Iraq being beaten to death by her family for daring to fall in love with a boy outside her sect. (WARNING:  If you do click on the video link in Joss' post or the one in Digby's, it is very graphic, violent and disturbing.)  But it went beyond the video to what it means that someone thought this deadly beating would be entertainment, and then takes it several steps beyond even there:

I try to think how we got here. The theory I developed in college (shared by many I’m sure) is one I have yet to beat: Womb Envy. Biology: women are generally smaller and weaker than men. But they’re also much tougher. Put simply, men are strong enough to overpower a woman and propagate. Women are tough enough to have and nurture children, with or without the aid of a man. Oh, and they’ve also got the equipment to do that, to be part of the life cycle, to create and bond in a way no man ever really will. Somewhere a long time ago a bunch of men got together and said, “If all we do is hunt and gather, let’s make hunting and gathering the awesomest achievement, and let’s make childbirth kinda weak and shameful.” It’s a rather silly simplification, but I believe on a mass, unconscious level, it’s entirely true. How else to explain the fact that cultures who would die to eradicate each other have always agreed on one issue? That every popular religion puts restrictions on women’s behavior that are practically untenable? That the act of being a free, attractive, self-assertive woman is punishable by torture and death? In the case of this upcoming torture-porn, fictional. In the case of Dua Khalil, mundanely, unthinkably real. And both available for your viewing pleasure….

Now those of you who frequent this site are, in my wildly biased opinion, fairly evolved. You may hear nothing new here. You may be way ahead of me. But I can’t contain my despair, for Dua Khalil, for humanity, for the world we’re shaping. Those of you who have followed the link I set up know that it doesn’t bring you to a video of a murder. It brings you to a place of sanity, of people who have never stopped asking the question of what is wrong with this world and have set about trying to change the answer. Because it’s no longer enough to be a decent person. It’s no longer enough to shake our heads and make concerned grimaces at the news. True enlightened activism is the only thing that can save humanity from itself. I’ve always had a bent towards apocalyptic fiction, and I’m beginning to understand why. I look and I see the earth in flames. Her face was nothing but red.

All I ask is this: Do something. Try something. Speaking out, showing up, writing a letter, a check, a strongly worded e-mail. Pick a cause – there are few unworthy ones….

A number of other blogs have picked up the discussion on this, but it was this post from Digby which hit the issue squarely for me:

I think what is most amazing to me is that this doesn't take place in some tent in the middle of the desert or a stone hut. These people are not dressed in tribal garb — they are wearing jeans and t-shirts and the whole thing takes place in a street in what appears to be a modern town. It isn't the Moqtada al Sadr brigade or Al Qaeda extremists —it's not part of the civil war although according to the article, many Iraqis are trying to rationalize it as such. This is nothing but barbaric patriarchal violence perpetrated by our alleged allies, the Kurds, toward a teen-age girl…

There are a lot of manifestations of this particular human organizational style, some much more sophisticated and stylized. The violence becomes more ritualized and the humiliation takes other forms but underneath it all, the same impulse to dominate drives a fair number of people of all cultures. It's just a matter of degree.

This is the reason why it's so important to preserve our secular, reason-based constitution and fight against this horror of government endorsed torture and indefinite imprisonment. It is a very, very thin line between civilization and barbarism and every step we take away from the rule of law is a step toward becoming that primitive mob of killers. After all, I'm sure they felt justified too.  (emphasis mine)

I stumbled across this piece in the WaPo, regarding some pushback in Saudi Arabia, by some women who have found a way to express themselves as individuals without incurring the wrath of the ever-patrolling religious police. (Yes, I did say Saudi Arabia and religious police. Where have you been?) I think this is brilliant.

"You cannot separate what is happening with the abaya from other issues related to women, including women's appearance in the workforce and having more say in their affairs," said Saad al-Sowayan, a professor of folklore and anthropology at King Saud University in Riyadh, the capital.

Until recently, the abaya was a plain black robe that women kept by the door and wore like a coat over their clothes when they left the house.

Today, abayas are often stylish, personalized wraps that women enjoy being seen in, said Thana Addas, an abaya designer. Addas's creations, many made with material from international fashion houses such as Roberto Cavalli, Burberry and Fendi and decorated with Swarovski crystals, can sell for more than $1,000….

One of the things the article references is that there has been a renewed questioning of the Wahhabi sect of Islam in the wake of 9/11 among a number of classes in Saudi Arabia, because so many of the hijackers came from the Kingdom. The result has been that a number of younger women have begun to push the boundaries a bit and find a way to express their inner selves with their outer garments. This is really quite ingenious, I think, but I'd love to hear the opinions of some of our readers who have lived in the Middle East on what opening this particular public door might mean.  (And I'm remembering the Karen Hughes "listening tour" offensive — and I do mean offensive — and am shaking my head all over again.)

Saudi women have always been notoriously expressive behind closed doors in terms of clothing and assertiveness, at least in the upper classes, but this appears to be filtering down through the various economic strata.  See, for example, this piece in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, wherein young Saudis attempt to get around the dating restrictions via bluetooth technology and texting at coffee shops based on a glimpse of ankle and the technological means of flirting.  No matter the restrictions placed from the outside, somehow human nature finds a way, I suppose.

As with any religious, political or philosophical text, the belief may be used to lift up an individual and empower them, or to gain power for one's self by trying to put those same people under the thumb of an ordering system that one controls from above.  The tension between these is the fight in which we are all engaged on a daily basis:  what are the terms of our social contract and, once those are realized, do they enable growth and/or forward motion or do they chafe as they pull us backward and away from individual freedom?  For women, especially, and not just in Muslim cultures, those questions are raised all too frequently, as Whedon and Digby both discuss.  It is often a few steps forward and then a few steps back, as women in Iran and Afghanistan, and here in the US of A, can all attest.  We've all read the stories about women teaching other women in secret in Afghanistan in the Taliban days and even secreting banned books in any number of cultures so that they can learn.  I always ask myself when I read these whether I would have the courage to do the same in the face of the potential penalties to myself and my family, and the answer always comes back that I'm not sure — I'd like to hope so, but how can you know?

The key, I suppose, for all of us individually is the ever-evolving struggle.  And, in that, the modernization of the abayas in Saudi Arabia is a step that I applaud.  Individuality is something to celebrate.  So, in the name of our sisters in the Kingdom today, and in memory of Dua Khalil, take a little time to express yourself.  Because the freedom to do so should never, ever be taken for granted. 

(Photo of abaya and phone bling via happylovesme.)