Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Male Monsters, Polygamy, and Inequality

Below are my impressions of the last three books that I read. In writing out my thoughts, I realized that all of the books have a connection to feminism, though in the case of Frankenstein the feminist connection is through the author and less so through her novel. In all of the books women are murdered by males, and in two of the books, polygamy and its use in the subordination of young girls and women is explored to varying degrees. I highly recommend Under the Banner of Heaven and Princess.

Under The Banner Of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, by Jon Krakauer: I'm a huge fan of Jon Krakauer and years ago devoured Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, both powerful, gripping books. In Under The Banner of Heaven, Krakauer takes a different path and explores the relatively recent foundations of the Mormon religion and the roots and present-day practice of polygamy through an examination of the murders of a mother and her child by her Mormon fundamentalist brothers-in-law, the Lafferty brothers.

Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, allegedly received the infamous "Celestial Marriage" (aka polygamy) revelation from God on or about July 12, 1843. God allegedly instructed Joseph that: "If any man espouse a virgin, and desire to espouse another..., then he is justified; he cannot commit adultery for they are given unto him... And if he have ten virgins given unto him by this law, he cannot commit adultery, for they belong to him, and they are given unto him; therefore he is justified... But if one or either of the ten virgins, after she is espoused, shall be with another man, she has committed adultery, and shall be destroyed; for they are given unto him to multiply and replenish the earth, according to this commandment." (Under The Banner of Heaven, p. 127).

How singularly convenient for men and inconvenient for women! The back story on Joseph is that by the time he disclosed this divine "revelation" he was married, having affairs with multiple women, and his wife, Emma, was growing increasingly enraged with his infidelity. Krakauer writes, "Emma harangued Joseph so relentlessly about his philandering that the original intent of the revelation canonized as Section 132 seems to have been simply to persuade Emma to shut up and accept plural wives - while at the same time compelling her to refrain from indulging in any extracurricular sex herself." (Under the Banner of Heaven, p. 126).

I give Joseph props for coming up with such an outrageous justification for his infidelity, but I'm appalled that his followers decided to believe in the divinity of his twisted rationalization. Of course, it was in the interests of Joseph's male followers to believe in the revelation because like Joseph they stood to profit mightily from a male-dominated system of polygamy. For some time, Joseph and the leaders of the Mormons kept the revelation and the practice of polygamy a secret from the rest of their followers. The disclosure of the revelation ultimately lead to a schism between what is today the modern Church of Latter Day Saints ("LDS"), who publicly denounces polygamy, and the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints ("FLDS") who continue to practice polygamy openly in towns throughout the Midwest and in Canada and Mexico.

I was most disturbed by Krakauer's accounts of the present day practice of polygamy - a practice that is marred by, in addition to severe gender inequality, incest, child abuse, and pedophilia. Krakauer repeatedly described instances of young girls as young as 12 and 14 ordered to become the plural wives of men old enough to be their grandfathers. He described accounts of fathers and other relatives raping their daughters and committing other types of physical abuse. The young girls who grow up within the FLDS are taught that the way to attain salvation is to practice polygamy; to them, the choice presented, if any, is the choice between hell or plural marriage. It seems understandable, given those choices, and the fact of women's inequality within the FLDS, that young girls and women continue to participate in polygamy.

So horrible are the accounts that I found myself wondering why I hadn't heard of an outcry against the present-day practice of polygamy. Why aren't feminist organizations in Utah staging rescue operations in polygamous communities like they do in the brothels of Cambodia, or reaching out to the media to drum up awareness about the human rights violations being perpetrated against young girls in the name of fundamentalist Mormonism? Everyone should read this book and then try to figure out how to help the girls and women of the FLDS.

Princess: A True Story of Life Behind The Veil in Saudi Arabia, by Jean Sasson: My brother Bacchus gets credit for recommending this book to me, and I in turn want to recommend it to all of you. The book is a fascinating, appalling, and deeply disturbing look at the life of one of the many princesses of Saudi Arabia (her real name is kept confidential for obvious reasons). Through her story, we get a glimpse of the life of seclusion and subordination even the wealthiest and most privileged women in Saudi Arabia must lead.

For me, the book was incredibly eye-opening. I had not had any idea of the level of gender inequality in Saudi Arabia, and was also unaware of the political and social structure within the country in which a ruling class of thousands of princes and princesses live off of the proceeds of oil money. I had not realized that Saudi men take on plural wives, and had never read about the practice of bringing over domestic servants from countries such as the Philippines to serve not only as servants, but as the sexual playthings of young Saudi men. The level of inequality that women face in Saudi Arabia is breathtaking. They observe purdah (or seclusion) strictly and must be veiled completely before going out of their homes, are not allowed to speak with men unrelated to them, are forced into arranged marriages with older and sometimes abusive men, and are subjected to harsh and often-times fatal punishment for even the appearance of bringing dishonor upon their families.

In an interesting section, the author talks about the hopes held by some Saudi women at the start of the first Gulf War - when they saw female American soldiers in positions of power and other Arab women doing things, such as driving vehicles, prohibited under Saudi law - that the restrictions upon them might be relaxed. However, their hopes never materialized and according to this book women in Saudi Arabia continue to live today under the same system of oppression described so vividly in Princess.

It makes me sick that this level of gender inequality is allowed to persist in the world, let alone that the perpetrator is an ally of the United States. Women in Saudi Arabia are subordinated and disempowered, yet the media makes almost no mention of that reality, and GW, in the pictures that have been circulated of him shaking hands with and embracing male Saudi Royals, seems completely unconcerned about the status of Saudi women. As long as the U.S. has its access to oil, the lives, deaths, and disempowerment of women are apparently politically inconsequential.

The world needs to wake up and realize that the rights of women are human rights. As my young female clients so often plaintively point out, women and girls are human beings, and they deserve equal rights. Governments that deprive women of equal rights should be treated as violators of human rights and sanctioned accordingly. They should not be allowed to prance around as best buddies of the United States President. No price, however high, should justify the subordination of an entire group of people.

Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: I'm one of those kids who in school was too busy reading all of my books to be bothered with the assigned reading of English class. I was able to get "A"s on my papers based on class discussion and skimming the books, so for the longest time I was completely unconcerned about the books that I hadn't read. Now, however, I see the gaps in my education that skimming those classics produced, and I'm going back to fill in the holes left by my younger self.

One of those classics that had been on my list for some time was Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I had been particularly interested in Frankenstein because of the author's identity. Mary Shelley was the daughter of an early feminist theorist, Mary Wollstonecraft, the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Shelley's novel tells the story of Dr. Frankenstein's efforts to create life, and the well-known horrible consequences that occur upon his success. The creature Frankenstein causes to come to life is hideous in appearance, but gentle and "good" at the time of his creation. Scorned by Frankenstein and other humans he seeks to befriend, and grappling with loneliness and the fear and hatred his appearance generates in the hearts of those that behold him, the creature's nature turns vengeful. When Frankenstein refuses to create a female version to assuage his loneliness, the monster turns on his creator and vows to destroy Dr. Frankenstein's happiness, just as Dr. Frankenstein has destroyed any chances for the creature to find happiness.

I enjoyed the novel because it clarified details of the story of which I had been unaware. I found the creature to be sympathetic, and Dr. Frankenstein to be almost wholly unsympathetic. Dr. Frankenstein attempted to play God, and when he realized he had created something monstrous in appearance, he turned on his creation. As a result of his failings, his creation was irrevocably poisoned against him and against humanity. At any point, Frankenstein could have taken responsibility for his egregious mistake and informed the authorities of his creation and the fact that his creation had become a threat to those close to Frankenstein. In taking responsibility, he could have saved several lives. But Frankenstein never comes clean, and thus ends up much like the creature: alone, unhappy, and driven by one motivation, revenge. He becomes a reflection of the monster that he had created.

Frankenstein should be a cautionary tale against those who toy with the idea of tinkering with creation. I do not know how it is that we as humans came to be, and I do not know if there is a Creator somewhere out there in whose image we were made. However, I believe there are bounds that we should not cross, and one of those is the line between living and creating life through such artificial means as cloning. Frankenstein warns that attempts by humans to create life could result not only in the creation of monsters, but in the transformation of humans into reflections of their monstrous creations.


starshine said...

Great book reviews--very thoughtful and well-written. It breaks my heart to think of your young clients trying make people understand that women and girls are human beings, too. We are human beings, and I admire the work you are doing to defend the rights of the young women you represent.

InterstellarLass said...

Excellent reviews! I will definitely read the Princess book. I read a book called My Forbidden Face, about a girl that was living in Afghanistan under the Taliban. http://www.amazon.com/My-Forbidden-Face-Growing-Taliban/dp/0786869011

It was very interesting.

Mormonism is laughable. I don't understand how people believe that this guy had these 'prophecies', and that no one challenged them. That's an example to me of how religion is created to control people.

I need to figure out how to read and knit at the same time. That way I'd get more done.

Buttercup said...

Starshine - It breaks my heart too. But it's so poignant, it's hard to imagine that anyone could ever fail to understand after talking with them. We ARE human beings!! Now if only all women would band together under that banner, then we would make some real progress.

Lass - I'm going to check out My Forbidden Face. What about books on tape?

sisterfriend said...

"Frankenstein should be a cautionary tale against those who toy with the idea of tinkering with creation. I do not know how it is that we as humans came to be, and I do not know if there is a Creator somewhere out there in whose image we were made. However, I believe there are bounds that we should not cross..."

I think that applies to abortions, as well. I am a feminist, and I believe that even unborn females are human beings, too, with a right to be born.

Buttercup said...

Sisterfriend - Interesting point. Abortion is a complicated and fascinating issue. In the U.S. many feminists support the right to choose. However, in for example India, many feminists are against the right to choose because of its use in sex-selective abortions of female fetuses.

I hope that society draws the line against taking upon itself the ability to create life. I also hope that society draws the line against forcing women to bear children when they do not want to. In the abortion context, I can not justify limiting the rights of an already created, independently functioning life for the life developing inside of her. I know what I would do were I pregnant, but am not comfortable dictating what other women do in those same circumstances.

Btw, I'm fascinated by you. Who are you? You leave wonderful thought provoking and supportive comments. I wish I knew more about you.

InterstellarLass said...

One more interesting sidenote about the Mormon church. They have a practice of posthumously baptising individuals after death to ensure the person gets into heaven. I knew that they did this, but just tonight learned they were evidently doing this for Holocaust victims until they were asked to stop. That certainly takes gravitas!

On the abortion issue, I don't believe anyone should be told what or what not to do with their body. Personal freedom to choose is absolutely a right. And I believe that extends beyond abortion...it applies to gay marriage, what you put into your body (see NYC trans-fat ban), and a host of other 'we made this law to protect you from yourselves' Big-Brother type legislation. I think we are straying far from the spirit and intent of our Consitution, and it's frightening.

Ally Bean said...

How singularly convenient for men and inconvenient for women!

Seems to sum up Mormonism, Saudi Arabian culture and the abortion debate. Interesting theme to your reading, buttercup.

Buttercup said...

Lass - That is totally fucked up that the Mormons were posthumously babtizing Jews. Jesus Christ! On the abortion issue, I believe that every life deserves to be free. And you just can't get around the fact that forcing a woman to bear a child will degrade her life by making it less free, than say the lives of men. Women have a right to be free.

Ally Bean - So true!

InterstellarLass said...

They don't just posthumously baptize Jews, they do it to everyone. They actually have a web site http://www.familysearch.org. They collect birth and death record info, posthumously baptize non-Mormons to get them into heaven, and keep a geneology web site on it! Quite a service!

Buttercup said...

Lass - Well, they're not babtizing me!

candyminx said...

I too love Jon Krakauer but I haven't read this Mormon book..YET. I will. I loved both Into The Wild and have read Into Thin Air twice. I keep hoping someone will make a movie out of ITW.

I love Frankenstein and your review was excellent...isn't it true that the doctor is a cautionary tale of humans?

I now want to read Princess. I am so impressed at your reading speed and dedication!

Anonymous said...

Krakauer did a great job with that. Having grown up (as a non Mormon) in Salt Lake I can tell you that there will never really be an outcry. Feminism is not big on the agenda in that state. The church virtually owns everything. And I personally think the only reason they denounce polygamy is because the rest of the US does.

i am the diva said...

i grew up mormon, and the idea of 'plural marriages' to gain celestial glory never really sat well with me. My Whole life! i remember telling my dad, at the age of 6 or 7, that i thought the whole thing was just a way for guys to have sex with a lot of women and not get in trouble.

I spent a huge part of my childhood in Creston, BC - a stone's throw from Bountiful, BC - the sister community to Jeffs' enclave. My family are not fundamentalists, but my life has been littered with stories of people who 'got out', my dad's best friend's mother ran away from the Blackmores with six children and raised them all by herself in the 60s-70s.

I left the church when i was 18, but always sort of harboured that feeling of "what if they're right and i'm wrong?" until 2 years ago, when i read Under the Banner of Heaven. when i finished, i put the book down disgusted. Disgusted at the huge difference between what i was TAUGHT to believe and what actually happened. I stopped wondering "what if" and now i am finding my own way.