Saturday, February 20, 2010

Help, Help, I'm Being Oppressed

A couple days ago, my husband called down to me from upstairs, “Honey, are you oppressed by men?”

“Sure,” I said. “It’s the violence inherent in the system.”

“When you wear your bonnet? Do men oppress you when you wear your bonnet?”

Ah. That’s why the question. This strange stairwell conversation was coming out of his online discussion with some British Friends, who were inexplicably uncomfortable with the idea of people following personal leadings to dress differently from them.

“Ah. No, the bonnet isn’t a sign of oppression. As a matter of fact, it tends to make men uncomfortable. And when men are uncomfortable, I win.” I still think this is a funny line, although the Brits didn’t see the humor. Kevin dutifully toddled off and reported his scientific findings regarding female plain dress to them, and they immediately started wondering why I felt such a need to compete. I guess I can’t win, after all.

So, yes, I’ve been oppressed and witnessed it too… from my childhood, when my father absent-mindedly responded, “Women can’t do that” when I mentioned a career possibility that I had a passing interest in. I have long forgotten which one of the scores of career possibilities it was… I know it wasn’t sperm donor. But I still remember his offhand rejection. If I reminded him of the conversation, he would be horrified. But the assumption of inferiority was still there; and the assumption kicked in before the higher faculties ever even engaged.

Through various strange assumptions as I grew into adulthood… the vice-principal of my high school shook his head at me, “You’re a smart kid. I don’t understand how you could be doing so badly in school. Maybe you should join the cheerleading squad; it would help you get involved more… Get some school spirit…”

Through that strange Episcopalian church-conference on sexual abuse, where they quoted statistics for the number of boys sexually abused by the age of 18, and the number of girls sexually abused by the age of 12. When I pointed out the lack of parity in the statistics, the presenters were genuinely distressed. They had never noticed. They had never noticed that the assumption behind their statistics was that what happens to minor girls 13 and up isn’t sexual abuse, but what happens to minor boys is. They promised to make the statistics equivalent… I dunno if they ever did. I hope so.

Right up to the conversation I had yesterday, with a sweet gentle kind man, about a Christian women’s group on Yahoo! “Well, you know, it’s a place where Christian women can get together and talk about women’s things… housecleaning, and cooking, and childcare… stuff like that….” I didn’t actually have the heart to challenge him, because I had to admit to myself that I do talk about those things with other women. Just the other day, I commiserated with a member of my meeting about the state of our porches… she had a pet rooster who had made his home on hers; I have a fence-defiant goat. Personally, I would rather have goat poop than chicken poop on my porch, but either one is annoying. So I admit that he is right… these are things women talk about. But why are they relegated to “women’s things”? And what about politics and sports and economics and social justice and spiritual growth and leadings from God? Why don’t we assume that those are women’s things?

Even my own meeting isn’t immune to the violence inherent in the system. For 350 years, Quakers have accepted the equality of men and women. But even here, where women are allowed to be strong, and men are allowed to be gentle, somehow nearly twice as many of the recorded ministers in my yearly meeting are men. And nearly twice as many of the elders (the supportive, nurturing position)are women.

So, yes, there’s violence inherent in the system. Yes, there’s deadly assumptions built into our culture. But, no, the doohickey on my head is not a symbol of male oppression.

I chose to alter my style of dress and to put the bonnet on, in order to be visible as a professing servant of God (the clothes can only bear witness to my profession, not to my actual spiritual state). I didn’t honestly have any expectations about how other people would react to this public declaration, but folks’ reactions have been interesting and instructional. Many people find my appearance strangely reassuring; total strangers will come up to me and tell me about their spiritual journeys, or ask me questions about God. My heart goes out to them; such people are on a spiritual journey, and God has placed this dumpy little Quaker where they can see her, to aid in some small portion of their trip. It’s an honor beyond measure.

Folks who are members of religious groups that practice headcovering for women find me comfortable… I’m different—they can tell I’m different—but they’re pretty sure we must have a connection somewhere, whether they’re Mennonite or Amish or Muslim.

And then there are the folks who are made distinctly uncomfortable by my appearance. At first, this bothered me a little… I don’t like making people feel uncomfortable. But I have come to understand something. If my mere appearance is enough to make someone uncomfortable, it probably has very little to do with me. It is probably because I am silently challenging their assumptions. There is probably something that they could afford to examine about themselves or their beliefs. Most commonly, folks are concerned that I don’t dress like them. For some reason, this bothers them. Sometimes they explain that it is because they think I am pretending to be better than they are, spiritually. Sometimes they explain that they think I ought to blend in better with the dominant culture, in order to be a better witness for God. Sometimes, they see my bonnet and create a whole imaginary set of stereotyped beliefs and activities for me, and it bugs them that I am intelligent and articulate and bossy and laugh too loud and detest canning and support gay marriage.

For one reason or another, I challenge their assumptions, and wrench their perspective into an unfamiliar alignment. Whenever that happens to someone, he or she becomes open to new wisdom in ways that they do not when their comfort zones are not challenged. I don’t know what new wisdom God intends to plant in folks, when my doohickey puts their knickers in a knot. But that’s not my problem. I guess I should have told my husband, “When folks are uncomfortable, God wins.” And when God wins, we all get to walk out of the cave of oppression. With or without the bonnet. Just watch out for the rabbit.