The Gender Situation & the Situation Room

Posted on May 20th, by Elizabeth Debold in Blog, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Gender, Religion, Uncategorized. 14 comments

The Gender Situation & the Situation Room

A few news events have caught my eye this past week—particularly, the Orthodox Jewish newspaper that photoshopped Hillary Clinton out of the iconic Situation Room photo and The Atlantic Monthly’s report “Danger: Falling Tyrants” by Jeffrey Goldberg on the move toward democracy in the Middle East. But it was an email exchange with one of our former editors/writers, Maura O’Connor, who is reporting from Afghanistan where she’s embedded among US troops, that made me think about these events in the context of our responsibility, as sophisticated postmodern individuals who are living in a pluralistic global society. We often literally brush up against those who have very different worldviews—radically different ways of understanding reality and human relationship.

Maura told me that she and a friend, another young American female journalist, were talking about whether to wear headscarves in Afghanistan. Maura covers her hair out of respect for their religion—much as, she noted, we cover our shoulders when we go into Catholic churches. Yet her young colleague, often doesn’t. She wants to show the Afghan women that they don’t have to cover themselves and believes that showing her hair, contrary to custom in this Muslim country, was a way of taking a stand against their oppression and supporting them. I would imagine that she saw her actions as a way of inspiring change. While her actions were obviously well intentioned, and may even in some way inspire the kind of culture change that she hopes, they may also have very unintended consequences, and be met less than enthusiastically by both men and women in Afghanistan.

That’s where my rumination over these events begins.

First, the newspaper that photoshopped Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (and counterterrorism director Audrey Thomason) out of the White House Situation Room where President Obama and his top leadership team watched the events leading to Osama bin Laden’s death. While Clinton’s expression—hand partially covering her mouth—was the subject of too much scrutiny in the press, Der Tzitung, produced by an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sect in Brooklyn, sidestepped that hornet’s nest and created another by getting rid of Clinton completely. Why? The editors of Der Tzitung explained:

In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status. Publishing a newspaper is a big responsibility, and our policies are guided by a Rabbinical Board. Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.

As they saw it, they are upholding laws of modesty. Apparently, their prohibition of photos of any woman at any time is a very strict interpretation of Jewish law—the same laws that direct married women to cover their hair and wear sleeves and skirts of a certain length. As other commentators have made clear, the reason for this is that the sight of a woman’s body is sexually provocative. Within Jewish law, a wife’s modest dress helps maintain the special sacred sexual union that is so essential to married life—sexuality is meant for each other, not for public display. Tznius is the term for this mode of dressing, meaning modesty and subduedness. The aim is dignity—to protect women from being exploited and men from their baser instincts so that they both can focus on higher matters. While the way that Der Tzitung is interpreting these laws—to the degree that they are reinterpreting history—may seem absurd for a religious group that is located in one of the most cosmopolitan centers of the world, Brooklyn, New York, this type of law was actually an important development in cultural evolution, one that eventually enabled women and men to live side by side with the freedoms that we share today.

The transition from the ancient world to a world dominated by the traditional religions marked a significant shift in sexual mores that directly relates to the development of human consciousness. It’s well known that the ancients were, as we would say today, “liberal” in their attitudes toward a range of sexual practices. Homosexuality was fine, as was sex for pleasure or entertainment. But it went far beyond this. Elaine Pagels, in Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, notes that in the time that Christianity was just forming the Romans engaged children of conquered tribes as sex slaves, supported legalized prostitution (both male and female), and saw the sexual impulse as an impetus from the gods. While fidelity in marriage was important, particularly to ensure paternity, and self-control was a virtue, a close reading of Roman cultural artifacts suggests that the ancients experienced the sexual force as almost an external compulsion, rather than an inner one. This is enormously important. At the time of the ancients, the human psyche was fragmented in such a way that one’s inner drives were compulsive, not under conscious control. The strict sexual morality of the Abrahamic religions created very strong guidelines to enable human beings to renounce those impulses and thereby to individuate as responsible, conscious, moral agents. In this light, for example, St. Augustine’s despair and torment over the lust that drove him—and led him to equate lust with sin—makes sense. And so does the Jewish tznius.

My young friend Maura told me another story from her colleague that illustrates this point. Her friend, newly arrived in Afghanistan, thought that she should have a headscarf and went to a local shop to buy one. But she didn’t know how to wear it. So, she did what any American woman would do—she asked the male shopkeeper to show her. Ignorant of the fact that the reason women wear headscarves is to not arouse sexual interest from men, she didn’t understand that she was inviting him to cross a line. The man agreed, and apologized that he would have to touch her. She didn’t get what the big deal was, but as he helped her with the headscarf, his hands roved over her breasts, patting them all over. Touching her hair, touching her breasts—once he’d crossed the line there was not much distinction. It’s all illicit. The young women recognized that, in some way, the man couldn’t help himself.

The “laws of modesty” that led the Orthodox Jewish newspaper to delete Hillary Clinton and the laws governing dress in the Arab world arise from the same historical epoch to foster the development of self-control in relation to one of the most powerful internal drives that moves us. None of us would be here without it, and our “control” of that force is often tenuous at best. (Despite strict Catholic sexual morality, sex scandals in the Church are endemic, for example.) I would imagine that among the Orthodox community in Brooklyn, the extreme interpretation of these laws has less to do with self-control than other gendered dynamics relating to power. But in much of the world, including the Middle East, the need for this strong and rigid boundary is a necessity. (One only has to look at the horrifying attack on CNN reporter Lara Logan to realize how volatile this issue is. While the group of men who assaulted, violated, and nearly dismembered her has been called “a criminal mob,” the more terrifying truth may be that they are not criminals but fairly ordinary men at a certain level of consciousness development who lack the interior resources for self-control and are very easily roused to mayhem. Such behavior, frankly, is not unusual at certain stages of human and cultural evolution.)

This brings me to the second news article, by Jeffrey Goldberg, on what may happen in the post-tyrant Middle East. We associate democracy with liberal ideals and values that support individual freedoms and rights to self-determination. But duly elected governments in the region may not embrace such values. Goldberg observed a recent protest in Tunisia, after the fall of Ben Ali, at the Interior Ministry. These “vociferous, even volatile” young protestors where carrying apparently contradictory signs: the Shahada, a profession of Muslim faith, and “Our Freedom Can’t Wait—Malcolm X.” What were they protesting, men and women together, with such intensity? That the ministry was demanding that women not wear the hijab for their identity card photos. They, men and women alike, wanted women to wear the hijab. As one young woman protestor told Goldberg, “They force women to remove the hijab….This is an insult to Islam. We are demanding that the ministry allow us to wear the hijab at all times.” When he spoke to a young man about this, the man responded: “We are striving for a society in which women understand that they are expected to be modest….There is no compulsion necessary….In a just society, men and women would understand the roles they are supposed to play.”

It is very difficult for us to see this as anything other than oppression or, in Marxist terms, “false consciousness”—that the women are protectively taking on the attitudes of their oppressors. We don’t think of freedom as having anything to do with choosing to wear the burka or hijab. But at a certain stage in consciousness, a woman may not only aspire to a Godly modesty, but realize that she is far safer when covered because there is so little self-control among the men in her community (or in herself). Our sense that democracy is going to magically take care of these gender dynamics and pop people into a totally new value system, consciousness, and culture that supports women’s rights and pluralism is naïve at best. From their perspective, our so-called freedoms whereby girls and women are so blatantly sexualized are a nightmare, a prison made of our most primitive compulsions. They aren’t all wrong about that.

As any developmentalist can tell you, you can’t skip stages in development, and as any political analyst will remind us, no one gives up power easily. Women’s freedom in the Middle East is caught between these two: the lack of interior development that makes this type of “modesty” essential to one’s survival and the resistance of such patriarchal cultures to women’s emergence as a social and political force. These two are deeply intertwined.

Where do we end up? I’m not arguing for a blind cultural relativism. The remarkable drive of evolution moves toward greater freedom, self-determination, and choice. The movement in the Middle East toward more liberal, modernist values for individuals may be slow, halting, and even violent but it is inevitable. But we won’t hasten that process by flaunting our freedoms so that they constantly struggle with being out of control and fear those forward steps. Our responsibility to our brothers and sisters who showed such courage in overthrowing tyranny means that we have to show deep respect for the developmental tasks that they are taking on by recognizing the tumultuous forces, inner and outer, that they are navigating. In other words: I’d wear the headscarf.

14 responses to “The Gender Situation & the Situation Room”

  1. Gail Klein says:

    I am shocked to hear of Lara Logan’s attack (in detail from the linked 60 Minutes show) – yet when I was watching the news that week – I was surprised to see women reporters out there among the men. It does seem to be naive to go in there with our western values and plop a blonde female reporter in the midst of a mob of Egyptian men. Not that I am stereo typing – but I think what I am getting from Elizabeth’s blog is that we have to be more conscious of what level of development a culture we are entering is in and how the choices we make are not being seen by that culture thru the same lens we are making them. To be wise is not a sign of giving into an oppressive social system – it is to use the level of understanding and development that we have reached to appreciate the difference that are very real between so many of us on the planet at one time.

    • Gail Klein says:

      A much lighter example of this I recently witnessed was on American Idol last week – when the final four contestants chose songs that inspire them. One women, chose to sing Michael Jackson’s song “What About Us?” in which the lyrics discuss not only people but the natural world that is being neglected by our narcissism on the planet. Two of the judges (Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez) chastised her for this choice. Randy Jackson in particular said she did not pick a competitive enough song. To her credit, Haley Rhinehart defended herself and explained that this song truly was about inspiring to create a better culture. I see this as a demonstration of her level of development reaching world-centered awareness – seeing herself and others as citizens of the globe. On the other hand, another contestant sang a song that was in response to September 11th and has a lyric along the lines of ‘I am just a simple man, I watch CNN but I don’t know the difference between Iraq and Iran’ and goes on to say ‘but I know the love of Jesus’ – this song in its ignorance racism and glorification of Nationalism and a fundamental form of Christianity does not represent a globally aligned perspective. And the judges embraced his choice and did not point out his aligning himself with an ignorant perspective that took us to war in Iraq. Yet last night this singer was voted by America to be in the top two, and Haley was not. Coincidence? Maybe. I look forward to the time when globalcentric values are not only celebrated but a given – and instead the cutting edge choice is to sing of our Kosmic citizenry – as the process of evolution becoming aware of itself.

  2. Lee Chalmers says:

    Thank you Elizabeth for a very thought provoking post. It has left me feeling uneasy for a couple of reasons. I, like you, would chose to wear the headscarf in cultures that require it and have done so. I have also chosen to go further and wear full Pakistani dress when working in Karachi. The head scarf worked out well, the full dress not so much. This got me wondering why.

    I agree with you that there are now well established developmental stages in human beings lives that cannot be simply moved through with the introduction of a new political system. This seems apparent now. I also agree that the relationship between men and women illustrates the consciousness of a culture very clearly indeed. Where I disagree, is with the view, largely implicit in your post, that in these situations the men cannot help themselves. There are two strands to my thought here.

    Firstly, when I was working in Karachi I noticed that the male participants related very differently to me when I was wearing the salwar kameez than when I was wearing my western business suit. When in my suit they listened to me and gave me the respect due my position as an international trainer hired by their corporation. When I was in the traditional Pakistani dress they did almost the opposite. They spoke over me and didn’t take my instruction. These men were capable of relating to me as an equal but chose not to when I was wearing dress that cued them to what was appropriate in their culture as opposed to what was appropriate in mine. They had the ability, they were judging what was expected of them (or a less charitable way of saying this might be, they were judging what they could get away with.)


  3. Lee Chalmers says:


    So whilst I agree that it’s smart for women to wear clothes that ensure their safety in certain cultures, I can see that women have a role to play here in shifting forward how men are expected to behave. Women cannot wait for men to morally evolve so they can be liberated.

    The second strand in inspired by the behaviour of Dominique Strauss- Khan, the now ex-head of the IMF. In case anyone is not aware, he has been charged with the attempted rape of a maid in his hotel. Apparently upon getting out the bath he forced her to perform fellatio upon him. This man is not from the developing world, he is from the developed. The woman was not dressing provocatively, I’m assuming she has some sort of a maids uniform on. There is no developmental excuse for Mr Strauss-Khans behaviour based on his culture. There may be one based on his morals.

    What I think happened in the latter case is that Strauss-Khan judged what he could get away with. He did what he thought the rules around him allowed, rather than being overtaken by an intrinsic urge he could not control. We demean men when we assume they are not capable of controlling their urges. We quite rightly judge them morally when see they have taken advantage of a societal norm that allows them to abuse the weaker sex to satisfy themselves.

    This is an issue of moral development, personally and culturally, as I know you are aware, and we should call men to support each other in this work. Lets not give anyone the get-out clause that men can’t help it.

    • Dear Lee,

      Thank you so much for your response. I think you are adding two really important pieces to this very complex picture–a complexity that my post could hardly do justice to. One is the respect for hierarchical authority that you find in these cultures. Unlike us egalitarians who want to be chummy with everyone or who want to have a “real” cultural experience and dress, act, and so forth with those whose countries we are visiting, cultures that are authentically at a traditional stage respect and take their cues from the symbols, posture, and demands of authority. Like you in the business suit.

      The other relates to the example of Dominique Strauss-Khan, which I agree is more a moral, ethical, and now, fortunately, legal issue.

      How to hold the complexity and create contexts that will support positive changes in the treatment of women, in this case, without causing reactive backlash is a big question.

    • Frank Luke says:

      Hi Lee,

      Just riffing on your comments:

      If it ever comes to it that Arabs will become more liberated in the way women are considered, there will be a lot of cultural shock and pushback before that acceptance of more liberated attitudes comes to be.

      What it will need is for the respect for the law to prevail and any infractions will be enforced seriously.

      It may take decades if not generations to have it come about.

  4. Frank Luke says:

    We know if something is dammed and repressed, esp. something so vital and central to humanity as sexual expresion, we moderns understand this leads to unhealthy psychological expressions.

    Islam putting women in such a seemingly over-protected role and denying any public expression or display of their God-given femininity may result in less sexual crimes but also fosters that double standard where Muslim men often are observed to become rather libertine when traveling, hypocritically flouting Islamic injunctions.

    To sexually liberated Westerners this may seem entirely wrong but I wonder if the licentiousness that is practiced by many in the West is preferable to the kind of strictures, harshness of Sharia law and sexual repression of Islam nations?

    • Dear Frank,

      Just to be clear–I’m not saying that the Islamic customs are preferable, only that they are appropriate in a certain developmental context.

      It’s interesting what you say about fundamentalist Muslim men being licentious in foreign countries. I recall something about this after 9/11. Some of the “pilots” lived in a place strewn with pornography, and frequented the adult video store. But when a neighbor asked one of the men how they liked America, the man spoke very negatively of all the freedoms that we have, and may have said something about women being unprotected. Ironic. Now, given that this is ten years on, my memory may not be accurate, but it struck me at the time.

  5. David Fraser says:

    Malcolm X was right: “Our Freedom Can’t Wait”, and after his generation a man of color resides in the White House. It’s not flaunting to be free, anymore than it is the fault of a victim for being raped. Various Bibles advocate conquering certain enemies and making slaves of them and using them as you will, so I don’t understand this revisionist history of the religion saving men from animal desire, or protecting women by relegating them to 2nd class citizens. How long would the writer wait for this inevitable process before she would chose to actively inspire culture change? Do not all who are historically oppressed need to see that the world can be different, that there are other places, and other ways? The worst prison is the one you cannot see out of. As long as we agree to conditions of the jailors when we visit these prisons we become complicit in continuing the oppression. The writer wearing the headscarf is compromising the freedom she has already attained and the possible freedom of those she will meet. She is agreeing to carry water for the oppressors.

    • Dear David,

      Thank you very much for your comment. Ironically, when the protestors in Tunisia were using Malcolm X’s slogan, they were advocating for an Islamic state! THAT is their definition of freedom. How to foster change–rather than visceral backlash and entrenchment–is complex in our pluralistic world where one man’s religious freedom is another’s repressive prison, and vice versa, one man’s sexual liberation is another’s prison of evil temptations. Negotiating this complexity with respect and a developmental lens, rather than just asserting our values and reaping resentment and fear, seems to be the task now for all of us who want to create a world in which self-determination, personal choice, and truly enlightened self-interest are the norm.

  6. Nada says:

    While I agree that it’s absolutely necessary to understand that developmental stages can’t be skipped – individually and culturally – I find it “naive” that intelligent people of any and all traditions can’t recognize that the objects intended to protect and uphold modesty,such as the burka or hijab,are indeed the objects upholding the illusion that a mere piece of fabric somehow protects a woman from a frenzied male.Women are still molested, raped and brutalized,with or without these symbols.The true “object” is the female body;if a man somehow “respects” the fabric as a symbol of his need for self-control,how difficult a step is it to transfer that respect after removing the fabric of concealment, and the eventual realization that it is his own commitment to awareness that is the real issue?The leaders of traditions should be the force for this transfer of respect,but I question how committed they may be,even after much time and transformation have hopefully happened,to the true equality of woman and man.

    I agree;American culture’s “nightmarish” focus on the body is no perfect model.But I at least have legal rights and avenues of punishing any male who treads on my equal freedoms.To walk in the fresh air with my skin freely soaking up the sun is a spiritual joy, but to be harassed for doing so is our culture’s continued preference upholding the “boys will be boys” patriarchy. My teenage daughter undergoes more sexual harassment than I had to endure at her age.And she,out of sheer will to proclaim her equal freedom of expression concerning her dress and attitudes, has taken on a level of aggression that has truly become the norm in our culture.
    As long as “sin” is the undressing of the feminine form,evolution waits resisted in men’s fists,hijab or not. LOL

  7. Frank Luke says:

    It would appear that the MidEast developments and the revolt against tyrannical rule is the death throes of a medieval kind of governing system and that humanity is experiencing a grand evolutionary step.

    What remains to be seen is if the results will turn out to be really for the better or just a baby step toward what should eventually result in governments that truly can ensure human rights and allow peoples to exist productively in peace and in harmony with other peoples who may differ from themselves.

    Greatly to be wished.

  8. Indeed! And a huge leap that probably won’t happen all at once, even with all kinds of 2012 wishful thinking…

  9. Frank Luke says:

    Hi Elizeth,

    We see that evolution is sometimes like watching paint dry really really slowly and then sometimes it takes giant leaps.

    The MidEast business seems excitingly hopeful but not a done deal. Let’s hope it does pan out well, more people power to determine their own destinies productively rather than repressed by self-serving tyrannical regimes!!


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