We like wine and cheese and meaningful conversation in our home. So we host “wine and cheese” gatherings on a regular basic. Here is how they work:

A blind copy email is sent to a long list of people with a list of dates. People respond to a date they would like to come. No one knows who else is on the list. They show up at the door with a bottle of wine and a wonderful cheese. Each person sits around our table, never with the person they came with, and a meaningful conversation ensues spurred on by questions my husband has worked through for the night. This year our invites include a book to read prior to coming.

A few weeks ago eleven of us gathered to drink wine eat cheese and discuss the book, The Underground Girls of Kabul. It takes place in Afghanistan, a place where boys are preferred over girls. In a male preferred society – a baby boy brings celebration and honor – a baby girl brings shame and burden.

A woman’s value lies in her ability to marry and provide a son. To put it more bluntly her value is in her vagina (purity) and her womb (male heir).

One of the women at our table was a doctor, the one they call in when a newborn baby is blue – not breathing – going to die. Her job is to make them “yelp,” she said. “I’m good at what I do,” she said. “I can’t imagine feeling shame over hearing the yelp of a baby girl.”

1299981187_0d9921997f_oGirls are often kept inside away from activities that might expose them to men or boys and therefore bring an appearance of impurity. Adolescent girls can’t be around boys. Period. Purity is crucial. After marriage it’s crucial she bare a son. It’s assumed her body decides the gender, if no son is provided she’s shamed. The husband is shamed as well. Without a son he is less likely to find a job or get a promotion and more likely to be harassed by the community.

A son is everything.

In a way I hurt for the Afghan men. They live in a country where there’s deep poverty and little employment or advancement. How emasculating to not be able to work or provide. Deprivation is everywhere. Honor and dishonor are tenuous. At any moment what little honor there is can be snatched away. In many ways the honor of a man is totally dependent on another – his wife. If she is pure … if she provides a son … I wonder if deprivation leads to domination over what few things one can control. It might explain why there’s such control or dominance over women.

After some exploration the author uncovered the fact that some sonless families would turn their little girls into boys in order to secure honor within the community. Girls dressed like boys. Live like boys. They go to school. Play outside. Play sports. Speak their mind. Are allowed and valued at the dinner table. Treated better. Seen. Until they hit adolescence. Then he must turn back into a she and marry – and provide a son.

Some girls raised as boys resist turning back into girls. Who could blame them? In that society what little freedom there is comes dressed as a man.

uncsw-1A week after our wine and cheese discussion I found myself sitting on the floor of a break out session at the United Nations Headquarters. I was listening to an elected official of the Albanian government speak on gender justice issues. I was doodling on my paper when suddenly I heard the speaker talk about pashas – girls being dressed as boys in Albania. I thought – “What? This topic again?” She spoke of the Kanun tradition founded in Albania some 500 years ago – a tradition where women were half the value of a man. Eighteen oxen was the going price for a “good bride.” Virginity was required for marriage. Purity had a price. The father of the bride would put a bullet in the daughter’s dowry just incase his future son-in-law discovered she was not a virgin. The implications are clear, you may shoot her is she is not a virgin. Women could not own property, inherit property, divorce or keep custody of her children (if her husband divorced them.) This was true of the Afghan society and it was true of the United States prior to 1848. 

If an Albanian father died without a son then an unmarried daughter could swear virginity, never marry and become the “male heir” of the family. She would dress like a man and carry on like a man. Being a man was the only way a woman could be free.

Yes even here in the US. Even in our free society women sense their value lies in their bodies.

A woman said to me. She said, “I wish I was a man because then I would be taken more seriously.” By our cultures standard she’s beautiful and she’s also a research doctor – who has to work extra hard to help others “get over” her body and take her work seriously. We know women in the work place are more scrutinized by their dress and appearance than their male counterparts. The female body is a liability.

polls_purity_3644_934361_answer_1_xlargeAnd how many times have we sent the wrong messages to our girls (and boys) sitting in youth group? Purity. Modesty. Sexuality. If you have sex before marriage you are like a chewed up piece of gum stuck under the table top (really, are you saying the Gospel can’t restore our sex life?) And why don’t we seem to speak to the boys with such conviction about their virginity? And what about the widows in our church – do we ever address sex outside of marriage with them? I’ve had widows (in their 70’s) share they are having sex with their significant other (and no one seems bothered by that.) Makes me wonder if it’s because an older woman can’t conceive (still about the vagina and womb!)

Parents sign forms stating they won’t allow their daughter to wear a bikini on the beach trip – no mention of covering up our son’s pecks. What are we saying? Girls don’t find boys sexually attractive? Girls are responsible for boy’s lust?

I don’t live in a place like Afghanistan but I suspect all of us women, at some point, have sensed that our gender was a liability. That our bodies are a liability or that our value is in our vagina and womb.

We are a body but we are more than our bodies.

We are Imago Die Women.