Varda Spiegel
Varda Spiegel
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The culture war is about women

Darkness will be vanquished only when women step out of the shadows and, together, face the men who abuse them

Kan ya makan, in Arabic. Hayo haya, in Hebrew. Once upon a time, in English. That is how fairy tales begin. More often than not, they end with a figurative or literal princess living happily ever after. But the lives of real women are not like that, and the stories I am about to tell you are real.

In my career, I heard many stories from and about women. “Honor killings,” in which women jumped into wells to their deaths to prevent the male members of their families from being charged with murder. Women who left the hospital to return to the husbands who had beaten them senseless: poor women whose children would go hungry without their husbands’ paychecks; and rich women who could not out-lawyer their husbands to get custody of their kids. Female genital mutilation and botched facelifts.

I heard Muslim, Jewish, and Christian women tell the same stories, in three different languages, Bedouin women in frayed jalabiyahs, haredi women in “modest” housecoats, and Western women in Prada skirts. I watched doctors, nurses, and social workers plead with empowered men to intervene. I too cajoled, bribed, threatened, flattered, and even flirted with men on behalf of my sisters. I watched communities rally to help women, and communities rally instead to preserve the status of men; and I watched well-meaning men and women throw away countless dollars to “fix” immediate problems.

I also witnessed the blindness of women in one community to the identical plight of their sisters in another.

When a girl is born in Israel, her parents are greeted with, “Bat babayit. Or babayit,” meaning, when there is a daughter in the house, there is light in the house. That is certainly true in my house. But on this very dark Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, so many women are still in the dark; and the world is gripped in a fundamentalist-secular culture war.

The culture war is about women.

Kan ya makan, once upon a time, I was the nurse of a Bedouin mobile unit serving 80,000 Bedouins in the Negev. Though my driver/community health worker and I were arguably talented and certainly devoted, we were piss-poor replacements for outpatient healthcare, home healthcare, health education, social services, emergency services, and much, much more. Most of the time, we accomplished our tasks by means of a tiny Renault truck, lacking air conditioning and any means of communication with the world beyond our front seats. The truck carried us over dirt paths trod by donkeys and camels to patients living in tents and tin shacks.

Kan ya makan, there was a woman named Aisha (not her real name). Aisha was the second wife of a man 30 years her senior. She was 17 when her father married her off to a relatively wealthy uncle, in exchange for a favor and a groom for her older sister. Her sister made out well. Aisha did not. Unhappy with her juvenile homemaking skills and lack of affection, her husband often beat her. His first wife despised her. And Aisha became pregnant less than a year later.

When it was time for Aisha to deliver, her husband was nowhere to be found. A member of her extended family drove her to Soroka Hospital, where an initial examination revealed that “female circumcision” had rendered Aisha incapable of achieving sexual satisfaction. A later ultrasound revealed that Aisha was also incapable of giving vaginal birth. She was in need of an urgent C-section.

Though Israeli law entitled Aisha consent to her own surgery, Bedouin custom did not. She required her husband’s permission. She would be held accountable for any damage to her husband’s property: the baby or herself. This and the damage to his honor could make her consent punishable by death. My driver and I were thus summoned at twilight to drive into the field to look for Aisha’s husband.

For four hours, Aisha writhed in pain and fear while her baby’s pulse dipped and soared to dangerous levels. My driver relied only on his Bedouin vision and our headlights to navigate boulders and dry river beds, stopping in one tent after another to inquire after the whereabouts of Aisha’s husband. We finally found him and brought him to the hospital.

Hayo haya, once upon a time, I was substituting for an absent nurse in a family health clinic, when a dark, scrawny woman with a ragged headscarf and a protruding belly walked in and smiled. She had no visible teeth. The woman explained with the lisp of a newly toothless six-year old that she had come in for a routine prenatal check. I performed all the necessary examinations, weight, blood-pressure, urine stick, etc., before venturing to ask about her teeth.

She explained that she was aware of the nutritional implications of a toothless pregnancy, and understood how to compensate by eating the right food. She had, in fact, brought her youngest two of six children successfully into the world without chewing.

After she left my office, I learned from another nurse that her husband had knocked out all but her molars. I asked the nurse what had been done about this and how she suggested we handle it.

“Couldn’t we ask her rabbi to intervene?” I asked, explaining that I had often sought the assistance of sheikhs, rabbis, and even pimps to help women like her.

“Yes,” a nurse reassured me. The local Shas ultra-Orthodox movement, with whom the woman and the nurse were affiliated, had already been approached and had promised to do just that. He would provide her with dentures as soon as possible.

But that is not enough, I insisted. What can we do about the ongoing beatings?

“We’ve been counseling her for years on her role in inviting the beatings, and on how to be a better wife,” said the nurse. “We hope that the addition of teeth will make her more attractive to her husband, and that will make him less likely to hit her.”

Once upon a time, in a faraway land called Haight-Ashbury, I worked in a prenatal health program for homeless and crack-addicted women. The project’s goal was to keep pregnant women in a church homeless shelter drug-free during their pregnancies. We also trained community health workers from the pregnant women’s ranks to help us help them. More than 90 percent of the women in the program eventually fell off the wagon. But every drug-free day counted toward their babies’ development; and the community workers’ intel on their peers’ whereabouts and behavior was invaluable.

One of these women seemed to be an excellent candidate for community health work. Yes, her mother’s pimp had forced her into prostitution when she was only twelve, and she had used drugs to numb her pain and subsequently become homeless. But she had nonetheless managed to raise a healthy seven-year old girl on the streets, even enrolling her in schools while fleeing from one state to another to dodge violent pimps and heavy-handed Child Protective Services. She was smart, compassionate, compliant with drug treatment, and helpful.

One day the woman failed to show up for a training session. We were certain that she had begun using again. But after a drug test determined that she was clean, she “confessed” that she had been searching San Francisco’s garbage cans for a clean sheet of paper on which her little girl could do her homework. The little girl was in danger of becoming a B-minus pupil, because her teacher had marked her down for handing in her work on wrinkled, filthy paper.

All three of these babies were born healthy. The second woman got teeth. And when the third woman’s story leaked out, a heap of clean paper, pencils, pens, crayons, etc. arrived in the shelter from every member of the staff, every member of the Catholic Church, and every stationary store in the neighborhood.

But these women did not live happily ever after. The Bedouin woman endured painful sex and had more babies with an abusive man. The Jewish woman is still married to the same man, as well. He certainly won’t knock out the teeth purchased by his rabbi and community. But I bet he is still beating her. And the homeless woman could only pack a few school supplies into the backpack that she carried back into the streets in fear of staying in one place.

Here’s the thing: I watched many seven-year old Bedouin boys leave the women’s tent, to take their places in the men’s tent. There they were shamed into barking out orders at their new servants — the same mothers, aunts, and older sisters who had adored, nurtured, fed and disciplined them only a day before. I have seen shamed Muslim, Jewish, and Christian men perform the same rite of passage, abandoning their childhood love and respect for women, to turn women into dust under their feet.

They remember the power that strong women once had over their lives, and they fear that the light emitted from screens around the world, will cause women to demand a place beyond the shadows.

These shamed and terrified men will not give up their power over women without a fight. Their women will not leave the shadows if they fight each other. And we will all be plunged into darkness unless these women share the light.

On this dark and daunting Hanukkah, during this nonetheless bright season of giving, I believe with complete faith that when women are freed from bondage, we will all see the light.

About the Author
Varda Spiegel was Nurse-Director of the Bedouin Mobile Unit of the Negev, later serving as Maternal-Child Health Director for the Ministry of Health Jerusalem District. I am a grandmother, mother, and beachbum.
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