Sunday, November 18, 2007

Goewin, Oprah Winfrey and the Clash of Civilizations

In the great Welsh mythological cycle, the Mabinogi, there is an episode that begins when the nephew of the great wizard-king of North Wales falls in letch with his uncle's footholder, a pretty young girl named Goewin. The footholder has a position that involves holding the king's feet in her lap when he sits in court, and she must be a virgin.

The letchy nephew goes for help to his no-good brother, who arranges for their uncle to be away from court so that they can rape Goewin. When the king returns, what does the damsel do? Does she conceal her non-virginal status? Does she kill herself to escape shame? Does she go all to pieces and run off to a convent?

Hell no. Goewin lays into the king. He, she tells him, has been shamed. His no-good nephews raped her in his house, when she should have been under his protection. He owes her big time for pain, suffering, and loss of social status (since she cannot continue to be the footholder). The king's honor has been seriously damaged by his relatives' lousy behavior. What does he plan to do to make this up to her?

(He marries her, by the way, makes her his queen, and turns his rotten nephews into a variety of animals for the next several years. So it ends happily, kind of.)

Reading this in college with my friends, we were struck by how refreshing, and strange, it was to read a medieval version of an ancient story in which rape was seen as a crime which left its victim blameless of any shame. Goewin sees herself as someone who has been wronged, and in the Welsh legal tradition, is owed something in exchange for that. She confronts the king without embarassment--he's the one who should be embarassed! The king accepts this, and makes legal amends for what has happened on his watch.

So how do we get from this to Oprah?

Well, yesterday on the way home from my parents' house, I picked up a copy of the current issue of Time, in which Carla Power proceeded to tick me off big-time.

"Indecent Exposure", it's labelled. The head quote? "What is it? Westerners have no problem with bare flesh on billboards, but pray in private. Muslims keep quiet about sex, but pray in public five times a day. How the two codes clash."

In her attempt to sort all this out, Power makes some of the big dumb mistakes that often go with this kind of musing:

BDM #1: Identifying the West as one big chunk, thereby not being able to make much of a case. Power points out that the French are OK with bare breasts on billboards, but won't allow hijabs in public schools. However, in the U.S. bare breasts are big scandal, not allowed on billboards, hijabs are allowed in school, and megachurches thrive, while Time magazine itself rates presidential candidates on the God-O-Meter. So who here gets to be the "West"? At any rate, Power provides no evidence of Westerners feeling embarassed about prayer (as opposed to the French just hating Muslims), except for her apologizing once when she walked in on a Muslim coworker who was praying.

BDM #2: Identifying sexual abuse with sex, and assuming that people cover up sexual abuse for the same reason people make love in private and don't flash their bare butts on TV--modesty. Sexual abuse is not concealed for modesty's sake. Sexual abuse is concealed for power's sake. "Modesty" becomes an excuse, sure, but it has nothing to do with what is going on. Modest people do not sexually abuse others.

Power steps right into this, by giving as examples the child actor from the movie of The Kite Runner, whose character is raped by another young boy. His family is now fleeing for their lives, because they're afraid they will be targeted by relatives upset by the shame of the scene. The kids who starred in the movie are being evacuated to the UAE. Power also mentions the denunciations still aimed at Mukhtar Mai, the Pakistani rape victim who took her attackers to court, and a little Egyptian girl who received death threats after being interviewed by CNN about her back-alley genital mutilation.

Modesty? This has nothing to do with modesty, and the West knows it, having only recently escaped from crap like this ourselves. But you wouldn't know it from Power. "When Oprah Winfrey spoke of her childhood sexual abuse", she explains, "she became a goddess is a society convinced that it's good to talk." Never mind that Oprah herself had a lot to do with convincing our society that it's good to tell the truth. The implication is that a more traditional, conservative culture would expect Oprah to keep her mouth shut. Which it did. Which she did for many years. But don't tell me that Muslim countries are coming from some special cultural place when they shut up and threaten their abuse victims. Oprah could tell you something about how we did and do it right here at home.

When you lie, you can convince yourself that you're a good person. You can silence your victims. But it ain't got nothing to do with decency or propriety. It's got to do with shame. Shame is only appropriate for people who actually do bad things.

Look, Americans pray without shame, and for the most part, keep our sex lives indoors. And we have finally mostly gotten to a place where Goewin, or Oprah, can say, "I was attacked. I was abused," and we blame the abuser, and not the victim. This is not the difference between, as Power puts it, 'the culture of exposure and the culture of propriety'. This is the difference between the culture of respect and the culture of opression. And we have ample evidence that both can thrive in all kinds of cultural settings.

1 comment:

aliyah06 said...

I'd love to see the same writer comment on the Saudi case where the rape VICTIM, gang-raped by seven men, was sentenced to jail and 200 lashes.....she violated Shari'a by being alone in a car with a man who was not her husband. She is 19 years old.