This is an essay I wrote for a class revolving around the themes of women’s roles(or lack of) in societies around the world. These themes are very important to me and I’m happy to have the chance to share them with whoever wants to read.
This essay compares two works, one a book, Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat(http://www.amazon.com/Breath-Eyes-Memory-Oprahs-Book/dp/037570504X/ref=sr_1_cc_1?s=aps&ie=UTF8&qid=1327964663&sr=1-1-catcorr) and the other, a movie, Water, which was developed into a movie by the author Deepa Meheta(http://www.amazon.com/Water-Lisa-Ray/dp/B000GIXE86/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1327964627&sr=1-1)
Female Purity in a Patriarchal Society
In Edwidge Danticat’sBreath, Eyes, Memory and Deepa Meheta’sWater, women’s lives are showcased, but instead of emphasizing the positive, the focus is on the negative. In Water, women who have become widows are shunned and more or less exiled as if to keep them pure until they are reunited with their husbands in death. In Breath, Eyes, Memory, many women are victims of a culture intent on keeping them pure by any means necessary – the testing of women to make sure their virginity is intact, and the folklore told to them at such young ages instilling a fear of intimacy within them. These women are oppressed in the most extreme and shocking way, ultimately causing many of them mental and emotional distress. Still, there are the women in the real world that have actually suffered through these terrible crimes against women and overcome them.
In both of these stories women become the victims of harmful social codes that are put in place as a way to keep the women in each society pure. In Water, the women are kept pure in exile after the death of their husbands; where in Breath, Eyes, Memory they are kept pure at a very young age, when they are still little girls by means of “testing” and the folklore told to them from their mothers, grandmothers, and aunts – one story in particular is about a man who, in an attempt to save his pride, cut the thighs of his new bride when she does not bleed on their wedding night. In his attempt he kills her due to the loss of blood, but it doesn’t matter to him because at least no one knew that she didn’t actually bleed, that she seemed to be impure and he got to keep his pride. These are the stories told to these girls when they are only children, scaring these values into them. Purity is such a strong theme within these stories and cultures because if a woman is seen as “impure” in the eyes of a man she will be unwanted and will not marry or have children.
In the cases of Martine and Kalyani, their purity has been taken away from them. Martine’s rape when she was around twelve or thirteen brought her her daughter, Sophie, as well as psychological distress – the night terrors she suffers almost every night, and the hallucinations of her rapist’s voice sparked by her second pregnancy. It’s those voices that drive her closer and closer to the edge of insanity until finally, in an attempt to get rid of the child growing inside her she takes her own life in the process, “…She could not carry the baby…” Her mind was no longer stable enough to carry the baby that brought with it the dark memories of her rape. As for Kalyani, her purity is gone –she is forced to use her body as means to make money for the place these widows now call home. The women in that place are seen as disgusting burdens to their society, made clear by one woman who brushed against Kalyani in the bathing area of the city, who, full of fury, says, “now I must wash again.” Despite her “impure” standing, Kalyani is pursued by a man who wants to make her his wife, but, after Kalyani finds out that her fiance’s father is one of her clients, she takes her own life ashamed of the life that has been forced upon her by her culture. These elements of purity, even when they are being so blatantly stolen are indicative of the patriarchal codes that exist in these societies. The women must guard their purity with their lives for men’s sake, but men are able to steal these tokens with impunity. The idea that women need to be kept pure for men because they will be unwanted otherwise is very patriarchal – the man has to control a woman’s life before he is included in it! And this remains true even when the man is no longer in the picture (as in Water).
These purity rituals go back very far in time. In India the Sati ritual where a woman was to burn herself alive on her husband’s funeral pyre began around 700 years ago as an alternative to the degradation of widowhood, also seen as the only way a woman could join her husband in heaven, “The wife who commits herself to flames with her husband’s corpse shall equal Arundathi and reside in Swarga (heaven).”(SATI-Excerpts From…) This ritual was prohibited by the British government in 1829 but still happens in modern times. In some cases women are forced – in 1987 an 18 year old girl, forced by male family members, sat on her husband’s pyre and burned to death. In another more recent case, in 2006, a woman willingly burned herself alive during her husband’s cremation. This is one ritual demonstrating the extremes patriarchal cultures go to to put such an importance on the role of the man in society and the complete lack of inherent worth of woman – emphasizing the control that men have in a woman’s life and her “purity” both directly and indirectly.
In Haiti, where Breath, Eyes, Memory takes place, our attention is brought to this ritual of “testing”. “Testing” is a ritual that mothers perform on their daughters from a very young age to make sure that they are still virgins, still “pure”. Though the testing in Breath, Eyes, Memory is brought about by the Haitian culture, it does not only exist there – Italy, China, many places in Africa, Turkey and Jamaica practice this ritual as well. From the very young age of seven, girls begin being subjected to this invasion. In some places, the testing is done in public, “conducted as a rite…performed in church in school”; in other cases the prospective husband may be the one to perform the “testing” on the female. This ritual puts a lot of traumatic stress on the targeted women, causing them to rebel and take part in “virginity-saving” acts, including anal sex and many other sexual activities that do not require vaginal penetration. These acts put them at an even higher risk for STD’s. In addition, these girls go to horrifying lengths to trick their testers – “…pushing toothpaste or a piece of white lace dipped into tomato sauce into their vaginas to mimic a hymen…inserted meat into their vaginas to mimic tightness…”(“virginity testing: increasing health risks…”) Because of the importance of a woman’s being “pure” these young girls go to such extreme measures to ensure that that is how they will be seen so they do not become outcasts. They cause themselves physical harm – just as Sophie did with the pestle in Breath, Eyes, Memory – although the motives of Sophie and the girls who undergo the “testing” in reality may be different, the event itself is still traumatizing for all victims.
All of the “purifying” acts perpetrated against women in Water and Breath, Eyes, Memory are traumatizing events that can and have altered the lives of all those who have been victimized. In Breath, Eyes, Memory both Martine and Sophie have become victims of excruciating acts against women put in place by the patriarchal agenda. Martine, who was raped by an unknown man (presumably a tontonmacoute) in her early teens, has been plagued with the memory of that night for the rest of her life, it is something she will never be given the relief of repressing, with the night terrors that she has almost every night and because as she states, “…a child out of wedlock always looks like its father…”(Danticat). Martine was never able to get justice for the pain and suffering she was caused that night and for the remainder of her life because nothing was done to pursue the rapist; this, paired with the inability to forget, even for a minute what she went through contributed to her diminishing sanity. Martine’s “purity” is taken away from her. Although she was in a sense relieved that because of the rape the “testing” stopped,“because [her] mother had done it to [her]”(Danticat), to maintain her daughter’s “purity” for the future she “tested” Sophie.
From the very beginning, Sophie never understood the logic behind “testing”; She never understood why, if something was causing so much pain and suffering, it was necessary to go through and to put someone else through that same pain. In order to spare herself the repeated violation every night she, took matters into her own hands and took her own “purity” away, causing herself the utmost amount of physical and psychological pain just to prevent the “testing”. In doing this, a huge rift was put in the relationship between Sophie and Martine, and although Sophie has a daughter, she is unable to be comfortably intimate with her husband. This element of “purity” is so important and strong within this story because it causes so much distress – not just physically, emotionally and psychologically too. This distress was the culprit behind all the emotional and mental imbalances that existed within Martine’s head, that ultimately led to her death. As for Sophie, the distress caused her years of harm, physically from the pestle she used to take her “purity” and emotionally, making it impossible for her to have a healthy relationship with her husband and her mom. This culture goes to such extreme lengths to keep it’s women “pure” physically, but in reality raping them both mentally and physically.
When it comes to Water, there are many instances in which a woman’s emotional and psychological health is threatened. Chuiya, the little girl we meet in the very first scenes of the movie, is violently torn from her home, screaming for her mother because the husband she has no recollection of has died. Nevertheless, she is put in exile alongside the many women that have been there for years. This aggressive introduction into this lifestyle makes for a hard time for coping with the situation, upon arrival Chuiya immediately acts out, calling the woman in charge a cow and running away. For a long time she refuses to cooperate and accept that this is her new life, she says her mother will come and get her soon, that she won’t be stuck there like the other women. Chuiya’s mental and emotional health are damaged greatly by this gross introduction to a lifestyle meant to keep her “pure”, even when at her age there isn’t much in the world to challenge the integrity of her “purity”.
Much like Chuiya, women all over India have been subjected to the same horrible treatment of becoming widows and being ostracized at such a young age. The reality of the situation is more horrifying than Water could have shown us. Women are shunned from their families, seen as a drain on their economy and asked not to attend weddings as it is seen as a bad omen. Women left with no one to care for them, even their own children want nothing to do with them, “…who is going to feed you? Go away” (Damon). With nothing and no one, these women are forced into the streets to loiter and beg for food and money, like Chuiya and Kalyani, who in addition to begging was forced to become the only means of income for the widows. Unlike Chuiya, who was granted the chance at a new life, these women are forced to live out the rest of their lives this way. Many women go to the city of Vrindavan to die, believing that dying in a place of holiness will set them free of this lifestyle, purifying them in a way to be kept a stray from this way of life in the future.
In both of these pieces, the lives of four women are presented to us, along with the pain that has caused them the distress in their lives. We are shown the outcome of the patriarchal agenda on the female in society in the lives of the women in Water and Breath, Eyes, Memoryand the women who have been subjected to these atrocities in reality. These women aren’t only subjected to the acts of testing and becoming widows, they are left to deal with the emotional and physical trauma is causes them. Martine and Kalyani, who have their lives taken from them because of their inability to deal with their lives because of the paths that have been laid out for them; Sophie, whose life has been forever damaged by the testing that she herself put a stop to, is unable to be comfortable intimately with her own husband and struggles with being comfortable in her own skin and will continue to for the rest of her life. The reality of these situations escalates even further, the women in various countries who are forced to succumb to the acts of testing resort to unsettling and destructive (and potentially fatal) measures for fear of failing the tests. The women who are forced into the widow lifestyle are seen as burdens to the people they call family, except the true burden is the pain of being removed from their families left to live on the fringes of society unable to recreate the lives they once had. These women are oppressed in the most internal and personal ways all at the hand of the patriarchal codes. The codes put in place to control the lives of the women, making complete sure that a woman’s “purity” is not threatened in anyway, when by putting so much force on this, the threat comes from the very source trying to “save” it.