Ha! So the Turkish deputy prime minister Bulent Arinc thinks that, in order to ‘protect moral values,’ women ought not to laugh in public. ‘The woman should have chastity,’ he reportedly said, ‘she should not laugh in front of everyone.’ What does laughter have to do with morals? And how come men can publicly guffaw as much as they like? Does it sound completely foreign to us Australians, who are used to hearing that feminists, not pollies, are the laughter police? How weird are these ideas about what women ought and ought not to do? Cover their heads in public, or their entire bodies, in voluminous, shapeless garments? Avert their eyes around men and remain silent?
The early Christians, of course, thought similarly. Saint Timothy famously said ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent.’ And the sixteenth-century Christian Juan Luis Vivres taught that women’s responsibility is to accept their subordination just as the blind and the invalided accept their disadvantage. Women must cover their heads and remain silent. Women own neither their bodies nor their chastity; these are male possessions. If women defile their chastity, they defile men’s honor. As shame alone protects chastity, women must be made to feel ashamed of their bodies and their sexuality.
As part of the sixty percent of the world’s population that calls itself Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, most Australians enjoy—or endure—a cultural history that stretches back to the biblical Abraham. Even non-believers raised in these cultures cannot escape the fact that they have been shaped by Abrahamic values and ideas. One particular notion, sometimes called ‘the seed and the soil,’ speaks to rules about honour and chastity. Seed-and-soil says the father is the sole generating parent; the mother is not an equal partner in procreation but rather acts as nurturing medium, like soil, for the man’s seed-child. In other words, men give life; women merely give birth.
It is easy to forget that not until the twentieth century was the mother’s equal genetic contribution to the child understood, and even then only among the educated classes. Many people across the Middle East and elsewhere still believe in the idea of male monogenesis.The ancient Hebrews, as we know, were very taken by the notion. According to Genesis, God creates the first man, Adam, and entrusts him with the divine life-spark, which is carried in the male seed down the patriline from father to son in perpetuity.In this way, God holds Adam (and his male descendants) responsible for the establishment, maintenance, and purity of the patriline of God’s chosen people. This is a big responsibility. What about Eve? Eve, as you probably know, messes it all up. After being created from one of Adam’s ribs—thus forever bent—Eve causes humankind’s Fall from grace. All the sorrows and suffering of humankind since creation are her fault. How does she manage this? By falling for Satan’s seductions. In the 1980s, Turkish Muslim villagers interviewed about why women must be covered said, ‘Women are as easily seduced as Eve was by Satan.’
Women’s chastity boils down to the protection of God’s seed. As the Turkish villagers explained, ‘If you plant wheat, you get wheat. If you plant barley, you get barley. It is the seed that determines the kind of plant, while the field nourishes it. The man gives the seed, and the woman is like the field.’ Just as the man fences his fields, he must enclose and cover the female soil in order to ensure the seed-child is his own.
And one of the most disturbing things about women is that, just as plant seed can sprout long after being sown, so ‘foreign seed’ from a previous relationship may ‘sprout’ into a pregnancy at any time. Such foreign seed contaminates the field permanently; the woman is permanently defiled. The only protection against such contamination is the woman’s premarital virginity and absolute marital fidelity.
‘But surely,’ you might be protesting, ‘surely today’s Aussies have no truck with such ideas and why should it matter what other cultures think?’ I’m arguing that it does matter. Millions of people across the globe, including some in Australia’s diasporic communities, believe that women who flout chastity rules must be killed because they are endangering the purity of God’s patriline.
And is the idea so completely foreign? In 1950s Australia, for example, I grew up accepting that women were inferior to men. No one ever said it. Like human blotting paper, I simply soaked up my culture. I knew, with absolute and unconscious certainty, that any woman who hadn’t made the house spotless, washed and ironed every drawer-escapee, cooked a three-course breakfast and packed lunches for her family, prepared the evening’s roast and baked a cake and, finally, donned the mandatory ‘lippy,’ hat, and gloves for appearing in public, even on her own front porch . . . yes, any woman who hadn’t done all this and more by 8 am . . . was a slut. Some women rose at four simply to forestall attracting that scarlet letter.
The prostitute laughs. The unchaste woman laughs. Why does it matter? Are certain men in powerful positions aware that God’s patriline is not the only thing they are trying to protect, but also their own dignity? Perhaps they are not amused by the idea of women laughing at their outmoded and, dare one say, funny ideas.