J. Lang Wood
As a woman in America, watching the nightly news from Afghanistan and Iraq, one can’t help but be
struck by the absence of women in the street scenes of these cities and towns. At most, we see women
huddled in scarves, or completely covered in burqas, rushing to get out of the way of danger –
dragging children behind them. It makes these places seem all the more violent and backward.
I do not say that with a sense of cultural superiority, only as an observation of fact. There is
something in these places that is absent because of their lack of status for women. They lack a
quieting atmosphere, a limit on male aggression. One has to wonder about the old adage about
women being a “civilizing influence”.
As a woman, I cannot help but try to imagine those lives that are shoved into the background of war
and strife, the lives behind the veil, either metaphorical or actual. What goes on there? How do those
women stand it? I can imagine being a little girl not let onto the street to play. Not allowed, in fact, to
have any contact with boys who are not my relatives. How would a life like that feel? What mental
constraints would it necessarily impose? Such segregation might allow for long hours of study, but to
what end? If one grows up believing a woman is “not allowed” to do this or that, it is a psychological
limitation of one kind; however, believing it is morally degenerate to even desire to do these things
would be an even more damaging mental cage.
Perhaps I’m being politically incorrect and prejudiced about the cultural difference of these countries.
But it’s not just culture, is it? It’s religious, and thus taboo to even mention. But one has to wonder
what the “religious” payoff might be for not only a lifetime of limitation, but the duty to impose those
limitations continuously on generations of other women, as well. It looks like a hard life, and one in
which a woman has to continually self-hypnotize with religious precepts and threats of spiritual
punishment in order to keep denying, and in fact squelching, her own natural gifts and self-
expression. Because we all know now that if allowed to soar, women can do just about anything. We
see it every day in America.
What is the spiritual reward for accepting limitations? A curious conundrum, because a woman can
study her religion all her life, live faithfully and scrupulously by its standards, even become learned
and knowledgeable in it, yet never become, by virtue of the culture, a leader in that religion, and
sometimes, not even a teacher. Which brings us back in a circle to America, where in many religions
women cannot be a leader. No matter how spiritually devoted you are, no matter how holy you
become. Perhaps this is an area where women in both cultures can meet in understanding.
But this absence of women’s presence in the war-torn streets tells you something else, too – that the
voices of women are not heard politically, either. They cannot put a restraining hand on the arms of
their men. They cannot publicly say the hard truths to those in power. They cannot protest the use of
their religion in the political struggles of the day. And they cannot demand a halt to situations which
so clearly affect the lives of their children. They are kept silent in a very profound and destructive
It is most unfortunate that these women, whose natures make them most able to transmit to us the
intimacies of what their culture is about, are kept away from the microphones and newspapers, and
out of the public sphere. I suspect they have much to tell us.
I regret that I will not hear the poem running through the mind of that rural woman as she goes
about her work in Afghanistan. And I know that poem is there. I feel the absence of the song the
Iraqi woman composed for her little girl as they sew, while bombs explode outside their door. I know
that song is there. And I miss the profoundly personal prayer of the Muslim woman as she speaks to
God in the quiet of her room, hoping for her children’s future. I know that prayer is there, too. And I
hope someday these expressions will come to us in the West to inform us about their lives. When
they do, I know we will be on the way to bringing our cultures closer.