Monday, April 21, 2008

Back to Babylon

Lion of Babylon, again from Berlin's Pergamon Museum. Photo by Flickr user Alberto Marin, used under a Creative Commons license.

Sara Robinson at Orcinus has a chilling analysis of the coercion applied to the women at the FLDS Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas. Robinson weighs whether they were "brainwashed" or (only?!?) "coerced." Whatever term you pick, she shows that the pressures on them were extreme.

I was fascinated, in a train-wreck sort of way, at the unbelievably close parallels between Robinson's description and the harsh control of women under the Mesopotamian patriarchies that I wrote about in my last post. (You should probably read that one first if you want this post to make any sense.)

There are admittedly a couple of differences that make the FLDS out to be a hair more lenient. For instance, the FLDS girls in Texas were schooled through the tenth grade in the unlikely event that they didn't marry sooner. While some Babylonian women were able to read and write, literacy was far from universal. (I'll use Babylon here as shorthand, though there were some territorial variations and women's situation also deteriorated over the centuries.)

But otherwise? Here's the FLDS (quoting Robinson, here and throughout):
Almost every feature of these women's lives is determined by someone else. They do not choose what they wear, whom they live with, when and whom they marry, or when and with whom they have sex.
In Babylon, marriages were arranged. Women had no choice about the modesty of their attire; to veil or not to veil was determined by their position in society. Slaves and prostitutes were most obviously forced into sex, but wives and concubines weren't exactly free to decline, either.
From the day they're born, they can be reassigned at a moment's notice to another father or husband, another household, or another community.
Debt slavery, anyone? The loaning out of wives? The so-called cradle of civilization had all that.
Everything they produce goes into a trust controlled by the patriarch: they do not even own their own labor.
This is actually worse than the Code of Hammurabi, which granted women the right to hold property in their own names. So much for progress.
If they object to any of this, they're subject to losing access to the resources they need to raise their kids: they can be moved to a trailer with no heat, and given less food than more compliant wives, until they learn to "keep sweet."
Obedience was paramount in the ancient Middle East as well, and disobedience constituted grounds for a man to divorce his wife and abandon her to poverty. Here, too, a Babylonian divorcee might be better off than an FLDS wife, since her husband had to return her dowry.
At the very least, women who do decide to leave the sect leave without money, skills, or a friend in the world. Most of them have no choice but to leave large numbers of children behind -- children who are the property of the patriarch, and whom many of them will never see again. If a woman is even suspected of wanting to leave, she's likely to be sent away from her kids to another compound far yonder as punishment for her rebelliousness. For a woman who's been taught all her life that motherhood is her only destiny and has no real intimacy with her husband, being separated from her children this way is a sacrifice akin to death.
This, too, runs straight parallel to the ancient idea that a woman's children are her husband's property. Of course, Babylonian women couldn't just bail; there was no outside world to which they could flee.
At the very worst, death is indeed what awaits them. The FLDS preaches "blood atonement" -- the right of the patriarchs to kill apostates who dare to defy them, usually by slitting their throats.
And again, as I wrote yesterday, Mesopotamian patriarchs had some limited rights to kill their wives and children. I can't vouch for their technique, whether they favored throat-slitting or some other method.

Does this exculpate the women of the FLDS for their role in tolerating the patriarchs' horrors - the rape of their daughters and the exile of their sons into poverty and isolation? I don't know. A few women have left the sect, and I'd like to believe that people can find reservoirs of courage and integrity even in the harshest circumstances. But I have to be humble about this. I have no idea of whether, having grown up in that climate of terror, I'd be thinking clearly enough to perceive the abuses. Nor can I know if I'd be brave enough to take my children and flee.

A true patriarchy is a closed system, even when it's an island in a larger culture. There's no viable escape route. Collaboration appears to be the safest path - no, it is the safest path. And the control of women and children is complete enough that most won't even dream of a way out.

Update: In comments, labelleindifference1 points to an article by Anthony Zerbisias in the Toronto Star detailing some of the physical restraints, in addition to the mental factors considered above. Among other things, guard towers, night vision cameras, and patrol cars keep the compound under strict surveillance. Thanks for the tip, labelle.


Laura said...

Fascinating paralells. I have to admit, I was glued to the tv when they raided that compound, and I've been fixated on every detail since. Damn you, Larry King.

486 children. 14 year old girls married off to 50 year old men. Boggles the mind that this can happen, today, in this country.

labelleindifference1 said...

Antonia Zerbisias of the Toronto Star has an excellent column on the Zion women's captive situation. It's here:

A key point she makes is that the compound "is so fortified that night vision cameras are mounted on its guard towers while patrol cars monitor the perimeter." So much for free will....

Sungold said...

Laura - This is why we just need to say no to Larry King! Seriously, I'm so annoyed with most of the pundits that I just look at the paper and (mostly) online for my news, except for election days. Then I put on MSNBC because I like Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow and I like to snark at Chris Matthews and Pat Buchanan. But afterward I always feel like I just ate a huge plate of French fries - ugh.

Sungold said...

Thanks so much for commenting, labelle, and for the pointer to Zerbisias column. It just goes to show that the combo of internal and external control is well-nigh impossible to resist. :-(