For all the pain you suffered, my mama. For all the torment of your past and future years, my mama. For all the anguish this picture of pain will cause you. For the unspeakable mystery that brings good fathers and sons into the world and lets a mother watch them tear at each other’s throats. For the Master of the Universe, whose suffering world I do not comprehend. For dreams of horror, for nights of waiting, for memories of death, for the love I have for you, for all the things I remember, and for all the things I should remember but have forgotten, for all these I created this painting—an observant Jew working on a crucifixion because there was no aesthetic mold in his own religious tradition into which he could pour a painting of ultimate anguish and torment.
― Chaim Potok, My Name Is Asher Lev
Mollycoddling was the mother’s duty; the father’s lay elsewhere. As a consequence, his four older children feared and respected him, as they had been taught to do, and the love they professed to feel, had they been asked and had they answered truthfully or even had access to the truth, was of a duty-bound, obligatory kind too, a love issuing from commandment and tradition and the notion of family, not one from the tides of the heart or the unbridled, inexplicable pull of feelings. If painted, that love would take the form of a polite and manicured wash of pleasant colours, not the hurl-and-splatter of impastoed reds.
―Neel Mukherjee, The Lives of Others
Presided over by Queens in ancient and medieval times, modern Yemen has been called the worst place to be female.
Women in Yemen are encouraged to stay home rather than going to school or work. Almost half of Yemeni women are married by the age of eighteen and child brides are common. Many have no identification and don’t vote, although technically they are eligible to do so under the constitution. Leaving the house requires the permission of a male family member and very few women drive (until recently driving while female was a crime).
A woman’s voice in Yemeni courts is worth half of that of a man, so to equal a man’s testimony it takes two women. Women may not testify at all in cases of slander, theft, adultery or sodomy. If a woman wants to end her marriage for any reason, even if her husband is beating her, she must obtain his consent for the case to be presented.
This seems an especially cruel reality when you consider the history of Yemen. This is a people who remain fiercely proud to call the Queen of Sheba their ancestor. Perhaps the most beloved ruler of Yemen is the medieval Queen Arwa, a Muslim woman who buried two husbands and went on to rule for decades on her own, creating peace, prosperity and stability in her nation.
Queen Arwa al-Sulayhi was born in 1048 in the Haraz Mountains, a fertile area of picturesque villages and mountainsides terraced for farming. Her parents died when she was young, and her Aunt, the formidable Queen Asma, who ruled alongside her husband, Caliph Ali al-Sulayhi, brought her to the palace in Sana’a to be raised. Asma was known as al-Sayyida al-Hurrat-ul, “The noble lady who is free and independent, the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.” She recognized in Arwa a woman who could be heir to that title.
Arwa proved to be brilliant, with a great mind for history, poetry and stories. A devout Muslim, she became a scholar of the Quran and Hadith (the latter being a collection of reports and stories which describe the life and habits of Muhammad). When the time came for Prince Ahmad al-Mukarram to be married, Queen Asma was set on Arwa. In 1067, Caliph Ali was assassinated and Arwa became Queen, ruling alongside her husband and mother-in-law. She was nineteen years old.
As time wore on, Asma died and Caliph Ahmad became paralyzed and bedridden, so all power passed to Arwa in 1086. She moved the capital from cosmopolitan Sana’a to the smaller city of Jibla, where she felt more in control, and was able to avenge her father-in-law’s murder. She had a new palace built, converting an older palace into a mosque where she would later be buried. Arwa attended state councils with men, refusing to conduct meetings while hidden by a screen, although she did wear a veil, unlike Queen Asma, who had been older and bolder when she came into power. Arwa would have time to grow her boldness.
When Caliph Ahmad died in 1091, Arwa was advised to marry his cousin, Saba ibn Ahmad to cement her power. This she did, but the marriage remained a reality in name only and her second husband died ten years after the first. From 1101 to 1138 she ruled alone. She had four children by her first marriage, none of whom outlived their mother, making her the last ruler of the Sulayhid dynasty. Arwa founded many schools, improved roads and took an active role in encouraging agriculture, which created a robust economy.
Not only was Arwa respected as the sovereign ruler of Yemen, she was the first woman to be proclaimed hujjat, proof or demonstration of Allah, her life sanctified as a sign pointing to God. She sent Shia missionaries to India and built many mosques. During her lifetime, prayers were proclaimed in her name; after her death, her grave became a place of pilgrimage. Much more than a ruler; she became a beacon of truth and an individual to emulate and revere.
Arwa’s story is a powerful reminder that there have always been strong women in the Muslim faith. It is also a warning that attitudes and cultures are never uniform and can change dramatically. In a place where a woman ruled and was declared to be close to God, a majority of women are not even allowed to go to school. Arwa would be appalled.
Now, to return to my subject, I find that there is nothing barbarous and savage in this nation, by anything that I can gather, excepting, that every one gives the title of barbarism to everything that is not in use in his own country. As, indeed, we have no other level of truth and reason, than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the place wherein we live: there is always the perfect religion, there the perfect government, there the most exact and accomplished usage of all things.
Cultural and religious traditions that forbid cross-cultural unions prevent peace on earth. Instead of rejoicing that our sons and daughters are heart-driven and love other humans outside of their familiar religious, social or cultural domains, we punish and insult them. This is wrong. Honor killings are not honorable by God. They are driven by ignorance and ego and nothing more. The Creator favors the man who loves over the man who hates.
–Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem
No one today is purely one thing. Labels like Indian, or woman, or Muslim, or American are not more than starting-points, which if followed into actual experience for only a moment are quickly left behind. Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or Black, or Western, or Oriental. Yet just as human beings make their own history, they also make their cultures and ethnic identities. No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about. Survival in fact is about the connections between things; in Eliot’s phrase, reality cannot be deprived of the “other echoes [that] inhabit the garden.” It is more rewarding-and more difficult-to think concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others than only about “us.” But this also means not trying to rule others, not trying to classify them or put them in hierarchies, above all, not constantly reiterating how “our” culture or country is number one (or not number one, for that matter).
No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about. Survival in fact is about the connections between things; in Eliot’s phrase, reality cannot be deprived of the “other echoes [that] inhabit the garden.” It is more rewarding– and more difficult– to think concretely and sympathetically, contrapuntally, about others than only about “us.” But this also means not trying to rule others, not trying to classify them or put them in hierarchies, above all, not constantly reiterating how “our” culture or country is number one (or not number one, for that matter).”
When creative pathways become blocked most of us give up or force ourselves forward. What if we changed direction instead?
Peter Gentenaar was originally a printmaker who became dissatisfied with the effects he could produce with commercial paper. He decided to try his hand at making his own. In the process, he created a new beater to process paper pulp and discovered effects that put him on a new artistic path.
The paper Gentenaar created has extremely long fibers that twist like leaves as it dries. This might not be great for making prints, but by attaching the paper to bamboo frames he is able to exert some control over the form the paper takes. Learning how the paper shrinks as it dries has allowed Gentenaar to create incredible three dimensional sculptures, quite unusual and lovely.
All of these pictures are from the 25th anniversary of the classical music festival at Saint-Riquier Abbey in Picardie, France and are used in accordance with fair use policies.
Gender identity is more complicated than society likes to admit. Does it remain a valid means of classifying human beings?
“I’m sorry, but I do hate this differentiation between the sexes. ‘The modern girl has a thoroughly businesslike attitude to life’ That sort of thing. It’s not a bit true! Some girls are businesslike and some aren’t. Some men are sentimental and muddle-headed, others are clear-headed and logical. There are just different types of brains.”
Society has traditionally defined gender by anatomy and physiognomy. We have divided ourselves into male and female groups and assigned acceptable roles and attributes to each group. These assignments were made long ago to further the bearing and raising of children and to ensure human survival. With over seven billion people on our planet and natural resources that are diminishing, the need for procreation is lower than it has ever been. This has contributed to a world in which people who have more complicated gender identities can recognize and explore those identities. That isn’t to say that such exploration is easy.
Here is a wonderful, valuable human story of a person born male, who despite a “manly” career as a pilot in World War II and considerable success in life, never felt male. When Robina Asti decided to be herself, others had a very hard time with it. Despite the struggle, Asti found herself in a meaningful, loving relationship. Then, at the age of 92, faced with the death of her beloved husband, she found her gender questioned again.
Why are we so uncomfortable with allowing people to be authentic in their expression of gender? People like Asti and Patton do us no violence by living their lives in this fashion. Perhaps our culture has a guilty conscience and fears that stories like this will invalidate our journeys and our faiths. We should know by now that only we have the power to do that.
Our tradition has difficulty understanding people who are not completely male or completely female, and yet such people are born every day. Biological gender (and this doesn’t even take into account other aspects of gender) is determined by five factors: the number and type of sex chromosomes, the presence of ovaries and/or testicles, sex hormones, and both internal and external reproductive organs. If, at birth, all five criteria do not register as male or female, that person is intersexed and does not fall into either category. Some are hermaphrodites, having characteristics of both sexes while others simply don’t have all of the criteria present. Often these babies are “corrected” immediately. But what if gender is not an either or, but a biological continuum, with male at one end and female at the other? Our words have failed us.