Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Women beware women (too)

A few years ago, I read Jon Krakauer's excellent book Under the Banner of Heaven, about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), more easily referred to as Mormon Fundamentalists.

Amongst other things, this breakaway sect asserts that mainstream Mormons were wrong to abandon the 'plural marriage' that its founder, Joseph Smith, had advocated. Krakauer's book is full of accounts of what that innocuous-sounding term conceals: in short, systematised oppression and child abuse spiced with healthy doses of religious insanity.

More recently, a woman who escaped from both her 'plural marriage' and the FLDS has published her insider's account of the cult. An excerpt from Escape by Carolyn Jessop appeared a few days ago in the Guardian, and it makes for enlightening -- and chilling -- reading.

It also contains a few elements of near-comical absurdity, particularly when Jessop explains the circumstances of how the sect's 'Prophet' had arranged her marriage at age 18 to a man more than 30 years her senior:
I later discovered that Merril had married into my family only to stop my father suing him over a business deal that had gone sour. More humiliating still, he hadn't meant to marry me, but my younger and prettier sister, Annette. When he asked the Prophet to arrange the marriage, Merril got our names mixed up.
So much for divine omniscience.

There is much that is worrisome in Jessop's narrative -- such as, for instance, the apparent fact that the local police are cult members themselves. But I think the most disturbing element in the story -- and this was something I felt about Krakauer's book too -- was the key role played by women in maintaining the cult's twisted ideology. Jessop describes being indoctrinated by her grandmother:

I had been blessed, Grandma taught me, to come into a family where generations of women had sacrificed their feelings to preserve the work of God. My sole purpose on earth, she explained, was to have as many children as possible. I would not fall in love and choose my husband like gentile women did; instead, God would reveal him through the leader of our community, the man we called the Prophet. [...]

Because I loved her so much and this was presented to me as absolute truth, it would be years before I would flee my so-called destiny.
And the reality of relationships among the 'sister-wives' is, unsurprisingly, a ruthless one:

Men were supposed to treat their wives equally, but everyone knew that a woman who was in sexual favour with her husband had a higher value than the others. Because she had his ear, she would be treated with respect by his other wives and her stepchildren. She might be exempted from physical labour or other family responsibilities. She could make sure that the wives she disliked were assigned the worst jobs. A woman who no longer satisfied her husband, meanwhile, was on dangerous ground. No wonder that when a new wife entered a family, her priority was usually to establish power with her husband sexually.

Merril tried to keep all of his wives pregnant because it suggested he had an equal relationship with each of us. But he was a polygamist in body, a monogamist in soul. Barbara was the only woman he ever loved. She took full advantage of it to dictate every detail of her sister wives' lives, right down to our diet.

Barbara and many other of the women in Jessop's and Krakauer's books seem to have little doubt that their severely restricted lives are divinely ordained. This belief not only ennobles their very apparent suffering but it also ensures that their energy is channelled primarily into struggles with (and attempts to dominate) other women.

This aspect of the story reminded me of something Catherine Bennett wrote at the beginning of November, on the occasion of the Saudi king's official visit to Britain.

With the advance of young British veil wearers, proudly declaring their right to be invisible and their love of extreme modesty, this and many other forms of faith-related female subjugation have become complicated areas for liberal protest. If, as we're often told, many British Muslim women love their jilbabs, how can we be sure Saudi women do not also rejoice in their coverings, accepting, in the same dutiful spirit, total exclusion from civic life and physical chastisement by their devout partners? How can we be sure their would-be liberators are not - like women who adorn themselves and women who cut their hair short - just a few more Women Who Will Go to Hell?
I have no doubt that many (perhaps most) of the women remaining among the FLDS view Carolyn Jessop as just such a Woman Who Will Go to Hell. Is this surprising? Not really: as in practices such as female genital cutting or 'honour killing', women appear to very often be complicit in the oppression of other women (and themselves).

I can almost see Bennett's point about how this makes protest 'complicated' for liberals.


Because, surely, it doesn't make it all that complicated, does it?


ERS said...

Unfortunately, you are quite correct that women are often complicit in their own undoing (and I am not referring here to the victims).

Ellen R. Sheeley, Author
"Reclaiming Honor in Jordan"

J. Carter Wood said...


Thanks for commenting. Your book sounds fascinating. Hope it has an impact.