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Sally’s World, August 2003
By SALLY DUROS
Leadership. We talk about it all the time. But what is it?
I’ve worked in places where leadership is measured by office configuration and size of paycheck, by number of phone calls placed and appointments made, by the urgency, authority and volume of voice with which one gives orders, by the minutes one arrives late at a meeting, or by the number of minutes of face time one has with the boss.
You know and I know that none of this is leadership, but sometimes it passes for the real thing when there is lack of an authentic leader.
Oddly, it was a photograph of an event in a far off place that got me to thinking about how we define leadership.
It was a news photo in the Sunday New York Times. Black and white, running over three columns at the top of the page, the photo was of about two dozen women – dressed casually in slacks, skirts and blouses -tossing handfuls of soil on what looked like a mound of dirt and rocks. The caption said: “Women in Dyararnakir, Turkey, performed a task customarily done by men when they threw soil on the grave of Cemse Allak, a stoning victim.” The headline on the article read, “Honor Killings defy Turkish Efforts to End them.”
The women throwing the dirt are members of KAMER, a women’s rights association. The woman in the grave had lain semi-conscious in a hospital for seven months after her skull had been crushed. The man who had made her pregnant lies in a grave of his own. This is the way honor is upheld in a culture that believes that an unmarried pregnant woman, even if brought to that state through rape, has brought shame upon her family and merits a death sentence.
It appears Turkey has been trying to win its way into the European Union, and to do so it has passed human rights legislation that lawmakers hope will squelch the tradition of murdering in the name of “family honor.” As many as 5,000 women and girls are murdered by family members each year in so-called “honor killings” around the world, according to The United Nations Population Fund.
Turkey’s legislation is necessary, but it won’t mean squat without grassroots leadership like that provided by the KAMER women who visited the stoning victim in the hospital, claimed her body, and saw to it that she had a coffin and a burial. They supported her when her family wouldn’t. Research on “honor killings” has shown that females in the family – mothers, mothers-in-law, sisters and cousins are commonly complicit in the violence and support attacks and “honor killings.”
Given Turkey’s cultural context, the actions taken by the women of KAMER is clearly an act of leadership.
Given the “Western” cultural context, what I see in this news story is that time is right for each of us to take personal action to disarm the weapon that enables ancient practices like “honor killings.”
That weapon is gossip.
Women value connection to others more dearly than anything else, research over the past three decades has found. And because of that, gossip hits hard as a stone and fells even the strongest among us.
Women attack each other constantly, covertly and vigorously, indirectly through gossip, slander, shunning and bullying. Still, that isn’t as aggressive as what men do – or is it?
The ways in which women attack – dubbed indirect aggression by psychologists – are devastating to individuals. Women mostly target each other, and in some cultures the attacks are deadly.
Yes, men’s typical aggressive choices – fighting, guns, bombs, weapons of mass destruction – are designed to kill and maim. This kind of aggression is open and endemic. We discuss it and actively take sides on its presence in the world. But woman’s way of attacking indirectly allows us to trivialize, minimize, and hide the way we hurt each other.
Indirect aggression has a profound affect on the status of women in the world. It is the main expression of women’s sexist beliefs about ourselves.
I can almost see the eyes rolling here – NOT another call for political correctness! This is a bit of a mind twister so please bear with me. This is absolutely not political correctness. There is no code of behavior. No checklist of approved attitudes and behaviors. Nor should we consider taking the short cut by imitating men’s worst behaviors.
No. We have to find a new way.
There is instead only the requirement that we be real and respectful and speak our minds, that we learn to let go of our anger and envy, that we refuse to participate in mutual downgrading.
Women are sexist. We are programmed to work against and undervalue ourselves. Indirect aggression is the method we use to keep each other in line and maintain the status quo. And the status quo does not serve our goals. The status quo seeks to keep us less visible.
This is a dirty old secret that was never really a secret and that has finally been thoroughly addressed in Woman’s Inhumanity to Woman by Phyllis Chesler, a groundbreaking feminist psychologist and author. Chesler says that the book took her 21 years to write, and during most of those years other women begged her not to write it.
In the Introduction, Chesler says: “As feminist women, we knew that we were doomed without sisterhood so we proclaimed it, even in its absence. We wanted to will it into existence, verbally, without wrestling it into being.”
Those of you tempted to browse to the next page because of the word “Feminist” – please don’t! This book helps us – it helped me at least – to understand and recognize the attitudes that I have internalized and how they are hobbling my power in the world.
The book is exhaustively researched. Chesler provides evidence from primate and anthropological research, workplace studies, sociological data, original interviews, memoir and more to make the case for woman’s inhumanity to woman. She discusses indirect aggression among girls and teenagers, between mothers and daughters, sisters and best friends, women in the workplace, women in groups, as well as personal examples from the women’s movement.
And yes, Chesler offers examples from research that demonstrate how women’s gossip creates the climate in which “honor killing” of a woman can become inevitable.
Although women in the West are leading the way on many fronts our advancement is hobbled by these dynamics.
“Women in the family face life and death battles, and we transfer those into our worklife,” Chesler says in a telephone interview. “It would be better if women could learn to take things less personally. … keep our eyes on the prize.”
“Women are the chief enforcers of this (aggression),” she says. “Men do not notice it.”
There’s a lot of information in this book, and it’s tempting to make it an intellectual exercise. We shouldn’t let that happen. The bottom line is personal and in our hearts. It takes us beyond rhetoric and thought and to a place where we each, as individuals, can recognize our everyday sexist assumptions about ourselves and other women.
I encourage you to read Chesler’s book to fully experience the passion and clarity of her argument. As Chesler writes, “I no longer share as an article of faith the belief in the power of political-social programming to improve human nature. … I am suggesting that the human spirit has the power to learn from adversity in remarkable ways.”
The spirit does. To push back and expand our personal edge in the world causes discomfort. But it also forces learning. And that learning can bring change around the world.
In Turkey, the change is under way at the legislative front and at the personal front. That Turkey even cares how it looks to the European Union and the “Western” world is the result of the personal work of millions of individuals and, in turn, institutional response to that work, during the past several decades.
Those of us in WorldWIT can help write the headlines of the next decades by taking leadership and fine-tuning our ear and our actions so that we are acting openly and authentically as woman and as individuals.
Each of us can heighten our awareness and then, before you know it, we’ve jointly created a critical mass of consciousness that will take us to the next level. That’s social change.
It is in that spirit that I offer Chesler’s 9 suggestions for how women and daughters can accept, sense and be with ourselves and one another to create a fresh perspective.
1. “Humbly accept that change is a process.”
It can’t be rushed.
2. “Acknowledge, do not deny the truth.”
Women are normally aggressive, oppressed women are angry; be realistic about what to expect from other women.
3. “Become strong.”
Develop a strong sense of self and of your uniqueness.
4. “Become strong enough to take criticism.”
Hear respectfully. Opposing views are not a personal betrayal.
5. “Learn to express your anger: rules of engagement.”
Perhaps here we can learn from men, who comfortably occupy a psychological middle distance from each other.
6. “Learn to ask for what you want: Learn to move on if you don’t get what you want.”
Put it into words and ask for it directly.
7. “Do not gossip. ”
Do not initiate it and do not pass it on.
8. “No woman is perfect: apologize when you’ve made a mistake and then move on.”
If you are the saboteur, cut yourself some slack. If you are slandered or sabotaged, deal with it directly.
9. “Treat women respectfully.”
Cultivate the concept of an honorable opponent.
By the way, the opinions presented in Sally’s World are mine and do not in any way represent those of WorldWIT. I invite your rage and your praise. Email me!