by Lorcan McKillop
Regardless of geographical location, physical strength has been the determining factor throughout history in structuring society and selecting rulers. In the modern age of established civilization and technological advancement however, it would seem as though physical strength and stature should no longer determine who is fit to rule. In her work We Should All Be Feminists, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains that physical strength used to be the most important attribute for survival but “today, we live in a vastly different world. The person more qualified to lead is not the physically stronger person. It is the more intelligent, the more knowledgeable, the more creative, the more innovative” (Adichie 18). While there is no disputing these factors as being those most important to determining a leader in a civilized society, there still remains the question as to whether the ideally qualified leader is the one that assumes the role. Those responsible for distributing external power, such as voters in a democratic society, have assumed the role of “visual learners” in this area, as something as observable as action has always taken precedent over wisdom and wit. Factors such as gender, legacy, and tradition have stood in the way of intelligence assuming its role as the architect to society’s hierarchy. By examining the themes and messages of works read throughout the course, this essay looks to answer the questions: How has intellect replaced physical superiority in structuring modern society, and how do intellect and strength interact in a modern world that offers potential power and influence to the oppressed? The answers to these questions are significant as they reflect on how modernization serves as a potential equalizer amongst the genders, and how men and women have responded by either capitalizing upon or resisting this newfound environment.
Upon entry into this course the class discussed a piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, that emphasized that societies have structures, and we as individuals navigate world’s differently based on subject position. While the art of navigation is down to the navigator, the biggest point of discussion is in reference to where the “starting line” is, and why it is not the same for all of humanity. Throughout the texts covered in the class, this variation in perspective has been revealed through the depiction of adversity, hardship, privilege, and power. While oppression as a whole is not a gender-specific concept, we can see how women have from the beginning been placed at a disadvantage when looking through the lens of Adichie’s perspective. While boys and girls are different biologically Adichie says that “socialization exaggerates the differences” (35). Due to social standards, the woman is destined to take on the homely duties of cooking and cleaning, the expectation falls on the man to be the breadwinner of the house, and therefore it is vital that he be the one exposed to information, and destined for education. If men and women are put on separate paths as children, as educated earner and diligent caretaker respectively, it is only prolonging the lopsided system that was established when survival required brute strength. If women do not have equal access to education, they cannot hope to climb the societal ladder based on this modern criterion, and remain doomed to navigate the world from a different subject position based on its relation to the “starting line.”
The perspective of the basha posh in Jenny Nordberg’s Underground Girls of Kabul broadens our perspective as to how women have retained secondary status in parts of the world despite modernization. In Afghanistan, if a family does not bear a son, a daughter may take on the responsibility or be forced to disguise herself as a boy in order to assume the role of breadwinner and receive an adequate education. The question of whether intellect has replaced physical strength is somehow almost irrelevant in this part of the world, as males have managed to remain completely in control due to cultural tradition. Afghan males have held onto uncivilized dominance and an outdated definition of power by disguising male dominance and privilege as tradition. In a balanced society, performance would be the translation of power into action, giving intellect a tangible product that supports its claim as the most important trait in civilized society. In Kabul however, performance in the form of modest behavior is a necessity for women due to a lack of power. Women perform in the way they dress, hiding their body shape and dressing reservedly. Young women also have to perform in the role of a basha posh in order to receive the same education that boys are entitled to.
Even in adulthood, women struggle to make their mark in what has been made a “man’s world” by the men who refuse to give up power. Azita is a female figure in Afghani politics that Nordberg follows, documenting and describing her struggle through the lens of a western perspective. What is most notable from Azita’s story is the clashing of realized, internal potential with the constraints of the external environment. In her message to the people she wishes to represent, she says “I only want to represent you and bring your problems to our central government. I want to raise your voice to Kabul” (Nordberg 118). These intentions are met with frustration however as she is called on “to discuss ‘women’s issues’ but when it comes to other topics that matter as much to women as to men, such as how the state is actually run, neither Afghans nor foreigners show much interest in her opinions” (Nordberg 120). Although Azita has the intellect, confidence, and ambition needed to rule, her opportunities are limited because power is not accessible to her. The inaccessibility of power to an entire gender highlights that intellect has not truly been able to structure Afghan society because intellect alone is not enough to obtain power.
American society has a more progressive stance on bettering gender equality, and the ability to receive an education is of the utmost importance. Education plays a pivotal role in the development of the intellectual, as it exposes each student to ideas and perspectives that help them to construct their own. Education gives an individual the power to express his or her thoughts and ideas appropriately, and validates a person as a qualified contributor to society. Therefore, it has become a common preconception that a diploma offers freedom, employment, and the ability to impact society. However, women around the world have discovered that the ability to acquire a diploma does not always result in employment and power. In her article Women’s Declining Employment with Access to Higher Education: Issues and Challenges, Sunita Sangar discusses the disconnect between more women receiving a higher education and the decrease in female employment, using the country of India as the focal point for her discussion. Sangar recognizes that “the number of women at postgraduate and doctoral levels in various universities is high but very few of them make sufficient advances in their careers for a variety of social reasons” (156). She goes on to explain that the female struggle to be hired can be attributed to a lack of foundation. There are not enough women in the decision making process for employment, there is a reluctance on the parts of males to relinquish power, and there are cultural barriers present that stand in the way of females becoming a dominant feature in the workforce. While this is an analysis of a disconnect in Indian society, the situation speaks more to the struggle of women in America than did the oppression of African and Afghani women addressed by Adichie and Nordberg. African women and Afghani women are placed at a disadvantage because they are not able to receive an education, beginning at a different starting line. Women in America and India on the other hand face an even more worrying truth. Despite it being available to them, education still may not be enough to override male privilege and navigate society from a similar subject position.
Susan Minot’s Thirty Girls sheds light on how intellect can be empowering in the lives of women, giving substance to the argument that physical superiority is not the only route to power and strength. While there is a juxtaposition throughout the novel showing the differences between the experiences of Jane and Esther, both of their stories show how intellect and internal strength can help an individual make their mark. Minot depicts Jane as a character of privilege: an educated, young, American woman who has come to Africa to cover the kidnapping of the thirty girls, taken by Kony’s militants. While much of the novel details her infatuation with Harry, an affection that is made so prevalent by Minot because of its external, tangible nature, Jane’s internal motives and strength are hinted at and shared with the reader gradually to imitate the experience of actually getting to know the character. We discover that Jane went to Africa to report on the kidnapping after being inspired by a victim’s mother, and the pain she has overcome in the past with the loss of her husband. We also see Jane’s strength in the compassion she is able to show to Esther as she helps her through the trauma of reliving her abduction. While Jane shows the good that can be done by woman in a position of power and the freedom that independence and education can offer, Esther’s experience shows how internal power and mental strength can overcome external imprisonment. Sister Giulia describes Esther as one of the most intelligent girls in the school, and this intellect plays a role in helping her survive the sexual and physical abuse that she would encounter during captivity. This mental strength is on display as she retreats into her soul and away from her body while she is raped by Lotti, an officer in the rebel militia. Esther described her soul as a “white marble bowl,” a calm place inside of her that strictly belonged to her and could not be disturbed by anyone (Minot 151). While the male officer was physically superior to her, Esther could not be defeated by him because he could not touch her soul, take away her intellect, or diminish her mental strength.
When reexamining the question of whether intellect has replaced physical superiority in structuring modern society, the texts explored this semester suggest that intellect has not adequately replaced strength. Despite this conclusion, the texts certainly suggest that intellect has the potential to be the key factor in distributing power, should society allow this to be the case. Adichie’s text offers this suggestion and uses it as a pillar for her stance on feminism, as all people regardless of gender have access to the benefits of intellect, and in an educated society intellect should be the foundation for all that humankind hopes to achieve. Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul illustrates how prioritizing cultural tradition and male dominance over intellect has a negative impact on women and children. Educated women such as Azita do not have a voice in Afghan society, and young girls are not given the same opportunities as boys despite their ability to take on the same responsibilities. Sangar’s article on higher education and employment indicates that women certainly have the capacity for higher level thinking and that it is socio-cultural limitations that prevent them from reaching their potential. Thirty Girls does not suggest how intellect can be applied to structuring society as a whole, but rather how intellect can be utilized within the restrictions that are currently in place. The culmination of these messages suggests that degree of intellect is a more suitable measure of where one’s place should be in society, but society must allow itself to be reconstructed in order for this transition from strength to intellect to happen. Men who have power should not avoid change by hiding in the cloak of “cultural tradition,” socialization of gender should not entail separating men and women into breadwinner and caretaker roles, and employment should be based on competence and qualification instead of gender, legacy, or background. As Adichie said, physical strength is no longer a necessity for survival, and so women no longer need to rely on men to rule. Men and women are equally capable of navigating the modern world should they be given the same starting line and allowed to run a fair race.
Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. We Should All Be Feminists. Anchor, 2015.
Minot, Susan. Thirty Girls. Vintage, 2015.
Nordberg, Jenny. The Underground Girls of Kabul. Penguin Random House LLC, 2014.
Sangar, Sunita. “Women’s Declining Employment with Access to Higher Education: Issues and Challenges.” Sage Publishing, 1 July 2014. Web. 29 Apr. 2017.