Dreams of Trespass, Fatima Mernissi’s memoir of growing up in the seclusion of a Moroccan family, intrigues me. The cloistered life of these Muslim women—sheltered from the cares and threats of the outside world, all economic and public responsibilities on the shoulders of the husbands—sounds like a great deal to me. Who wouldn’t like a life without responsibilities beyond caring for the kids and seeing that meals get on the table? If the Moroccan women had just been allowed access to shopping malls and TV, it sounds pretty ideal. Actually, it sounds kind of like the Mormon poster family. Many Mormon women do pretty much limit their interests and activities to the confines of their own home.
And I wonder—are Mormon men happy to shoulder all the economic responsibility? Or do they sometimes cast envious glances at neighbors with wives holding jobs that provide health insurance and retirement accounts?
And this leads me back to Mid-Eastern purdah. How do they get the men to go along with it? Mernissi’s father and uncle support a huge extended family. Besides their own wives and children, they are responsible for their mother, their unmarried sisters, and divorced female relatives and their children. Since the women can’t leave the home compound except for lady’s day at the public bath, the husbands make family decisions, enroll the kids in school, and do the shopping including picking the right colors of embroidery floss—all while earning enough to keep this mammoth family fed. And what’s in it for the men? Sex—children—a smoothly-running household.
Is that enough? Well, I guess that depends on the quality of the benefits. I’m not sure I’d want to bet my economic security on my ability to satisfy on those three counts. I did provide George with five offspring, but I don’t recall him leaping with ecstasy each time I whispered in his ear, “Honey, I think I’m pregnant again.” It’s probably a good thing I was able to help put food on the table. It was also a good thing George was willing to help prepare the food and clean up afterwards.
For us, purdah wouldn’t work except maybe in reverse. At his current age, George prefers staying home and wouldn’t mind being secluded from shopping, church or any other outside activity. And so long as I don’t have to choose embroidery floss, I’m okay with our arrangement.