"My husband doesn't like it." Sunilda, a Paraguayan woman my age, stood in front of me explaining why she'd stopped coming to my weekly Peace Corps computer class. "He thinks I leave the house too much. Demasiado celoso es."
Celoso. I had to actively try not to roll my eyes. Really. Again? A padre celoso is why my 16-year-old student Elisa can't make it to youth group meetings the weekends her Dad comes home. Her 'jealous father' won't let her out of the house. It's for her protection, so that she doesn't get into an accident or trouble with boys. This is the same reason why Rosa doesn't come to any of my activities. It's why fifteen-year-old Gabriela dropped out of school years ago and why eighteen-year-old Natalia can't go to college.
Not that all women are homebound. The women on my parents' commission, for example, make important decisions for our community center and passionately sustain a local soup kitchen. Yes, they are powerful, independent women... yet even they think that men are better. They once told me so. Men are better. They are better because they can do more.
Not only was this statement hurtful to me, but it was sad, sad because it is reality. Controlling fathers continuously bar girls from opportunities while their brothers roam free. So in fact... boys can do more. And the confidence they gain from the simple agency to do things intimidates their flirtatious and fearful girlfriends. It's so easy for them to ask the ladies to stay home from an important meeting to clean their soccer shoes. Grunting out a single command, they can prohibit the ladies from receiving a text from another man or from leaving the house alone or from leaving the house at all.
It was the women of my community that I was thinking about when I read E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy. Now, before I get criticized for taking the books too seriously, I'd like to say that overall, I liked this romance trilogy. I don't agree with one British domestic abuse organization, who criticized the books as "an instruction manual for an abusive individual to sexually torture a vulnerable young woman." The rowdy parts of the book are entirely consensual and both parties constantly converse about what is okay and what is not okay to experiment in the bedroom (or elsewhere...)
But the filler parts of the book (ie the parts that are not sex) make me want to vomit. The protagonist Anastasia's boyfriend Christian Grey constantly begs her to quit her job because he worries about her too much. He fumes when she speaks with her male friends. He forbids her from going on a business trip with her male boss, and when she resists, uses his power to cancel it.
But while Anastasia feels uncomfortable with her lover's control and at times does resist, she never really demands his respect. She does not want to change her last name but relents after the man angrily storms into her office. She declines her brother-in-law's invitation to have a go on his motorcycle because her husband wouldn't like it. "You always do what he says?" challenges the brother-in-law. And then comes Anastasia's horrific answer, horrific because it is so sincere: "No, but I´m trying to put that right."
Are you kidding me? Half-way through the last book of the trilogy, this is Anastasia's conclusion -- that she must try to obey her husband more? I agree with Andrew O'Hagan of the London Review of Books when he wrote, "It's not that Fifty Shades of Grey and E.L. James's other tie-me-up-tie-me-down spankbusters read as if feminism never happened: they read as if women never even got the vote."
The worst thing to me about the Christian Grey's unreasonable prohibition of Ana going on a business trip or having a drink with a friend is that it is almost always justified in the end. Someone could have indeed killed, kidnapped, or raped his woman. So the poor girl learns to heed to her husband next time. What a great message to be sending to women all over the world -- "Listen to your husband, he knows better than you."
Now to fight Paraguay's machismo culture and convince Sunilda to stay in my computer class...
"Your husband isn't your father," I told her. "Maybe your father has the right to tell you what to do but your husband does not. You are allowed to leave the house. He is not your boss. You are your own boss."
Wouldn't it be nice if my little impassioned speech changed Sunilda's life? She might have gone home to tell her husband that she would learn computación whether he liked it or not.
But no... that didn´t happen. Sunilda nodded at me hesitantly, a flash of uncertainty in her face. My outburst did not quite fit with the messages she'd been getting her whole life, flying at her from everywhere, telling her that men decide what's what and women listen.
Now this is a plea to the producers of the Fifty Shades of Grey movies. Whether you intend them to or not, your movies will hit the black market in the third world. Venders will sell copies for a dollar or less. Their telenovela nature will make them wildly popular. Sunilda, Elisa, Gabriela, Natalia, and Lorena will see them. Please, for the sake of women everywhere, remove the bits that teach women to submit to their husbands. Progress is slowly creeping forward. Let's not turn back the clocks.