Women's Rights
Life at the Margins
'Women for Afghan Women' edited by Sunita Mehta, 'The Good Women of China' by Xinran and
'The Vatican's Women' by Paul Hofmann

Reviewed by Etelka Lehoczky
Sunday, October 13, 2002; Page BW07

Shattering Myths And Claiming the Future
Edited by Sunita Mehta
Palgrave. 236 pp. Paperback, $13.95

Hidden Voices
By Xinran Translated from the Chinese By Esther Tyldesley
Pantheon. 243 pp. $24

Female Influence at the Holy See
By Paul Hofmann
St. Martin's. 207 pp. $23.95

Cultural tolerance may be a much-avowed gospel among liberals, but it has created no end of problems for feminism. Raised on the principles of democratic individualism, Western advocates for women's rights have a hard time identifying with the loyal wives, hardworking mothers and dutiful daughters who exemplify female virtue in many Third World countries. Feminists tend to perceive such women either as idealized representatives of Edenic cultural purity or as mute victims of that vague yet ever-present menace, "the patriarchy."

Neither of these characterizations has been very constructive. Ever since Joan Didion's Slouching Toward Bethlehem, in which she described idealistic hippies aping the sex-role segregation they'd seen in Native-American tribes, any such cross-cultural "women's trip" has been pretty well doomed to absurdity. On the other hand, Western feminists who inveigh against indigenous biases often seem unconscious of their own. As a result, they alienate the women they're trying to enlighten.

Muslim theologian Riffat Hassan attacks the latter position in her essay in Women for Afghan Women. "The aversion to religion, especially Islam, that pervades the U.S. women's movement undercuts their genuine efforts to empower Muslim women," she writes. "They hope that after 'liberation' from the Taliban, Afghan women will throw off their burqas, cast off their Islamic and Afghan identities, and become 'secular.' "

The book's editor, Sunita Mehta, co-founder of an international organization with the same name as the title, has collected writings by a variety of women to provide an antidote to Western arrogance. Hers is one of three new books that attempt to give a voice to the world's unheard women. Promising to reveal the true experiences of marginalized women, these books exemplify the range of purposes that the ideal of authenticity can serve.

While Mehta's goal is to educate Western readers, Chinese journalist Xinran has a more intimate audience in mind for The Good Women of China. This book is both a record and an extension of Xinran's decade-long effort to teach Chinese women about themselves. In 1990, as a broadcaster on Radio Nanjing, she began soliciting women's life stories and recounting them on the air. Letters and phone messages poured in, and the extraordinary range of experiences they revealed astonished Xinran as much as her audience. "Much of what they said came as a profound shock to me," she recalls. "I had believed that I understood Chinese women. Reading their letters, I realized how wrong my assumption had been. My fellow women were living lives and struggling with problems I had not dreamed of."

It's difficult to imagine this kind of disconnect in the United States, with its reasonably uniform culture and economy. But in vast, chaotic New China, with its wildly diverse standards of living, the extraordinary variation among different women's lives amounts to a kind of cultural schizophrenia. Xinran spoke with elegant, opportunistic yuppies and peasant girls stolen from their homes and sold as brides. She encountered a woman who'd spent 45 years searching for her childhood sweetheart -- he'd been torn from her in the shakeups of early communism. Another old woman revealed that her son, an up-and-coming urban politician, had no idea she was living on the street. She had come to the city to be near him but wouldn't live with him for fear of disrupting his relationship with his wife.

Most of the women Xinran encountered were wounded in some way: either emotionally, from abuse, or physically, from any number of causes. These hurts bespeak an awesome range of human experience. In the tiny village of Shouting Hill in central China, the women walked bowlegged, their crotches scarred by the coarse leaves they used as sanitary napkins. In the northeastern village of Tangshan, which was struck by an earthquake in 1976, a mother described watching her daughter hang for days between two buildings that had slammed together.

Xinran's prose is remarkably evocative, bursting with details that make each account haunting. These stories have all the force of good fiction. More remarkable, they combine vigorous universalism with a bone-deep cultural authority. It's easy to see why The Good Women of China is slated for publication in 16 countries, including China. Without a doubt, Xinran is the voice of China's women.

The promise of authenticity isn't always fulfilled so triumphantly. Paul Hofmann purports to reveal the secrets of a poorly understood group of women in The Vatican's Women. But though Hofmann is evidently familiar with that cloistered world, the women who live there are beyond him. The Vatican's Women is a strange hodgepodge of a book, a survey of the Vatican's bureaucracy, living arrangements and social life that barely manages to address its ostensible subject. Time and again the author summarizes some feature of Vatican life, then appends a sentence to the effect that, by the way, women exist there too. His account of a restaurant patronized by Vatican clergy is typical:

"The Rome Eau Vive, in a sixteenth-century palazzo near the Pantheon, has two large dining rooms on the street floor, two sumptuous halls with vaulted and frescoed ceilings on the upper level, and a modern kitchen on the mezzanine. The staff is made up of young women (Eau Vive literature says 'virgins'), most of them nonwhite."

Hofmann's nudging reference to the debatable chastity of the kitchen staff is indicative of his tone throughout the book. A onetime Rome bureau chief for the New York Times, he is clearly on excellent terms with many Vatican officials, and has even persuaded some to break their pledged silence about their work. He tells of attending informal social events where, "through hints, jokes, winks, meaningful silences, and indirection, one may guess the drift of Vatican policies." A journalist who must rely on such codes for his information is not to be envied, but many evenings spent in this company appear to have infected Hofmann with the same obtuseness that infuriate scritics of the Church.

As a result, his book, billed as a look at the real lives of real women, instead reinforces the most fatuous of Catholic stereotypes. From Mother Teresa down to the housekeepers and secretaries who make up the Vatican's support staff, Hofmann's women are no more than a series of preternaturally docile, virtually interchangeable helpmeets. "Without Sister Antonia, I couldn't function," one monsignor tells him. (Antonia herself is not quoted.) "The first thing she did was to go through my wardrobe and fasten loose buttons and launder and press surplices." Even Hofmann's language works to diminish women, erasing their very subjectivity. This is how he describes a romance between a priest and a nun: "A young priest-diplomat at the apostolic nunciature in Bern, Switzerland . . . fell in love, requited, with a nun on the staff there, and an affair developed."

The Vatican's Women has one wholly unintentional merit. It stands as a reminder to feminists that Western culture and female empowerment do not go hand in hand. The Vatican may be highly traditional, but it's also a supremely well-organized modern bureaucracy situated in the cradle of the West. Even so, if Hofmann is to be believed, this institution has managed to quash female agency more thoroughly than the most hidebound rural village. The much-reviled strictures of conservative Islam sound almost paradisiacal by comparison. If Hofmann's portrayal is accurate, the Taliban could have learned a lot from the Holy See.

Etelka Lehoczky writes regularly for the Chicago Tribune's Womanews section.
© 2002 The Washington Post Company