I have been thinking about submission lately. No, not the kind of submission where you send in a piece of work to a judging panel, but the kind where you feel the weight of a burden, and you see how much grace you can summon while youâ€™ve got it on your back.
Islam means submission. To be a Muslim (Semitic languages, Hebrew and Arabic, work around 3-letter roots: SLM is the root here.) is to submit, freely and with joy, to the will of the Almighty. This is a concept found in most of the great religionsâ€”Christian monks vow obedience, Buddhists (whose cosmology doesnâ€™t include the specific concept â€œGodâ€) cup their palms and accept what the world might give them, devout Jews work their lives around their understanding of how the Lord wishes them to behave in daily life.
(This isnâ€™t to say that Christians, Jews, Muslims, and even Buddhists donâ€™t rage against the will of God as well. But weâ€™re not writing a book here, so letâ€™s leave free will and the Divine Beingâ€™s encouragement of independent thought to the side for the moment.)
The interesting thing is, submission is a thing women are a lot better at than men. (And please donâ€™t for a moment believe I am advocating the acceptance of an abusive situation: weâ€™re talking about burdens that need to be carried, not those that need to be dumped and walked away from.) It could be that weâ€™re born that way because our genes are designed for itâ€”after all, in a species where the young are tied to the mother for an extended period, itâ€™s not smart to endanger the next generation by making a habit of in-your-face maternal behavior. Or it could be that females learn the behavior patterns of submission because that half of the race is generally smaller and less hormonally reinforced for aggression, thus reinforcing the consequences of risky behavior. In either case, taking into account the basic mammalian reality that once a child is born, the motherâ€™s life isnâ€™t her own for a while, itâ€™s probably a good thing for the raceâ€”if not for the individualâ€”that submission is a skill we women learn.
Not always easily, or willingly, but we learn.
Submission spills over, and becomes something other than a skill used to ensure the survival of infants. In a mixed group of siblings, male and female, which are most often expected to care for sick and aged parents, the sons or the daughters? If a couple has two equally demanding jobs and a kid gets ill, does Dad stay home fifty percent of the time? If two careers are equal and opposing jobs call, which is expected to pull up roots and follow the other, husband or wife? Truly egalitarian attitudes when it comes to caregiving are even rarer than equality in the workplace.
Of course, the question also crops up, do women get given the extra burdens because we can carry them? Because our brains are more efficient when it comes to double-tasking, and our bodies are ultimately the stronger of the two sexes when it comes to the stamina stakes?
The interesting thing is, the submission of women is often treated as a lesser achievement than the submission of men. The comment that someoneâ€™s a really good mother may be warm and approving, but to say that someoneâ€™s a good father often contains a faint note of surprise mingled into the approval. The labor, flexibility, and creativity that go into caregiving are denigrated by anyone who hasnâ€™t done the job. And on the spiritual front, the amount of effort male religious figures go through to achieve the level of submission reached by countless women throughout the ages is extraordinary. It reminds one of the anthropological theory that all male coming-of-age rituals (even those not as blatant as adult circumcision) are a societal means of making men feel the equal of the women, whose coming of age is marked and unequivocal.
Most women I know are quietly, privately, sometimes even unconsciously aware that they have what men strive for. (In a very small way, this was the impetus behind the Russell books, following a young woman in the process of discovering that the scorned â€œwomenâ€™s intuitionâ€ may be precisely the same thing as the much-vaunted deductive process of a great mind.) Women secretly suspect they they are stronger than men in all the ways that count. Women who have reached great age and some wisdom (although alas, the two do not always go hand in hand!) know this down to their ostoeporitic bones, and tweak the male pomposity openly, sometimes wickedly. Even younger women laugh among themselves at the preening exercises of their male peers.
One begins to wonder if a lot of religious doctrine isnâ€™t just a way of encouraging men to be more like women.
Seems to me things would go a lot more smoothly if everyone just admitted this, and got on with it.