March 29, 2020

Huma Abedin and the Real Housewives of politics

A new documentary about disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner has provided occasion for the public and press to scrutinize his wife, Huma Abedin.

Just before “Weiner” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last week, The New York Times was given exclusive viewing access to the doc about his doomed mayoral run and chose to focus its coverage not on the ridiculous lapses in judgment on the part of the candidate that led to his second sex scandal, but on the far more interesting “Clinton aide” who is his wife. 

This is a recurring theme in politics — men screw up, women get shamed.  

Abedin, 39, was born in Kalamazoo, Mich., to an Indian father and Pakistani mother. She was raised primarily in Saudi Arabia before returning to the United States for college. Today, she is best known as Hillary Clinton’s closest aide — a role she has inhabited since she was 19 — and as the stand-by-her-man wife of Weiner.  

Abedin became an object of public fascination well before she married her husband, around the time Clinton was mounting her first presidential bid. As Clinton’s exquisitely styled and ever-present sidekick on the campaign trail, Abedin caught the media’s eye. A 2007 article about her in the New York Observer wondered who is “Hillary’s mystery woman”?

At a rally on a sweltering summer day, when “all of New York’s top politicians poured sweat,” Abedin stood out as “cool,” “glamorous” and “unflappable” — even in a woolen pantsuit. There was “not a bead of sweat on her brow, not a hair out of place, with everything perfectly organized in her Yves Saint Laurent handbag,” the Observer noted, and went on to describe her as “fantastical,” “supernatural,” in possession of “special powers.” 

“Indeed, in the insular world of New York and D.C. politics, Huma Abedin has become a sort of mythical figure,” the Observer wrote.

Contrast that with the image of Abedin in the documentary, which is far less flattering. In the Times story, Abedin is portrayed as a cold and moody woman. Where Weiner is quoted plainly, Abedin is described as “steely,” “hurt,” “hostile” and “flat.” One minute she is using a “sweet voice” and the next she exhibits “a total change in demeanor.”

“The contrast between Ms. Abedin’s public and private faces can be striking,” the Times reports.

In fairness, it seems from the description that the documentary itself, which I have not yet seen, (it will be released in theaters in May), is more entranced by the enigmatic Abedin than Weiner. Purported to be about her husband, “the focus is almost always on her,” the Times says. But what on earth happened to the Abedin of 2007, who was so cool and confident and glamorous? Why was she replaced by this stone-cold steely woman?

Well, because of her husband, of course.  

Abedin is one of a long litany of women paying the price for male transgression. As Clinton’s closest confidant, she long ago witnessed firsthand the pitfalls of being a dutiful political wife, and Abedin has no doubt watched in horror as her boss has been grilled and insulted repeatedly over the years regarding her own husband’s infidelity. Why do we punish women for crimes they did not commit?

When Hester Prynne was scarlet-lettered in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic novel “The Scarlet Letter,” at least she’d been party to an adulterous affair. But when today’s women are publicly shamed, they are often the wives of men who have behaved shamefully. Feminism only goes so far.

Though we don’t like to admit it, Jewish tradition provides a precedent for women-blaming and shaming that reverberates today. In an incisive teaching for American Jewish University’s “Real Housewives of the Bible” series, IKAR’s Rabbi Sharon Brous unpacked the complex rabbinic commentary on the Bible’s two most prototypical women — Eve and Lilith. Through a close reading of Torah, talmudic and midrashic texts about these women, Brous determined that the traditional rabbinic understanding of women, femininity, motherhood and gender relationships is “deeply problematic.”

The story of these women, Brous says in the teaching, now available on YouTube, is a story of “she-demons and man-eaters.” 

According to midrashic literature, Lilith is the woman created before Eve, in simultaneity and total equality with Adam. But she absconds from the Garden of Eden after Adam refuses to treat her as such and insists that she lie “below” him. 

Her refusal to be subservient has swift reprisals. Lilith is cursed by God to lose 100 babies a day, and later resurfaces in Jewish texts as “a winged creature of the most violent and hyper-sexualized sort, who swoops into homes in the middle of the night and compels good, decent, pious men to do all kinds of things that they don’t want to do,” Brous explained. 

Like Clinton and Abedin in today’s world, Lilith becomes the fall-gal for male bad behavior.  

So God re-creates woman as Eve, this time from Adam’s rib, obviously secondary, lest she believe herself to be equal to him. But in Eve we again find a woman who leads her man astray by compelling him to disobey God and taste the forbidden fruit. Eve is not powerful like Lilith but is portrayed just as negatively: She’s “a little bit of a dope,” “docile,” “easily taken advantage of and not trustworthy,” Brous said. 

“According to our options from the tradition, Woman is either vengeful, hostile, heartless, sexually inappropriate and demonic — or dopey, dull and untrustworthy.”

In rabbinic texts, as in life, women are too often misinterpreted and misunderstood. And just as often, their inherent powers — whether sexual, spiritual, intellectual or political — are seen as threats rather than strengths.  

Huma Abedin and Hillary Clinton are modern day Liliths, exuding the self-possession that comes with equality, but also chastened by the price of that power. As Brous summed up Lilith, “Beware of a woman who asserts herself.” 



Full disclosure: The author of this column has contributed to Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign.

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