February 23, 2019

A woman’s life

You’re one of more than 10 children, a girl in a boy’s world, and though you don’t have a name for it yet, you’re being abused by more than one of your brothers. You’re 6, 8, 10 years old; the brothers are in their mid-to-late teens.

Your father is unemployed and your mother has to work a day job in addition to being pregnant all the time, nursing babies and running the household and praying three times a day. You’re poor but not starving, well educated but not in secular matters. You have a feeling your parents barely know your name, but you know you have an inherent value as a future wife and mother. You live in a permanent state of fear and apprehension, forever about to take the one wrong step that will guarantee you’ll burn in hell, but you realize this is normal. Your world is small but solid; unforgiving but dependable. God rules over men and men rule over women — their word alone is the truth.

You understand that what’s being done to you is wrong and has to remain secret. Once, while two of your brothers have you cornered, your father walks into the room and sees you. He’s no wallflower, this man who barely speaks to his children and terrifies his wife with his rages. He expects complete and correct obedience to all the rules set by God. He loves you as much as he loves the boys or your sisters, and he wants you to have a good and happy marriage, and maybe this is why he looks at you this one day, then takes a step back and out of the room, quietly closes the door and never mentions it later.

Or maybe, you think in those early years, your father doesn’t say anything because there are no words with which to identify the act. Up until shortly before your marriage, you won’t learn the names of some body parts in men or women. You’ll learn the word “arm” or “foot,” but not “penis” or “vagina.” You’ll learn that babies emerge from women’s bodies, but not where they grow. You’ve never heard the word “uterus.” You remain in the dark about all of this because you never see a television set or hear a radio, never read a secular newspaper or go online. You live in a big city but you have no contact whatsoever with “the others” — the secular people, whom you pity because of their horrible, empty, sinful lives. Only when you finish high school and your father puts out the word that you’re on the market will older women begin to hint at what’s about to come.

Your parents announce a dowry for you and hope it’s enough. You’re competing with other girls with similar or larger assets, but your family’s good name and your own reputation as a chaste and compliant young woman also count. There’s a nice-looking 21-year-old with robust religious credentials who may be interested. The families agree. There’s a wedding. There are children. You’ve fulfilled your purpose and potential. You’re a lucky woman.

Lucky, for sure, you think, but also miserable. Your husband is a good man and a good friend. You’ve grown to love each other and you certainly love your children. He, like your father, will never have a job, so you work full time and race to keep up with your thrice-daily prayer schedule. You haven’t forgotten what your brothers did to you, but you’ve come to learn you’re not the only child who’s ever kept a secret. Girls and boys have been abused since the beginning of time and they’re still being abused, by their fathers and siblings, by some teachers and some clergy. It’s no different here, in your little neck of the woods, than anywhere else in the world: Men will be men, and if found out or betrayed, they’ll just go elsewhere, teach in another religious school or lead some other part of your community, until they’ve learned enough to stop the old behavior. And if they’re family members … well, it’s family above all.

Except, alas, this secret is killing you — and so are the thousand and one daily expressions of piety and religious observance, and the endless, ceaseless, merciless fear of what would happen if you take one wrong step, make one careless mistake, fall forever from grace. You have no doubt about what’s right or wrong, truth or lie. You know that righteousness is the only happiness. You know you’re never alone as long as you remember that God rules over you and the universe.

You also know you’re not likely to survive on your own in the big, bad world. You have none of the skills — opening a bank account, buying a ticket to a movie theater — and no one who’ll teach you. The only job you’ve ever held, or your mother or anyone else you know has held, is inside your own community. If you leave, you’ll be as good as dead to all of them, even your family. You won’t be able to take or maybe even see your children. You’ll be remembered by them as one to pity and hold in disdain. You don’t know a soul on the outside. Still, the day comes when you tell your husband you’ve gone as far as you can go and have no more to give; either you die right there, before him and the children, or you leave your cloistered, ultra-Orthodox life in New York, in the year 2017.

True story. I heard it from the woman who’s lived it. I’ve heard it before, from women in Muslim countries, from fundamentalist Christian women, from women who belong to sects and believe in religions most of us Jews would call crazy. And every time I hear it, I’m reminded of an old Persian saying, as maast keh bar maast: The greatest harm is that which we do to our own.

GINA NAHAI’s most recent novel is “The Luminous Heart of Jonah S.”