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Freidan & me
She provided a language with which women the world over could shun traditional roles and break loose from the confines of a suffocating notion of femininity


February 8, 2006

I was a little girl when I met Betty Freidan in Tehran.  She was attending a women’s conference organized by the Saazemaane Zanaan, the Iranian Women’s Organization that was inspired and led by the Shah’s rather notorious sister, Ashraf.  My mother, one of the founding member’s of that organization, invited Freidan and Germaine Greer to our house for tea.  I was not old enough to understand feminism though I was sort of a tomboy feminist -- one who got her feminism from being able to kick the ball as good as any boy on the playground. 

I had not yet read the feminist tracts that these pioneers had written yet I immediately liked them.  They were loud and flamboyant and shunned the civility and decorum that was the signature of the Saazemaane-Zanaani type feminists like my mom.  I later came to call the former: "Kot Daamani", skirt-suited, feminists. 

They achieved much good but to advance in the Saazemaane Zanaan you had to be a courtier to Ashraf.  Ashraf being famously heterosexual with an allegedly voracious appetite for men, kept the Saazemaane Zanaane feminine -- no bra-burning rituals or man-bashing consciousness raising sessions there; just mild rubber-stamped change from above.

Those Iranian feminist pioneers were mostly very well-dressed: in designer suits and high heels and coiffed hair. They looked nothing like Betty Freidan or Germaine Greer, who to my young eyes, were the very embodiment of my own tomboyish aversion to excessive grooming. The Saazemaan Zanaanis were more Imelda Marcus than Betty Freidan. 

Later when I came to study in America, I had the opportunity to study Freidan.  More than anything I found her simple explaining away of Freud’s notion of penis envy in women brilliant.  Of course, Freidan, argued in, “The Feminine Mystique” (1963), Victorian middle-class women had every reason to envy men but that was not due to an anatomical inferiority complex.  It was simply because men had more opportunities and choices available to them. Culture not nature was responsible for their neurosis.

Freidan gave a wake up call to the American house wife in naming their “unnamed” problem: being trapped in a notion of womanhood that was based on the presumption that women were inherently inferior to men.   The Feminine Mystique, as Freidan called it, was all the misogyny of the Victorian Freud dressed in the new scientific garb of the forties and imposed on women in the suburbs of America.  Women who were educated and intelligent, like Freidan herself, but for whom motherhood and wifehood was simply not enough.  Freidan provided the language and the logic with which women could express their discontentment with traditional roles.

For this reason Freidan is a pioneer.  She provided a language with which women the world over could shun traditional roles and break loose from the confines of a suffocating notion of femininity.  

We have come a long way from Betty Freidan to Camille Paglia whose feminism is at once more sophisticated and provocative.  But Freidan was the mother of Paglia. 

Paglia argues that the early and ‘mainstream’ feminists blamed men while they should have blamed nature and women themselves.  She believes that mainstream feminism alienated many men and women because it failed to understand the erotic workings of the psyche.  We have never had a female Mozart, Paglia claimed, in a Playboy interview, because we have never had a female Jack the Ripper!

But Paglia should concede that her very success, her audacity, indeed the reach of her yell, is all possible because Freidan provided both the forum and the microphone that projected women’s voices for generations.

As a little girl in Iran what attracted me to Betty Freidan and Germaine Greer, their earthiness, careless dress and lack of decorum, compared to my own mother and her friends was, in a way, the very essence of their message: you do not have to be feminine to be a woman.

That choice is Betty Freidan’s legacy. Women now can choose what kind of a woman they want to be.  Paglia, professor and Lesbian pundit, anti-feminist, feminist and anti-liberal, liberal is a living example of that choice which Freidan first named.

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