News-Sentinel, The (Fort Wayne, IN) - January 23, 1993
Author: CHRIS LEDBETTER FEATURE EDITOR OF THE NEWS-SENTINEL
"A woman must never be free of subjugation." - The Hindu Code of Manu, V
"Here is my daughter; she is a virgin; I will give her to you. Possess her, do what you please with her, but do not commit such an infamy against this man." - Judges 19:24
''It is our purpose to receive troubled girls . . . in order to teach them character, obedience, and a right response to authority in order that they might receive Christ . . . and return to their home and family as a responsive and obedient daughter."
- Hephzibah House rules
The world's religions have not always been kind to women. Though much has changed, some religious rituals persist in keeping a system of oppression in place. Consider the twin terrors of physical circumcision that occurs in parts of Africa and psychological circumcision practiced in Winona Lake, Ind.
With her latest novel, Alice Walker writes about the African ritual. In "Possessing the Secret of Joy," she describes the brutal rite of female circumcision. This ancient religious practice originates from parts of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. In the procedure, girls' clitorises are cut and their vulvas mutilated and sewn shut, leaving only a tiny hole for blood and urine to flow through.
Girls' genitals are mangled so they will be pure and feel no sexual desires. Tribal cultures believe that if a girl is not circumcised between birth and 11 years, she will be promiscuous.
It would be easy to classify this as a barbaric foreign ritual were it not for the fact that refugees are bringing the tradition to the United States and Europe.
And is this ritual so different from other misogynic acts done in the name of religion? Historically, girls and women have been defined as evil, and persecuted. They have been tortured, burned and raped. Their feet have been bound; their faces scarred. They have been labeled mad and institutionalized. They have been imprisoned.
It happens yet. In today's Summit, you'll read "Sarah's story," the tale of how a Tennessee teen came to live at a Winona Lake school for girls.
At this independent Bible boarding school, girls' rights are abolished. They are not allowed to go to the bathroom alone. Someone listens in on their phone conversations and reads the mail they receive and send. They aren't allowed to watch TV, listen to secular music, or go to movies.
An alarm system is rigged so that girls can't get out. Those who don't memorize their Bible verses are punished by getting a protein drink instead of solid food for dinner. Some are paddled. Many complain their menstrual periods stop while they live at Hephzibah House .
How is it that girls attend such a school? Families send their "troubled" or "incorrigible" girls to the boarding school.
Sarah, who was sexually abused by her stepfather, was sent to Hephzibah House because she thought she might be pregnant by her boyfriend.
She and the other girls who live at this enclave are hostages, their physical and mental freedoms taken away. They are relentlessly hammered to be meek and docile, and to seek repentance.
Of course, there are long-lasting repercussions for them. At least one Hephzibah House alumna reported to authorities that she is sexually dysfunctional as a result of the psychological abuse she suffered during her two years there in the '80s.
She suffers from psychological circumcision.
In both cultural contexts, in the Africa of Walker's story and the Winona Lake of ours, a girl's sexuality and independence are so feared that her body or her spirit are mutilated to curtail her freedom.
In "Possessing the Secret of Joy," Walker wonders: "Was woman herself not the tree of life? And was she not crucified? Not in some age no one even remembers, but right now, daily, in many lands on earth."