An all-female band in Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, has broken up due to a religious fatwa. Translation: a Muslim cleric decreed the young women’s music to be against their faith, and demanded they cease. He implied that their actions would increase sexual assaults against women. This followed a hateful stream of online abuse along similar lines against the girls, after the group achieved notoriety for playing in a Battle of the Bands.
The news story is full of analysis about the clash between tradition and modernity, and references violent inroads made by Muslim militants. But when anger at this injustice toward brave teenage musicians allows a softer note in tandem, it’s one of sadness at such a loss. Once again, whether it’s a secular or sacred arena–and it happens in both, every day–the voices of girls are decried, stolen, quashed and discarded.
Sometimes current events sharpen one’s preoccupations–I call that synchronicity. Lately I’ve been reading some classic works on how authentic voices are sent to the underground of silence. Stay with me guy-friends, this is not just about women and feminism. But thankfully, there are some classy women who have had their say on the matter, and to sort it out they had to look deeply at women’s experience. The pioneer was Harvard psychology professor Carol Gilligan, whose In a Different Voice blew apart long-standing notions about the moral development of human beings.
Women, she showed, develop in and through relationship, attaining heights of moral reasoning every bit as lofty as the ethically pure Lone Ranger riding onward. As in many instances, the male model was long considered the gold standard, the human model, and so be it.
But wait. Twenty years later, in The Birth of Pleasure, Gilligan’s not so sure even men are allowed their true voices. She weaves the myth of Psyche and Eros (Cupid), the dilemma of the many editions of Anne Frank’s diaries, comments on Shakespeare’s plays and The Scarlet Letter with up-close observations of how adolescent girls and–get this–very young boys–lose all manner of authentic expression: their voice, their joy, their vitality. For girls, the choice to muzzle the voice is made in order maintain relationship. For boys, it’s the toll paid to acquire power within patriarchy.
Gilligan’s on the side of Psyche and Cupid’s daughter: Pleasure. Her book is a poetic and heart-probing plea for resistance through embracing the pleasure in connection, the empathic exchange of genuine selves before both sexes (yes, mothers too) betray the young into our status quo of expression curtailed.
Ah well, we sigh. Nice idea. But disconnect happens. We still get married, raise families, and hopefully die well-attended–so why all the fuss? Because a group of girls in Kashmir can no longer sing their souls? Oh for heaven’s sake: there is work to do and money to be made so suck it up.
Raising teenage daughters, I fear I’ll remain preoccupied. Our youngest started high school this fall with high hopes. Yet her classmates are so shut-down, they find her an enigma. Coming from a private school, her joie de vivre intact, she laughs easily. They tell her not to be so “hyper.” Ask if she’s “bipolar.” These kids, she says, are so depressed.
I find out from an African-American staff member who tells me ruefully what “this is a ghetto school” really means. It means the kids–all colors–don’t treat each other very well. The loss of connection. The death of pleasure. Suddenly our family’s joyful, social butterfly is adrift in the foul winds that fly when teenagers learn to lie about themselves. They know. An uncensored, questing zest for life makes for one thing: an ostracized life.
“Resist!” urges Gilligan. Hence our family decides that our blithe spirit will homeschool after the end of this year; just this decision seems to bring her some relief. We hope it’s not too late for her to regain herself. Because her dad works mostly from home, such an arrangement is possible. But what about those who can’t swing it, or resign themselves to the treadmill of one more voice lost? Another wave of the silenced will graduate in four years…girls who have buried their song for the sake of “fitting in,” a sacrifice made for relationship, and boys who have “forgotten” their soul’s lilting cadence in order to take the reins of power.
It gets worse, I’m afraid: this picture of how we break and bind our youth. For some it starts in the womb: an addiction to the mother’s antidepressant that will need to be broken, only to affect normal development into childhood. For babies and toddlers at an alarming rate, due to an increasing panoply of epigenetic factors, there is a sentence awaiting that will set them apart forever: a mind blind to the pleasure-possibilities of relationship and the expression of self.
Our oldest daughter, who has autism, has never had her full voice, a whole ‘nother story–or is it? Are the neurotoxins that disabled the speech centers in her brain a side effect of the power- and profit-mad who dissemble, to whom the young are even this expendable? These youths’ stories are shaped by the new language of diagnoses and “medication.” Professionals earn their bread by all manner of strange sigils and syllables that do not entirely say what is so, from ADHD to Zoloft.
In her adolescence, now more than ever I see it in this daughter’s eyes: those wheels turning in her head. Trapped speech.
Is it all this silence that makes me crazy with hurt, or the layering of false over genuine, genuine cast as sin, genuine cast as subversive? Even the term for the worst dampers, “medication,” is a lie. They are drugs that boast their danger on the package insert, in the tv commercial, exposed in the courtroom where plaintiff after plaintiff wins against the drug companies, and fine after fine for misleading and misguiding is leveled at Pharma too.
The growing mass of labeled minds may be where authenticity ends forever. If the mental-health profiling zealots have their way, how many human beings will retain enough voice to tell our world their truth?