Two women and two symbols of great defiance

Linked to our presentation of Tom Plate – USA.

Also linked to our presentation of Tom Plate’s esterday’s article in Khaleej Times Online (a daily of the United Arab Emirates).

Tom Plate has written on Khaleej Times Online February 19, 2006, the following article:

DON’T ask me why, but the first thing I thought of upon learning of the death of the great Betty Friedan earlier this month was the saga of Aung San Suu Kyi. Okay, go ahead and ask!

Suu Kyi, one of the world’s greatest freedom fighters and symbols of defiance, lives in Burma, also known as Myanmar, a Southeast Asian country under the governing stranglehold of the ugliest sort of macho military-mob rule. She is the daughter of the legendary hero of Burmese independence, Aung San, and was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her “non-violent struggle for democracy and human rights.”

But the male generals oppressing Burma have her roped into a kind of house arrest. So she sits cloistered in her home, generally forbidden from speaking, from organising rallies and from public appearances that would offer the Burmese people her guidance, vision and wisdom. Despite the 1992 national electoral victory of her freedom party, the National League for Democracy, Burma’s hope for freedom is silenced by men who grabbed power from her and put her back in what they thought was her place: her home.

It was precisely this image of women — American women — imprisoned in their homes (by men, and by women’s own lack of ambition and self-realisation) that the late Betty Friedan spotlighted in her revolutionary 1963 book The Feminine Mystique. She aimed her philosophical broadside at all those stultified American women cooped up in their suburban homes that she so memorably depicted as “comfortable concentration camps.”

That and other Friedan images will never die. And when the first settled history of the 20th century is written, it will be impossible to imagine Friedan not having a place in the top annals of America philosophical thought, right up there with the likes of John Dewey, John Rawls and (I would argue) Martha Nussbaum, America’s ranking intellectual diva of transnational cosmopolitan political thought. But Betty was an activist as well as a thinker: a major force in the creation of the National Organization for Women and the National Women’s Political Caucus, and in the struggle for passage of the Equal Rights Amendment.

And so Suu Kyi, it seems to me, is the great Asia-based counterpart to Friedan: Even though the Burmese freedom-fighter is literally imprisoned by men in her home, day by day and month by month she becomes an ever-more glowing worldwide force for political enlightenment. “Who knows what women can be when they are finally free to become themselves?” wrote Friedan in The Feminine Mystique, her masterwork.

Suu Kyi answered that question by following bravely in her father’s footsteps, defying the pathetic gang that today rules her beautiful but tragic Burma. But unlike Friedan’s iconic “desperate housewife,” this inspiring and strong-willed woman resolutely refuses the option of leaving her home; for her, exile would be a different kind of imprisonment. Sure, British Special Forces could readily airlift her out of the residential concentration camp and whisk her off to a life in the West of political rock-star status. Not for her, though: The only truly noble life, she believes, is the one that entails proper sacrifice, in this case, of her own freedom now, for the future freedom of her people.

Tellingly, her advocacy of democracy goes beyond Washington’s simplistic calls for elections in the Middle East (right — so long we in the West approve of the people’s choices). Hers is a philosophy rooted in the dignity of the have-nots as well as of the haves. “What tends to be overlooked,” she has said, “is that although the USA is certainly the most important representative of democratic culture, it also represents many other cultures, often intricately enmeshed. Among these are the “I-want- it-all” consumer culture. Many of the worst ills of American society, increasingly to be found in varying degrees in other developed countries, can be traced not to the democratic legacy but to the demands of modern materialism. Gross individualism and cut-throat morality arise when political and intellectual freedoms are curbed on the one hand, while on the other, fierce economic competitiveness is encouraged by making material success the measure of prestige and progress. The result is a society where cultural and human values are set aside and money value reigns supreme.”

As you can see, Suu Kyi has much to teach us, as did Friedan so compellingly and urgently. Husbands and children alone do not make the woman complete, she taught us. And indeed one sees that lesson learned and lived by so many women in great American public universities like the University of California. Their triumph through the power of the equality, realised from women’s escape from house-arrest oppression, was in no small measure engineered by prison-breaker Friedan. Some day, history will also permit Burma its prison escape.

Comments are closed.