For evidence, look at Italy's recent debates over banning the veil. While mandating that women wear hijab is unquestionably repressive and misogynistic, it doesn't logically follow that the garment itself is the problem, or that outlawing it will solve anything. Indeed, for those women who choose to wear the veil as a symbol of their religious devotion, forbidding it is just as oppressive as requiring it. In either case, women are being denied the right to make the decision themselves. It's as backwards as if politicians in the U.S. decided that, since some women feel stifled by expectations that they will go into the caring professions, nursing should henceforth be illegal. Every woman, in every country, experiences some kind of misogyny, but no two experience it in exactly the same way. Any attempt to rectify or even discuss oppression is doomed to be clumsy and ham-handed if it doesn't take into account individual differences in experience.
At the moment, I'm working through a pile of memoirs from Iran: Persepolis, Lipstick Jihad, Things I've Been Silent About. This feels especially relevant considering the strange cultural resonance that exists right now between the U.S. and the Middle East, the way in which our fates intertwine. The narratives we believe to be true about that region have been woven into the underlying fabric of our society. Unfortunately, much of what we assume is at least simplistic, if not actively incorrect. One of those things is that women -- all women -- in Islamic cultures are miserable and abused, a homogenous mass of veil-wearing victims. Reading the words of women in that part of the world, being immersed in their particular, idiosyncratic perspectives, allows for a more complicated understanding of their sufferings as well as their triumphs. It helps the reader to appreciate them not as numbers in a newspaper but as whole, dynamic people.
These books have the power to undo just a little bit of the cultural conditioning that has us assuming we know people based on their gender, their ethnicity, where they're from, or how they dress. Texts like these create a space for greater nuance, for women making bold and unconventional choices, finding paths to genuine happiness even through the restrictions in their way. They remind us that no obstacle is insurmountable, that even under the most brutal oppression, people fall in love, build families, create art.
I'm not just talking about writing from overtly sexist societies. Memoir is an inherently transgressive form, and memoir by women especially so. The culture we live in is constantly telling us the stories of our lives as they should be. We're told, by television and movies and celebrity interviews and "lifestyle trend" pieces and our grandmothers, that we are supposed to look a certain way, drive a certain car, marry by a certain age, have a certain number of children, pursue a certain career. It doesn't matter how successful we are; there will always be someone waiting to tell us how we're failing. If we are career women, someone will judge us for not devoting ourselves fully to our children. If we stay at home with the kids, someone will sneer at us for not having a job.