Dreaming a Dream, Lighting a Light

Dear Kimberly,

Your further thoughts about pride, lookism, racism, and anti-feminist religious teachings were right on the mark! I want to pick up on that discussion by sharing some thoughts I’ve had after viewing some seemingly unrelated television programs this past week. You may have seen them, too, Kim. If not, you can view these videos online. One is the Scottish singer Susan Boyle’s sensational and heartwarming performance on Britain’s Got Talent, which has gone viral on YouTube (more than 25 million viewings and still climbing as I write) and is being much discussed throughout the media.  The other two are the PBS Frontline/World showing of “Pakistan: Children of the Taliban” and the New York Times short video,“Class Dismissed in Swat Valley.” Both are frightening reports about the Taliban’s expanding power in Pakistan and its devastating effects on children, especially girls.

On the surface, these programs seem galaxies apart — an uplifting performance by a middle-aged woman on Britain’s counterpart to American Idol on the one hand, and a heartbreaking look at the Taliban’s destructive forces in a country far from the UK on the other.  But there is a link in some underlying messages each conveys.  And all three films brought tears to my eyes.

Dreaming a Dream That Came True

It seems almost everyone has heard of Susan Boyle by now.  (“The Scot Heard Round the World” was the apt title of Mary Jordan’s April 16 article about her in the Washington Post.) An unassuming 47-year-old woman from a small village in Scotland, Susan now lives alone with her cat in the home where she had cared for her mother until her mother died in 2007.  Never married and currently unemployed, she has been devoting her time to her church and volunteer work.

As she walked onstage for the talent audition, Susan Boyle did not fit society’s show-biz image of someone whose ambition was to be a professional singer.  Her physical features, clothing, and hairstyle were ordinary — considered unglamorous according to the Western world’s ideals of beauty promoted by the lookism culture you and I have been discussing.  Wanting to look her best for her big chance, she had worn the special dress she had bought a few months earlier for her nephew’s wedding.  But an endless supply of media reports used words like “frumpy,” “dowdy,” “plain,” “matronly,” “unfashionable,” and worse to describe her, and both the audience and  judges were skeptical as she walked to the center of the stage, microphone in hand.  When she spoke of her aspirations for a professional singing career, she was met by the audience’s undisguised scoffing, sneers, and smirks and the skeptical facial expressions of the judges.

When asked her age she declared confidently, “I am 47.”  The camera zoomed in on the rolled eyes of one of the judges, prompting Susan to add, “But that’s just one side of me,” underscoring the point that neither age nor any other physical characteristic defines who a person is or what she or he has to offer the world. Ageism, like all the other isms we’ve discussed, is just one more discriminatory attitude that can keep people from living out their dreams.

But Susan Boyle was determined to live out her dream. “I’ve never been given the chance before, but here’s hoping it will change,” she responded when asked why her aspirations to be a professional singer had not worked out. She graciously ignored the cynicism of the judges and crowd.

In spite of the ridicule she had often faced, having been bullied as a child, she told the program’s backstage staff workers before the performance that she was going to “make that audience rock!”

And that she did!  Far beyond anyone’s most fanciful imagination. When she began singing “I Dreamed a Dream” from Les Miserables, the audience went wild with admiration after only the first few notes.  Her instantaneous worldwide fame has become a phenomenon that can’t be dismissed lightly. Her few moments on stage that night before Easter, 2009 would change her life incredibly and prompt endless discussions about whether we have had it wrong all along in our botox-injecting, silicone implanting, cosmetic surgery-loving society that has claimed to know what beauty is.

Why the Response?

Countless articles, interviews, blogs, Facebook comments, Twitter tweets, and radio and TV commentaries have speculated about the reason Susan’s performance has had such an impact on so many people who continue to view the YouTube video repeatedly. Almost invariably they say they have cried as they watched and listened. Syndicated columnist Connie Schultz of Cleveland’s Plain Dealer said that in writing about the video, she had at first concentrated on the audience’s initial reaction and how it shows our tendency to judge others before we know anything about them.  And no doubt that was the first lesson many people, including the judges, took from the event.  One of the judges called the turnaround in attitude upon hearing her sing “the biggest wake-up call ever.”

Columnist Schultz said she learned something else in reactions from her readers that she had not grasped at first,  namely,”how many people would see themselves in Susan Boyle.”  She pointed out that we “might expect some middle-aged women to respond with tears, but scores of men told me they cried, too, and they echoed the heart’s universal desire: I wish I had that courage.”  We were rooting for Susan because we saw her as Everywoman or Everyman who somehow garnered the confidence to stand up and be who she is.

Others have called attention to a third lesson to be drawn from the Susan Boyle phenomenon, namely, the realization that many other ordinary-seeming people with extraordinary gifts are no doubt going about their everyday lives with talents, abilities, and personalities unrecognized or unappreciated.  Author Letty Cottin Pogrebin, one of the founding editors of Ms. magazine, said she wept, too, upon viewing the Susan Boyle video. “Partly, I think it’s the age thing” she wrote,  “the fact that a woman closing in on 50 had the courage to compete with the kids — and blew them out of the water.”  She referred to the old saying about “not judging a book by its cover” and suggested that virtually all who had watched Susan “were initially blinded by entrenched stereotypes of age, class, gender, and Western beauty standards, until her book was opened and everyone saw what was inside.” Pogrebin said she thought our tears over Susan’s story were probably not only for joy that her story seemed to be moving toward a happy ending, but that perhaps our tears were also “for all the books whose covers have never been cracked.”

From the time I first watched the video a week ago, it was the idea of those unopened “book covers,” concealing the unrealized dreams of so many throughout time and cultures, that has struck me most. Think of how much the world has lost by not recognizing the talents among whole categories of people who have  been denied opportunities because a dominant group in some cultural or historical setting objected to their race, gender, social class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or some other factor.  Barriers were erected to keep members of these groups from being all they could be and doing all they could do.  Regrettably, as you and I have so often discussed in this blog, Kim, misguided religious teachings have at times provided the major rationale behind such barriers.  And societies and religious institutions are the real losers in both the short run and the long run.

Although the song Susan Boyle sang was actually a sad song about dashed dreams rather than fulfilled dreams, and ended with the line, “Now life has killed the dream I dreamed,” she herself refused to allow life to kill hers.

Shattered Dreams

But then my thoughts move to scenes from the two other videos I’ve watched recently.  These show the growing power of the Taliban in Pakistan. And I hear other voices — voices of young girls whose dreamsare being killed, brutally killed.

I hear the voice of one girl, probably 11 or 12 years old, who has covered herself with a full burqa so that her identity won’t be known. She is taking a tremendous risk by giving an impassioned speech as her schoolmates gather around her.

“Why is our future targeted?” she says.  “Our dreams are shattered!  And let me say we are destroyed!”

Her voice is strong and emotional as she reads her speech, beginning with how wonderful her area was before the militant Taliban arrived.

The schoolgirls  live in the Swat Valley of Pakistan,about 100 miles from Islamabad,the capital.  A beautiful area, known for its waterfalls and idyllic loveliness, Swat Valley was a favorite tourist spot until the Taliban gained power there in 2007, drastically changing the lives of its people.  Two hundred of the schools for girls have already been blown up, although schools for boys remain open.

Fighting between the military forces of the Pakastani government and the insurgent Taliban in that area has been fierce, so the government  recently made a truce with the Taliban, hoping to see peace by yielding to the Taliban’s demands for the institution of a strict militant form of Islamic law.

The girl’s “shattered dreams” speech is part of a 15-minute documentary, Class Dismissed: The Death of Female Education by Adam Ellick and Irfan Ashraf.  It is featured online as a New York Times video. The filmmakers were there as the Taliban announced their demands over the radio: “After January 15, girls must not go to school.”  That meant the few remaining schools would have to shut down, and there would be grave consequences for those who disobeyed the order.

The filmmakers did their filming and interviews with the owner of a private girls’ school and his winsome 11-year-old daughter on January 14 as they prepared for the next day, after which the school would have to close down. Already many students and teachers were planning to stay away out of fear.

(As you know, Kimberly, I have an 11-year-old granddaughter, and I couldn’t help but think about her as I watched the beautiful young girl in the video.)  The girl and her father were deeply saddened that the next day would be her last day of school.  The father said that on that day, “50,000 schoolgirls would lose their education.” His family would also lose their livelihood.

The child spoke up with a proud smile: “I want to get my education, and I want to become a doctor.”  She began choking up and was unable to continue.  As she put her hands over her face and started crying, her father spoke tenderly, patting her and telling her to relax.  Her family is taking a tremendous risk in speaking out, but they want the world to know the situation of their people. The father hopes the girl will grow up to be a politician rather than a doctor and work for societal change so that other girls will not have to go through what they are going through.

The next day the child walks to school, bookbag on her back, for her last day of formal schooling. She bravely tells the filmmakers that even before this latest Taliban edict, girls walked along the streets in constant fear of the Taliban, aware that “the Taliban will kill us or throw acid in our faces.”  She arrives at school and joins the few classmates who had braved the danger to attend their final classes. It is no way to live — surviving in a state of constant anxiety in this valley of shattered dreams.

Extinguished Lights

A different metaphor shows up in the other film I watched on this topic — the PBS Frontline/World documentary, Pakistan: Children of the Taliban by Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, a courageous female journalist and documentary filmmaker who was born and raised in Pakistan. Early in the video, she stands with two nine-year-old school girls in the ruins of what had been their school building before the Taliban demolished it.  Amidst the crumbled concrete, twisted overturned desks, books, scattered debris, and what is left of what were once educational supplies and equipment, the girls have promised to give the journalist a tour of what remains of their school.

As they talk amidst the rubble, she asks them why they liked going to school.  Without hesitation, one girl replies, “Because education is a ray of light, and I want that light.”  The girls tell her they are unhappy that they will have to wear burqas under the Taliban. One says she has tried one on and trips over it when she walks.  The tour of the bombed-out school building is cut short before it even begins because of a nearby mortar attack, and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and the girls flee to safety.

I shudder to think of the “light of education” being turned off for these young girls, so full of energy and promise, and with so much to give to their country and the world.

Women Compared to Plastic Bags

As Shermeen Obaid-Chinoy travels to another part of Pakistan, she points out that the state education system has virtually collapsed, affecting many boys as well, with the result that considerable numbers of boys (especially from poor families) go to religious schools set up by the Taliban. There they are taught militancy and encouraged to seek martyrdom.   She interviews a 14-year-old boy from one of these schools who tells her what he has learned about women under Sharia law. In addition to militancy and the desirability of martyrdom, the boys are taught about “women’s place.”

“Women are meant for domestic care, and that’s what they should do,” he tells her. “The government should forbid women from wandering about outside. Just like the government banned plastic bags. No one uses them anymore. We should do the same with women.”  He tells her that the “only people who keep women in their proper place is the Taliban.”

The boys are taught these things under the guise of religion, and they are expected to consider their teachers’ directives and interpretations of sacred writings to be the will of God.  (As we know, this can happen within the framework of any religion.  We’ve seen the same thing in the way some Christian teachings have been presented and how the Bible has been interpreted and applied.  Just recently, I heard a preacher insist that women are not permitted to be ministers on the basis of 1 Timothy 2:11-15, arguing that the instruction that women be silent and not teach or lead men is not cultural but was intended for all women in all times and places. Why?  Because the passage claims women were last to be created and first to sin, and their salvation lies in childbearing.  You’ve told me of many similar sermons you’ve heard, too. And we both know the damage such teachings have done to girls and women who really believed that was God’s message to them.)

Lighting Lights and Restoring Dreams

I know this has been a long letter, Kimberly, and I hope you’re not suffering from eye fatigue by now!  But I just wanted to share some of the things I’ve been thinking about over this past week after watching these various videos.  I hope you’ll watch them, too.  I know you’ll see that many of my thoughts here underscore a point we’ve both talked about before and that you reminded us about again in your most recent post, namely, that we must view all of these issues in a global context and not in any ethnocentric way.

Those who think we are in a post-feminist time when gender equality has been achieved are not seeing the total picture. (That’s true of racial equality, too.)  We need to find ways we can help all people everywhere to achieve their dreams.  We need to find ways to help all girls and women to enjoy that ray of light the little Pakistani girl talked about in describing the education she yearned for but was denied.  We need to support women such as those in Afghanistan who dared to protest against their government’s caving in to the hardline Shia clerics who pushed for the enactment of Shia Family Law which strips away women’s rights and gives husbands greater power over wives, even permitting marital rape.

Why the Title of This Post?

My title for this blog post might seem strange.  Dreaming a dream is clear enough, but how does one “light”a light.  Isn’t light by its very name and nature already present without having to be “lit”?

True, but sometimes the shades are drawn, keeping the light that already exists from flooding the room and chasing away the darkness.  By making known what is happening to our sisters around the world, we may be doing our little part to pull up the shades, let in the light, and increase awareness of how much work we have yet to do to help girls and women dream their dreams and experience the light of education and empowerment. And we need men to help, too. Women can’t do it alone, because we’re all in this together. Jesus told us not to hide our light under a bushel, so we need to spread the light we’ve been given.

Speaking of Dreams

And since I’ve been speaking about dreams, Kimberly, before I sign off I want to publicly congratulate you on so actively pursuing your dream of further graduate study and earning a full merit scholarship to Yale Divinity School!  Wow!  You are amazing. I am so happy for you and so very proud of you.

And I want to hear more about your visit out to the East Coast.  I was also thrilled to hear that in your travels, you met one of our blog readers — Anna, the trombonist who added a January 17 comment to my October 25 post where I talked about my trombone studies and the way even musical instruments tend to be associated with gender.  I remember her saying that she will receive her master’s degree in trombone performance next month, and I want to congratulate her.  (Anna, if you’re still reading our blog, please contact me through my personal website.)

I’d better sign off now.  It’s your turn next.   Keep dreaming dreams and lighting lights!

Your friend,

Letha

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Letha Dawson Scanzoni
Letha Dawson Scanzoni is an independent scholar, writer, and editor. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992).

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