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Compulsory Heterosexuality at Work

It’s been a long time since I’ve read Adri­enne Rich’s essay, “Com­pul­so­ry Het­ero­sex­u­al­i­ty and Les­bian Exis­tence,” but I’ve been think­ing about it a lot because of a con­ver­sa­tion I had recent­ly with a South Asian. Her par­ents are try­ing des­per­ate­ly to mar­ry her off. She came to my office yes­ter­day and I end­ed up talk­ing to her for more than an hour, miss­ing the class I was sup­posed to be teach­ing, because she start­ed using expres­sions like maybe I should just end it all when talk­ing about her anger and frus­tra­tion and rage at feel­ing so utter­ly help­less in her sit­u­a­tion. When I asked her what she meant, she said she was think­ing of just sur­ren­der­ing to her par­ents and doing what they want her to do, that maybe marriage–any mar­riage, to any man–was real­ly the only way she would ever get out from under her par­ents’, but most­ly her father’s, rule. Still, Maybe I should just end it all sound­ed omi­nous. I thought it bet­ter to keep her talk­ing than to leave her to go teach my class.

I don’t want to reveal too many details of her life, for obvi­ous rea­sons, but I learned a lot about her as we talked. She is the youngest child in her fam­i­ly and so find­ing a suit­able hus­band is an impor­tant goal for her par­ents. Once they do so, they will have ful­filled one of their pri­ma­ry oblig­a­tions as par­ents to their daugh­ters and, in fact, my stu­dent is not entire­ly opposed to the idea of mar­ry­ing a man her par­ents find for her. She just wants him to be some­one she feels com­pat­i­ble with, some­one in whom she can find some­thing that attracts her; but while the men they bring for her to meet are well estab­lished and could take good care of her, in the way that “good care” is defined in her cul­ture, they have all been, she says, not only bor­ing, but real­ly, real­ly (to her taste) ugly. What she wants is the free­dom to choose her own hus­band. She’s pret­ty clear that her first choice would be a man from the same cul­ture and religion–though she’s not opposed to mar­ry­ing out­side the first group–and she wants him to have at least a lit­tle bit of the Amer­i­can­ized iden­ti­ty that she has.

She’s dat­ed men from her back­ground, she told me, men who were either born here or who came here when they were young enough that they are pret­ty thor­ough­ly Amer­i­can­ized, but her expe­ri­ence has not been good. She met a guy whom she thought fit the bill, but as soon as they start­ed going out, he start­ed check­ing her Black­ber­ry to see whom she was call­ing and who was call­ing her. That lev­el of jeal­ousy and sur­veil­lance was not just a non-start­ed in and of itself; it remind­ed her too much of her father, who—though he’s threat­ened to do so, has­n’t yet gone quite that far.
Adding to the agony of her sit­u­a­tion is how iso­lat­ed she feels. I am the only per­son, accord­ing to her, to whom she has told her entire sto­ry, includ­ing the mar­ried boss she used to respect, but who, after she told him, start­ed mak­ing pass­es at her. She sur­prised her­self by telling me, she said. She does­n’t have a whole lot of trust in Amer­i­cans’ abil­i­ty to com­pre­hend much less empathize with her sit­u­a­tion, hav­ing been burned a cou­ple of times when she tried to talk to her friends, some of whom actu­al­ly blamed her for not run­ning away, as if leav­ing one’s fam­i­ly, espe­cial­ly a fam­i­ly that might dis­own you for doing so, would ever be a sim­ple thing. On top of that is the fact that telling any­one about her fam­i­ly’s pri­vate life vio­lates a very strong cul­tur­al taboo that inter­prets such rev­e­la­tion as one of the worst kinds of dis­loy­al­ty both because it sul­lies the fam­i­ly’s hon­or and rep­u­ta­tion in the com­mu­ni­ty and expos­es the fam­i­ly to what­ev­er use its ene­mies (in a social, not a mil­i­tary sense) might make of the infor­ma­tion.

One of the rea­sons she trusts me is that I know some­thing about Islam and about the kind of cul­ture she comes from. (My wife’s cul­ture is sim­i­lar.) So she is not wor­ried that I will think she is weird or weak or “bring­ing it all on herself”–each of which is a reac­tion she has got­ten from oth­er “out­siders” she has tried to tell. And yet, of course, what she needs to do is talk to oth­er peo­ple, to know that I am not unique in this respect; and espe­cial­ly what she needs is to find a com­mu­ni­ty of women from whom she can draw strength, who will help her to feel less alone in a way that I sim­ply can­not do, because of both my gen­der and my age. (I am old enough to be her father.) So I have encour­aged her, and I will encour­age her again, to reg­is­ter for a wom­en’s stud­ies course; I have giv­en her con­tact infor­ma­tion for South Asian wom­en’s orga­ni­za­tions (and I know she has called at least one of them); I have told her about the stu­dent wom­en’s group on cam­pus; and I have, of course, told her she is wel­come to keep com­ing to talk to me, but there real­ly isn’t much else that I can (or should) do.

One of the themes she kept weav­ing through our con­ver­sa­tion was that, if she chose to run away, she would do so in a man­ner that would leave her par­ents think­ing she was dead. This way, they would be able to mourn her and move on and not have to live with the con­stant wor­ry they would feel, cou­pled with the shame of hav­ing had a daugh­ter they could not con­trol. It did­n’t mat­ter how many times I gen­tly sug­gest­ed that there might be oth­er ways of leav­ing that would at least leave open an avenue of return or a chan­nel of communication–that oth­er women in her sit­u­a­tion have done it–she kept com­ing back to the idea that it was bet­ter for her par­ents to think she was dead than to have live with the knowl­edge and the shame that she was off some­where, not prop­er­ly mar­ried, liv­ing who knew what kind of deca­dent and depraved Amer­i­can life and so com­plete­ly lost to them even if she were to show up right then on their doorstep.

At some point, we had said to each oth­er every­thing that could be said under the cir­cum­stances. I made sure she knew where the coun­sel­ing cen­ter was and that she had their num­ber; I told her again that she could come talk to me any­time she want­ed; she thanked me for lis­ten­ing and she left. Once she was gone, all I could think was that I had just wit­nessed a prime exam­ple of com­pul­so­ry het­ero­sex­u­al­i­ty at work, and it real­ly, real­ly, real­ly sucked.

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