April 27, 2009

Cry Me a River

I've been thinking about the movies that make me cry. OK, it could be a long list, as I'm the sort who likes to live vicariously through the plots of whatever she watches (what's the point of watching if you are still aware you are sitting in your living room? it's all about escape, right?). It amazes me how some moments never lose their poignancy for me. Yesterday, for instance, my daughter and I were watching West Side Story. I never make it much past the mock wedding, even though neither the (synched) singing nor the acting is altogether convincing:

The gorgeous Kiri / Jose version of "One Hand, One Heart" shows off the score better, but to me there's something about Natalie Wood's wide-eyed innocent beauty that I find heart-wrenching every time.

The ravishing Zeffirelli feature film of La Traviata is another one. I tear up about starting about here...

...and don't recover until the end. The first time I saw it in the theatre, I could barely stand up when it was over. (Of course, Joan Sutherland is the only one who could really sing the whole part.)

Also on my list: Melanie's death in Gone with the Wind, Beth's death in any version of Little Women, most of the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet (I gather purists don't love this version, but once again I'm a sucker for youth and beauty), and the last hour of Wit, in which the visiting mentor's gentle reading of The Runaway Bunny should undo even most cool and detached observer.

I think the ability to cry at movies may be a prerequisite for becoming a Victorianist, actually. We all know Oscar Wilde's sneer that it would take a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing. Well, I cry when Jo dies in Bleak House, and there are parts of In Memoriam that I slip past in class because I don't want to risk reading them aloud. (I also wept my way through the final chapters of Captain Corelli's Mandolin and, more recently, A Thousand Splendid Suns.)

OK, 'fess up: I can't be the only sentimental fool out there. What movies (or books, if you prefer) always make you cry?

April 25, 2009

Summer Reading Plans?

Even in Halifax, spring comes eventually, so I've been thinking about my reading plans for the summer. One result is that over at The Valve I have raised the possibility of another group reading, organized along the lines of last year's Adam Bede event. The novel I have proposed is Charlotte Bronte's Villette; I give a few more details and ask some questions about procedure in my post at The Valve. If you're interested,or have any response to my questions about format, let me know, here or at The Valve.

April 22, 2009

Why Books?

This post from Sisyphus is timely for me, as I had a meeting recently with a representative from a university press to discuss what kind of monograph might lurk beyond the discrete research and writing projects I have been engaged in lately, and as a result I have been thinking a lot myself about the shape, purpose, and necessity (or not) of academic books. Sisyphus asks,
why is the "gold standard" in literary studies a book for tenure if we are not assigning them in our classes?
I hadn't thought about monographs in our discipline from quite that angle before, but it's true that, consistent with what Sisyphus says about other disciplines, I remember being assigned quite a lot of scholarly books to read in their entirety when I was a history student, and doing assignments that were essentially a kind of book report or review. But it would never occur to me to assign more than a fraction of a scholarly book in one of my own undergraduate classes, or, for that matter, in my graduate classes. If I assign anything besides a stand-alone article, it is most likely to be the framing chapter(s) from a book, where the main theoretical or interpretive argument will be laid out, sometimes along with a chapter directly addressing an assigned primary text.

I'm not sure, though, how to connect these observations (keeping in mind, of course, that my practices in this respect may be anomalous) with what we ought to value when it comes time to assess tenure files. Our classroom work typically bears little overt relation to our published work, doesn't it? Also, as the students doing Sisyphus's library assignment discovered, however dynamic and engaging we are when we teach, in our books and articles our "academic voice" becomes "difficult, contentious, and completely boring"! That may be one reason why, as has been pointed out in a couple of places recently, even academics hardly read other academics any more.

Another likely cause of our own relative failure to 'keep up' with each others' output, as well as our reluctance (assuming this is a general phenomenon) to assign entire books along with--or, as every syllabus is a zero-sum game--instead of primary texts, may be the massive proliferation, and overwhelming micro-specialization, of academic monographs. No matter how narrowly I define my own research interests, it is physically impossible for me to read all the relevant available material, and as my interests in fact range across periods and disciplines, the labour of choice rapidly becomes overwhelming in itself. Inevitably, it seems to me, the excessive supply degrades the value of any particular book; it becomes hard to justify singling out one (or two, or even three) monographs that really demand and deserve such special notice and extended engagement. This is not to assume that any given monograph is not in fact, on its own terms, valuable, but here's a not entirely hypothetical case: I'm teaching a graduate seminar next winter on George Eliot. Which entire academic book would you assign in its entirety? My instinct is that the best candidate would be an older book--a critical 'classic'--because you'd want its range and applicability to be as broad as possible: Barbary Hardy's The Novels of George Eliot, for instance, or Dorothea Barrett's Vocation and Desire: George Eliot's Heroines. Books published since about 1990 get increasingly specific in their interests--George Eliot and science, or historiography, or empire, or Italy, or music--and thus decreasingly useful in a more general context such as my seminar (though, of course, they would be invaluable to students pursuing presentations or papers on related narrower topics).

The overwhelming number of highly specialized academic monographs was one of the things I wanted to talk to this university press acquisitions editor about. It's hard not to feel at times as if we should all just stop and ask ourselves what we are doing and why, and whether doing it in book-length manuscripts that may eventually be seen into print only to languish, expensive but unread, on library shelves should really be our goal. The MLA argues for decentering the monograph as "the gold standard" for tenure and promotion, but largely on practical grounds: publishing books is only going to get harder, for reasons that have little to do with the quality of their content. (It may have something to do with the nature of that content, of course, as the intense specialization typical of an academic book guarantees a small market.) If we could do that, though--if we could remove the expectation that junior scholars need to "have a book" to get tenured, not only could we release them from the vice but also liberate ourselves from the book glut. Because let's face it: how many monographs published in the last two decades are book-length because their arguments "need to be thought through on this level of scope and depth across a lot of pages," as Sisyphus sums up the usual pro-book argument, and how many for more careerist reasons? The standard model is a theoretical, contextual, or critical framing (the book's selling point) and then a series of chapters "reading" particular texts from that angle or through that lens. (That's exactly how my own monograph is structured.) That's not a terrible way to build a book, but almost inevitably the "readings" chapters lack urgency: they are illustrative, rather than integral or developmental. They show the main idea in practice, and they demonstrate how or why it is an interesting or useful or important idea. But they're arbitrary, rather than necessary, and they might do just as well as supplementary articles. They might even have more portability and usefulness in article form because they would need their own framing material, perhaps a refined version of the book's larger argument, and so would work well as assigned readings, whereas in chapter form their specific claims may not be entirely cogent without the explanation offered in the book's introductory chapters. (Now that I think of it, I do often assign articles that have eventually appeared as book chapters, but I use the stand-alone version, for more or less that reason.)

Lightening up on the book expectation would also remove the corrupting pressure to inflate, not only our prose and our manuscripts, but our claims. Book-length treatments of subjects do require justification, after all: the claim needs to be made that here is something really worthy of time, attention, space, and resources. So we make relatively grandiose claims about the innovation and importance of our work. It's no use having insight into a particular author or text: you need to propose a revision of a major critical paradigm, or a reconfiguration of traditional literary histories, or a radical new understanding of the importance of some side-angle in a particular writer's corpus (pickles, anyone?), or otherwise attach what may be a genuine but modest claim to something as big as you dare. You need to make it sound "interesting," even if that means knowing your reach will exceed your grasp.

The editor I spoke with was firm about the commitment of his press to specialized academic monographs, and we should all be grateful that there are publishers who recognize that some subjects do need to be treated, some arguments made, in long form, and that their value is not defined by the size of the audience they will reach but by their contribution to knowledge and understanding. We've all probably been delighted, too, to discover on the shelves hitherto unknown books, maybe books we are the first to sign out, that illuminate a topic about which we have suddenly discovered we want or need to know more. But something's wrong when "a book" as such is the goal. Shouldn't we work on a smaller scale until we discover we really can't explain ourselves without a larger canvas? Shouldn't a book be a capstone achievement, as it once was, rather than an obligatory and thus often perfunctory professional performance? If enough people keep asking these questions, maybe we can "be the change."


April 19, 2009

Workload Comparisons

I've been grading exams. I have 65 of them. I also have a stack of 21 essays in progress. As these are not the only things I am trying to get done, occasionally I feel a bit overwhelmed. However, here's some information to keep my workload in perspective:
It has been estimated that in the Faculty of Letters in Cairo 180,000 examination papers have to be marked by 100 teachers.*
*Derek Hopwood, Egypt: Politics and Society 1945-90 (Harper Collins, 1991).

April 14, 2009

An Unfamiliar Sensation; and, More on Post-Colonial Criticism

I think it's called a "lull."

I've just crossed off the last teaching-related task that I can do for now. This afternoon my Mystery and Detective Fiction students are writing their final exam and my Victorian Faith and Doubt papers are due at 4:00. Until these milestones are passed, however, I am free. Free, that is, to work on other things, like my Soueif paper! But a change is as good as a rest, no?

So, about that paper. In between my other recent activities, I've been thinking more about post-colonial criticism and why I've been assuming that it is a necessary component of this project. Some time ago I asked "whether working on Egyptian novelist writing in a post-colonial context necessitates using post-colonial theory." The always-helpful Aaron Bady responded that a more productive version of my question might be "how to determine to what extent the meaning of Eliot in Egypt is determined not merely by Eliot herself, but by the meaning of 'English literature' in Egypt." Now that I've looked at least a bit more closely at what it means to "use" post-colonial theory (or, properly, to do "post-colonial readings") I think I understand better the difference between these options. If (though I realize now that this is debatable) a "post-colonial reading" means reading with a specific focus on how the text under consideration is "implicated" in imperialism, then that is not the right angle from which to approach a text like In the Eye of the Sun, which is itself (perhaps) a post-colonial text. If a post-colonial reading is called for in this project, it would presumably be a reading of Middlemarch, in order to see how (or whether) Soueif's engagement with that novel is an engagement with it on those terms. My own preliminary sense of In the Eye of the Sun is that this is not what it is doing with Middlemarch--but I can't be sure unless I can grasp what a post-colonial interpretation of Middlemarch might entail, so there is a reason to continue my exploration of this theoretical approach. Priority reading, then: Nancy Henry's George Eliot and the British Empire and Patrick Brantlinger's new volume Victorian Literature and Postcolonial Studies. I've spent some time with Henry's book before and recall it focusing primarily on Daniel Deronda. So far I'm not aware of any specifcially post-colonial reading of Middlemarch.

Returning to Aaron's reformulated question, though, about the meaning of 'English literature' in Egypt, this turns out to be quite an interesting question to think about, and not an easy one to answer. A slight refinement of it might be, what does English literature in general, and Middlemarch in particular, mean to Soueif--or, what does English literature in general, and Middlemarch in particular, mean in In the Eye of the Sun? What does it mean for an Egyptian novelist to invoke this novel as a touchstone in a novel about an Egyptian woman studying English literature in Egypt and then in England? What interpretive freight does Middlemarch carry here? There is a textual dimension to these questions (what is actually said about literature, for instance, or about Middlemarch). But there's a contextual dimension too, such as the conditions by which English becomes a subject of study in Egyptian universities in the first place, so that Soueif herself, as well as her character Asya, has anything to do with Middlemarch at all. Here too, colonialism is clearly a factor. So far, I haven't found much scholarship addressing the history of English studies in Egypt; more attention has gone to English studies in India, such as Guari Viswanathan's Masks of Conquest, which emphasizes the role of literary studies in "strengthen[ing] Western hegemony" and imperial control. I was prompted by Amardeep Singh's extremely clear and helpful comments here to order Priya Joshi's In Another Country (on sale now at Columbia UP, in case you are interested), but I think there too the focus is on India. I've found one book on the history of Cairo University, Donald Reid's Cairo University and the Making of Modern Egypt, which gives some useful insights into the competing imperial impulses and nationalisms that shaped the formation of that institution. English studies get fairly brief mention, though what is there is certainly interesting. For instance, did you know that Robert Graves taught at what was then the Egyptian University for a while, or that Jehan Sadat's PhD thesis was on "the influence of nineteenth-century English romanticism on twentieth-century Egyptian writing" (219)? Reid's explanations of the Egyptian educational system more generally, as well as his account of the "Islamist challenges" of the 1970s and 1980s, certainly help place Asya's experiences in the novel for me, especially her uncomfortable encounters with veiled students on her return to the university after her years abroad (I learned, for instance, that in 1981 Sadat imposed a ban on students wearing the niqab, a ban which was overturned in 1988). More specific analysis of the curriculum of English studies, or the value attached to it, or its ideological implications in a specifically Egyptian context I haven't yet found. In fact, at this point it seems to me that English-Egyptian relations have received far less scholarly attention than English-Indian relations, at least in the areas where such scholarship would overlap with literary scholarship. I may learn otherwise as my research continues, but if I'm right about this, that in itself is kind of interesting. In the meantime, I can consider what has been said about English literature in India to see what insights there might seem portable to my own context. Again, I have a preliminary sense that In the Eye of the Sun is not setting English literature up as an antagonist or 'problematizing' English studies on political or nationalistic grounds, but everything I learn about how and why someone in Egypt would be reading Middlemarch is helfpul to my thinking. Though in exploring these issues I will be thinking about relationships between a former colonial power and a former colony, I don't believe that probing these questions qualifies as doing "post-colonial criticism."

One final thought about all of this: I really do think one of the reasons I have been worrying about post-colonial criticism even though it's not clear to me that its concerns are my concerns, is anxiety about the expectation that Soueif's novel is best understood as a post-colonial critique of Middlemarch--that I will get questions from the floor along those lines, for instance, and not know how to answer them. Even if those questions might represent a kind of unwarranted knee-jerk assumption about how Victorian novels always already function in a post-colonial context, there I'd be fumbling the question about Said or Homi Bhaba or whatever and my protestations that the question is a sort of category mistake would just make me look either ignorant or evasive. The work I'm doing right now may turn out to be largely irrelevant to the arguments I ultimately make about In the Eye of the Sun, but at least I will be better prepared to explain why I have done the project I have done, and not something else.

And now, off to invigilate my exam and (circumstances permitting) read Viswanathan.

April 9, 2009

This Week in My Classes (April 9, 2009)

This was our last week of classes for the term. Though it is a relief to be done with the insistent pressure to be ready for the next class meeting (an anxiety that kicks in for me about as soon as I walk out of the classroom), in its own way the next phase is also pretty tiring. For instance, I have about 25 papers left in my half of the batch from Mystery and Detective Fiction, and I hope to return them at the exam on Tuesday, which didn't seem unrealistic until it really sank in that this is a four-day weekend, meaning concentrated quiet time will be sparse until at least 9 p.m., by which time my mental functioning has, shall we say, diminished. Once that set of papers goes back, the exams come in, as do the 21 papers for the Faith and Doubt seminar--but the latter should be relatively interesting and enjoyable to work through, not least because the students already submitted (and received detailed comments on) proposals. It's a lot to get done, and in addition I am accutely (!) aware that time is running out to get a draft of the Soueif paper together to present at ACCUTE in May. (What am I doing writing this post, then, you ask? Well, you see, it has been a long day already, and I have a cold. You can't mark papers under those conditions: you need a shred of generosity remaining so you don't snark too cruelly when someone writes about [real example] "hardnosed" instead of "hardboiled" detection.)

The last two weeks of both classes seemed to go well enough. I wish the energy had been higher all term in Faith and Doubt. It's no surprise that Jude the Obscure did not bring us to a rousing conclusion, though as usual the novel proved provocative enough to stimulate some good discussion, especially about Sue. I'm not sure how much of this is my fault (as several class members have studied the novel with me before) but the consensus seemed to be that she is thoroughly annoying, which is certainly my own reaction to her. The problem, of course, is that Jude adores her--idealizes her, even. Is this just another of his follies (Jude "Fawley," get it?), like his early worship of Phillotson and his dreams about Christminster? Is she to him as, say, Amelia is to Dobbin, unworthy of the beauty and endurance of his love? Or is she some kind of ideal form of intellectual femininity freed from the animality of sex (the "not-Arabella") and yet unable to escape the mundane realities of earthly relationships? Are we too supposed to yearn for her, and thus for the happy fulfilment of their love? The novel is sad either way, but it's only really tragic if what Sue and Jude struggle for would be worth having, and the novel as a whole does seem to put its weight behind them, especially towards the end when even Widow Edlin asserts the truth of their illegitimate marriage over Sue's legal (but appalling) union with Phillotson. Jude is so depressing I'd never teach it again, except that (a) it's always a hit, (b) its themes resonate really well with those of other novels I teach, and (c) I don't really look forward to exploring other Hardy options. I've assigned Tess a couple of times in seminars but never lectured on it; it's equally depressing. Still, maybe a change would be as good as a rest. As part of the final group presentation, we got to play "Survivor: Christminster Edition," which was fun, and appropriately ruthless (no help allowed--because after all, "nobody did come, because nobody does").

In Mystery and Detective Fiction, we ended with City of Glass. I had hoped that working it up for teaching would temper my initial reaction. It did, somewhat. Given the context of the course, we mostly discussed it as an "anti-detective novel," examining the ideas put forward via Quinn and his pseudonymous work as mystery novelist William Wilson about reading and writing detective fiction, and then the ways Quinn's adventures as detective Paul Auster undermine the assumptions of certainty and meaning typically associated with the genre. For instance, with our other books we had talked quite a bit about the significance of objects as clues (sometimes comparing this fairly literal deployment with the "literary" use of objects as symbols): in City of Glass the expectation that one way or another objects or incidents (or characters) will be replete with meaning and cohere, over the course of the story, into a revealing pattern is pretty obviously frustrated. We touched (a bit lightly--as it's not really that kind of course) on some underlying philosophical or theoretical ideas, such as poststructuralist critiques of the idea of a unified self, or slippages between signifieds and signifiers, or metaphysical problems about naming and identity (e.g. through Auster's example of the malfunctioning umbrella). In some interviews I turned up, Auster has rejected the idea that he writes cerebrally, claiming that his books are about the music of language. Uh huh. I also invited us to look back across our earlier readings and see how far they correspond to the fairly reductive view Quinn gives of detective fiction. In their own ways, a number of them also unsettle supposed certainties--if not metaphysical, then certainly moral and epistemological. I don't know how successful an addition the novel was to the course. I know already that a few students really liked it but others disliked it intensely, but then popularity is not always the best measure of pedagogical value. It certainly met my goal of introducing something very different from the other readings, and it challenged me intellectually, which is always a good thing for a teacher. I felt a bit uncertain working with it, but I'll do better the second time (tune in next April for a full report...). Though I won't know until I see the course evaluations later on whether the students felt the same way, I thought that overall the course went well this time, better than last year. Attendance was good, a lot of students were willing to put their hands up and pitch in with good ideas, they were very cooperative with group exercises--the energy in the room almost always seemed positive. I hope they felt that too.

What lies ahead? I'm not teaching this summer, which I regret a bit, as I always enjoy summer classes--but I think it was the right decision, as I need to sort out the various strands of my research. I'm also taking a real holiday, a trip to England, for the first time since 1986. I'm very excited about this! We are going just to Oxford (where my little hotel is directly across from Balliol) and London, so we will be able to concentrate our energy rather than rushing all over the place. Then here's my teaching line-up for 2009-10:

The Nineteenth-Century British Novel from Dickens to Hardy

Victorian Sensations
British Literature From 1800

Mystery and Detective Fiction

George Eliot
I am thinking that I will 'blog my teaching' more selectively or in a different way next year, especially as some of these courses are ones I have covered before, if in slightly different versions. I still feel about this exercise, though, much as I did last year: it is at once a useful supplement to and a valuable record of the activity that takes up most of my professional time and energy.

April 5, 2009

Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns: "A Man's Accusing Finger Always Finds a Woman"

It seems almost trivial to comment on A Thousand Splendid Suns as a novel with this story in the headlines. (Not incidentally, I am infuriated at the tepid journalistic standards underwriting the description of the new law as one that "critics say would severely undermine women's rights"--it does undermine women's rights--I'm pretty sure that the main difference between the law's "critics" and its proponents is simply whether they are fine with that or not--is this dodgy phrasing in the interests of some flawed idea of objectivity in reporting?)

A Thousand Splendid Suns is not an outstanding novel qua novel; there's nothing stylistically breathtaking or formally innovative about it. The inevitable comparison for me is to The Swallows of Kabul, which is more artful, if less far-reaching in its scope. But Swallows also partakes somewhat of the genre of the fable or parable, which changes our readerly relationship to it: it used its historical and political contexts more delicately. Hosseini's novel, in contrast, seems extraordinarily grounded, from its detailed descriptions of the landscapes and cityscapes of Afghanistan to its careful chronicling of the shifting of power among nations, factions, and individuals. Though at times I felt the mechanisms of the novel turning too clearly (as I also felt when reading The Kite Runner), it is nonetheless is an absolutely harrowing read. I finished it feeling equal parts enraged and heartbroken. There is perhaps something manipulative in the relentless movement of the novel from bad to worse and worse again, but the suffering of the individual characters is convincingly shown to be part of broader contexts. Unlike, for example, Anna Quindlen's Black and Blue, which is also harrowing in its account of spousal abuse but limited in its historical analysis and contextualization, A Thousand Splendid Suns shows the social and cultural--and, ultimately, political--structures that support the devaluation, degradation, and violence endured by Mariam and Laila. The novel performs superbly one of the things fiction has done so well and vitally since at least the nineteenth century, with novels like Oliver Twist or Mary Barton: it puts a human face on systematic failures and abuses, ensuring that abstractions such as "severely undermining women's human rights" get, as it were, fleshed out. Here's the slightly laboured expository summary Hosseini gives, for instance, of the changes after the takeover of Kabul by the Mujahideen:
The freedoms and opportunities that women had enjoyed between 1978 and 1992 were a thing of the past now--Laila could still remember Babi saying of those years of communist rule, It's a good time to be a woman in Afghanistan, Laila. Since the Mujahideen takeover in April 1992, Afghanistan's name had been changed to the Islamic State of Afghanistan. The Supreme Court under Rabbani was filled now with hardliner mullahs who did away with the communist-era decrees that empowered women and instead passed rulings based on Shari'a, strict Islamic laws that ordered women to cover, forbade their travel without a male relative, punished adultery with stoning.
Dry, perhaps, despite the punitive implications of what he's describing, and I realize too that there are risks (both artistic and factual) in presenting as well as receiving a novel in too documentary a spirit. But those implications are rapidly given meaning by, for instance, the scenes following the abortive attempt of Mariam and Laila to leave the country (and their abusive husband) (apologies for the spoiler):
"What does it matter to you to let a mere two women go? What's the harm in releasing us? We are not criminals."

"I can't." [says the officer who sends them back]

"I beg you, please."

"It's a matter of qanoon, hamshira, a matter of law. . . . It is my responsibility, you see, to maintain order."

In spite of her distraught state, Laila almost laughed. She was stunned that he'd used that word in the face of all that the Mujahideen factions had done--the murders, the lootings, the rapes, the tortures, the executions, the bombings. . . .

"If you send us back," she said instead, "there is no saying what he will do to us."

She could see the effort it took him to keep his eyes from shifting. "What a man does in his own home is his business."

"What about the law then, Officer Rahman?" Tears of rage stung her eyes. "Will you be there to maintain order?"

"As a matter of policy, we do not interfere with private family matters, hamshira."

"Of course you don't. When it benefits the man. And isn't this a 'private family matter,' as you say? Isn't it?"
The women are cruelly beaten and confined on their return "home," and when their husband releases them, starving and broken, they and he know the truth of his words: "You try this again and I will find you. I swear on the Prophet's name that I will find you. And, when I do, there isn't a court in this godforsaken country that will hold me accountable for what I will do."

When the Taliban move in just a page later, the control they assert over women's conduct and liberties is "only" an extreme form of what we have already seen, transferring completely to the public sphere what has been considered acceptable already in the household--namely, the horrors inflicted on women by men who cannot, or will not, be held accountable:
Attention women:

You will stay inside your home at all times. . . If you go outside, you must be accompanied by a
mahram, a male relative. If you are caught alone on the street, you will be beaten and sent home.

You will not, under any circumstances, show your face. You will cover with burqa when outside. If you do not, you will be severely beaten. . . .

You will not laugh in public. If you do, you will be beaten. . . .

Girls are forbidden from attending school. All schools for girls will be closed immediately.
The novel ends not long after the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. That the return of power and influence to the warlords, among other things, makes this intervention a mixed blessing to the people of the country is certainly one of Hosseini's points, but so is the relief it brings to Afghanistan's women from the insupportable injustices and cruelties perpetrated against them for far too long. What a shame, we might think, that the form of domestic terrorism many of them endured on a daily basis was not in itself reason to invade. (For a related argument along these lines, see Pamela Bone's essay "They Don't Know One Little Thing" in this volume.)

I note that the new Afghan law referred to above is described as a"family" law; among its provisions is one that forbids Shia women to leave home without their husbands' permission. This is a concession to just that kind of genuinely "domestic" terrorism. Of course, one of the cornerstones of the last two centuries of feminist activism in the west has been the insistence that the family space is a political space, that essential to women's full and equal participation in the human community is dismantling both implicit and explicit assumptions about power and control within the domestic sphere. In her powerful essay "Wife Torture in England" (found here, for instance), Victorian feminist Frances Power Cobbe notes that one of the chief obstacles to protecting women from domestic violence was the conviction of the British husband (supported, of course, by many branches of both law and society in the nineteenth century) that his wife was his property ("and may I not do what I like with my own?" she paraphrases the defense against the horrific crimes against women she reports). That was in 1868. Though nobody could say spousal abuse is a solved problem in the west, or that specific as well as systemic injustices don't remain, at least (and this is no small accomplishment) we no longer treat women's fundamental human rights as negotiable. In law, in principle, and to a large extent in practice, we have won that battle. I hope our national leaders (male, most of them) have the balls to fight it on behalf of all of the women in Afghanistan. The CBC report says the new law "only" affects 15% of the population. Hosseini's novel reminds us (as if we could forget) that every woman in that 15% has a name, a story, and the right to leave her house or say no to her husband--no matter what passes for a "family" law or private matter.