Carol Patrice Christ, a teacher at Yale University once said, “The mother must socialize her daughter to become subordinate to men, and if her daughter challenges patriarchal norms, the mother is likely to defend the patriarchal structures against her own daughters” (Christ n.p.). In The Saffron Kitchen, by Yasmin Crowther, a Muslim woman named Maryam struggles to find a balance between her native Persian culture and her adopted British culture. She grows up in Iran yearning for the freedom that she perceives women in the West have. Set in the 1950’s under the leadership of Mohammad Mosaddegh, the novel exposes negative aspects of the patriarchal structure which are based on misinterpretations of the Qur’an (“History” n.p.). Crowther successfully reveals the problems that arise when one sex dominates another through her portrayal of the limitations that women face in their marriages, in their households, and how a women’s life purpose is defined. Specifically, Crowther illustrates how women are forced to be second-class citizens through the portrayal of Maryam’s unnamed father, who deliberately abuses his power as a wealthy businessman to control her. It is only after the father’s death, which symbolizes the death of patriarchal control for Maryam, that she is able to gain her voice and make positive changes for a future where women have more power. As a result, the novel effectively argues that in order for a community to thrive, the patriarchal system must change.
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As demonstrated in Crowther’s novel, women living in a traditional patriarchal society are limited by societal expectations about their roles in marriage. Specifically, many of the expectations come from Islamic dictates such as a “woman in Islam does not shoulder any financial obligations; it is the man who shoulders this responsibility in the family” (“Financial rights for Women” n.p.). The problem arises when women want to work but are not given the opportunity because their families are pressuring them to get married. If a woman attempts to challenge the expectations about marriage, there are consequences. For example, when Maryam states that she wants to be a nurse rather than get married, she is prohibited from doing so and is made to feel shame for her desires. Rather than having her thoughts and feelings acknowledged by her family, she is treated as a child and thus is unable to exert any power to change her future or control her life. When Maryam realizes that expectations about marriage dictate that women only work when the husband cannot provide for the family, she wishes that she “were plain [ugly, so] people wouldn’t assume that all [she] wanted was to marry, and they might find it easier to think [she] could be happy some other way” (Crowther 57). In a patriarchal society where many women are objectified, being attractive becomes a barrier to freedom. However, although difficult, Maryam is determined to fight the marital expectations because she “does not want to marry like [her mom] or Mairy” (Crowther 113). What further complicates the objectification of women is the acceptance of polygamy in many traditional societies. For example, Maryam’s father has a younger second wife, named Leila, in addition to Maryam’s unnamed mother. Significantly, the novel never portrays any interaction between Maryam’s father and mother which suggests that Maryam’s mother is ignored by her husband. In contrast, he does pay attention to Leila. However, this does not suggest that Leila is treated any differently than Maryam’s mother because she too is treated as an object. For instance, the novel portrays the father giving Leila attention because she gives birth to a son which his first wife is never able to give him. Not only this, but it is clear that he treats Leila as a sexual object as well. According to the Iranian clergy, “marriage is there to satisfy male sexual urges” and women are required to “’give themselves unquestioningly to their husband’ and to obey their every command” (McCracken 22). Leila’s objectification is shown when the father says, “’When will the wet-nurse come and give me back my wife?’” (Crowther 52). His concern is to satisfy his own desires. Maryam’s description of Leila covering her body when Maryam’s father comes into the room when she is breastfeeding her son shows how uncomfortable she is with him, illustrating that she, like Maryam’s mother, is merely another object. Therefore, Crowther’s portrayal of Maryam’s mother and Leila’s marriages highlight that unless women have some power in the marriage, they remain unhappy and unsatisfied. When women are controlled by the husband, and the husband does not allow women to voice their opinions, they are not able to contribute their part to the community like shown in the novel. Only when marriages are equal for both men and women are women capable of providing their insights to enhance the community. A women’s potential is shown at the end of the novel when Maryam’s father dies and she travels to a rural area of Iran. Maryam is not married and therefore not restricted by her husband and with her freedom; she was able to become a teacher to directly impact children to be positive role models which extends to the community. Maryam’s attempts and ultimate success in rejecting traditional marriage roles demonstrates the potential for women to contribute to the community when marriage is no longer defined according to patriarchal traditions.
Through Maryam, Crowther shows how women are restricted by the authority of the male in the household. For instance, when Maryam and her sister Mairy, buy her father a gift to try to please him, “he looked at the parcel, took a deep breath and passed it to Ali. ‘Take care of this.’ His tone was abrupt, dismissive… ‘I see you have a new scarf, Maryam,’ he said, ‘like a pink butterfly.’ He talked as he would to a child, but it was before strangers, and I am not a child”(Crowther 61). In this instance, Maryam’s father treats both daughters in a patronizing way because he is in front of his business associates. Foreshadowing the more severe ways that he will treat Maryam later in the novel, here his priority is to appear as though his business relations are more important than his familial ones. If he showed affection and emotion towards Mairy and Maryam, he could be potentially viewed as less rational and therefore less masculine. As such, rather than accepting the gift, he chooses to reject it and then further humiliates Maryam in front of strangers by commenting on the colour of the scarf, implying that it is childish. In her anger, Maryam responds by going out and allowing the scarf to fall off her head. However, because she recognizes her father’s patriarchal authority, she ultimately realizes that she must cover her hair again. This interaction between the daughter and the father demonstrates that, in a patriarchal system, men are to possess qualities which are defined as masculine. For example, they must be rational, forceful, strong, and ambitious. In the novel, Maryam’s father’s attempts to meet societal expectations of masculinity results in his behavior towards the women in his households. The pressure for Maryam’s father to conform to the expectations is so great that any threats to his image will result in consequences. Another example in the novel is when Ali saves Maryam from a mob and sneaks her back home in the middle of the night. One of the maids sees them and is suspicious. She then “told her mistress as soon as she returned home, as she only had [Maryam’s] safekeeping and the family’s good name in mind” (Crowther 91). Maryam has to run all her activities through her father first to avoid tarnishing his reputation. However, in this situation, her father was away because of the Revolution and Maryam could not contact him to ask for permission. When her father finds out that Maryam returns to the house with Ali, he immediately assumes that Maryam has had sex with him. Because her actions have led to rumors that reflect poorly on his family’s honor, Maryam has to be punished because she “has humiliated [him]” (Crowther 100). Maryam tries explaining the situation to her father but despite her efforts, he chooses to believe that she is guilty. Because the possibility of her loss of virginity reflects poorly on him and his reputation as a man in control of his household, he chooses to reassert his dominance by ordering Maryam to have her virginity confirmed. Even though Maryam agrees to do this and is raped in the process by the doctor he sends her to, he ultimately disowns her to maintain his reputation of being powerful. Such violent punishment is not uncommon. In fact, Maryam’s punishment is considered lenient by one of the characters in the novel, Shirin, who states that, “In those days, [disowning Maryam and sending Ali away] wasn’t so bad. It was merciful. At least they were alive “(Crowther 199). Shirin’s observation is referring to some of the more drastic punishments faced by daughters who are perceived to have dishonored their families. This practice, known as “honor killing is an act of murder carried out by a husband, father, brother, or other relatives, to punish a family member perceived to have brought dishonor upon an entire family” (“Gender” n.p.). However, while Maryam’s father does not kill his daughter, his actions are far from merciful. As the novel demonstrates, Maryam spends her life trying to find ways to cope with the upheaval of being dishonored, disowned, and raped despite being innocent all along. Her father’s inability to see beyond his society’s definition of masculinity results in the fact that “There is no place in his life for compassion” (Crowther 101). His willingness to put his ambition over his own family is consistently portrayed throughout the novel. Crowther proves that when the patriarchal system dies, not only women are able to bring positive insights to the community but so will the men. At the end of the novel, Ali reveals how even men are able to positively affect the community when men stop circling around the idea of upholding the masculine image. Ali directs his efforts to help the people around the community by adopting a deceased mother’s child. When men are not being pressured to behave like a masculine man defined by society, they are able to focus on more important problems like investing on their communities. While the novel makes clear that the father is never able to see the consequences of his own actions, Crowther shows the reader how societal expectations are just as damaging for men as they are for women.
Finally, one of the most significant that women face according to the novel is their own internalization of the patriarchal norms. Specifically, by internalizing societal expectations, they do not have the opportunity to find their life’s purpose, leading them to live lonely and unsatisfied lives. This is the case even in their own domestic affairs. For example, Maryam’s mother is portrayed as an uninvolved mother who has become withdrawn from everything and everyone. When Maryam visits her mother, she is a closed room by herself. Maryam’s description is significant: she is “sitting cross-legged on the floor in the corner of the room. […] The room smelled musty. […] My mother shook her head and looked up blankly as if she did not know who I was” (Crowther 49). Maryam’s mother is portrayed as lost and aware. In line with tradition, Maryam’s mother claims to define happiness for women as being privileged females who are supported financially by their husbands. However, while she may claim that this is fulfilling, as demonstrated from the room she locks herself up in, she has been isolated from her family and society. Even her no family has no use for her because the caregiver, Fatima replaces her as the mother figure to her children. While Maryam’s mother does not seem to recognize her own unhappiness, Maryam can see behind her mother’s “vacant eyes” (Crowther 49). Since Maryam sees what the lack of a life purpose leads to, she looks to Fatima as her role model. While traditionally, women who work are seen as disgraceful, impoverished and unhappy, as the novel demonstrates their work leads to personal fulfillment. Crowther’s development of Fatima and Maryam, demonstrates that far from feeling shame, women who work feel a sense of purpose. Maryam loves her volunteer position so much that her “favorite part of the day [is] the evening after the surgery closed, when Doctor Ahlavi would tell [her] what [she] had done well and where [she] needed to pay more attention” (Crowther 73). Maryam’s volunteering gives her a motive for life which is to keep improving her skills of helping patients. Even though Maryam’s job does not reach her full potential, she is grateful for the purpose her job gives her. In fact, “by most objective standards, women’s jobs are worse than men’s, yet women report higher levels of job satisfaction than do men” (Clark n.p.). In particular, their responsibilities allow them to exert control in their lives to help advance the community. For example, Fatima teaches Maryam to be such a strong women that she eventually grows up able to challenge the patriarchal aspects of her Persian culture. As such, Fatima and Maryam’s mother provide an important contrast to each other, showing that it is the women who challenge societal expectations about work who are able to contribute to their communities. In Fatima’s case, because she was able to positively influence Maryam, she is also able to build up Maryam’s potential and by extension her community. It is significant that Chrowther choses the relationship between a caregiver and a child to represent the possibilities available to working women because it shows that when nurtured, girls can become role models in their community. In Maryam’s case, being influenced by another working woman allows her to pursue her own dreams of working. Significantly, she follows in Fatima’s footsteps by becoming a teacher who educates young children to be more open-minded about gender norms. Thus work gives women an opportunity to connect and aid in the development of the community by directly putting their input into the community.
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In conclusion, women living a traditional patriarchal system are limited by societally determined gender roles which dictate how marriages, and households, as well as a women’s life purpose are defined. As the novel argues, in order for a community to thrive, both sexes must have equal rights. Unfortunately, a gender equal community is only possible when intelligent advocates fight for the rights of the minority. Like Maryam, strong advocates will be treated as an outsider. However, because Maryam is strong, she is resilient and able to continue her fight for change, suggesting the potential for change to happen in a patriarchal society. Because women make up half of the world’s population, what Crowther ultimately shows the reader is that when women are treated as equals, communities benefit from their contributions. Outstandingly, Crowther ends the novel with the commencement of spring which symbolizes a new beginning and opportunity for a community to be less patriarchal.
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