Book: The Red Tent
Author: Anita Diamant
Bookhad Rating: ♥ ♥ ♥ ♥
Maybe it was a sign that she died with an undivided heart,
and wished the same for you.
At an extended family function, a couple of years ago, one of the women, after a superficial acquaintance, gave me a sour dressing down on the conspicuous absence of my hijab. It startled me given that I had never met her during my growing up years, and here I was, in this elaborate, well-fitted kurta feeling extremely hot and looking reasonably nice. Ever since, if I meet her, I make it a point to ensure that my head is not covered.
A friend very rightly said to me once, it’s easier for people of a religion to criticize or ignore their own customs and get away with it, rather than for a “convert” to do so. If you’re born into it, you can do damn well as you please. For the most part. So, here I am, for once, publicly admitting that I absolutely dislike the practice of wearing a hijab/burkha. Much, much before I get into the moral, feminist reasons for dismissing it, I want to assert that it is unhygienic and uncomfortable as fuck. In summers, it smells of dried sweat, in rainy season, it is damp, in winters it is smelly. And after all this, finally, I am under no obligation to cover my hair and all these curvaceous parts of my body (because well, all women are born with a body like Beyonce, aren’t we?) because men cannot and do not have control over their libido. Their failings are not my responsibility; their failings are for them to own and absolve. But guess what? None of the scriptures ever hold men responsible for their actions. Since I belong to the chunk that believes in the God of Abraham, for purposes of this post, I will try to offend my own folk.
Take Di’nah, the narrator of The Red Tent, for instance. According to the book of Genesis, Di’nah created trouble which caused the death of many unsuspecting men.
(Gen. 34:1-31) Now Diʹnah, Jacob’s daughter by Leʹah, used to go out to spend time with the young women of the land. When Sheʹchem, the son of Haʹmor the Hiʹvite, a chieftain of the land, saw her, he took her and lay down with her and violated her. And he became very attached to Diʹnah, the daughter of Jacob, and he fell in love with the young woman and spoke persuasively to her. Finally Sheʹchem said to Haʹmor his father: “Get me this young woman to be my wife.”
Ha’mor then goes to Jacob and asks for Di’nah’s hand in marriage. Jacob’s sons do not agree because She’chem has ‘defiled’ their sister, but Ha’mor insists and offers a high bride price. The sons say they will yield only on one condition – if the men accept the God of Abraham and circumcise themselves. Ha’mor agrees and they invite Jacob and his family to become a part of their lives and marry their daughters. However, on the third day after the circumcision, two sons of Jacob, Simʹeon and Leʹvi, take their swords and kill every unsuspecting male they can, including She’chem, their sister’s husband. However, let’s not forget, according to the scriptures all of this becomes Di’nah’s fault, because she creates trouble. According to The Red Tent, Di’nah curses all her brothers, leaves home, and goes to Egypt where she cannot sleep for months. However, since the Bible mentions Di’nah in passing, one does not know for sure, what exactly happened.
The Red Tent tells Di’nah’s story and the story of her four mothers, Le’ah, Rachel, Bilhah, and Zilpah from the female perspective. The tent itself is called so because all women enter the rest tent at the onset of their menstruation cycle. They stay there for three days and three days, away from all chores and men. While a menstruating woman is considered impure, the practice of keeping women away from a routine life has been ascribed to giving them rest from the hard work they’re otherwise engaged in¹. In this book, Di’nah looks forward to enter the red tent with her mothers, all married to Jacob, because their menstruation cycles are in sync with the cycle of the moon. In the book, this syncing of the woman’s body with nature is looked upon as a good sign. I find it rather fascinating.
Not only menstruation, this book is about everything female. It’s a retelling of a story that was never told. It starts with the betrothal of Rachel with Jacob. Slowly, Jacob ends up being a husband to all three of Rachel’s sisters, but he marries Le’ah before Rachel herself. It’s a little difficult to articulate the differences between the sequence of these very events given in the Hebrew Bible and those in The Red Tent because it has some really critical inflection points. (I read the abridged Bible because I couldn’t place the characters in the narrative I already knew.) For example, in the Bible, Jacob marries Le’ah first because her father La’ban tricks Jacob. However, in this book, he marries Le’ah first because Rachel develops cold feet at the thought of sex and instead asks her elder sister to marry Jacob. In the Bible, Di’nah sins by sleeping with She’chem. In this book, Di’nah goes to She’chem’s house as a midwife upon being summoned where She’chem and she fall in love. Then, she is called again because She’chem wants to marry her and then, they make love. In the Bible, Jacob calls himself Israel² because God tells him so. In this book, he changes his name when he flees after his sons murder men in their family name. These crucial differences not only change the narrative but also offend a lot of people. These inflections place the onus of responsibility differently, and also even it out. It is this spreading of responsibility and not pinning it all on the woman that challenges all holy text.
I have loved the portions of the book where they look up to Mother Nature in wonder and turn to Mother Nature for all wisdom and healing. The times when they first come upon a river and watch in awe the swimming Egyptians, the times when they use wool soaked in olive oil as a contraception before sex, the times when they make honey cakes, the times when they liken women to all things good.
“She was good the way milk is good, the way rain is good.”
The portions about menstruation were fairly easy to read. Nothing that I didn’t know. But the knowledge that (of course) they didn’t have sanitary pads or tampons, but used straw was shifting. The portions that were unbearable to read were the ones about childbirth and how choosing to be a midwife was (technically) more important than choosing another vocation. There’s unbearable pain, screaming women, no anesthesia, but just a lot of screaming for as much as two days, songs about giving birth, and then, using a knife when you know there’s nothing else to do. Rachel learned to be a midwife from Inna. Di’nah learned to be a midwife by watching Inna teach Rachel, and then assisting Rachel. The parts about sex were quite interesting, too. In detail, the book describes how these women came to terms with their desires and asked to be satisfied. In this book, women were people. Not daughters of Eve who sinned and propagated sin. Their menstruation was a way of being in tandem with nature. Their sexual desires were a part of womanhood. Their pregnancies, though painful, but not the punishment that God inflicted on women for Eve’s transgression³.
“To her, the whole world was damp with longing.”
Just because this book is told from the female view, not all of it is brazenly, what we’d call feminist in this day and age. Common sacrifices that they made have their place too. Because what is a woman without sacrifice? An affront to small minds, I’d think. Di’nah loses a lot because of what her brothers bring upon her. She gives away her son and her heart takes the longest time to heal. Rachel grieves for a child and dies during childbirth on the side of a road. There are all sorts of incidents that these women go through and all sorts of words and prayers they take refuge in. It is this humanness that texts don’t ascribe to women. They do not even begin to encapsulate a fraction of the spectrum of womanhood.
“I would be a woman soon and I would have to learn how to live with a divided heart.”
I am not saying that only the (Hebrew) Bible is anti-women, so is the New Testament, so is the Qur’an. And I know of a lot of other Hindu scriptures that are so, too. That’s the very reason why such books are necessary. With all its flaws, The Palace of Illusions is necessary. With all its failings, The Red Tent is necessary. For how does it happen that throughout the ages, the woman bears all sin? How does it happen that no woman ever has been prophet? How does it happen that we call God Him and almost all incarnations of God are male? For, what about the women and their perspective, their side of the story? What about their lives and the comprehension thereof?
I think this is one of the major reasons why even women have a warped view of their place in society, and it has taken so many centuries for them to demand their rights as human beings. No one, so far, has told their story. Even if they did, they did it from a male perspective. I dare you, how many men reading this know the first thing about the onset of menstruation and stained panties? Or the absence of them, and blood and uterus lining flowing down your thighs if we had to consider the times Di’nah lived in? The absence of this voice is why women have now learnt to accept the way men have dictated them to live. That’s why, I know so many women who wear the hijab/burkha because they believe it is the right thing to do, and I am the one who has strayed. That’s also why I get a dressing down at functions. But here’s my point, I want to know the women who did this and I want to hear in their voice what they actually thought. I want someone to write a book like this about one of the women from Islamic times. Not now, please. There’s enough trouble as is. Maybe 100 years from now, but it’s indispensable. Since we don’t have recorded proof, we make do with fiction.
So, if The Red Tent offends people, good. If it offends women, spectacular. How do you get here after all these centuries and not know how your fore-mothers lived? The things they fought for? The people they tried to make out of their daughters? And how do you get offended at someone who tells their stories as opposed to the complete lack of them already?
¹According to Orthodox Jewish custom, a menstruating woman cannot and should not touch her husband. They should also sleep in different beds.
¹According to Brahmin Hindu custom, a menstruating woman should stay in a different room and use separate essentials, and not enter the kitchen.
²”Your name is Jacob, but you will not be called Jacob any longer. From now on your name will be Israel.” (Genesis 35:9-10)
³To the woman he said: “I will greatly increase the pain of your pregnancy; in pain you will give birth to children, and your longing will be for your husband, and he will dominate you.” (Gen. 3:16-23)