“Women Who Wore Pants Are Flogged in Public.” I read this headline in the New York Times yesterday, and the short accompanying article about how 13 women were recently arrested in a café in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and punished for breaking the county’s strict Islamic law. Later the same day, I read another headline—emailed to me by a friend: “Women win the right to bathe topless in the swimming pools of Sweden’s third largest city.” The accompanying article explained that after sustained lobbying by a feminist group, the city of Malmo decided that, “We don’t define what bathing suits men should wear so it doesn’t make much sense to do it for women.” Besides, the city official added, “It’s not unusual for men to have large breasts that resemble women’s breasts.”

It’s in moments like that I become conscious, somewhat ashamedly, of just how much I tend to take for granted the freedoms I have as a woman in the Western world—freedoms that women before me fought hard for. And I also find myself questioning: just how free are we really?

I guess it’s understandable that I’d be this way—after all, I was born in 1976, and grew up in a country with a woman Prime Minister and a Queen. My mother made more money than my father. Women’s liberation, as far as I was concerned, was something that had happened. Until I went to college, I had never even met anyone who called herself a feminist in the present tense. It never even occurred to me that I might not be free. It was only when I got involved with spiritual development, and started to confront some of the inner obstacles to freedom—to question my own motives, assumptions, and cultural conditioning—that I began to think about these matters more deeply.

The holocaust survivor Victor Frankl defined spiritual freedom not as freedom from but as freedom to. Freedom to respond, to change, to take greater responsibility for ourselves and the world around us. “Freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness,” he wrote.

In these terms, women’s liberation suddenly seems less like an outdated cause from the sixties, and much more like a moral and spiritual challenge that is absolutely relevant to women today—especially to those like myself, who have had the luxury of taking for granted the freedoms won by women before us. What are we doing with the freedom we have been given? Are we using our freedom to create a better world, to step up and take our share of responsibility for the future? Or are just we basking in our freedom from external restrictions, feeling entitled to do what we please? When I look around me at women in our culture today, particularly at my own generation and those that followed, there seems to be an awful lot of what Frankl called “mere arbitrariness”—women expressing their freedom through behaving as outrageously and irresponsibly as they can get away with. (A young friend and colleague of mine, Maura O’Connor, wrote a very insightful article on this a couple of years ago: Freedom and Choice in Pornutopia: Why Girls are Going Wild.) And while these are extreme examples, I can see the seeds of the same attitude in my own tendency to take for granted the freedoms I’ve been born into. Yes, we do also have some powerful examples these days of women using their freedom to step up into critical positions of responsibility (Hillary Clinton and Judge Sotomayor come to mind). But how many of us feel obligated to take our own freedoms that seriously, within the circumstances of our own lives?

Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo, author of Cave in the Snow, reflected on this predicament in a recent interview in EnlightenNext magazine:

“Women have this great opportunity, and if we are conscious of it, then we will fulfill that potential. And if we’re not, then we will mess things up, just as men have done throughout history. We have to stand up and take a deep breath and look in our own hearts and ask ourselves what we really think is important and what we really want to do with this lifetime and then do it. The thing is that we can go astray if we’re not very careful, because you never know with women. We have to realize our strengths and our weaknesses.

So we will see what happens in the next fifty or one hundred years as women begin to wake up and start to flex their muscles. And hopefully, we’ll begin to see that, just as our imprisonment in samsara is caused by our own self-delusion, the problems for women are caused by women. Therefore the solution is in our hands. We don’t have to wait for men to change their attitudes. It’s up to us to change our attitudes, and that’s hopeful because, as with everything, the problem is never out there. It’s always in here.”

I don’t think of myself as a post-feminist anymore. Even in the most progressive parts of the world, I don’t think the battle for women’s liberation is over. In fact, our biggest challenge, and the real test of our freedom, may still lie ahead of us, now that the external obstacles have been to a great extent removed. For all of us who don’t risk being flogged for wearing pants in public, what does freedom really mean? What are we going to make it mean?

© Ellen Daly, July 2009

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