Culture Shock

I just read this Times article about a six year old girl in Afghanistan who is being given in marriage to another family in order to clear her father’s debt. (The Times just updated their website to say that a group led by an American lawyer has paid the debt.)

The article brought me back to an afternoon in the 1980’s, when I was working as a telecommunications analyst in the corporate telecommunications department of the Mobil Corporation. I was the only female in the department.

One afternoon a woman was brought to my office. She was my age and I forget what country she came from, but it was some country in the Arab world that Mobil was doing business with. She must have been the wife of one of the oil executives who had come to New York for a meeting.

I am sure that her husband and the head of corporate telecommunications had no idea of what would happen when they dropped her off with me. In terms of women’s rights, the men at Mobil (my immediate supervisor aside, who was great) were kinda stuck in the 1950’s. They probably thought, “She’s a woman, Stacy’s a woman, they have lots in common. Because, you know, like, they’re women.”

Within seconds of their closing the door behind them, we went at each other and we didn’t stop until they came to get her an hour or so later. I barely said hello before she started challenging my feminist ways. I was gentler with her than I normally would have been, mostly because she was terribly defensive and it seemed to me that deep down, she didn’t believe what she was saying. She wasn’t wearing a burka, and she was clearly educated. Also, I was aware that I had been asked to play host and I was in a very awkward position. I didn’t want to offend her.

Her main argument was that she had a nice life and she was always taken care of and protected and didn’t want for anything. To her I was this sad, untaken-care-of woman, fending for herself. I said, you’re not a child, and fine if this is what you want, but you should have a choice and you’d be surprised how great it feels to take care of yourself, to make your own money and to be in charge of everything in your life. Bottom line, each of us saw the other’s life as sad.

After reading this article though, I realize it never occurred to me to make the argument that she was the wife of a wealthy oil executive, and that the wives and daughters of the poor were not faring as well. (Not that we’ve conquered gender discrimination, or that the women in poor families here don’t have troubles too.)

I’d love to see this woman now, to see if we’d have any better luck communicating, instead of just pitying each other. We were both very young. My position, however, is unchanged.

This is a banjo player that I came across in Union Square.

Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

View all posts by Stacy Horn →

3 thoughts on “Culture Shock

  1. One time a couple years after highschool I was walking near Greenwich Village and saw a classmate of ours playing guitar. I knew him well enough to say hello but not sure of his name right now although I can picture him. Going to look at the yearbook. It was something like Tad Blake??

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