With broken toes and binding straps, the young Chinese girls placed their feet into the 3 inch shoes and walked around the room with the assistance of their mothers. In the Middle East, women walked the streets with their beauty covered by a veil so that only their eyes showed.
These are examples of historical female subordination — a part of culture uncharted, but pivotal in cultures around the world for thousands of years.
“The primary aim of veiling and foot binding was to isolate women from the rest of society, so it’s much easier to keep your family’s honor,” said Dr. Claire Phelan, assistant professor of history who was invited by the College of Humanities to present a lecture on Jan. 25 over “Women’s Cultural Traditions in China and the Middle East.”
The topic focused on family dynamics as an aspect of social behavior. Phelan based her lecture on historical Chinese foot binding and veiling in the
Dean of the College of Humanities Dr. Derek Davis, said Phelan’s experiences and studies contributed to her knowledge and passion on the subject.
“She has a very diverse realm of academic interests. Some of those (are) Asian and African cultures, women’s rights … and Middle Eastern studies,” he said.
UMHB strives to teach its students to be good citizens of a global world, so Phelan said she believes having an understanding of the “most basic and intimate social need” in varying cultures helps students put ordinary traditions into a global point of view.
“Households are universal in world history… and (are) the most valuable and long surviving unit” she said. “Most official documents are what we base our historical research on … but official documents only tell us about dictated, ideal behavior. They don’t tell us what really went on with people who were not in charge of a society, and this group makes up the bulk of a society.”
She narrowed it down to female subordination and its ever-changing role in the Eastern world by studying changes in the Chinese concepts of love, marriage and male-to-female relationships.
“Families reflect religious, social, political and economic realities of the
countries,” she said. “They shape our understanding of the world.”
Phelan notes that while the role of Chinese women seemed degrading,
they were still valued.
“They were responsible for educating their sons and arranging marriages, which affects the entire family line. Girls didn’t have any choice but to obey their parents because of the Confucian ideals. It’s male over female, son over daughter — filial piety,” she said.
The lecture exposed students to various family mannerisms, and Phelan concluded by stating that subordination of women as a part of family dynamics was also key in American history. She pointed out women tightening their dresses to the point they would faint, and some would die from punctured ribs.
Senior Nick Gonzalez said he found the lecture enlightening and informative.
“It was good for us to learn the history of the female role because we don’t realize how the roles of women today are a result of what previous generations around the world went through.”