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Double Standards Keep On Going

There is outrage in Afghanistan over the malevolent treatment of women by the suffocating religious leaders of the ruling Taliban.

But Americans a world away shouldn’t be too smug. We have our own subtle means of dampening the spirits of women.

When the Taliban fundamentalists took over the leadership of Afghanistan a year ago, women were put under virtual house arrest. They were barred from working, from attending school, from riding in cars with men who are not relatives.

They aren’t permitted to leave their homes without approval.

It has been a stifling and oppressive year for Afghan women, especially those trained as doctors, teachers and other professionals, prohibited from practicing their professions.

Women who work within the home fare no better. All women are severely restricted in their activities.

Today, a year after the repression began, humanitarian organizations are questioning their effectiveness and wondering whether they should continue to operate under the government’s discriminatory rules or pull out, leaving women to their own devices.

By comparison, American women are Queens of Sheba. We work, we’re educated, we hold public office. We go to doctors, we become doctors. We drive cars. We vote. We leave our homes at will.

But it’s not a perfect and not yet an equal world. Society’s scorn still keeps us too often in our place and stalls cultural change. The status quo is enforced by public reproach.

Tradition changes slowly, like a run through waist-deep water.

Four decades after the birth of the women’s movement, America is still Talibanizing working mothers, evidenced these days in the case of the British au pair convicted of killing a baby in her care. Around the country, the public is championing the nanny while scorning the baby’s doctor-mom.

Afghanistan is an extreme case. But before we condemn discrimination abroad, we can’t forget that Americans, too, have ways of keeping women second-class citizens in a double standard world.

Leave it to a 19-year-old from England to reignite the debate over women working outside the home and hold up a mirror not only to the American justice system but the way in which America works and raises its children.

Putting “works” and “raises” in the same breath is what the debate is all about. Women who want to, have to or just happen to do both still bear the brunt of criticism when things go wrong.

Your son’s a delinquent?

Blame Mom.

Daughter doing poorly in school?

Blame Mom.

Blame Mom for all the ills of the world if she’s not home at 3 p.m. when school lets out. She gets special blame if she doesn’t “have” to work. It’s that old pin money thing, and it’s dreary to realize women who pursue careers to enrich their lives still too often wear the scarlet letter.

Some people are blaming Deborah Eappen for working as an ophthalmologist three days a week when she should have been home minding her children. The apparent consequences: a dead baby.

No one is blaming her husband, Sunil Eappen, for working five days a week as an anesthesiologist instead of staying home to mind his children.

And both Eappens are excoriated for leaving their family in the care of a cheaply hired teenager with little formal training.

But while we debate the wisdom of the Eappens’ judgment, we have to remember that entrusting children to their parents is no guarantee of safety. Danger lurks everywhere.

Murderous tendencies are not limited to strangers. Parents abuse their children, kill their children.

Matthew Eappen’s death remains a mystery. What happened inside his little head is a debate itself, whatever the outcome of the trial.

The Eappens must, of course, believe that Louise Woodward killed their child or else question their own care of him. Babies are fragile. Anything can happen. If the nanny didn’t cause his death, what did?

But his mother’s decision to work didn’t kill Matthew.

Careers don’t kill children. People do.


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