I grew up in an Italian family. Home cooking was Italian from start to finish. My mother's idea of ethnic diversity as it related to food was making a Chung King canned Chinese dinner once a month or so.
To this day I cannot go out for Italian food without comparing it to my childhood meals. The restaurants always come up wanting. No matter how good they are, if they don't make their Italian food the way my family did, it's just wrong.
Childhood and family traditions are very difficult to view dispassionately. If one tradition calls for some butter to be put on the pasta before the sauce is added, it's not really a mortal sin -- except it is in my head because my mother didn't make it that way.
When I moved to Barrow, I had to work hard to move out of my comfort zone and see other cultures and their values and traditions as equally credible as the ones in which I'd grown up. That experience, along with extensive travel throughout the world, made me stretch mightily when it came to understanding other cultures even when their traditions seemed odd or bizarre.
But try as hard as I can, there are traditions in the Middle East that I will never be able to wrap my head around.
There was a story in the paper recently about an 18-year-old who'd been kidnapped and raped by a group of men avenging what they perceived as an insult her cousin visited upon their family. This happened in the mountains of northern Afghanistan where unmarried women are apparently valued only if their hymen is intact. Rather than immediately killing the woman, her family came forward requesting justice be done and the men responsible be held accountable.
At first reading, it sounded as though one tribal family was trying to stretch beyond its traditions and perhaps grow to understand that a woman who has been raped is still not only valuable, but not to be blamed for what was done to her. That impression lasted until the last line of the article where the young lady's mother stated, "If nobody wants to solve our problem, then they should behead her; we don't want her."
I could live to be 1,000 years old and never find it in my heart or head to understand or respect a culture in which that statement can be made with impunity; women as disposable chattel, of no more value than your cow, perhaps less if her hymen has been broken, voluntarily or otherwise.
There's been a lot of discussion this political season about the "Republican war on women." Some on the conservative side of the spectrum are flummoxed by the ferocity of the female response to what they see as merely little "tweaks" to current law that allow the natural order to again assert itself, i.e. government telling women what to do with their bodies since American women no longer feel obligated to let their fathers, brothers and husbands do their thinking for them.
We fight so hard against these intrusions because this world still contains cultures where women are killed for "allowing" themselves to be raped while the men who did the raping are totally free to continue their lives as though they'd done nothing more or less than wipe their feet on a doormat. We fight so hard because throughout the centuries women have been treated as something less than fully intelligent human beings through a wide swath of the world's cultures. We fight so hard because we've had to fight this hard at every step of the way to get the right to make our own decisions about our own bodies.
This is not something that men can necessarily understand since, except for slavery, men have always had total control over their bodies, their choices and their lives. But as a woman, I know that there is a direct line between telling me that my doctor and I can't make a decision for my body without a law written almost exclusively by men intruding, and being considered someone who dishonored my family because I couldn't fight off five men raping me while I was chained to a wall.
It's all about control. And I refuse to give anyone control of my life.
Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," her memoir of 28 years in Barrow. Web site, www.elisepatkotak.com.