Gender Inequality in the Song of Songs
Postcolonial Feminist Theory has taught us to look beyond the confines of narrow cultural lenses as we seek to understand the diversity of gendered experience. I believe it is even more empowering to go one step further and to look not only cross-culturally but also cross-temporally. In America, when the general population tries to articulate what traditional female gender roles were, it seems they often describe those prescriptions for being lady-like from the Victorian Era, 1950s post-war America, or maybe limited snapshots of the Middle Ages, like chivalry codes and chastity belts. Accordingly women were, supposedly and stereotypically, traditionally passive and acquiescent. Proper women spoke when spoken to, and then played merely a support role in conversation. They were to express virtue through chastity until marriage, and sexual reserve even within marriage. They were not supposed to ask for the date, lest they seem too forward. They found true fulfillment only in motherhood. They were physically delicate and timid. They were sexual objects instead of active subjects. They were more often written about than authors. They were defined in opposition to men.
Places such as the ancient Near East, for example, provide a wealth of information about gendered experience that blatantly contradicts the stereotypical gender-associated behaviors that we in the contemporary West tend to call traditional. Much of it is written by women themselves, such as Egyptian love poetry and Sumerian temple priestesses' administrative records. Because many arguments about the nature of the feminine versus the socialization of femininity look only to relatively recent stereotypes to assume their platforms, ancient Near Eastern women's history can dramatically shake any presuppositions on which these arguments are based. The Song of Songs is a work of unknown origins, perhaps written by women, which somehow landed in the Hebrew Bible. It is an egalitarian Near Eastern love poem that challenges virtually every description of traditional gender roles in romantic relationships, if one looks to stereotypes of womanhood in Medieval Europe, the Victorian Era, or the 1950s, for example, to define traditional.
If we are to look at the Song of Songs as a document or documents that hold/s cultural or gender cues, it is useful to approach the work with some historical understanding about it. This is especially true because there has been and still is so much disagreement about the Song's origin, authorship, purpose--and even genre. Seeing that there is no clear consensus among the experts can liberate and empower the lay reader to feel that his or her own ideas are valid.
Traditionally, the Song of Songs was said to be allegorical. The only love poetry in the Bible, and certainly the only pro-woman erotica, it was justified as being representative of God's love for Israel. Many...