Women, History and Curiosity
This is a wonderful editorial I read today in Kaieteur News, a newspaper in Guyana, South America.
Women, History and Curiosity
Kaieteur News – December 12, 2007
The release of the new movie, “The Golden Compass”, based on the first book of the trilogy by the writer Philip Pullman, has generated some controversy. Expected by many to succeed the Harry Potter phenomenon in publishing and cinema, Pullman ‘s works, however, are quite a cut above Rowling’s.
He explores the universal curiosity of the human mind to discover “truth,” and the evidently just as universal reaction by authorities to quell that curiosity. While Pullman has apparently chosen the Church as the protagonist for the suppression of curiosity, it might have been any authority – especially governments with their drive for control.
The problem, it appears, is that curiosity explores new worlds and brings to light new ideas and concepts. It becomes a dangerous weapon to challenge the centuries-old traditions and outdated values. Societies and privileged classes make attempts to block the process of curiosity using religious and social sanctions and implementing laws that suggest ‘not to cross the border of existing knowledge’.
That is why in the Bible it is referred to as the ‘lust of the eyes’ and warns not to know more than what God has bestowed upon humankind. Those who pursue curiosity are condemned by conservative circles as rebels.
However, curiosity is such an intense urge that, in spite of all taboos and prohibitions, scientists, historians, artists and men of letters continuously try and discover new venues to broaden the sphere of knowledge.
In the days of yore, women were accused of breaking barriers in their pursuit of knowledge. Eve and Pandora are prominent in old literature as the ‘rebel women’. In the medieval period, women were pushed back from active life, making them become an object of curiosity. It was assumed that they knew about some secrets and mysteries.
Especially in Europe , women were hunted as witches. It is said that witch-hunting deprived women of medical knowledge acquired by studying different kinds of herbs. Actually, it was men’s attempt to subdue women and lower their status in society.
When European powers discovered the New World and found people living a “primitive” life, it was curiosity that led them to discover their past history and culture in order to dominate them. The new disciplines of ethnography and anthropology were systematically organised to understand the colonised societies.
In this way, curiosity helped colonisation and imperialism to understand the different kinds of societies and their cultures. When travellers of the ancient and medieval periods would come back from visiting other countries, it was their aim to create curiosity among people by narrating interesting stories of the lands that they had visited. One such example is of Sir Walter Raleigh and the legend of El Dorado that led him and so many others to seek the fabled “city of gold” that was supposed to be in the interior of our country.
Such lurid stories could be accepted because of the exotic way the Europeans defined the “other” – especially women. That Raleigh was beheaded by a woman, Queen Elizabeth, is rather ironic in light of the continued diminution of the contributions of women that such “discoverers” perpetuated.
In addition to adventurism, the element of curiosity stimulated Europeans to collect different artefacts from all over the world.
When hidden sites belonging to ancient civilisations were unearthed through archaeological expeditions, a number of antiquities were discovered. This led to the concept of setting up museums in order to preserve these antiquities as past heritage. The first museum was set up in 1581 in Italy at Uffizi Palace . The Vatican City had its own in 1740. The British Museum was established in 1753. Other European countries followed, and nearly every city claimed to have a museum of its own.
The museums, of course, help to define the canonical “knowledge,” in which, of course, women were literally “put in their place”.
It is interesting that Pullman chose a twelve-year-old girl, a curious rebel, to be the one who leads the quest for the truth beyond the dogmas that the authorities insist on forcing down everyone’s throats. And a girl child shall set us free?