Imperialist Power, the FLDS Community and Why We Should Care
By Ayla Serenemoon
Throughout history the world over, imperialists have known how to break a culture – you take away their children. During the burning times in Europe my own great grandparents, seven times back, were thrown in jail, accused of witchcraft, along with their neighbors. Their children, eight total, ranging in age from 17 to 4 years old, starved to death, were shipped as indentured servants to the United States or, as in the case of my great aunts, were shipped to England to become maids.
In the United States Native American children were forcibly removed from their homes and given to white schools for re-education into Western culture (Smith). Children of the Saami, the indigenous people of Northern Europe and Russia, were taken by the imperialist Europeans moving into the area and re-educated away from their tribal, pagan, culture in the 1900s (Grahn).
It's a pattern acted out across the globe by conquering armies and brutal leaders – take the children, break the family and then rebuild them in the image of the power at hand. Conformity through the cruelest torture – turning your own children against you.
On Wednesday, April 2nd, 2008, I went to bed in America, by Thursday April 3rd, 2008, it was no longer clear to me where any of us were living. Why? Because on that warm and sunny Thursday Texas state authorities raided the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) ranch in Eldorado, TX (Johnson and Dougherty). Acting on a call to the child protective authorities, which was later shown to have been a fraud, police and CPS officers stormed this quiet community with tanks, guns, riot gear and large busses (Jessop).
They rounded up the women and their over 400 children and bussed them to various locations including a coliseum. Tagged like cattle these women and children were denied the ability to pray, made to drink mysterious liquids, submit to unexplained medical exams, kept in cold conditions without adequate blankets and eventually all the children 12 months and older were forcibly peeled off their crying and grieving mothers and taken to hundreds of foster homes around the state (Jessop). Siblings were split up (Adams) and a trauma that is likely to last generations began.
As a woman, as a mother and as a feminist I am outraged both at the US government for perpetrating this crime against these women and children and by the lack of response from the liberal, feminist and motherhood communities of the US and the world.
Time and time again I read article's which imply or outright state that these FLDS children should be removed from these women because they are growing up in a patriarchal, fundamentalist group where men have total control, women are married off very early to much older men, children are sheltered, home schooled, kept from any outside influences such as TV or newspapers and lets not forget, by our standards, they dress "funny". Angie Voss from the Texas department of Family and Protective Services testified that because abuse may happen at some point in the future it is justified to steal over 400 children from their mothers (Sly).
If these children and women are in harms way because of the fundamentalist teachings of the FLDS community and their practice of early and plural marriage remind me again how it serves anyone to take these beloved children from their devoted mothers? Wouldn't it serve everyone better to investigate the men, their power and practices? Why are the children and mothers being made to serve the punishment of crimes they themselves did not commit?
I'm not going to suggest that young girls are not sometimes being pressured to marry much older men in the FLDS community – that would be ludicrous, we all know it happens. But what I am saying is that our society's quick judgment of them for it is out of place, the punishment happening does not fit the crime and the numbers of teen mothers in the YFZ community has been exaggerated in the media since day one.
This raid of the Texas FLDS community is nothing short of an imperialist assault on an ethnic and cultural minority. An ethnic and cultural minority was defined by High Commissioner van der Stoel in his keynote address at the opening of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Minorities Seminar in Warsaw in 1994. He stated, "First of all, a minority is a group with linguistic, ethnic or cultural characteristics, which distinguish it from the majority. Secondly, a minority is a group which usually not only seeks to maintain its identity but also tries to give stronger expression to that identity (www.osce.org)."
We need to start seeing these men, women and children with their conservative clothing, their long braided hair, their practice of simple living, and yes, even their practice of plural marriage, as elements of their unique and valid culture and certainly not automatic evidence of child abuse either present or potential.
Of the 139 women seized and imprisoned, to date, April 29th, 2008, the highest estimate is that 31 of these women are teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 who are either pregnant, mothers or both. This number must also be taken with a grain of salt because according to Salt Lake attorney Rod Parker, a spokesman for the FLDS, of the three teenage mothers originally identified by CPS, one teenager refused to take a pregnancy test, one is 18 and the other is 17. He also contends that the state's new count of 31 teenage mothers includes 17 adult women who are being classified incorrectly as minors (Adams).
So let's look at these numbers and run a little comparison. The low end of the reports say there are 3 teenage mothers out of 139 women total, the high end of the report claims 31 teenage mothers out of 139 women. So anywhere from 2 % to 22% of the women seized by authorities at the Yearning for Zion FLDS community were teenage mothers.
According to Victor C Strasburger, MD University of New Mexico, about one million teens on average becomes pregnant every year in the US. About one third of these pregnancies end in abortion, one third in miscarriage and one third are carried to term. More than half of these mothers are 17 years or younger when they get pregnant for the first time. Approximately 40% of young women become pregnant by the age of 20 and the US has double the adolescent pregnancy and birth rates of any other industrialized nation (Strasburger).
Considering that 3 to 31 teen mothers were found out of supposedly 53 teenage girls taken captive, we can clearly see that the number of pregnant girls in the FLDS community is not that out of step with the US population in general. 40% of US women become pregnant by the age of 20 and within the FLDS teenage women we find that anywhere from about 6% to 56% of teenagers were pregnant, mothers or both at the time of the raid (also bare in mind that 1/3 of all US teen pregnancies ends in abortion and the FLDS community does not believe in abortion thus resulting in a higher number of teenage girls who have carried their babies to term in comparison to the US average).
Still you may think something has to be done when a fifty year-old man rapes a 14 year-old and we know this can, and has, happened in the past. But how does it punish the rapist by taking the child from the mother? Is the mother any less of a mother because she had her child young?
Does it matter if a fourteen-year-old gets pregnant by choice or rape as it relates to her maintaining custody of her child? Absolutely not. Cases of rape and abuse should be fully investigated and action taken but rounding up all the women and children was a wrong first step to take by the Texas CPS. Individual family investigation would have been preferable.
The FLDS community has a practice they term "bleeding the beast" (Kaye) which means applying for and receiving as much social welfare support as they can in the form of food stamps, cash aide, medical services, WIC, and other government programs. Anyone who has ever applied for a government program before knows that to take part you and your child must have a birth certificate and social security number.
The FLDS are not simply breeding like crazy in the desert with no way to track who's being born, who's dying, who's sick, who's disabled, etc. They are all easily traceable and a family-by-family investigation would have been a time consuming processes but would have spared all the heartache and torture these families have gone through.
The reaction I usually get when defending aspects of the FLDS community goes something likes this, "But what if you're a young girl who falls in love with a young boy your age and you aren't allowed to marry him because you're being told you have to marry some 50 year-old man? That's oppressive and wrong." Yes, not having the freedom of choice is oppressive and in an ideal world we would all have the freedom of choice in our lives that we wanted.
However we in the US have absolutely no right to judge the FLDS community for their practice of pressuring girls into certain marriages because we do it to women everyday here in the US. What would happen to that 16 year-old FLDS girl who chooses to run away with a 16 year-old boy instead of marrying the 50 year-old man? Most likely they will both be shunned in some form or another by their family, peers and society within the FLDS community, perhaps even kicked out entirely.
Let's take a look at this in the terms of the prevailing American culture. What if an 18 year-old woman fell in love with a 50 year-old man? Would they be able to go to church and have a beautiful and happy wedding day surrounded by supportive friends and family? I seriously doubt it. In fact I met a couple two years ago who had recently moved to my town. She was in her very early twenties and he was almost fifty.
They had met and feel in love in their home community of Southern CA. Their love was so demonized by friends, family and their community at large (which is one of the most liberal in the country) that they had to move across the state to get a little peace and start a much desired family without being sneered at in the supermarket check out line. Via community pressure they were essentially kicked out of their home because they bucked the convention in their love.
Teen pregnancy and large age differences aside I think that many in the US and the Western world are not outraged enough by this raid and rape of the FLDS culture because the FLDS people are so "weird". They stay in their own close-knit communities with little or no contact with the outside world, they don't watch TV, they control their children's schooling, they dress nearly as conservatively as the Amish and each woman has many children. It seems that the majority opinion from many good liberal, conservative and/or feminist people would never consider supporting the rights of the FLDS women to live as they do.
In American society at large we believe that because we had a women's movement in the 1960's and 70's that we have gained independence from constrictive gender and social roles. Women in America often look down on FLDS women and find them ignorant, quaint and oppressed. However any society has restrictions, limitations and social norms. The FLDS dress a certain way, have certain jobs or positions open to them, worship in a certain way and often have numerous children, yet their practices are viewed as narrow by outsiders.
I want to argue, that our current American society is no less restrictive then the FLDS – we simply express those restrictions differently. We have an accepted way of dress in our society. To dress outside the norm can mean to be refused service at a business (no, shirt, no shoes, no service). To not conform to American society's dress code can also mean being turned down for a job, credit application, bank loan, home loan, social services, or even entrance into a building.
To look different in our society, whether that be your clothes, hair, to shave or not to shave, etc. can limit your access not only to employment but to food itself. You will be targeted by police officers, security guards and if you must appear in court, for a child custody hearing for example, you must either conform your appearance or risk severe discrimination – if you are taken seriously at all to begin with.
These restrictions are expressed in our society in other ways as well. If you are of a different faith other than the Judeo-Christian "norm" you also can be turned down for employment, housing, services and be targeted by law enforcement. Although discrimination based on faith is technically illegal in the US it happens every day. I myself choose to birth-at-home, practice an alternative faith, home school my children, and practice a vegetarian diet and for this I have been targeted in one way or another many times.
This is a common tale among people in our society who are alternative in their lifestyle whether that be wiccan, gay, bisexual, polyamorus, home birthers, etc. There are many factors in place both in society and within our own families to keep us in the roles and places our society has set for us. How is that any different than the factors set in place to encourage these young women in FLDS community to marry young, have many children and live a conservative lifestyle?
As odd as you may find their lifestyle this does not make them criminal nor does it make them abusers of their children. Many religious communities have a form of dress they practice including but not limited to; the Amish, Orthodox Jews, and Muslims. Many communities have little to no contact outside of their own communities including; again, the Amish and the LDS church (especially Utah LDS members who rarely encounter a non-LDS person unless they live in a large metropolitan area such as Salt Lake City).
I personally do not allow my children to watch TV; I also limit their exposure to the more materialistic and violent aspects of Western culture. I home school my children so that I can control and improve their education and teach them my values, which is the right of every American citizen including those FLDS families. Many Americans live in small, close-knit communities and practice a simple way of life like the FLDS members.
This simple, humble, way of life for the FLDS begins with birth. They birth at home for the most part, and their children are always with their mothers. These children have been raised their whole lives with constant attention and love from their extended families. They have grown their own food, cook meals, said prayers, and slept next to their family members everyday. Can you imagine the suffering these children are now going through being shoved into the huge, wide, unfamiliar world with no family nearby to comfort them, without the love of their precious and ever present mothers? These FLDS children are not even accustom to daycare, they have always been with their mothers and siblings.
But what about the plural marriage, you may wonder. Certainly that's oppressive and damaging to both the women and the children. Not by a long shot. Many people in our US culture practice what is known as serial monogamy. While having little tolerance for other marriage practices, we in the West, often get married, commit infidelity, divorce, separate and remarry.
According to the anonymous author of the book Spiritual Polyamory (polyamory being a modern term to describe loving more than one person, at one time), the adoption of a more tribal marriage style encourages freedom, honesty, and self-empowerment. Not relying on one person to make you whole, you instead rely upon yourself and your inner strength to contend with feelings of jealousy and lack of self worth (Spiritual Polyamory, author remains anonymous).
Polygamy is not just practiced by the FLDS members. Many biblical characters are polygamists; cultures in the Sudan and East Asia are polygamist as well. Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Paganism all have examples either past or present of polygamy.
If we let this invasion and rape of the FLDS community continue who will be next? Will they perhaps remove the children of polyamorus, transgender or homosexual families? Will they routinely be taking children from any teen mothers in our country from now on? Will CPS be investigating Irish Catholic families with eight children simply because they have a lot of children? What about the Amish with their style of dress, no electricity, young marriages and large families? Will families controlling their children's education either through home school or private school find themselves targeted next?
As a united community of moms, dads, liberals, conservatives, feminists, home schoolers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc. we must stand up and say no to what has happened in Texas. We must put our feet down and say that suspected or potential abuse is no reason to strip the civil liberties of a group of people and exercise cookie cutter politics on them in mass. We must reign in the rouge agency of child protective services across this country and stop the abuse that CPS is visiting upon countless families who live alternative lifestyles. We should all care, and once we realize we do, we need to all act.
Ayla Serenemoon, M.A., Women's Spirituality, is a mother and writer living in Northern California. Ayla lived near the FLDS community of Utah in 2004 and shared such features with them as the same grocery stores and home birth networks. Ayla's husband grew up next to, and attend school with, the FLDS community of Hilldale, UT. Ayla blogs over at www.motherlovergoddess.blogspot.com and welcomes contact from anyone interested in organizing social events, sit-ins or protests regarding the treatment of the FDLS women and children. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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