Let’s set aside ambition. Although Huma Abedin, the wife of Anthony Weiner – currently regarded as manna from heaven by late-night comics who regard Weiner’s continued sexting with his self-chosen handle “Carlos Danger” as unbelievable fodder for gags – is no shrinking violet, she lacks the rip-the-baby-from-the-breast mania of Lady Macbeth. Ambitious, yes. For herself, not so much these days, when she’s riding her husband’s soiled coattails.
Let’s also put away, for the moment, the history of embarrassed American political wives. Hillary Clinton was not the first First Lady – when can we alter that to the useful First Spouse? – to stand by her man. American political newspapers, television, and now Twitter-sphere have been littered with the wreckage of broken marital vows and betrayed hearts. Huma Abedin is following in those women’s footsteps in pronouncing herself “supportive” of her ridiculously immature husband – a bad move in the 21st century, as we will see below – but she need not. Jenny Sanford of South Carolina did not do so, thank goodness, after her then-governor then-husband was discovered not on the Appalachian Trail but in another nation entirely. In 2013, one need not follow a script dictating that one trot oneself out and publicly “forgive” the jerk one married years before.
So, back-burnering ambition and American custom, let’s look, instead, at Huma’s past. As therapists know, what we grow up with is incredibly influential in how we make decisions as adults.
Huma’s parents were from South Asia. Her father, Syed Zainul Abedin, born in India in 1928, received his first college degree from Aligarh Muslim University, southeast of Delhi, and later earned a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. He was an Islamic scholar, founded the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs (consulting and advising where Muslims are a religious minority, as in India), acted as a consultant to the Muslim World League, and died in 1993 when Huma was a teenager (her father was 48 when Huma was born in 1976).
Huma’s mother, Saleha Mahmood Abedin, was born in northwest India (now Pakistan) in 1940. Twelve years younger than her husband, she met him at the University of Pennsylvania, where she received a PhD in sociology in 1977. For many years she has taught sociology at Dar Al-Hekma College, a women’s college in Saudi Arabia.
Not long after Huma’s mother finished her PhD, the family packed up and moved to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Huma was two years old, and did not live in the US again until she attended college at George Washington University.
If it’s me reading the signs, here’s what we have:
Both parents from South Asia but with a desire to experience a purer form of Muslim life in Saudi Arabia. Willing to put their only child under the heavy strictures that Saudi Arabia imposes on girls and women. An Islamic scholar father, much older than his wife. Perhaps dictatorial, certainly deferred to. A man whose power was backed up by Saudi law.
In Jeddah, Huma’s father would have been entitled to up to four legal wives. There’s no evidence that he married anyone other than Huma’s mother, but no evidence that he remained monogamous, either. Considering his work, he might have been ridiculed by other men had he not taken additional wives.
At least one writer regards Huma’s mother as an “influential sharia activist” who has, in her writings, provided justification for the legal subordination of women to men, and appallingly, female genital mutilation (FGM), which pre-dates Islam (it was inflicted in ancient Egypt) and is slowly losing ground – due in part to its demonstrated harm to women’s reproductive lives. (In that context, it’s worth wondering if as a child Huma herself was subjected to cutting, and if her health has been imperiled as a result.)
In addition, Huma herself was raised, not in India, but in sectarian, dogmatic Saudi Arabia, with its strictures on females of all ages. It would be ridiculous to assume that she only experienced societal limits after menarche. In fact, Saudi girls routinely watch their mothers, aunts and older sisters being inhibited and punished, and they hear from friends about their own families. Secrets are kept, but the truth also emerges.
If in Saudi Arabia, Huma’s father had sexted a young woman, if he had promised her an apartment to be shared as a lovenest, if he had held lewd conversations with her (all of which Anthony Weiner has done, in an incredible display of hubris and power-wielding), how would Huma’s mother have acted?
What would Mommy do?
Mommy would have grinned and borne it. She would have let it go. She would have regarded it as one more thing permitted to husbands in a society where being male confers incredible license. She would have remembered that under Saudi law, divorce might see Huma legally snatched from her mother and deposited with her father, forever.
Most of all, Huma’s mother would feel relieved that her husband was merely using social media, not taking to wife a newer, younger woman who would perhaps turn the husband against the mother of his child.
All of the above help us understand why Huma has chosen a path that made the New York Post front-page, in its frustration, “What’s Wrong With You?”. If the Post were published in the Arab world, however, it might be blazoned with “Fantastic Job, Huma!” or “Setting a Good Example for Girls”. Even when her husband, at last count, now admits to sexting three different women since resigning from Congress, layering lie upon lie, and when according to polls his political stock among voters has taken a nosedive.
The problems with Huma’s approach go to the heart of why she ought to choose a different path: she no longer lives in Saudi Arabia, and she’s not married to a strict Muslim husband – though Weiner’s brash sense of entitlement and arrogance seem to fit him for the role. She lives in the US. She might have political aspirations of her own. If she does, she’s going about this all wrong. Huma is playing 21st-century politics with an old-fashioned game plan.
Plus, she’s setting her son up to be an abuser, and any future daughter (or daughter-in-law) to be abused.
As a Guardian reader commented: “… Would anyone out there want to see their daughter in Huma’s position, defending a man with zero understanding of his problems, shrugging off these incidents as if he was caught shoplifting instead of texting nude shots of himself to a young woman whom he not only wanted to set up in a Chicago apartment but declared his undying love for?” Answer: no, not in the US.
Huma, listen up: In America, smart women aren’t doormats. We don’t put up with abuse. You’re a very intelligent woman, but IQ does not equal EQ, and on this subject, you’re bog-standard stupid. In five years, or ten, or twenty, whenever you feel like running for office yourself, do you really think American women will praise the memory of your getting up there and defending your abuser? Puh-leez! We’re much more likely to say, oh, here’s that idiot, the woman who knew her husband sexted under the handle of “Carlos Danger”, who knew he lied about it, who did not insist on ongoing therapy, and stayed with him. And excused him, and encouraged us to excuse him, too.
Vote for Huma? Not on your life.
Do you get it? Gut the oldie-goldie behaviors you learned as a child. If your mother’s suggesting you stay with your abusive husband – when the rest of the US is aghast – figure out what you want. Do you want to run for public office? Want people to vote for you? The path you’re taking will not lead to success, not these days.
The New York Post suggests Huma might have a “pathological need to be publicly humiliated”. What she has looks like, instead, a pathological need to be regarded as a perfect wife according to outdated and harmful models, the models she learned as a child.
“When I was a child, I spoke like a child.” It’s time for Huma Abedin to speak like an adult. Otherwise, we the people will infer that she and her husband richly deserve each other.