I’ve been immersed in the book of Esther lately, giving messages at a few different churches about the story. Now, as good books (and even movies) often do, I see the world using its light and I find new perspective. What has completely captured my attention is the back story – the way in which Queen Esther rose to her place of power and influence.
[Warning: cue feminist flags to wave. OR, just my motherly flag.]
After Queen Vashti lost her crown for insubordination, the King’s advisers recommended he find a new Queen. The method, as was custom in the day, called for eligible young maidens all over the land to come to the palace for a year of beauty treatments. When her time came, the young girl spent a night with the King. As soon as he found one he was pleased with, he would name her Queen.
This is the PG version. Nearly a Cinderella* story. Let’s examine.
First of all, the age of eligibility for these candidates is around 13. Second of all, the culture was not one that really asked her opinion if she wanted to go. But those seem almost minor when considering other facts about this process.
They started in the harem for their year of beauty treatments. After their try-out appearance, they would go to another, separate quarters for the king’s concubines. They would never return to see the king again unless he summoned them by name. And let’s be honest. If he’s getting a new one every night, how good are his name-remembering skills? Some men can’t remember a girl’s name 2 hours after meeting her at a bar, let alone a year or two later among hundreds of others.
So this girl’s entire life, her worth, gets reduced to one night with the king. No pressure.
And that post-King-night life – let’s think on that. She’s living with hundreds of other passed-over, B Team girls. No one other than immediate family and the eunuchs are allowed in the harem. Because she’s no longer a virgin, she’s not really bridal material. Her one night with the king forfeited her future with a husband, family, village and greater community with which she had grown up. And I’ll mention one source cited the average age of death for women living in the harem is 17. Details were sketchy as to why such short life expectancy, only that “harem life was hard” and likely took an emotional toll that we’re unable to really fathom.
So if harem life, as a concubine to the King, seems less than desirable, then how did the King fill his 365 nights with fresh young women? Well, for starters, he is the king. They tend to get what they want. But also we have to peer into the culture of the day. Young women were rarely an asset and most often a liability. They required things like food and shelter but couldn’t own much.
A young women generally left the house as one of 3: a slave, a concubine or a wife (listed in order of least to greatest social desirability). A slave was sold into the role but could be released after 7 years of service. A concubine was a cross between a slave and a wife – not sold, but yet she also came without a dowry, regarded as a linchpin of marriage, so also not the status of wife. She was cared for in the general sense that she was fed and housed and clothed, but the husband did not see her with the stature he would his wife. (On a positive note: any children a concubine would bear would be considered “true” heirs and the man would be required to take care of them, no matter if the woman left the arrangement or not). Lastly came the wife. She largely played a subservient role in the relationship, however – as we see throughout the Bible – there are specific ways God called society to a higher standard. Marriages weren’t often arranged around love, but rather economic and social factors, so commanding a man to love his wife made considerable leaps. Though, admittedly not quite to the level which we enjoy today (or the extent we continue to call for in pockets of contemporary culture).
So tell me, dear friends – how would you wish to send your little girl out into the world? The goal would be wife. But when drought comes or the beloved horse dies or any of the unforeseeable occurs, how does the family afford the week-long wedding affair and the costly dowry required of a good marriage? Perhaps this one-night shot with the king isn’t such a bad option. Perhaps she will please him most of all. At worst, she’ll be fed and clothed – even somewhat “pampered” for a year (though I have my doubts the extent of this pampering… have you ever had anything waxed?). So, yes… take a guess what class of society these harem girls reign from? Probably not upper crust.
So what we have here is a socially acceptable occasion of a man (though Xerxes didn’t come up with the idea) with great power and wealth, taking young women from the homes of families who find themselves amid economic hardship. It’s a good thing that still doesn’t happen today.
The movie Taken
opened my eyes to a culture of power and corruption on the consumption side of modern day sex slave industry; however, in order to sell tickets, the victim was a rich white girl and the “bad guys” were foreign. While I appreciate the platform, we need to acknowledge that the key indicators for sex trafficking include: poverty, young age, limited education, lack of work opportunities, lack of family support (e.g., orphaned, runaway/throwaway, homeless, family members collaborating with traffickers), history of previous sexual abuse, health or mental health challenges, and living in vulnerable areas (e.g., areas with police corruption and high crime). (Source).
I’ve recently heard staggering facts about the issue, starting with the fact that I-75 (which I can nearly spit on from my living room) serves as the “hub” of sexual trafficking, leading up to Toledo where, per capita, the highest concentration of sex slaves in the United States currently reside.
In Ohio. The heartland state. Home.
literally in front of my face – tell me I haven’t seen one of these victims at my gas station or in the fast food restaurants off my exit – and yet thrives under the guise of social acceptance and, often, victim blame.
It simply shouldn’t be.
Mothers Day began as “Mothers Day for Peace“, initiated by a woman who sought to unite women for peace. Essentially, these women were tired of their sons being sent off to war and wanted to express their frustration and a desire for alternative solutions. As the holiday evolved to become a celebration of the mothers, as opposed to their cause, the founder of the holiday actually denounced it. It wasn’t always about flowers and spas and attending church with ma.
So I wonder, what if. What if mothers (and fathers) everywhere reclaimed the roots of the holiday. What if instead of a corsage or a hanging basket we asked our society to find and care for our little girls, sold or stolen from our homes. What if we vowed to raise our motherly voices together and to say this is not okay. These are our children...?
I wish I had something more practical to offer. I wish we could all donate $1 and end it. I wish I could stand on the street corner and point to where the victims are kept or who the perpetrators are, but I don’t know. There’s so much I don’t know. I’m overwhelmed by the enormity and the hiddenness of the entire situation.
So, I do what I can. I’ll point you to an organization centered on fighting it, rehabilitating victims and providing education. Give Gracehaven a motherly hug this month. Or take it a step further and take action on one of the 24 things you can do, even if small. Or leave another committed organization or resource in the comments. I’ll take as many as I can get.
*OMG! I had no idea what kind of message the movie Cinderella was sending until I started lining up the similarities…