Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America

by Laila Lalami

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"Inheritance" Summary and Analysis

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Watching the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, in which Christine Blasey Ford testified that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in the 1980s, Lalami reflected on how frequently the following question was asked: “Why didn’t she report him sooner?” Lalami indicates that she, too, used to naively ask that question about other women before she herself was subjected to harassment. In earlier years, she had worked at a Los Angeles television station where one of the managers inappropriately touched women and used improper language with them. When Lalami told the man not to call another woman “sweetheart,” she was suddenly dismissed from her job, without any credible explanation. She knew that she could never prove to Human Resources that she was fired for “talking back” to the manager, so she quietly let the matter drop and accepted her dismissal. 

With regard to Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony, Lalami enumerates the ways in which the system is biased against women in nearly all such cases. A woman’s word tends to be thought “unreliable” by the male establishment. This is nothing new, and numerous examples in classic literature and in the scriptures of various religions have expressed a bias against accepting a woman’s word as fact and treating her as an equal to men. Lalami notes that as a young girl, she was treated more or less equally with her brother until she reached puberty. From that point on, her parents enforced the different standards to which women are held. Her behavior was restricted more than that of her brothers, and though her father was a secular man, he adhered to the traditional concept of his own “honor” being tied to his daughter’s virginity. Lalami found evidence of this “ambient patriarchal order” in other places. In history class at school, she learned all about the men who have ruled or achieved but little, if anything, of the contributions of women. In literature, the protagonists she studied were nearly always men.

In the 1980s, Lalami was watching, along with her father, an interview on television given by the first woman to become a pilot for Royal Moroccan Airlines. Lalami was surprised when her father commented that the woman was wrong to consider her career more important, as she states, than the traditional female role as a wife and mother. Though Morocco is a kingdom of subjects and the United States is a democracy of equal citizens, the attitude towards women in both places is similar. When Lalami was working in journalism in Morocco before emigrating to the United States, she was sexually harassed. In the office, a liberal columnist she admired grabbed her wrist and demanded that she sit in his lap. As in many such cases, Lalami did not report him and, at the time, mentioned the incident to no one.

Neither Christine Blasey Ford nor, decades earlier, Anita Hill were granted credibility when they made their cases public. Though people in the United States often claim that the “real” discrimination against women occurs chiefly in the Muslim world, Lalami states that she has never felt free and equal, whether in her native country or her adopted one.


In “Inheritance,” Lalami focuses upon a phenomenon that is global, not specifically American. Her examination of the issue of gender discrimination is based upon her own personal experiences as well as public events occurring over the past several decades.

The Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings brought up in many people’s minds questions about why Christine Blasey Ford didn’t report the sexual assault earlier. Apart from the fact that Ford had indeed reported it to her therapist years...

(This entire section contains 865 words.)

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earlier, Lalami draws on her own experiences of sexual harassment to consider why women subjected to harassment so often keep the matter to themselves. For one thing, such incidents are simply embarrassing to talk about. In addition, they often come down to a he-said-she-said situation where there is no objective evidence that an act of harassment occurred. Men tend not to believe women in cases such as this anyway. Most important is probably the fact that reports of harassment are often followed by retribution of some kind, as happened to Lalami when she was fired from her job at the news channel.

These situations are, to some degree, a result of the different ways boys and girls are socialized when they are growing up, Lalami says. In her native Morocco, women are taught a quite different standard of behavior from men, much of it relating to patriarchal notions of a father’s “honor” and the absolute need for a girl to preserve her virginity before she is married. This does not occur as strictly in the United States or Europe as it does in North Africa or the Middle East, but the principle is similar. Even in the West, women are treated according to a different set of standards and expectations than men. That Christine Blasey Ford and Anita Hill were widely doubted and discredited by examining committees is clear evidence that these issues are far from resolved. Lalami’s main point in this chapter is that the unequal status of women is a persistent and universal phenomenon.


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