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"Time Zero" author Carolyn Cahagan. (Supplied)

Page turner

Novelist creates a dystopian world for girls, inspired by homegrown fundamentalism

By Carolyn Cohagan on April 19, 2016

Time Zero is my new young adult novel about a 15-year-old girl living in a future Manhattan that has been taken over by extremists. What makes the book unique is that all the religious rules have been taken from existing fundamentalist religions, including those that originate in the United States. Each rule that the heroine, Mina Clark, follows is governing the life of a girl somewhere in the world right now.

I began writing Time Zero in 2010. I was disturbed by the news coming from Afghanistan concerning the Taliban and their unconscionable suppression of women’s rights. Despite the presence of U.S. troops, the Taliban was continuing to keep girls from attending school, banning women from working, and using strict dress and conduct codes to make girls virtual prisoners in their homes. In August, a shocking cover of Time magazine introduced the world to an 18-year-old girl who had had her nose and ears cut off by a Taliban commander for fleeing her abusive in-laws.

As horrified as I was by the actions of the Taliban, I was also exasperated by the hypocrisy that I felt Americans displayed when they discussed “fundamentalism,” as if it were a problem that only occurred outside of the United States and only pertained to Islam. For example, America has an enormous problem with forced marriages. According to a 2015 NPR story, between 2000 and 2010, nearly 4,000 children were married in New York State alone. “They came from families of Muslim, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and other faiths, from immigrant families from many countries and from non-immigrant communities, too.” Many states allow girls under the age of 18 (and as young as 12 in Massachusetts) to be married as long as they have permission from their parents.

"Time Zero" cover.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office reported in 2005 that “20,000 to 40,000 or more people currently practice polygamy in the United States based upon a fundamentalist interpretation of early Mormon teaching and doctrine.” Women who have left the fold describe being forced to drop out of school as teenagers in order to enter into arranged marriages with significantly older men. Within the church, “blood atonement” for an unforgivable sin can be given as an excuse for domestic violence. After managing to escape Warren Jeffs’ congregation, Carolyn Jessop explained, “In the FLDS culture, a man’s wife is his property and he can do whatever he wants to do to her.”

Within the Hasidic Jewish community of Kiryas Joel in upstate New York, women aren’t allowed to drive. In a profile of former member Frimet Goldberger, The Huffington Post describes the subservient role: “Women are taught that their intellect isn’t as strong as men’s and that they lack the capacity to reason — which causes them to doubt themselves when they begin to question the rules of their community.” Deborah Feldman, who was raised in a Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn and married at the age of 17, explains in her book Unorthodox that her husband wasn’t allowed to touch her during her menstrual cycle: “For two weeks every month, [your husband] can’t touch you. He can’t hand you a glass, even if your fingers don’t touch . . . It makes you feel so gross.”

If these examples seem like the behavior of a select few having nothing to do with mainstream America, consider the fact that a 2013 study by the Washington Post found that 59 percent of Evangelical Christians believe the bible to be the literal word of God. This means that more than 50 million Americans believe in the validity of passages such as Ephesians 5:24 (“Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything”) and 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet”.)

I have been dismayed that despite these statistics (or maybe because of them) many girls today are not involved with the fight for women’s rights. Some young pop stars and actresses hesitate to call themselves “feminists.” Conservatives have done a very good job of obfuscating the meaning of the word. So when I began to write Time Zero, I thought, “Let’s really examine what it means to not have rights as a woman, and let’s not just do it as sci-fi or fantasy. Let’s ground it in reality, so it can have real resonance.”

I believe the best way to engage young people is through pop culture. I’m not interested in making teenagers feel as if they are in school. I set out to write a thrilling page-turner that would keep readers entertained. I created a character, Mina, whom they could really root for. I want girls to empathize with her and her restrictions, and my experience is that fiction is the best pathway to empathy. I defy anyone, male or female, to read Time Zero and not be a feminist by the last page.

Religion is always an extremely sensitive topic. It is not my intention to belittle or refute any faith. My goal with Time Zero is to call attention to extremism as a universal problem and to highlight how it specifically harms girls.

As the world moves forward with technology and communication, one might assume that social progress is inevitable within these conservative communities. On the contrary, according to the religious scholar Karen Armstrong, fundamentalism thrives in times of technological leaps forward. “All fundamentalists feel that in a secular society, God has been relegated to the margin, to the periphery and they are all in different ways seeking to drag him out of that peripheral position, back to center stage.”

This is why now more than ever it is important to engage in conversations about why these rules exist and how we can help eliminate them.

Carolyn Cohagan is the author of The Lost Children (Simon & Schuster, 2010) and Time Zero (She Writes Press, May 2016).