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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Gender Expectations in the Arab World

One of the many reasons that drove me away from Iraq was gender expectation: since ever I heard my mother saying that I need to get married and have children. Without being a wife and a mother, my life is meaningless. I have seen my sisters, colleagues, TV and media, all nurture this idea that today at the age of 38 and with all what I have achieved in life, I can't really feel complete because I haven't been married, and I don't have kids.

I work on feminism in multi-ethnic communities (US) and explore how women work on their gender identity along with their racial/ethnic identity. Meaning, how to preserve your cultural identity and at the same time celebrate your sense of gender equality. This may sound like out of date and tedious. One may say that women can be anything they want now and feminism is not needed now and this whole debate is pointless. It is not, especially in the world I grew up in, the Arab /Muslim world. 

When culture (whether it stems from religion or social tradition) prescribes certain roles for its members, it definitely limits individual freedom. This is true for all cultures: liberal, conservative, traditional or religious. There is always an implied force higher than the individual that maps for him/her the role they can play in that culture if they want to be part of it, otherwise they will simply be outcast. 

When I was in my teens and it was time to think of man-woman relationship, I was showered with hadiths and verses from the Quran about the superior position of the husband and how rewarding is to be a good wife (obedient wife). The first hadith we learn in school says that heaven is under mothers' feet, which was interpreted that becoming a mother assures women eternal paradise and motivate Muslims to be good to their mothers because they own heaven. But, about those women who never get the chance to be mothers? what is their reward? What about the woman who didn't get married and didn't have the chance to be "good wife", or the one that, for some reason, didn't become a mother? No hadith or Quranic verse talk about these non-existent women!!

Women in the Arab/Islamic world are driven toward these two roles and if they don't play at least one of them, then they are deemed incomplete creature, not even human beings. Because of this sense of inferiority, I have seen many women settle down for "any" marriage, even if it is inconvenient, like marrying unsuitable man, a man they don't love, or accept to be a second wife. Even when there are no economic or social reasons that push these women to such inconvenient marriages, there is always the psychological reason which is this sense of being incomplete, that she won't fulfill her role in life unless she is a wife and a mother.

Marriage becomes only a first step toward fulfilling the ultimate role, to be a mother. Sisters, friends, colleagues, with high education degrees and great career potential would feel that there is nothing like being a mother. It can be true, but by saying that, they embarrass all the wretched women who are no longer marriageable, or sterile wives. Their words imply the message that: if you are not a mother, then unfortunately you have missed your chance to be happy, that you have missed heaven!!

The world of men is different. The world prescribes for them different roles: the world asks men to work hard, to have a career and provide for themselves. A single man who is not married is not socially stigmatized, but a hero who decided to stay away from the cage of marriage. His achievement in life is not measured by his social status, whatever he does in his private life is his own choice. However, truth to be said that in our culture even men are pushed into reproduction to keep the family name, but the pressure is definitely less than the one placed on women. A single man is single by choice. A single woman means "no one wanted her"!! A childless husband is free from all the pressures of fatherhood; a childless wife is sterile woman!

The judgments and the social pressure that women in the Arab/Muslim world come from their immediate social circles, mostly from women themselves. That is why feminism is failing there: it is no more than a thought advanced by women who 'failed' to be what they should be 'good wives and mothers'! The persistent idea that feminism is only for women who couldn't secure a husband, who couldn't breed makes all the efforts of women activists who work for women empowerment fruitless. There is always the implied presumption that feminism is against family life: to be a feminist then there is the claim of being against marriage and against motherhood for the preference of career, which is deemed unnatural.

As long as these thoughts persist in the Arab/Muslim world, women empowerment is failing, feminism is a taboo and women's situation continues to be the worst. For women empowerment to succeed and to have the hope for individual freedom to prevail in our culture one day, we need, first women to realize that they are equally human to men. The biological differences between male and female do not mean less or more humanization, and do not prescribe inferiority. When women accept that, and start question every demeaning thought or measure against their humanity, then we can have hope to improve our situation.

Nadia Fayidh Mohammed    

1 comment:

  1. This is an important piece of writing, Nadia. Must share.
    I have comments that need to wait until I'm more awake.
    ~ Sally Gerlitz