Missing International Women’s Day

I missed the celebration of International Women’s Day this year (it was on March 8th). It’s not that I wasn’t aware of it. I just didn’t care.

That’s a terrible thing for a feminist to say. How can I not care about the plight of women all over the world?

All I can say in my defense is that, as a feminist, I sometimes have to fall back on the adage:  “Do as I say, not as I do.” Of course I should care about International Women’s Day. Just as I should care about all feminist issues. But the truth is, sometimes I’m just too involved in trying to live my own life to be concerned about the lives of others.

I’m not much of an activist. My actions on behalf on feminism are pretty much limited to signing email petitions and writing for this blog. I also rant and rave about feminist issues when I’m watching the news or reading comments on the Internet. And I spout feminist ideology when I’m talking with my friends, sister, daughters and husband. I’m constantly trying to parse what feminism means to me as an American, a Muslim, and an over-the-hill Second Wave feminist.

In the TED Talk that I posted yesterday, Courtney Martin spoke about how we all must accept our smallness while believing in our greatness. It’s easy to get down on ourselves for not accomplishing more, but it’s important to see the ways that we do make a difference. We make a difference by the way that we handle the details of our lives.

When I give advice or voice an opinion as a feminist, I’m always uncomfortably aware of how badly I’ve lived up to the feminist ideology in my own life. I dropped out of college when I was twenty to get married. I started having babies right away. I put aside my desires for self-advancement during my children’s younger years. I worked at a job that was meaningless and toxic toward women for over sixteen years. I never had enough guts to stay unmarried while trying to raise my children. (I thought I was remarrying for love, but it was mostly because I felt overwhelmed by single parenthood.) I demeaned myself by having an affair with a married man. And I never, ever got it straight that being a woman did not mean that I couldn’t be a success.

But at the same time, I’ve never wavered in my support of other women. Maybe having four daughters contributed to that attitude (well, of course it did), but I’ve always  been aware of the injustices dealt to women just because they’re women. I haven’t always been the best example to my daughters, but one thing they learned from me was to never settle for less than the best for themselves.

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Our Society’s Treatment of Mothers

On page 134 of the latest issue of The  New Yorker magazine, there’s a cartoon which illustrates one of the main themes of feminism. A woman with a baby in her arms and a little girl by her side is saying to her husband who is sitting in his easy chair in front of the television, remote control in hand: “I know we’re married, but I’d still like to work out a shared-custody arrangement. ”

I can relate to that. I can’t count how many times my husband woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me that the baby was crying. Or gave me the third degree every time I left the house alone because he was so concerned that he might have to do something for the kids. (Are they fed/bathed/ready for bed? Are there enough diapers? Do they have clean pajamas?) FindLaw has a check list to help determine which parent is the primary caregiver for purposes of assigning custody. Out of 61 items, the only thing my husband did consistently was help plan our family vacations (i.e., decide where we were going to go).

Most divorced mothers, if they’re honest, would agree that one of the perks of divorce is that their ex-husbands take the kids off their hands every once in a while. But I’m convinced that one reason some divorced fathers don’t fight for sole custody is because they know better. Why would they take on full-time responsibility for the kids when they can just pay child support and have someone else do it? (That doesn’t stop them from bitching about the child support, mind you, but some men are willing to pay it rather than have custody.)

In response to one of my posts, “Danni” wrote that she works full-time, cleans the house and is primary caregiver for her child. “Others may see it as a sacrifice. I do not,” she said. “I see it as [a woman] making the choice that her children and family are more important to her than a career.”

But frankly, it doesn’t always feel like a choice. Our society tells women that they’re not good mothers unless they do take on the role of primary caregiver for the children, even if they also have full-time jobs outside of the home. Even with all the strides made by the feminist movement in the last fifty years, this belief has remained unshaken.

I don’t think there’s a woman alive who hasn’t resented the fact that she has to do everything for the children. And that includes women who have freely chosen to be the primary caregiver. It just feels like too much at times. Children are so needy that it can be a full-time job just to take care of them. Never mind that over 60-70% of women with minor children work outside of the home. [Source.]

Even when women want to stay home with their kids, the economy makes it impossible. In fact, even more women have entered the work force since the economy ran off the tracks in 2008, partly because of high unemployment among men. Does that mean that men are shouldering more of the household burden? I couldn’t find statistics on that, but my guess would be, not so much. That’s how ingrained it is in our society that women are supposed to be in charge of housekeeping and child care.

Whether you’re a SAHM (stay-at-home mom) or a “working” mom, it can get awfully old when you’re not appreciated for what you do for the family. Men are held up as paragons of virtue if they work and help out at home. But women—well, it’s what they do, right?

Feminists aren’t so good about championing the cause of mothers, and that needs to change. Older feminists worked harder to change how women were treated in the workplace than in the home. Younger feminists haven’t been mothers yet, or long enough, for it to hit them how important this issue really is.

All I’m saying is that if we’re going to continue to see mothers as primary caregivers, then they deserve all the support we can give them, physically, emotionally, politically and legally. Because the bottom line is, if we take care of mothers, we’re making this a better society for our children.

And who wouldn’t want that?

My Views On Feminism and Islam

How am I able to reconcile my feminism with my religion? Some people might think that I’ve reshaped Islam to fit into a feminist framework. But I think it’s more accurate to say that the opposite is true. There are a lot of elements in my version of feminism that are compatible with Islam. They include:

  1. Being an advocate for women.
  2. Viewing a woman as just as important to God as a man is.
  3. Believing that men and women are equally accountable to God.
  4. Recognizing that there are some inherent differences between the sexes.
  5. Refusing to generalize about men and women based on gender roles.

The first one, being an advocate for women, is what I’m all about as a feminist. A feminist is worthless if she doesn’t support the choices and address  the concerns of all women. Feminism, especially Second-wave feminism, has been criticized for having too narrow a focus, specifically one that is white and middle-class (and, one could add, Western). This leads to all kinds of preconceived notions about what makes a woman liberated. Working women look down on stay-at-home moms. White women think that black women should put feminism before race. Westerners judge other cultures on how closely they conform to Western ideals.

I believe that feminists should consider the context in which each woman lives her life. That means, for instance, that we shouldn’t expect Muslim women to uncover just because as Westerners we can’t imagine choosing to cover. Nor should we begrudge a welfare or low-income mother her right to have the same support systems as middle- and upper-class mothers do (health care for their children, quality and affordable child care, access to education and job-training, food security). It even means that we should allow women to choose what kind of birth control they want to use or to support them if they don’t use any birth control at all. (This also means that we should respect each woman’s stance on abortion, as long as she doesn’t try to take away other women’s rights to their own opinion.)

The second one, viewing a woman as just as important to God as a man is, comes out of my experiences as a Christian. I was brainwashed into thinking that Eve caused evil to come into the world, that all women were punished for her transgression by having to endure the pain of childbirth, that women were either saints or seductresses (they couldn’t be a little of both), and that men were meant to be in leadership positions over women. (I was even told by my first husband, a minister, that I shouldn’t speak in our Sunday School class.)

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Lament of an Old Woman

It’s a curious thing, getting old. When I was younger I thought it would feel like slowly walking into a blank future, a kind of nothingness. Instead, it feels like life is sliding out from under me as it races backward. I’m not moving; I’m staying exactly the same. It’s my context that keeps changing. I continually find myself in a completely new environment but I’m the same person: from the inside, I think I look the same, I’m the same eternal (but indeterminate) age, I have the same values,  and I live by the same rules.

That’s why it’s such a shock sometimes to look around me and see others aging. My daughters are all over 30 now. My grandson is almost 12 already. But me? I can’t quite grasp the fact that if others are getting older, so am I.

I went to an office party the other night and I was the oldest person there by almost 30 years. I didn’t feel out of place, but I afterward I wondered if the others felt funny being around me. When they looked at me, were they thinking: this woman could be my mother! When I opened my mouth to make a comment or tell a story, did they brace themselves for something irrelevant and stuck in the past? Do I seem as old to them as a 90-year-old person seems to me?

I was reading a book the other day where one of the characters referred to a 40-year-old woman as “middle-aged.” Wait a minute, I thought, that’s not middle-aged. I’m middle-aged. But by some guidelines I’m practically a senior citizen. Now that I’m almost 59, I don’t think you should be considered a senior citizen until you’re 70.

What bothers me the most about aging is the presumption that I don’t know anything, when in reality the older you are, the more you know. I at least know what it’s like to be young. But young people don’t know what it’s like to be old. That gives older people an edge when it comes to life-wisdom. Old people have lived through almost everything. The only thing that’s new for them is new technology. Even history repeats itself.

Young people think they’re changing everything, but in reality, they’re only reinventing the wheel. Every old person remembers what it was like to drive the older generation crazy. It’s only the particulars that have changed. What our parents thought was shocking may seem old-hat to our children and grandchildren, but the feelings of shock were just as real as the shock that they will feel when the next generation comes up with its own brand of language, art and fashion.

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