Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Who You Are

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Things have been fairly quiet on the feminist front lately—at least on my feminist front. I haven’t written a post for Femagination for a week.  But that’s partly because there hasn’t been much to inspire me. And frankly I’ve been more focused on my journey as a new Muslim. (If you’re curious about that, check out I, Muslimah.)

The Burqa Controversy

That doesn’t mean that my being a Muslim has nothing to do with feminism. On the contrary. As a Muslim woman, I’ve been very aware of the controversy about the recent ban in France on the burqa. I don’t wear the burqa and can’t imagine ever wearing one, but I’m solidly on the side of a woman’s right to wear one. I think those who claim that it is a sign of oppression (and that includes some feminists) need to talk to the women who wear them, especially in the West. If they’re so worried about Muslim women’s welfare, shouldn’t they be asking the women what they need and want?

People who are concerned about terrorism are somehow reassured that they will be safer if Muslim women’s faces are clearly visible. What does showing one’s face prove? And what are they going to ban next? If they start banning the abaya (a long over-dress) or the jilbab (a long overcoat), shouldn’t they also ban all long coats, dresses and skirts? But of course they won’t do that, because it’s only Muslim clothing that is threatening. Is it just me, or does anyone else see that as profiling?

Racial Profiling

That’s what is surely going to happen in Arizona when its new immigration laws take effect. Hispanics will be targeted as “suspicious” and more likely to be illegal. No matter that they may have lived in Arizona longer than most of the white population. It will be interesting to see the statistics after these laws have been in place for awhile. Anyone who is “foreign-looking” (meaning not white) is either a terrorist or an alien (hence the name “alien”?).

I’m sick of the white people in this country acting as if they’re the only ones who belong here. That’s just ludicrous. With the exception of Native Americans, we’re all immigrants, or the descendants of immigrants. That’s hardly a new observation, but some people can’t seem to get it through their thick skulls. You’re an American if a) you were born here, or b) you live here. (Technically you’re not an “official” American unless you have American citizenship, but I’d argue that you can live here long enough without becoming a citizen that you start identifying as American.)

I’m in a somewhat unique position of not looking like a “typical” Muslim. I’m fair and have blonde hair and blue eyes (plus I don’t have an accent). Even when I’m wearing a hijab (head scarf), I’ve had people, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, ask if I’m a Muslim. They’re profiling, too. But the Muslims who find out that I’m one of them are delighted, while non-Muslims are mostly just surprised. I suppose one reason why I wear the hijab is that it is harder for me to be recognized as a Muslim without it.

Continue reading Don’t Let Anyone Tell You Who You Are

The Nature of War

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Poater by Michaelsen Rolf (Norway)

After I wrote my last post about women impinging on men’s territory, it occurred to me that I had hit on the very reason why there’s a war between the sexes in the first place.  Because what is war anyway but a conflict over territory? Even when the purported reason for the war is to protect some ideal or philosophy, it all boils down to a battle for territory.

Take the war in Iraq. Bush justified it as a fight for democracy, but in reality it was to protect our territory. Those who orchestrated the war wanted to make sure that no one (read terrorists) would ever be able to take over America. And, to be honest, it was also to protect our “territory” in the sense of our access to Middle Eastern oil.

Everyone has territory. It can be physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, philosophical, familial—you name it, we all have it. The reason why territory is so important to us is because what we “possess” makes up a great deal of our identities. Who would you be without your possessions, both material and immaterial? Without your home, your family, your religion, your ideas? And make no mistake, even with those things that are also possessed by others (like religion), we will still protect our version of it.

One of the things we possess is our roles. If anyone tries to take over our “God-given” roles, we become defensive, even aggressive. Thus the man feels threatened when his wife makes more than he does, because his special role is to be the provider. And his wife tends to shut him out of the things that define her role as a wife and mother: nurturing and consoling the children, decorating and maintaining the home.

That’s why it’s hard to let go of these roles even among egalitarian couples. The father might be all for his wife contributing to the family’s net worth, and yet resents it when she does it better than he does. The mother is all for sharing parenting and household tasks, but finds fault with everything her husband does.

It’s not so much that we want to prevent others  from trespassing on our territory, it’s that we want to retain control over it. They can “visit” all they want; we just don’t want them to take over. You can see this dynamic when women become mothers. It’s especially hard when our children are infants, for instance, to relinquish control over their care. We want our husbands to help out, but we feel uncomfortable or even angry when they try to do too much.

By the time our children are older and we could really use help taking them to doctor appointments and attending their school events, not to mention disciplining them, the pattern is already set. We may chafe under the responsibilities of child-rearing, but by then we’ve bought into the idea that they’re our responsibilities.

Continue reading The Nature of War

The End of Men?

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The title, “The End of Men,” is provocative; in fact, it’s like waving a red flag at a bull. I can just see men reacting to it like this: “Those damn feminists! That’s been their agenda all along: to get men out of the picture!” And feminists are bristling at the implication that women have won the war between the sexes.

But that’s not really what the article is about. Hannah Rosin writes in the July/August issue of The Atlantic Monthly of the changes that have occurred in the last twenty or thirty years that favor women. But nowhere does she say that men are obsolete. What she is really asking, it seems, is, do men have as much power as they used to?

What’s it really about?

I’ve had a theory for years that the reason men seek to keep women down is because in reality they fear them and their potential power. That it is precisely because women are so competent that men feel so threatened by them. Most men have ambivalent feelings about women: they like them for some purposes (which I hardly need to go into), but become uncomfortable when they step out of those roles and begin to impinge on the territory of men.

Are women becoming more important?

Perhaps it’s not really the end of men that we’re seeing, but the end of patriarchy. Not that it’s in danger of disappearing any time soon, but I don’t think anyone can deny that its hold on the world is weakening. Even cultures that are still decidedly patriarchal are beginning to recognize that the more empowered women are the better off all people are.  Consider this:

In 2006, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development devised the Gender, Institutions and Development Database, which measures the economic and political power of women in 162 countries. With few exceptions, the greater the power of women, the greater the country’s economic success. [From Rosin’s article.]

The handwriting is on the wall. We ignore the well-being of women at our peril.

Are men giving up?

But does this mean that men are beginning to give up their position of power? Hardly. It’s not in their nature. Even though women now make up more of the work force than men do (only marginally more, but still) and attend and graduate from college in higher numbers, men are not likely to take women’s growing influence in society lying down.  They still make most of the hiring and firing decisions, set the pay scales, orchestrate the promotions and own the companies.  Men primarily conduct the wars, make the laws and head government committees and think-tanks.

In other words, we’re not seeing the changing of the guard. Women are not supplanting men. There is no matriarchy developing on the horizon.

Is this true for all men and women?

That doesn’t mean that Rosin’s article doesn’t make some valid points. But when she writes about how gender roles are changing, she is mainly writing about the segment of society that has the luxury of making those changes. The woman who makes more than her husband is a rarity among the lower classes. She might be employed and he isn’t, but she’s not exactly raking in the dough, nor is she stepping into a better job than he formerly held.

Women  still have to work harder than men to get as far. And even then, they aren’t likely to make as much money. There is still a strong separation between the prestige and pay of “men’s work” versus “women’s work.” Just because some women have broken through the ranks to achieve male-like success, doesn’t mean that the barriers have been erased.

Will the war ever be over?

The problem with Rodin’s article is that she represents the gender debate as “either-or.”  As if one sex winning means that the other sex automatically loses. She asks, “What if  the economics of the new era are better suited to women?” as if one, and only one, sex will always be in charge while the other fades into the background.

There is only one answer, only one goal worth having, and that is to make sex/gender irrelevant. I’m not saying that there are no innate differences between the sexes. But these are only generalities.  It’s counterproductive, not to mention stupid, to assume that you can predict a person’s accomplishments based solely on his or her gender. When it comes right down to it, we are much more than our biology. Each person needs to be judged as a human, not as a man or a woman.

Critics of feminism have the misconception that feminists are only for the advancement of women, when in reality their goal has always been for equality of the sexes. But as long as the sexes teeter back and forth in their scrabble to be the one on top, the goal of equality will be elusive.

The World’s Worst Mother (Video)

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Ayelet Waldman tells how her essay about how she loves her husband more than her children caused a furor after it appeared in The New York Times. She is now officially known as the “World’s Worst Mother.” The video is 52 minutes long, but it is funny and gossipy and contains a lot of insight about the dilemma of modern motherhood. Fathers, there’s a message here for you, too.

Enjoy! Video here.

Read what Sandra Tsing Loh has to say about Ayalet Waldman’s bad motherhood in The Atlantic Monthly.

Sarah Palin Is NOT a Feminist!

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Let’s get something straight: a feminist is not someone who dictates what others should do with their lives. Sarah Palin and her ilk insist that they are feminists even though they would take away all women’s right to determine whether or not they will have children. The irony here is that these pseudo-feminists are also against the federal government sticking its nose into anyone’s business—unless of course that “anyone” is a woman who wants to have an abortion. Apparently it’s all right for government, state or federal, to decide categorically that some citizens do not have the same rights as others.

To make the distinction clear, we ought to change the terminology used by both sides of the abortion debate. Just because you’re against abortion doesn’t mean that you are the only ones who value life. (In fact, it’s amazing how often anti-abortionists are also for capital punishment and complacent about killing in war.)  And alternatively, just because you’re for choice doesn’t mean that you like abortion. It merely means that you uphold a woman’s right to make a choice about her own body.

I consider myself pro-choice and pro-life. I am not pro-abortion in the sense that I think abortion is the only answer for an unwanted pregnancy. But I am anti-force. People like Palin are pro-force.  They want to force women to have babies they can’t afford to have, whether the cost is financial, emotional or physical.

I have four daughters. When they asked, I told them about my own abortion. And then I told them that they should never get themselves in the position where they would have to make that decision. Because abortion is regrettable. It’s morally and ethically complicated. Whether a woman makes the decision lightly or anguishes over it for the rest of her life is something we can’t anticipate or regulate. Every woman had different reasons and reactions. It’s not for any one of us to say what they should believe or how they should act on their beliefs.

A woman who insists that you cannot ever have an abortion is no more a real feminist than one who insists that you have to get married or stay home with your children. And if we allow such women to call themselves feminists, real feminists will forfeit their right to represent all women.

Sarah Palin does not represent me or my beliefs. I don’t represent hers. But if she had her way, my views would be irrelevant. They would be sacrificed on the altar of arrogance and insensitivity.

“Carousel” Teaches Me Something About Myself

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I saw the film of the musical “Carousel” the other day at Columbus’ refurbished Ohio Theater. The setting was grand, the film bigger than life and the audience was made up almost exclusively of senior citizens from an assisted living center. This simultaneously made me feel young and old, since I’m not there yet, but not that far away.

But what did I expect? The film is 54 years old—it came out when I was four years old. The only reason I’m so familiar with it is because my mother was a musical fan and had the soundtracks of all the major musicals of the ’40s through the ’60s. I listened to them incessantly to the point where I had all the songs memorized by the time I was a teenager. My favorites were “Carousel,” “Camelot” and “West Side Story.” (I had a thing for tragic love stories.)

Because musicals were such a big part of my life, I’m sure they helped to shape my views about romance. That’s why seeing “Carousel” was such an eye-opener for me.  All these years and I never realized that one of the movie’s main themes was domestic violence.  If I ever did see the film, it was when I was very young and the soundtrack doesn’t clue you in to that aspect of the story.  So I was oblivious to the fact that the musical actually condones domestic violence. It seems it’s okay in the name of love.

The “victim” is Julie Jordan, a sweet and innocent young woman, who elopes with the local bad boy, Billy Bigelow. After their marriage, Billy can’t find work and in his frustration, hits his ever-enduring wife. The local townsfolk are scandalized, but Julie sticks with him through thick and thin, because she loves him.  One of the songs I loved the most was the one where Julie sings “what’s the use of wonderin’ if he’s good or if he’s bad…he’s your feller and you love him, and that’s all there is to that.” She also sings “Any time he needs you, you go running there like mad.”

Later on in the story, when their daughter, Louise, asks Julie if it’s possible for a slap to feel like a kiss, Julie assures her that it is. I was practically in shock by the end of the movie.

That was the model of true love that I grew up with. I internalized that message. If I was truly in love, I would put up with anything. I was determined to be just like Julie Jordan.

It wasn’t long before I found my Billy Bigelow. I was sixteen, he was two years older. He wasn’t exactly the “bad boy,” but he was suspect. For one thing, he was Jewish and that alone made him a curiosity in my all-WASP high school. He was also into theater and poetry. (I became entranced with him when I heard him recite “Babi Yar” by Yevgeny Yventushenko.) When we started dating, I was thrilled.

His former girlfriend, one of my best friends, warned me away from him. She said he was “sick.” I thought she was just jealous and to tell the truth, I was attracted to his “dark side.” It made our love seem more romantic. (I was also heavily influenced by Jane Eyre.)  He soon declared that he couldn’t live without me. He told me that I could never leave him. In a way, I was flattered. I was in love with the idea of “undying love.” It didn’t help that I had lost my virginity to him. That alone made me feel that our lives were destined to be entwined forever.

My family didn’t care for him; that made him feel threatened. He began threatening to kill them, or to have them killed. He threatened to kill me and then commit suicide. He wasn’t physically abusive, but he might as well have been. And the crazier he got, the more I held on. I would prove everyone wrong. To me, he was a “tortured soul” who needed my love to be healed.

I’d like to say that I finally mustered the courage to leave him. But it wasn’t until he went on a theater tour of Europe for a couple of months that the spell I was under began to lift. Still, I didn’t see that I had to end things for my own sake. I fell in love with someone else while he was gone and that gave me the impetus to break up with him when he returned.

But he didn’t give up. He stayed in touch with me for years. The last time I had any contact with him, I was married and had just had a daughter. He called and told me that I was the one who had “gotten away” and that he would like to see me for old times ‘ sake.  I met with him because of the misguided notion that he still had some kind of hold on me. I was in my 20s before I finally realized that he didn’t.

When I was watching “Carousel,” it suddenly hit me how twisted its message is and how much influence it had had on me as I was growing up. It conditioned me to believe that love means pain and sacrifice. The harder it was to love someone, the more determined I was to love him. I stuck to that pattern for years.

But it wasn’t until I married my fourth husband that I realized that I didn’t have to suffer for love. At first it felt funny to be in a healthy relationship. When my husband did things for me and stuck by me through my own craziness, I felt guilty and selfish. I was supposed to be sacrificing for him, not the other way around.

We’ve been married for eight years now and it probably took me at least four to begin to be comfortable being loved by man who is unselfish and giving. He’s no Billy Bigelow, that’s for sure, and I’m happy to report that I’m no longer a Julie Jordan.