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Thursday Connectors: The Gender Agenda – As Soon As She Is Born

by Farzana Hakim

Hi, all. It’s Farzana, your host, bringing you another fantastic edition of ‘Thursday Connectors’. When I found out we were discussing ‘Gender’ this week, I knew right away what angle I’d be exploring this from: head-on, from a woman’s perspective! Not because I’m a woman, but because it’s a chance to reflect on my own experiences and the experiences of those around me.

I have the sense that, if I voice some of my own thoughts on the subject, perhaps this could act as a means of giving a voice to other women sailing in the same bouncy tugboat as me. An important voice.

I’ll not only be looking back at personal experiences from my childhood, I’ll also be connecting with an inspiring woman with links to Iraq, in the the Middle East, who has an empowering account to share with us.

So, let’s begin with my story. It’s not as juicy or exciting as some of the eventful dramas and family sagas I write. In fact, it’s probably heard all too often. I am a British-born daughter belonging to the Muslim faith and the Pakistani culture. My grandad came to East London in the ’50s; one of the first to migrate here from Pakistan. My father was a toddler when he followed with my grandma a few years later. Although Dad was schooled and grew up in the UK, his parents arranged his marriage to my mum in his early twenties. Mum was also from Pakistan. My dad was the only child and my mum became the dutiful daughter-in-law, looking after my dad’s needs, as well as those of his parents.

My brother was born first and a year and a half later, I arrived. Mum always tells me how overjoyed the family was at my arrival and, just as they did when my brother was born, my grandparents distributed sweetmeats to all of their friends and relatives.

Now, let me tell you why I mention the sweetmeats. Over the years, as I was growing up (till this day, to be honest), I still hear the story of my family gifting the sweetmeats. In 1978 British Pakistani culture, it wasn’t the norm to celebrate a daughter’s birth. An uncle reprimanded Grandad for acting over the top; the money could have been useful if spent elsewhere. The women in Grandma’s social circle turned their noses up and gossiped about my family’s weird behaviour. Why celebrate a girl’s birth?

A girl is a burden. A girl doesn’t grow up to bring riches into the family; a boy does. A girl doesn’t grow up to take care of her ageing parents; a boy does. A girl goes off with her husband. She must tend to his family instead. A girl’s character and behaviour needs to be scrutinised at all times, in case she grows up to dishonour her family: unlike a boy, whose taboo antics don’t really matter. They don’t stain a family’s honour. A girl’s birth isn’t one to be celebrated!

Until I was ten, I was the only sister to three brothers in our busy household. Everything was good in my eyes. I had a fun and healthy childhood. The four elders doted on me. I was especially close to my grandad, my personal bank for sweets and toys. I fondly remember our regular trips to the corner shop. He bought his fags, and I got a paper bag full of cola pips, pear drops or sherbet lemons and a bag of those five-pence crisps us kids so loved in the ’80s. On the way back home, we’d always, I mean always, pop into the film shop on the corner of Katherine Road, to pick up another videotape of the latest Bollywood movie. After dinner, regardless of the fact I had school the next day, me and my grandparents and sometimes my mum as well, depending on whether she could fit in a respite from her never-ending chores, would sit and watch the movie from Indian cinema. My brothers didn’t really care much for the movies, but I loved them.

One day, an uncle saw me at the film shop. Grandad was standing near the zebra crossing at the end of the road waiting for me. His health had started to deteriorate and he’d quickly get out of breath, so he’d send me to exchange the tapes while he waited halfway. Anyway, this uncle decided it was OK to smack me for being in a shop which always had older boys and men in it. He grabbed my arm and marched me outside the shop, chanting how I was going to be in big trouble from my grandma when he took me home. (Grandma was the strict one in my house; seriously, she was the boss.) When the uncle saw my grandad waiting for me, he let go of my arm and began to explain to him why I should never enter the film shop again. He said, “It isn’t a place for a girl to go.” He added, I shouldn’t be watching the movies anyway. I was growing up; I’d only become corrupted like the awful characters and songs they featured. My grandad was made to feel guilty, his parenting skills questioned. When we arrived home, my grandma had a go also, for dragging me everywhere with him.

I never went to the film shop again and my movie-watching was limited to Friday and Saturday nights instead.

As time went on, I noticed  Grandma becoming stricter with me. She never let me cut my hair short, or wear jeans or dresses any more. She’d force me to cover my head whenever our male relatives came to visit and make me dress in traditional clothes all the time. Often, she’d moan to my parents about how I didn’t know how to do any housework. And every sentence would be followed by, “What will she do when she gets married? What will her in-laws say?”

I was only 13! Yet I was beginning to hate that I was a girl and couldn’t be that careless child any more. My grandma always made me feel conscious of the different values and rules I had to follow, so different to those of my brothers. Although my happy times definitely outweighed any gloominess I’d feel during these random incidents, I now realise these outbursts only occurred when a relative or a friend had been round, triggering my grandma’s mood, for some reason. They were all gossipmongers; people who had nothing better to do than to spend time at other people’s houses, making judgements and interfering in matters that didn’t concern them. Society and culture can really suck, sometimes!

However, by the time I was 16, my grandma had relaxed, becoming more laid-back in her attitude towards me. Perhaps she was satisfied with my good GCSE results and excited I was going to do A-Levels at a new college. I remember how, on the day I got my results, she took me to Green Street and bought me a fancy gold necklace set. She let me wear the ring but told my mum to put the necklace and earrings away for my wedding. She was obsessed with the idea of me getting married.

These days, I can laugh about those times of  growing up within an extended family with my grandparents who, sadly, are no longer with us. My poor mum, though! I wonder why she was never allowed a say or a voice in my family dynamics? As a child, I probably had a louder voice than hers. I guess my mum’s story is a familiar story  for most women of  her generation. But just think about my grandma, too: although she came from the generation before my mum’s, she had all the power and the fiercest roar! How did that happen?

*****

I wish I could talk and reminisce some more. As always happens, though, when I’m passionate about a topic, I can’t stop myself going way beyond my word count. Therefore, my struggles as a woman once  I entered adult life, will have to wait for another time. However, this is the perfect moment to connect with Lemya Al-Chalabi, an Iraqi professional with over 15 years of experience in humanitarian and development work. Her career has been focussed on women’s economic empowerment and private sector development in Iraq. In the course of her work, she came across Leila and shares her story with us. It is the story of many women across the world, who balance a career with family and society.

Hi, Lemya. Let’s connect:

Leila’s Case

“You prefer your work to your family!” “Your family have never been your priority since you joined that company!”

Since the day she was promoted to senior marketing manager at a Baghdad-based international services company, these are the words Leila hears from her husband.

It wasn’t a coincidence  she got promoted in such a comparatively short time. Leila’s been a leader since she was a student in high school and college. She’s always the kind of a person looking for new opportunities and challenges. But, in a conservative, Middle Eastern society, that’s not been easy. Although she was raised by western-educated parents, life outside her immediate household was very different. On starting school, she was introduced to the local norms and unwritten social rules. Many ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ prevailed here: “Don’t raise your voice, you’re a girl!””‘Don’t say no; you must obey your elders,”and later, in high school: “Don’t wear short skirts or make-up; you’ll provoke men in the street to  harm you!””A successful woman is one who marries and raises children; a university certificate will not do you any good if you end up a spinster!” Most of these instructions were packaged up in educational sessions boys were not allowed to attend. And, most of those sayings were usually accompanied by gloomy faces and whispers, both adding to the serious tone of the instructive atmosphere.

Despite this prevailing reality, Leila learned how to preserve her independent life and strong personality. Working hard, she achieved high scores at college, making friends from different countries and aiming for higher education while working in a full-time job. She even managed to fall in love, get married and raise two beautiful children! Nothing was ever easy, though. She often finds herself defensive in the face of society, including her husband. For her, it’s an everlasting battle between her ambitions and, at the same time, implementing all her Middle Eastern female duties as a wife and mother,; so avoiding the frequent implicit accusations of failing to adapt to the stereotypical woman’s role.

Similar to all the Middle Eastern countries, society in Iraq is made up of a mosaic-like fabric. Social norms and culture vary in each geographic area, and some are less conservative than others. In addition to the religious heritage which has outlined the relationship, rights and duties of men and women for centuries, decades of war, regional conflict and violence have severely impacted the society in Iraq and shaped out additional boundaries and restrictions for women. Iraq’s population consists of 49.4 per cent of females. However, the participation rate of women in the workforce is less than 12 per cent, one of the lowest rates in the world, indicating huge lost opportunities for economic growth and improved livelihoods. The case of Leila is the case of millions of Iraqi women. Perhaps millions of women in the world.

*****

Thank you, Lemya. Your account both touches and educates. As long as history has been recorded, a woman’s success has always been marked with hurdles and privately shed tears. Sadly, there are often many players at every point in our lives. Those we feel the need to justify our wishes and actions to; be it our fathers, our husbands, our children (or our grandmas). Your piece is so thought-provoking that I am seriously considering asking my editor if I could do some more work on this. I can pinpoint so many events in my own life where I’ve had to put aside my own wishes and aspirations for the sake of my family. I’m so glad you continue to balance family and work positively. It’s superwomen like you who give up their time and energy to better  the lives of other women. I wish you every success.

I really don’t want to go yet, but I must. Next time I see you, I’ll be sharing extracts from an interview my editor, Madeleine White, conducted for Nina Magazine, with Suaad Allami, a human rights lawyer in Iraq, who received the ‘Women Of Courage’ award from Hillary Clinton and Michele Obama in 2009. I felt so inspired when I read Suaad’s story and, after speaking more about it with Madeleine, I got the go-ahead to share some of it on my page. What an honour to be able to connect with such empowering personalities!

See you soon.

Click here to read Issue 5 of Write On! Magazine.

It’s superwomen like you who give up their time and energy to better the lives of other women. I wish you every success.