Speaking of finding the right female voices that I would like my daughter exposed to, I have been thinking a lot about aspirational women and how often (or not) we, in the Arab region, are given the opportunity to truly see them, hear them and, more importantly, to relate to their experience and aspire to be like them.
This subject matter is maimed with explosive sub-topics but I am interested in a few of them in particular.
- The ah-but-she-is-also-honourable manhole: One of the things that I find truly excruciating is in any formula against which a women is being measured, it feels like intrinsically, the biggest value in any such equations will be given to being ‘honourable’ (can insert varying but equally loaded synonyms here). While I understand the cultural context and recognise the virtue of the adjective, I feel that we are so set back in the female representation, let alone female equality agenda, that really – there are far more important adjectives that need to underpin our definition of the common heroines RIGHT NOW. I think that in a world with a word count, if we had to really pick our words, there are far more important and urgent ones to get in there. For me, the women I am looking for need to be loaded with the big guns to breast-stroke against the [backwater] tide of our contradictory social, economic and cultural norms. HONESTY, BRAVERY (see Reshma Saujani’s Ted Talk), COMPASSION, WISDOM, ACCEPTANCE, HARD WORK and being an all round bad-ass is what we need to champion the cause of half of our communities. If a woman has the ovaries to stand up for what she believes and churn at it even if it doesn’t look like something familiar to most, then really; also being honourable is the over-the-top icing on the cake. Also, the problem is not so much in honourability itself, but in the way that we teach it to girls from a young age. It starts with be nice and be polite. And don’t get me wrong, I would love for both my daughters to grow up nice and polite, but seriously – these characteristics are nowhere in the Top Ten list of aspirations I have in mind to best prepare them to kick ass or zen out.
- The exhausting extinction of being casual/cool: Ok, granted, this may be arising from my slightly lazy sense of style and my diminishing ability to wear heals or keep the lipstick from running outside the almost inexistent border of my lip (I know, yes, I have discovered and now use the white wax lip-liner thing to contain it all in, thank you). But really, truly, most women in the world, but more so – in our part of the world – who are accomplished, inspiring, aw-inducing, are often presented (not necessarily in reality) as a physical manifestation of a deliberate and big effort to look a certain way and exude a certain attitude. It’s about the ideas and values being projected onto these women and then projected by them via the various forms of traditional and social media. I know what image is coming to mind, the very groomed, made-up, power-suited, high-healed, I work out at 4.25am to fit everything in (figuratively and literally). And yes, I am talking about that typecast; but I am also talking about the other typecasts. What I call The Artiste with Attitude type and the Yoga All Damn Day typecast too. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not criticising those actual women (how could I, I still wear jeans EVERYDAY and not in the cool but certainly in the casual ways of the 90s – evidenced in pic below) and I am not hating on any of my fellow females. BUT, I am saying that what our phones, televisions, webpages and social functions platform are often these three archetypes and non of them are easily attainable without A LOT of effort – way too much for most (and lets face it, some serious doe as well). And so, for me, the issue lies in the notions of relatablity and attainability (Emma Watson said it well). If a young carefree girl is looking for her heroines, be it in the business world (of which, The National did a great story about one such heroine – Fida Taher), or in the arts or in sports, they should find images that are approachable, affordable, practical (yes PRACTICAL) and HONEST. It’s really tiresome being human on most days, let alone being a female, not to mention a lady (refer back to point 1 above); cant the media play a role in granting us access to cool women who can inspire us to be our regular selves? Is there no room for alternatives, true alternatives, for the looks that the commercial fashion and beauty worlds are trying to peg on us as walking, free branding mannequins? (I will leave the half assed anti-capitalist banter for another time.)
- Oh Boy: I am giving it away right from the get-go. I am talking about the boys, THE BOYS, the men, the other half of the population. For one thing where are the fireworks and party hats celebrating the males who are championing women, the “equalists”, dare I say feminist men who are pioneering women’s rights / equality / empowerment, call it what you like, in the work place, in the educational space, in the home? More importantly, when we talk about female empowerment, why are we not including or even targeting boys and men? I am dreaming up a variety of scenarios as soft as reading books to boys with strong female characters, mothers having a Take Your Son To Work Day (and yes I am suggesting that include stay at home moms and having their sons shadow their juggling act). I am also imaging more hard-core scenarios; including sitting our sons down and telling them what a girl wears or how she acts never warrants them the right to grab her, and no I don’t mean it in the ’12 things to raise a respectful son’ BuzzFeed way, I mean it in seriously, repetitive, led-by-example, hand-holding, consequential, way of life kinda way. Not to mention things like expanding corporate training to ‘harassment in the work place’. But, my favourite in the short term is enforcing the March 8th International Women’s Day ‘A Day Without a Woman ‘. Imagine wearing red and refraining (along with the rest of the females in your family or circle) from working or doing anything in any capacity and disappearing long enough for your contribution to the home and the workplace and to the economy to be palpable. SCARY STUFF, right? Here how it would look in America, so imagine how much more severe it would look in the MIDDLE EAST?! Anyway, the point is oh boy do we need our boys to join hands with us! In the end, it’s all about the Ying and the Yang and the fact that we are all but part o f the whole so what is the use in keeping female heroism between us girls! It can feel at times like preaching to the converted, and we really need to advance this centuries-old conversation. Gloria Steinem keeps us real with how she advises us not to burn out in the fight for equality.
I leave you with one of the grandmothers of Arab feminism, Nawal El Saadawi and her prolific and horrifyingly still distinctly accurate take on the struggle of our gender in our part of the world. Oh, and a picture of my Jeans.