The World, Retranslated

Lately, I have been feeling an unusual pang of envy towards men.

It’s not penis envy. You can get one of those quite easily on eBay these days, and in any case I rather like sitting down to pee – it is by far the more convenient position for reading.

No; it’s more of a vague, pervasive, unsettling feeling that there is some wonderful thrill in being masculine. It was perfectly expressed, I noticed as I stood in line to pay a bill at Banesto yesterday, in the exhilarated faces of the Spanish football team as they raised the European Cup trophy. The bank, which sponsors the Spanish team, had printed an enormous, shiny, cardboard poster of this moment, which occupied a good size of the grey-tiled space that was otherwise completely empty. A bit like the coffers of most Spanish banks.

The faces of the lucky footballers were the picture of euphoria: hair flying, teeth exposed right back to the molars, fists raised in jubilation, heady yells of triumph captured and banished to a poster in a lonely bank office in a silent cardboard image. In that original moment, their happiness exploded out into reality with the sheer rush of achieving what they had worked for years untiringly, with nothing but massive amounts of money as an incentive.

The pang of envy, if it were to be put into words, felt something like this: ‘Here I am juggling a small child and bag and buggy and being polite and doing endless menial jobs without the distinction of a wage with all sorts of ideas for my novel/short stories/poems/songs/articles/plans for workshops/cure for cancer and only scraps of time to try to put them together meaningfully between the washing/lunch/school run/endless toddler toilet trips and there are those men with shiny hair and muscles standing out in exultation at their achievement with the world’s approval roaring in their ears. Wouldn’t that feel nice?’

It’s the classic feminist gripe, that men do things that women don’t. They walked on the moon. They developed the theory of relativity. They invaded Poland. It’s as if all of male-kind gets the credit for the actions of specific men who did specific things and got a pat on the back (or, er, the Allied forces down their throats) for it. They may have been stingy, unreliable, arrogant, unkind to orphans, overly fond of alcohol, neglectful of their children, terrible at making steak tartare, or just plain stinky. But there is this trophy raised glintingly in their hands, and they win the day and the approval of the masses (or, er, the Hitler Youth movement…OK, this was quite a confusing example).

The longer I stared at the poster of the selección española, however, the more their jubilation started to make me a bit queasy. The sweat was just a little too shiny; the muscles really did stand out in quite a grotesque way, especially on their necks; the teeth seemed too sharply pointed in the canines. The glory of winning made their eyes leap out in crazed bulges. They could have had a severed head hanging from their heads and flecks of blood on their medieval tunics, but the expression would have remained more or less the same, bar the nicely bleached teeth. The rush of vicarious adrenaline turned cold in my blood; perhaps that analogy about the Nazis wasn’t so far off the mark, after all.

So it got me thinking. Where does this man-envy come from? If we are all well aware of the heinous acts that male-kind has inflicted and continues to inflict on humankind, through political repression, warfare, abuse of prisoners, domestic abuse, criminal banking mismanagement, or making snarky remarks when we can find our handbags, why do we still feel that men have the upper hand when it comes to human value?

There might be many theories out there, interesting ones, but here’s by two bits: the world is, and always has been, in the grip of the major delusion that life is all about what people get. I mean by that the acquisition of status or credit or acclaim as much as material objects. But it amounts to the same thing; everything we acquire or achieve hangs heavily in our hands like the severed head of the blood-lusting warriors. They weigh us down, day by day more heavily, until they finally take us into the grave like leaden lumps.

What is the alternative to this spiritual gravity? Giving. There is a saying in Islam that whatever you give in life you are given in paradise, so when you give a gift, make it the things you love the most, and not some crummy thing you’d rather not have anyway. In my personal view, paradise is not only a state of consciousness that person finds after death, if they are open to it, but a state of consciousness that a person can at least get glimpses of while alive, if they are open to it. With every thing you sacrifice or give away, your attachment to the world and all its trappings become looser, and you begin to float above it, free.

If we look at the achievements of men compared with those of women, it is clear that men dominate the outward, the public, the world of prizes and accolades and severed heads – I mean trophies. There are more male comedians than female, more male CEOs, politicians, theatre actors, judges, university professors, and so on.

But if we are looking at things from our new and improved perspective, all of that is nothing but ten-tonne weights mooring a soul to the world, to the endless mill of seeking approval from others, of getting pole position, beating our records, outdoing our rivals, being number one. In whose eyes? The man (or woman) who wins a gold medal in the Olympics might be a total prick at home. Only the people who are most distant, the newspaper-readers, the television-gazers, the status-enviers will admire him (or her) for that achievement, not knowing that perhaps his (or her) family loathes the very sight of him. (Or her. Can I stop now?)

On the other hand, women, in a very general and blanket sense, are prize-winning sacrificers. We offer up our nutrients, abdominal cavities and breastmilk (not to mention perkiness) to bring the next generation of human beings into the world. The vast majority of women still do the vast majority of housework – an issue that the feminist champion Selma James has addressed in her many campaigns to make governments pay women a wage for doing housework.

We look after young children, elderly parents, siblings having life crises, friends going through divorces, dogs and cats needing treatment for mange – we even take part in collections of dry and tinned food for people hit by the financial crisis, like the one the Spanish supermarket Coviran is currently running. We give up careers to care for families. We give up afternoons rehearsing for charity pantomimes or putting on benefit gigs or selling raffle tickets for this or that good cause. My wonderful friend and fellow blogger Norah at Life in Marrakesh has just managed to set up a charitable initiative that offers cookery training to Moroccan women who have no means of supporting themselves, and then helps them sell their goods in a restaurant (see her latest blog post if you want to donate).

Here’s the politically correct bit: OF COURSE it’s not fair to say that all men should be blamed for the disgraceful actions of a few, simply because they are male. By the same token, we women can’t suddenly start thinking that we are all perfect enlightened beings who are always tolerable and lovely, even when we are ovulating. We can be downright horrendous when someone takes our – OUR! – role in said charity pantomime.

But here’s the thing. For a very long time, probably millennia, women have been thought of as inferior to men BECAUSE OF A LIE. We work ourselves silly trying to catch up to the giddy heights of male achievement. Mothers often do the work of three people – paid job, childcare, housework – and end up exhausted and frustrated because they can’t give all of them their full attnetion. We are stuck on a hamster wheel, racing in the wrong direction.

Imagine, if you will, a world in which the value of an action depended on how much benefit it gave to other people. Imagine a world where the measure of a person’s worth is turned upside-down, where the people who own the least are considered the luckiest while the rich are pitied for their anxiety over their burdens. Imagine a world in which people compete to be the most generous, the most genuinely humble, the most compassionate.

This is the world that women excel in. This is the world where things regain their real value. This is the real world; we are living in it right now. All it needs is to be retranslated.

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9 thoughts on “The World, Retranslated

    • Hi Marilyn, thanks for your comments. Luckily for the feminist world nobody will be able to shut me up for long…if anything people will start lobbying me to be a bit more invisible hahaha…! Have a great holiday season if I don’t see you xxx

  1. Interesting points. One thought that came to mind is that men are experts in losing their own individual identities–their insecurities, their foibles, their failures–in the triumph and jubilation of groups. And maybe that’s what is really in some way enviable. In the gloating footballers, we have a glory and a glee that men can easily drown themselves in. I never feel I can do that. I am always stuck with myself, an individual–for better or for worse. They have so many more escapes from the hamster wheel. And it’s the escape that perhaps seems so desirable.

    My second thought was that all these great achievements are claimed by men because someone else was doing the housework. I wonder what will happen when that is evened out–will anyone achieve much of anything anymore? Will we all need to scale back our dreams to something more human-sized?

    • Hi Ashanam, thanks for stopping by and sharing your responses. I hadn’t thought of it that way before but you’re right, there is a group-feeling that men seem to be able to be absorbed into more easily…sometimes to very unpleasant effect (I’m thinking of mobs in particular). Perhaps that’s what makes us women more interesting – we are real individuals, lonely as that might be sometimes. However, when it comes to childbearing we have an intimacy with another human being which is totally unprecedented among men – in fact I would argue that the whole realm of men and their self-proclaimed successes is compensation for not being able to experience that incredible transformation that mothers go through. Just my own theory, I’m sure not everyone will agree…

      In terms of housework, I happen to think (perhaps a bit cynically) that we’re never going to achieve full 50-50 housework division with men. We’re just kidding ourselves. We can educate men to do their bit and they might come to 30 or 40 percent but it’s so rare to find real equality in a home that it’s just frustrating and infuriating to want it for everybody. Instead I think that valuing the things that women do as being just as important, or even greater than the trophies and prizes won by men, gives women the appreciation we currently lack. But it’s interesting to ask if we will have to scale back our dreams to something more realistic. My opinion is that we’ve all massively overstretched ourselves, reaching out into the world seeking approval from others, when the real medicine is within ourselves; it lies in simplifying, appreciating the small things, the subtleties…I can see this will have to run over into its own blog post =) Thanks again for sharing your thoughts. Have a great holiday season =)

  2. Men just have that singularity of focus. I think that’s what I envy. I especially envy it when my husband can continue right on reading Emerson, or the Lakers games, or emailing, whilst the house is in shambles, the oldest are tearing each others hair out, and the baby is whiny. I mean, if I could just focus on one thing at a time all day long, I’d be golden. No one would eat, but I might just build me an empire too.

    Totally agree. I feel that one shouldn’t stand so close to me at times, lest they get stung with the gravel spewing from my spinning wheels. Maybe when the children are like 10, these dreams of ours will manifest? May Allah make all of yours come true;). I just love your blog!

    • What a hilarious response, thankyou!! It is true, somehow a man just cannot appreciate that it is pointless trying to talk to me while I am taking out the rubbish, dealing with a fight between Caveboy and Cavegirl whilst simultaneously educating them about social ethics and trying not to burn the beans. Focus! But I think we are this way for a reason – someone needs to be able to juggle, otherwise the beans would indeed burn. I have recently started wondering if I need to do LESS. A revolutionary idea, you might say…having my children at childcare this morning while I clean the house is a total luxury, I can actually concentrate…and as my husband says, what’s the use in doing great, glorious things for the distant world to cheer at if you can’t even make a meal and eat it? Nobody gives you a medal for it…but it’s certainly more important than trying to make a album which, if I’m honest, will probably have been forgotten in a few year’s time…well, I need to get back to scrubbing. But I’ll be planning my empire while I do so =) Thanks for commenting and have a wonderful holiday season and may Allah give you all the dreams you aspire to – more than Santa ever did!

  3. I absolutely love your article. And I can relate. If for just a moment, I could experience what it is to be a man. You expressed the desire so wonderfully. It brings me back to reading Woolf’s Orlando. ❤ !!

    • Thankyou so much Julie! I have been meaning to read Orlando for years, now I will definitely have to. Having a son certainly give us a kind of vicarious boy-experience sometimes, doesn’t it? Have a lovely holiday season, fi amanillah =)

      • “He- for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it- was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters. ”
        ― Virginia Woolf, Orlando

        fi amanillah and happy holidays to you, too 🙂

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