More Than A Strike: Women’s Day and the Sweet Spot

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International Women’s Day brings with it a pot pourri of feelings for me. Some pleasant, rose-like, delicate, joyful, and uplifting (I went last night to a local production of The Vagina Monologues and was reminded once more of how wondrous it is to be female), while others are malodourous or sickly, bits of old sock and rancid cabbage that have fallen in with the fragrant twigs. There are so many challenges women face, from physical aggression and violence all the way through unequal pay and sexual harrassment in the workplace to the subtle disdain expressed in daily interactions with people who think less of us because of our gender.

About halfway through the morning I remembered the housework strike. Yay! I thought – time to put my feet up. Things didn’t pan out as I thought, however. My husband was still working on the house (we’ve been living in a building site for the last six months, and for four months before that he was working harder than he’s ever worked, learning on the job, to turn the ruin we bought into a home) and I had been out a lot over the past few days, so there was a build-up of chores that had come to a head.

So we struck a deal. Yesterday I had a fair bit of housework and even gardening to do, and today I’ve struck. Is it weird to hang my apron out of the window now? People might think I’m just being absent-minded.

To be honest, I have to give thanks that my husband cooks a lot, does a huge amount of childcare, washes up frequently, and when he attacks the kitchen or bathroom he stays up late listening to talks online while he cleans and leaves it like new. On top of that, he supports me working (even though with the kids my hours are limited) and his money is, as he says, my money. So striking isn’t exactly an urgent need for us, even though I like the idea of standing in solidarity for so many women who don’t enjoy those conditions.

On the other hand, a housework strike has the interesting effect of highlighting my own near-robotic cleaning and tidying behaviour (although you wouldn’t know it to see my house). Having to stop myself from “just sorting this out”, every ten minutes or more often, is hard. Am I habituated to the idea that women are designed to clean? Certainly we’ve programmed ourselves to – and for me that was a long, hard process, mostly because I had so much resistance. So many brilliant things I could be doing instead of menial work! Plus I have a very sore nerve that gets easily prodded when I see men leaning on or expecting women to clear up their mess, even women with whom they have no reciprocal support arrangement.

But the bottom line is that housework needs to be done, and if you don’t do it yourself, you end up paying a woman to do it for you. This does keep a good number of women in employment, even though it’s poorly paid and precarious work. Yet if you educate those women to have ‘better’ jobs, you create a vacuum (how appropriate) at the bottom of the work pyramid.

What ends up happening is that immigrants and people from disadvantaged backgrounds fill that gap, creating a kind of tiered system of care and support that further divides women, but this time on an ethnic or class basis. Can an economy handle everyone being highly educated? The reality for so many university graduates in the US and UK who can’t find anything but internships seems to testify that it can’t.

On a personal level, the ego loves to rail against being obliged to do ‘low’ work, especially if it’s for no pay. This is why Women’s Day is complicated for me: I have to strike (pardon the pun) a balance between empathy for female troubles and awareness of my own ego’s eagerness to demand more for itself. What it really comes down to is that a strike of housework isn’t enough – we need to go on strike from our egos, too.

Yes, the world changes when people complain, especially en masse and loudly (there’s a Spanish saying: ‘El que llora mama’ – ‘He who cries gets to breastfeed’). But on a day-to-day basis, surely it’s healthier to find a way to deal with the rage and resentment that being a woman can generate without letting it eat you up inside or destroy your relationships with resentment and blame. For all the advantages that feminism has brought with it (which I enjoy enough to be able to write this, so I ain’t complaining), there needs to be a parallel campaign to find the sweet spot between working for change on the outside AND on the inside.

That’s what I find so admirable about women, and men, when they are under pressure, in asymmetrical, unfair situations, and instead of falling into hatred and self-pity, allowing that anger to fester, feeding off the illusion of “It’s all his/her fault”, they rise above it, forgive even if they don’t forget, stay calm in the face of hurtful words, keep ploughing forward no matter what is thrown at them, and prove they are the better people. The world is not fair, life is not fair. But there are ways to deal with inequality that, while taking intelligent steps towards addressing that inequality wherever possible, do so with grace and wisdom. The inner peace it takes to achieve this spreads all around, like light from a window on a dark night spilling out and showing there is indeed a garden out there.

 

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Buttons and Mirrors: Seeking a Cure for Firstworlditis

Despite the (not especially ironic) name of this blog, I haven’t written about parenting for a good long while, mainly because I’m usually to be found flailing my arms and tearing my hair out about it myself, and not sure I’d have anything constructive to say.

However, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about my buttons: the things I am exceptionally sensitive to when it comes to my kids’ behaviour (obviously their essence is wonderful, as I try to remind myself when handling yet another crisis in the house involving fists, Nerf bullets, or pitch battles over the Latin name for avocados – I kid you not).

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Dusk over some avocado trees. It’s Persea americana, in case you’re interested.

Mainly, what bothers me is ingratitude. Actually, all the multitudinous things that bother me can all be boiled down to ingratitude. To wit: expecting someone else to deal with your dirty work (ingratitude towards people who really are cleaning up after you); grasping, demanding attitudes, without thanks or reciprocation (ingratitude towards gifts and help from others); wasteful, careless, destructive behaviour (ingratitude for the space and resources being enjoyed), etc. etc.

But as the psychologists would say, every conflict is a great big flashing LED arrow pointing to an opportunity to grow. So, not wanting to be a great big screaming Hollywood bratlet myself, I’ve decided the only way out of this thing is to go into it, and pray I come out the other side alive.

Affluenza

This disease of ‘firstworlditis’, or affluenza as some call it, has been noted by many people, and not all old fogeys harping on about the good old days of kids selling newspapers in blizzards to pay for their baby siblings’ tuberculosis medicine. (They did have to walk sixteen miles through minefields carrying their desks on their heads to school every day, eat mouse cassoulet for dinner and sleep in cardboard boxes by the side of the M1 in their day, but they’re not the only ones who can make comparisons.)

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Photo of my street about 60 years ago, when kids had to go to school in wheelbarrows.

About fifteen years ago, a friend of mine took a trip to the US right after a journey to Iran. In Iran she had visited an all-girls school where her friend was teaching English. The students had been given the task to write an essay about anything they wanted, and the results were very revealing: the essays were on subjects like love, faith, poetry, death, family…all very thoughtful and questioning.

When she later went to the US, my friend visited another friend (there are a lot of friends in these paragraphs, stay with me) who also worked at a high school, in Texas. He had also recently set an essay, in which the students had to write about whatever they liked. The essays were universally on topics such as ‘My New Trainers’, ‘My Motorbike’…

Clearly this isn’t exclusively a child-parent issue. In fact, adults can be the snottiest brats of the lot. Think about the gifts we have enjoyed for millions of years, the simplest things like rain, fertile soil, trees…and think of how much respect we used to have for the forces of nature, in the knowledge that we had to live in balance with it or its could crush us like so many cockroaches under its massive, environmental shoe. How the desire for more, bigger, now, has led to the wholesale destruction of life-giving forest, the desertification of once-rich soil by surface mining, a fatberg under London, and not one but TWO plastic waste islands in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, each roughly the size of Texas.

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Some local destruction. Kind of picturesque though.

Mirror Mirror

So this nerve that ingratitude hits in me is really just a small reflection of a much vaster problem, one that I’m an intrinsic part of, as a First World Baby who struggles to show gratitude due for all the gifts I enjoy all the time. There is a line in the Qur’an that says: ‘If We had willed it, We could have made rain salty.’ And elsewhere, the repeated refrain in Surat Ar-Rahman: ‘And which of Our favours do you deny?’

When the Sheikh of the Jerrahi Sufi Order, Tosun Bayrak, visited my hometown, I asked him about gratitude; I was going through a painful divorce (are any divorces painless?) and having trouble finding gratitude in myself. He was astounded, and simply explained all that I have to be thankful for – beginning with life itself. Tosun Baba passed away a few days ago, the same day as a family friend – reminders to treasure this gift while there’s time.

The mirror metaphor has a lot of meterage: part of ‘affluenza’ is the problem of surrounding a small, self-centred life with mirrors, cutting off the long view, both in space and time (the view of others, of the perspective of years…) and obsessing over small details, the lint collecting in our collective navels. How do I look, how do people see me…self-consciousness is like taking your perspective out of your own head and turning its floodlights, by turns critical and fawning, on your own figure as it goes about its business. If you have a hard time breaking through sadness to gratitude, try looking at what comes to you before you’ve even asked for it, and see how your heart bursts its banks.

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A local mirror. Also rather more tasteful than I had meant to portray.

Here’s another metaphor: the examples we are exposed to, both in real life and in fiction (TV, film, vlogs…) are a kind of artificial mirror that creates the same behaviour in us – if we aren’t alert to this tendency. Just seeing how we as a family start interacting after watching a mere hour of Disney tween sitcoms, in which every other line is a wisecrack and everyone is basically snapping each other’s heads off to canned laughter (watch Friends with the sound turned off and you’ll see what I mean), I am astonished how quickly we all start imitating them – including me.

By contrast, yesterday at Jum’ah, I noticed a woman there I hadn’t seen before, with the most beautifully serene, slightly bashful aura. I thought: this is what humility looks like – not humiliation, as so many people would have us believe humility is, arguing for brashness and swagger as a way of protecting our vulnerability. It made me see that humble does not mean having the air of a whipped dog – humiliated, broken, fearful.

In actual fact, real humility (not acted, ersatz humility, aka spiritual vanity), is the best kind of noble. A truly humble person is so because they are big enough to be aware of their own faults, brave enough to bring them into the presence of the Most High, and strong enough to work on them without losing hope for every mistake they know they’ll continue to make. And it’s beautiful to see; if only we saw it enough, all around, maybe we would start to mirror it too. Imagine a ring of mirrors like that.

Duff Eid Trauma

It all starts so well: the night before the celebration, everyone is excitedly ringing family members with their Eid Mubaraks, kids are fantasising about presents (if they haven’t persuaded their parents to open them already), mums are making cakes and shampooing kids ready for the next day.
Come morning, we’re in a red alert state of ironing and preparations (the only time I remember curling my hair is as a kid on Eid), putting on fancy frocks and unusual amounts of make-up, even cracking out the special perfume that never sees the light of day. On the way there everyone’s singing the Eid song, feeling a bit naughty for having the day off school/work, watching for others who are similarly garbed for a party.
The mosque slowly packs out; women start fanning their faces; the general buzz of talking and kissing long-unseen friends abates as the adhan goes for the prayer. There’s a brief moment when the build-up reaches its climax…then, two short rak’ahs later, everyone starts filtering out again, to eat (in our case a curious mish-mash of tortilla de patatas, pretzels and cake – ‘Eid tapas’).

Spanish tortilla, that classic Eid dish.

Spanish tortilla, that classic Eid dish.

And then…the togetherness fizzles out. Everyone drifts off to who knows where, confused by the too-early party preparations, strange mixtures of food and the mad rush of salaams. Some men disappear to slaughter sheep; a few conscientious vegetarians go to distribute cheese sandwiches to the homeless, and others go back to work in this dazed, showered-with-holy-water state.
Those who don’t have huge extended families to celebrate with, i.e. converts, exiles, parents whose children live elsewhere, find themselves adrift, either tagging along like the high school gooseberry to other people’s family gatherings (where they are of course welcomed as brethren, although that might mean they have to peel some potatoes), or clump together in twos and threes and go to cafés where they feel slightly giddy and unnecessarily sequinned. (I’m talking about being in the west, of course, where life goes on as usual around these islands of Islamic celebration.) Then they go home. And then there’s some meat.
This year, living among a vibrant, eclectic, if at times a little bonkers-around-the-edges Sufi community, Eid was eventually a blast. Someone had set up a tent and a generator making ‘Potato Tornadoes’ (fried potato cut into a spiral, on a stick. Yes these things exist.) There were also pony rides for the kids and a Ka’aba making craft workshop and I showed a few kids how to make origami animals, which was also fun, especially as Cavebaby mercifully slept the whole way through. Ali Keeler of Firdaus Ensemble also came down and sang some songs, which some of us managed to join in with, qasida jam style, while Cavebaby sat happily on a friend’s lap. So it was overall a fine time had by all.

Jumping frogs, cranes, and foxes...those classic Eid icons

Jumping frogs, cranes, and foxes…those classic Eid icons.

But that initial blip brought back many of these alienating moments from my youth, coined as ‘Duff Eid Trauma’ by a friend. The scenario reminded her of many a duff Christmas, where too many people got too drunk and argued, and the kids’ presents weren’t quite was they wanted, and the turkey got burnt, and the tree shed needles into the sofa, and the dog ate the Christmas pudding and was sick on the pantry floor, and you ended up watching Mary Poppins for the fiftieth time in an atmosphere of tense obligatory cohabitation. It’s the same feeling of anti-climax, only you’re smelling of ‘oud and have too much kohl on for 10 o’clock in the morning. I don’t think anyone’s been quite so depressed from it as after a Duff Christmas, but there’s still this feeling that a wonderful time is being had by someone, in a family home with a halo of warmth and authenticity: the real Eid celebration.
It’s probably poppycock (I’m sure their kids were whining too), but living in a non-Muslim country certainly dims the glow of an Eid celebration. It feels like such an effort to raise an Islamic culture from where there is none that at times I wonder if we’re letting the meaning of it slip through our fingers. Even as a lifelong Muslim I still sometimes get a lingering sense that we’re in fancy dress, doing this ‘Islamic’ thing, that someone will sniff out our secret (that we’re culturally pretty European, actually) and the edifice of our outward religion will turn to mouse droppings.
Thankfully, these are also those times when we have the opportunity to wonder what our inward religion is about. If it’s not in the silver lurex jelabiyahs, or the prominently hanging tasbihs, the frankincense and bukhur or the miswaks, the scarves and turbans and embroidered hats, the prayer mats and the prayer domes and even the Arabic of the prayers we recite, what is it in?

Pomegranate season

Pomegranates: fruits of Paradise, symbols of multiplicity

When we look for the centre of this faith it reveals itself to be a fractal, spiralling in ever more fascinating ways the deeper it pulls us, but with ever fewer details. Cultural forms, interesting as they might be, fall off the edges. This country does this; that country does that. But it’s all peripheral, like the cupboards in the walls of the rabbit hole that Alice falls down on her way to Wonderland.
Before the words had shapes and sounds there were meanings that called them out of the darkness; before the meanings, a primordial call, a homing signal, a desire to work our way back to our source. Each time we rest our wandering feet on things and call them Islam they take us further away, not closer, from the end of this path, the heart of the spiral: Home.

An Addiction to Storms

  The wind is talking. There’s a thundering around, whistling in low, confiding tones between the orange trees and knocking a shower of fragrant petals to the floor. Of all the imaginary vehicles we’d devised over dinner – to escape a tantrum more than anything else – the wings on this wind seem the most powerful means of transport available: it is a brutal angel, muscular and singing unseen.
  There were no stories tonight, only bitter sobs, and meek children not understanding, stroking my shoulders and seeking peace. The peace came a minute before they dropped off, clinging to my hand and shoulder; it was so exquisite after the exasperation and outrage and despair that I had to turn the light off to savour it.
  I scoured my remembered psychology notes for what it added up to: with every petulant fit my inner parent raged, looking for vindication and respect, while my inner child threw toys out of the pram, causing my inner parent in turn to scold it for doing so. The correct terminology might be: ‘What’s the root cause of my own imbalance that’s playing itself out in our family dynamic?’
 Then I gave up trying to auto-analyse and worked instead on the practical means of handling two kids who’d been whipped into a giddy pair of hurricanes, fighting and flinging makeshift weapons, giggling and howling by turns, and giving me the most unbelievable lip. This time the jargon would have read: ‘What am I doing to spark this conflict, and what can I do to pull the rug on it once it’s already in motion?’

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  And then, hours after the crisis had been lulled into post-storm calm, my husband tells me, “Don’t try to analyse it, either what you’re doing or where it’s coming from. Just love your children, say ‘alhamdulillah’ that they’re healthy and well, give them a hug and a kiss when he gets angry. That’s all they need. The anger is coming from that need.”
  I am beginning to wonder if I don’t have an addiction to storms. The build-up, all excitement and nerves, then the physical lift off the ground as the gale builds up into a towering column of fury, and then the hollowing-out as the reason for its continuation is forgotten or falls through, and finally the crashing of all the chairs and trees and cars that had been lifted up into the arms of this torrent as they drop to the ground.
  Nothing seems stiller or more balmy than right at this moment, once the storm has blown itself out. The mental imbroglio that a brain with a reading habit gets itself into over any problem that surfaces suddenly falls quiet, like the sea at low tide. You look out at where the seagulls wheel and lurch without troubling yourself as to why they are doing it.
  These personal thunderstorms can have the rug pulled out from under them, if it is done by expert hands that are not shaking with a sympathetic rage. The guns that anger pulls all melt with the white heat of unconditional acceptance.
  All kinds of analyses run through my mind regarding Islam. It’s impossible to avoid it when you read the news, or have a Facebook newsfeed brimming with Muslim commenters. At every moment we seem to be stepping out of our shoes and assessing ourselves, our ‘community’, with an outsider’s eye.
  It’s an entertaining pastime, but when it comes down to it, the only way I can explain it is that Islam has a direct effect on a person’s heart. It’s like an adaptogen*: it will do whatever your heart needs. If it is rigid, it will shake it up. If it is lonely, it will give it solace. If it is wounded, it will heal. If it is hard, it will melt it. If it is to open, it will give it protection.
  So there is a kind of extreme optimism at work within a Muslim’s heart. ‘Alhamdulillah ‘ala kulli hal’ was one of the Prophet Muhammad’s (s.a.w.s.) favourite sayings. It means ‘Halleluyah in all conditions’, ‘May God be praised for every state’. It means streaking right past the raised fists and embracing the fighter with more than love – with gratitude. It is not merely saying ‘I forgive you’ but ‘I thank God for you’.
  What can outrage do with that kind of reaction but drop its weapon in surprise?

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*Adaptogen: a medicinal plant that will return the body to homeostasis, i.e. do whatever the body needs in order to regain balance

The Insanity of Blame

The life sentences of Farzana and Iftikar Ahmed for the murder of their daughter Shafilea, reported today on the BBC, because her ‘westernised ways’ (i.e. resistance to a forced marriage in Pakistan) were bringing shame on their family, has revealed to me once again how very insane the Muslim world can be sometimes.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-19068490

I say ‘Muslim’ rather than ‘Islamic’, because – and I’m sorry if it sounds obvious – just because a person is Muslim doesn’t make them a torch-bearer for the religion of their forefathers. The very first thing that the Prophet Muhammad (s.) did as a lawmaker was to forbid the killing of baby girls, which was a common practice at the time. How much difference is there between burying your baby daughter alive in the sand, and suffocating her to death with a plastic bag – in front of your four other children?

The prevailing attitude in Arabian society at the advent of Islam was what is known in Islamic history as the Jahiliya, generally translated as the Time of Ignorance. But there are always great subtleties in a root-system language such as Arabic; the word Jahiliyah has nuances of recklessness, foolishess, impetuousity and barbarism. It refers to a state of intense internecine warfare that would see 20,000 people slaughtered over the course of decades because someone from one tribe had killed a goat belonging to someone from another tribe.

Introducing values like compassion and mercy, forgiving rather than exacting blood money, even kissing one’s own children were not taken to kindly by many 8th century Meccans. A Bedouin man once saw Muhammad kiss one of his children fondly and seemed appalled by it. When Muhammad asked him what was the matter, he relied “I have ten children and I have never kissed any one of them”. Muhammad replied, “He who does not show mercy is not shown mercy.”

So the buttons that are pressed by a so-called ‘honour killing’ like that of Shafilea Ahmed reach deep into a Muslim’s conscience. “The best of you is he who is kindest to his family” is another of Muhammad’s most well-loved sayings. These events, like all acts of barbarity or terror, remind us that habit maketh not the man – or in our case, hijab and beard maketh not the pious Muslim. As Hayley Meachin of the British Association of Social Workers told The Huffington Post UK: “Shafilea Ahmed was killed because her parents were bullies and murderers.

But we are by no means the only people to count among their numbers vile, mentally unsound, vicious people. This Jahiliyah mentality is not only a subordination of the individual to the integrity of their tribe, but also at a very elemental level a brutal game of tit-for-tat. You make me suffer (because you aren’t living up to my expectations and people are thinking badly of me), therefore I will make you suffer too.

As my parents pointed out while we were watching the news footage, Marvin Gaye was shot dead by his Baptist minister father for supposedly promoting immorality, and the creator of the Bembo font (typography geeks will get it) struck his son-in-law over the head with a metal bar and was executed for his crime. The victims of the Columbine school shoot-out, or any of the American Psycho-type killings we’ve seen in recent years, were not even targeted for their supposed immorality, but just for being in the way of a video game played out with real-live ammunition.

In a subtler way, we all do a bit of this Jahiliyah business. In his incredibly insightful book Non-Violent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg describes emotional emancipation – i.e. being freed from the idea that other people are the cause of your feelings. This works both ways: if someone does something you perceive to be hurtful, you blame them (thus shackling you to a victim mentality). If someone does something you perceive to be pleasing, you warm to them (thus becoming dependent on their talent for feeding your insecurities).

In the former case, what tends to happen – even among highly intelligent, otherwise sane people – is that they act out their suffering on the one they believe to have caused it. You made me suffer, so I’ll make you suffer back. You kill my goat, so I’ll kill yours. It might seem that you are now even, but in fact you create a cycle of resentment and vindictiveness that may never end. Whole families can be embittered by this blaming-hurting dynamic.

As a parent, you can see this happening with small children very clearly. He stole my toy, so I bashed him over the head. Does this playground game ever end there? The Jahiliyah is alive and well, buried in the subconscious attitudes of every single flippin’ human being on the planet. The desire to get our own back is so intense that it can even cause a parent to kill their own child – then lie to police and press for nine years and play the innocent victims.

Do I even need to say it? This isn’t Islam; it’s insanity. And nobody is immune until they investigate the roots of their suffering instead of casting the first stone. As a wise Sufi teacher once told a man who came to him complaining about his wife, “Your wife’s not the problem: you’re the problem.”

For everyone’s sake, we need to be the change, not the problem.