Femininity never confused me. It didn’t at least until my late 30s/early 40s. Before that I never really thought about it. I was just me. I was a person. I did not want people to think of me as Nadia the woman. I wanted people to think of me as Nadia the person. And I lived my life that way. And because I did, or at least I thought I did, I did not feel that I faced many of the issues that women commonly complain about. I made choices in life based on what I felt was right for me. After studying medicine, I got married and by my own free will chose to be a fulltime mother and wife. When my children reached school age, when the family needed more financial support, and when I felt I needed more in my life, I freely chose to start working. Throughout my career, I have very rarely felt that I have been treated a certain way because of my gender. The only times where this might apply were when I had been invited to speak on a panel where they needed a gender balance and I was chosen to help create that balance. That really offended me. Otherwise, I have always been very lucky with my employers. My salary has always been equal to my male colleagues, I have been given the same opportunities or even better because I deserved them, and I’ve been given every chance to prove my capabilities; not because I am a woman, but because of what I can do. In my personal life, I’ve worked hard to create a balance between my family, my career, my education, and my hobbies. I never felt that my choices were made or were hindered by other people. I was just me doing what I chose for myself and for my family. I realized that I was very fortunate and that so many women around the world were not as fortunate as me. But I did not think about it that much. Opportunities were created by us and with hard work. Obstacles were made for us to go around them. Stop complaining, women, and move on with your lives!
It was only recently that I started realizing that, as a woman, I do face issues specific to my gender. One reason I did not realize that I faced these issues was because of the way I thought about them.
I have an ingrained belief that, as a human being, my first and foremost priority is my family. I will do anything and everything for them; or at least I will try to. I don’t believe I think this way because I am a woman. I believe I think this way because of the way I was raised. Both my parents were like this. My father, who I lived with much longer than my mother, was the most loving father in the whole world. He would do anything for us and would give up anything for us. As a single father, he reorganized his whole life so that he could give ample time to care of us. He sacrificed many possible career opportunities for us. He cooked and cleaned and washed and bathed. He did this because he was a parent. It had nothing to do with gender.
But for a relationship to be genderless in the sense that I described above, both parents need to think the same way. Both parents need to realize that their first and foremost priority is the family and that they both need to work equally together to have a healthy family. Both parents also need to realize that there is no security in a relationship or in a family where both individuals do not have equal opportunities for personal and professional growth.
Security. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. When one member of a relationship makes sacrifices so that a family can survive, how is that person’s personal security ensured? When a woman makes the decision that, for the benefit of the family unit, she must stay at home and take care of the household, how do we ensure that she has the opportunities she needs to grow as an individual and to have a certain degree of financial independence? Why is it that in many (if not most) cases, it is the woman that makes this sacrifice? The answer is rather clear: our societies have conditioned women (and men) to believe that it is the natural role of the woman to stay home and take care of the family while the man is the breadwinner. Even in most cases where women work, she is still the main caregiver in the family. It is the woman, usually, who must find a way to balance her job and her family. The man’s main focus usually continues to be on his career and will give only his spare time to the family. As a result, there are so many cases where the man has had every opportunity to advance his career and his personal finances while at the same time having the benefit of having a family. The woman, on the other hand, will in many cases be much less enabled to achieve the same goals of personal and professional advancement because she spent a significant and disproportionately larger amount of her time taking care of the family.
I say all this yet I also struggle with something that contradicts it all. I have an ingrained belief, because of the way my father raised me, that the man of the household is financially responsible for his family. I was raised to believe that the woman has every right to work, if she so chooses, and that any money she makes is hers to do with as she pleases. This is what Islam teaches us.
How do I reconcile all this? Both parents or spouses in a relationship need to be equally responsible for keeping the family healthy. If sacrifices need to be made, then the person who has made the sacrifice needs to be given the necessary assurances that the sacrifice will not ruin him/her in the long run should things go wrong (such as the death of the other spouse or divorce). Neither spouse should feel that the other spouse is in complete control of their lives because they are in a less consolidated financial/professional position. Yet I still need to see the male partner in a relationship being the man and taking care of his family’s financial needs.
Femininity confuses me in other ways. What does it mean to be feminine? Have I been raised to suppress certain aspects of my femininity outside the home that has thus affected the way I am as a woman inside the home? I’ve always been a sort of a tomboy. Is that who I really am or is that because I’ve suppressed my femininity all my life? Am I comfortable being feminine or am I more comfortable being genderless? These are questions I have no answers for.
I have also started realizing that a woman in most societies is given respect only if she conforms to certain societal norms of how a woman should be. A woman must behave in a certain way, dress in a certain way, and live her life in a certain way if she is to be given societal approval. The same rules do not apply to men in many cases. Men are allowed transgressions that society would not imagine giving to women. It’s just how men are, we’ll hear. They are not held to the same level of accountability as women in so many cases and in so many societies.
I realize that these are things that people have been writing about and discussing for generations. What I hadn’t realized was how much they actually do affect my life. Gender problems affected other women, not me, I believed. I now realize how wrong I was.