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.
Don’t feel nervous, not like a specimen in a science experiment…but it is fascinating watching you through this part of your life.
And it’s just as fascinating getting feedback from people like you, Kent. I don’t thank my readers enough. I should. Thank you, Kent, and everyone, for taking the time to read my words and to interact with them. It means so much to me no matter what you say, whether you agree, or whether you disagree. All your words are appreciated (unless it’s a threat to kill me in which case it is not appreciated). 🙂
I completely agree with Kent. I love your posts. You are very honest with yourself from a very educated perspective. Not just educated from school but from all your life experiences. I love watching you grow. I’m also a forty year old woman, American, who has grown up and lived in many countries and cultures. I have actually enjoyed both sides of myself, the tomboy and the so called visually feminine side. When I was young I could be seen greased up under the good of my car one day and turn around and get decked out to the nines that night. I think femininity itself is a feeling to be embraced inside yourself that is separate from gender roles played.
Thank you for all your posts. I have kept up more with the revolution and change in government through your blog more than the news. Bless you for being the strong woman you are for your family, your country, and yourself.
My wife is an MD like you but is the primary provider in our family. But I think for her it was a strong internal desire to be with our child that made her want to stay at home. Granted one can’t isolate that from societal expectations, but she felt it was more of a motherly instinct. In the end our child has another caregiver while we are at work. So I commend your commitment to stay at home with your family after investing so much in your education. But I don’t view this as a “lessor” choice like the feminist movement would have you believe. The challenge as you point out is financial independence for the partner that stays at home.
I’m curious your thoughts concerning the recent move to impose Sharia law in Egypt? It appears to significantly curtail your rights as a woman.
I do have to comment on the substance here. I was brought up in the thick of women fighting for equality in the US and I learned that men and women are equal. I still think so, but many years later I have a more nuanced opinion: equality (of opportunity) does not mean men and women are the *same*. What I have learned (embarrassingly recently) is that appearances matter a lot.
First, in the nature of men and women, one difference is that women spend more time worrying about how they themselves look than do men have the same concerns. Women also care how other women look. Men, in contrast, care most about how women look. What a man sees in the mirror is far less important to everyone (heterosexual men, at least).
Second, appearance is power. Women have power in their brains and their talents, sure, but they also have power in how they look. Young women might think they are being appreciated for their minds, and sometimes this is true, but other times much of a young woman’s power comes from her beauty. Alas, age is an enemy of the volatile aspects of beauty, and young women who enjoy that they are being treated as “equals” can come to discover they have become “less equal” over time.
And now I have to circle back to an earlier topic and dangerous territory: I assert that young women in the west have power they don’t always appreciate. What about women in the Islamic world and agruments over veils?
Disclaimer: I am a middle aged man. There have been many books and careers built from this topic, I am certainly giving it shortshrift here. But sometimes an old guy can make a useful summary.
-kb, the Kent who doesn’t wade into as much trouble as Nadia will, but who is not too cautious either.
“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 see a whole generation of women who’ve done that. They were so busy suppressing their femininity outside the home they’ve stamped it out altogether and there isn’t any left for inside the home.
The newer generation is trying to balance, which is why I think I see lots of muhajababes.
I’m confused too.
Wondering how your spiritual life is doing in the middle of all the experimenting, if you don’t mind my asking. I was more spiritual before I wore hijab than after.
you are a person and you are intectual person!.
Thank you, Nadia, for writing this post. I really appreciate your openness. I moved to Cairo recently and I was curious what women think about being women. How different it is/it is not from Europe. I also thank to Kent Borg for his interesting insight on this topic:-)
Your dedicated follower,
Nadia I appreciate it that you have survived the revolution. I hope you survive your next battle, the ghozwul fikr.
Wow this is really good! I feel like I agree with the never-really-experiencing-it-myself part. I am pretty young still but I take it as good advice about your ideas of equality of working in good relationships. Thank you.