In the Shadows of Men: Internalizing Oppression

INTERNALIZING OPPRESSION

They say that raising a girl is much more difficult than raising a boy. This is what I was brought up to believe. In all cases, a girl is raised in our society to be like a man. She has to be courageous like a man. Strong like a man. To be virtuous like a man. “I raised men,” my mother proudly repeated.

In times of war, the belligerent Palestinian woman who courageously faces the gun and the violations of the occupation, she only receives the honorable title “sister of man.” Even the most heroic act committed by the woman must be traced back to a man. It can never stand on its own, as an act of a woman. Though they stand on the front lines, facing the danger of the occupation, they are not invited to the negotiating table when the two sides attempt to make progress.

It is easy to raise a girl with the idea that she must possess the characteristics of men, to become rougher and stronger and more deserving. It is also easy to raise her with extreme femininity. This is how the girl finds in her hand a doll bride to take care of and look after while she waits to grow up and become the bride herself.

It is also easy to suppress a girl. You are not alone. There is a whole society in harmonious compliance with this. Society is filled with rules that define the girl’s norms. The girl is raised to know what is forbidden, to feel shame, and to beware… to be careful. Take care. Watch out. Protect yourself. Your honor defines you. Your honor is the family. Your honor is the existence that surrounds you. The loss of your honor is your destruction—complete destruction for you, your family, your neighborhood, your city, your country, your homeland.

Your manners are the light of the society. Your honor is your religion. Your religion is your manner. Everything else is complementary, such as education and beauty. These two elements are your assets when the wedding market opens for business.

Our problem in this society is that we do not raise the boy the way we raise the girl. If we did, society would improve. We conspire to constrain the girl and clip her feathers so short that she can no longer fly, even if she begins to grow new feathers. If only we raised the boy like we raise the girl. If only we taught him that the shame that falls on the girl is like the shame that falls on him. His honor is also his religion. His morals. His manhood.

But we liberate him. We set him out like a gunshot, as we do with others after divorce, only with the boy, it’s more like a machine gun, scattering bullets around. He is a boy. He is expansive. No matter how you try as a mother, like I did, to turn this around, there is a whole society on the other side of the doorstep waiting to embrace and elevate him.

The rule is that the male is not like the female. Is it a sacred differentiation made by God or just a distinction made by humans? If it is a differentiation, there should be justice. But how can there be justice and separation?

God Himself is male. This fact I was taught as a child comes back to me now.

Even amid all the confusion and uncertainty thrown at us, that fact remains. There is no need to overthink it. This is a situation that requires rationality. Too much reasoning in this case can lead to kufr.

Kufr in a society that misjudges and misunderstands and promotes fragmentation and racism the moment we begin to breathe.

I was confident that victory would be my ally towards the end. I am the mother of a boy I will raise in accordance with my own rules, and not within the context of the tyrannical, patriarchal society. I will raise him the way I am raising his sisters. I will raise him to understand the value of equality, love, appreciation, and giving. I will raise him to be deserving of a woman who was raised similarly by nurturing females, who was breastfed by a female, and who grew up to be loved in the heart of a woman.

As he grew older and began to realize the extent of his male power, I began to see in him the man I had divorced a decade earlier.

I thought mistakenly that my son’s father, his hollowness and backwardness, had been left behind. My son was different, I insisted. He was my son. I raised him with great love. I gave and gave to him until I was spread too thin among all my children. Each child takes a part of the mother, a part they need and feels entitled to. I raised him with immense tenderness. I was so fond of his modesty and good manners and morals, his feminine tastes and sweet love. But the moment he stepped out the door, he was received by the mob of youth, and his father behaved like the patriarch in Bab al-Hara. That Ramadan TV series led to his exit from our house.

He became a part of the external, questioning society. Don’t dress like that. Where are you going? Where have you been? I was able to stand up to this strongly. I worked to draw that clear distinction between me and my children when it came to our roles. I was the mother, no matter how often we laughed and played and I acted softly. I was the one with the final word. And I was the one who set the rules—simple, clear rules we were all accustomed to. But it was never easy to keep the rules in place, to make them an accepted part of life. Life with children is never without such power struggles. Give them something once, and they believe that thing to be theirs for all eternity. I always reminded myself: You are the mother. You are the one who makes the final decision. There have not been too many refusals in our daily routine. But the no was always a no. The boundaries were preserved and everyone knew which lines could not be crossed.

I was always careful to be truthful with them. I would never do what I told them they could not do. I hid nothing. I never lied in response to any question they asked. I never put them or myself in an embarrassing situation, especially with regard to my relationships with men. I was always careful to talk about my relationships only within the limits of what they could understand. In certain moments, there were difficult questions. Sometimes embarrassing questions. But lying was never an option. If I felt that I didn’t want to talk about a certain topic or answer a certain question, I would tell them I preferred not to discuss the issue. Maybe because I allowed them their own privacy, they, in response, gave me mine. I reminded them that, even though they had grown more mature and that some of our issues might overlap, I was still the mother and my power was greater, no matter how much theirs had grown.

I invented a wise trick. Every time my youngest—the most spoiled child—would ask, “Who do you love most?” I would answer with a confidence that scared her: “The eldest, of course.”

She would become angry and call to the rest of her siblings, “Did you hear her? She says she loves the eldest the most.”

In an instant, the rest would conspire with her. “Why do you love her the most?”

With a strange wisdom quite outside my nature, I would respond, with amusement, “How old are you?”

The youngest would answer, “Four.”

“And you? Six? And you?”

“Nine.”

“And how old is she, the eldest?”

“Thirteen.”

And I would answer, “I have known her for thirteen years, so I love her according to the number of years I have known her. And I have loved each of you since the moment you were born. I’ve loved you for four, six, and nine years.” This became one of the running jokes in our home.

(23) My son discovered the street

 

My son discovered the street and the other young men his age. I was plagued with worry because he lacked toughness, which is what I liked most about him. I was haunted with the echoes of threatening words: Beware. He must be rough. He must be a man. He must not be beaten. It was as if the man caught inside of him wanted to get out and rebel so he could reach manhood in front of me and society. I loved him so much I set him free.

I lost him completely when I didn’t know how to deal with him. Or perhaps I let him take his own path so I wouldn’t lose him. Many things inside me shattered like glass when he started to look at me as if I were a whore, when he’d glance at me with doubtful eyes, accusing me without speaking. Thinking thoughts given voice by his father, attuned to the society around him.

At that time, I was in a relationship with a man whose presence in our life greatly improved our very difficult situation. He was like a life preserver for me—and for them, sheltering them from their tyrant father. This man was a foreigner, a wealthy diplomat. He had the status and money and respect required to keep society from judging him. The same things quieted my ex-husband’s acts of tyranny. My relationship with this man was social, and we shared a strong friendship. He loved my children a great deal, and they developed valuable emotional bonds with him. He had been divorced once and didn’t have children, which made the situation more complicated. In one sense, he was very close, and in another, very distant. We would go out together for lunch or dinner, and would sometimes go shopping, or visit at his house. But my house was my family’s only.

When it came time for his departure, we discussed marriage and we explored the complicated possibilities. Perhaps I used my wisdom at that moment as well. I was still nostalgic for marriage in a way I cannot deny. I cannot deny how much I loved him, how safe I felt with him. I asked myself many times whether my feelings towards him came from my need for safety, or whether I really loved him. I still don’t know the answer.

I am confident, however, that love becomes an ingrained habit. I cannot determine, each time I fall in love, if I am in love with the person for who he is or for his characteristics. There comes a moment, of course, when a certain unity takes place, and one can no longer differentiate between the characteristics and the being. The person becomes one with his character and his being: you. But as is the case with all relationships and their endings, a time comes when rationality wins out.

 

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