On feminist parenting

I recently read an article about what feminist mothers do differently (I want to read the article about feminist fathers too by the way) and it got me thinking about how hard feminist parenting is. Basically there’s a lot of panicking involved (as with all parenting, or maybe that’s just me) and so I just kind of panic all the time. After all, the thought that you’re laying the ground for your child self-perception and self confidence is a pretty panicking one. One day a relative remarked that I rarely told my child she was beautiful and emphasized other qualities. I do tell her she’s beautiful, but when I do it’s also true that I automatically add: and clever and kind and resourceful, and a badass, because she’s all these things too and i dread that she will only define her worth by her appearance as society tells women to. I try and dress her in all kinds of outfits, not because there is something essentially and inherently wrong with pink or dresses, but because I would like to chip away at the sexist stereotype that girls have to wear pink and dresses in order to be allowed to be identified as girls and boys can only wear trousers and that the world will stop if a boy wants to wear a skirt. It’s also way more practical to create mayhem and explore the world while wearing pants, and I just want her to be comfortable to do so. 
It’s hard to be a feminist parent because you’re battling, as always, capitalism and sexism, not to mention racism that families of colour have to endure (I still remember all the snide remarks I used to get from children and parents alike because my hair and my clothes didn’t match everyone else’s: being the daughter of a Lebanese family in small town France was not always a breeze).

Industries and people sensitivities are extremely gendered when it comes to children: While it might be seen in certain circumstances as permissible, even fashionable, to play around with gender roles and codes as an adult, I have come to discover that it is nothing short of blasphemy when it comes to children, and being a feminist parent will require constant vigilance and a serious spine to defend your choices. And to be honest, my daughter is only two and pretty much doesn’t give a shit what she plays with as long as she can break it or the colour of what she’s wearing as long as she can smear paint, play doh and chocolate on it. I am however dreading the school years, where there seems to be an absolute obligation to be a princess ( If I see one more fucking Frozen item I will set myself on fire) and where being beautiful seems to be the only thing that matters, to the point where the ultimate insult used by school girls is ‘ugly’. How will I cope then? How will I teach her to fight and what would the alternatives be? See, panic. Being the feminist parent of a toddler seems way easier than being the feminist parent of a school aged child, and then of a teenager, where she will have to come to the painful realization that we live in a world where violence against women is the norm, where slut shaming and victim blaming is the very little challenged statu quo and where social inequalities and racism are rife. Hopefully by that time she’d be old enough to fight all of that. 
Constant vigilance, as Mad Eye Moody would say (do you think my child will be screwed by growing up with a Harry Potter nerd?).
When my daughter falls, and if I see that she’s ok, I tell her to get up and get moving, because that’s life and because I want to send her the message that she is perfectly capable of picking herself up and carry on. Building her self confidence also involves respecting the fact that she sometimes doesn’t want to hug or kiss anyone, and that’s her prerogative because that’s her body (consent 101), but I also try to teach her to respect others bodies and individualities. That of course means no hitting or biting, but also understanding that her parents and others, while always available for a hug and a cuddle, are their own persons with their own lives and are not at her constant service, which means I am not a martyr to the motherhood cause and she is not my tyrant. I still try and make my own choices and remain my own person: it’s not because I have children that automatically the whole focus of my life is them and only them. Sometimes I work sometimes I study and sometimes I just want a glass of wine with my friends. I’ve come to realise that as a mother everything I do will be picked and torn apart by so called parenting experts and society, so I might as well make the choices I’m comfortable with and hope I don’t screw my child up too much. Hopefully she won’t take away from that I was an unfit, selfish mother to her but that you can have children and still have your own life that is a Peppa Pig, finger paint-free zone.  

Constant vigilance: you soon realise that while what you do has an impact, the environment you raise your children has an even greater impact. You need to pay attention to what cartoon you let them watch on TV: is the mother’s character always stuck in the kitchen cooking? Is the father depicted as doing his share of the housework? Do cartoons showing all kinds of families, with two fathers, two mothers, one parent, or any other setting even exist? You have to fight the assault of capitalism: when they do watch TV, how do you fight the 2356 ads for (extremely gendered) toys they’re bombarded with? For now the solution has been very limited TV, lots of outside play and activities and an emphasis on creative activities like painting, drawing, coloring, play doh, reading books daily. If only she could stop using the couch as a canvas we’d be very, very happy. I also recognize that I am extremely privileged: I have a flexible job that allows for ‘family friendly’ hours, I have access to a nice daycare, I have a support system, I live somewhere where my child can play outside safely. This is far from being the case for everyone and families that are struggling to make ends meet, have little or no support, have it a million times harder to figure out, and this is why the other part of the solution to raise kids as a feminist is to fight for progressive change in collective and global policies. Because us parents (and particularly mothers) get blamed enough on just about everything that we do, parents are being guilt tripped and pushed into ‘the mommy wars’ (have you seriously heard a more belittling expression? As if we were running at each others with our aprons and knives to tear each others’ hair over parenting choices because of course women are mean to one another and that’s what we do). It’s high time we stop letting capitalism and patriarchy divide us and emphasize our individual roles in raising children: we are not raising them in a vacuum, most of us do what we can given the environment and circumstances we’re given. It starts with universal, comprehensive access to health, and it continues with progressive parental (parental and not exclusively maternal) leave policies, fair wages people can actually live on, creation and implementation of respectful maternal health care and breastfeeding policies, access to free education, availability of good quality, accessible, affordable and acceptable day care options and laws, policies and practices that respect all kinds of families. And one thing is for certain: we’re not going to get them by watching governments cut health and education budgets and spend billions on defense and security.
Critical thinking and teaching children to refuse and oppose unfair situations is also part of feminist parenting, and that’s actually something that might come back to bite you in the ass because one day, YOU will be the evil establishment imposing unfair rules on the masses. It is called The Teenage Years.

I hardly can wait. 

When white feminism, slut-shaming and racism intersect: The curious cases of Lou Doillon and Taylor Swift

A lot is happening in popular culture my dear people.

A lot of things I wouldn’t usually comment on, except that they reflect every day struggles I have with white feminism.

First off, let us start with Lou Doillon’s comments on the supposed vulgarity of artists such as Nicky Minaj or Beyonce. Long story short, French ‘celebrity’ Lou Doillon, has spent a good half of an interview with Spanish newspaper El Pais dissing Minaj and Beyoncé, dubbing them ‘vulgar’ and that feminism is not about parading in one’s underpants. After all, Doillon is the ‘first of her generation to be able to kick a man out of her house’ and ‘her grandmother didn’t fight for your right to parade in a G-string’.

First of all, I’m not exactly sure who appointed Ms Doillon Great Decider On All Things Feminist, but apparently when you’re white and over privileged you can self-appoint yourself to almost anything. I personally wouldn’t know, I’m an Arab woman, and thus spend half of my life apologizing about my hair and rebuffing exoticizing comments and looks.

Besides the grand authority with which these comments were delivered (that certain people might actually call arrogance), I’m left to ponder on why exactly did Doillon choose to mention Minaj and Beyoncé, two black women who, regardless of whether you agree or not with their vision of feminism, have done and are still doing quite a lot to question and reverse the usual stereotypes associated with the sexuality of women of colour. It’s interesting to note that Doillon’s comments were not made about Madonna or Britney Spears or Lady Gaga, artists who are also dancing in their underpants quite a lot, but chose to call out specifically these two women. It’s also very interesting that she herself chose to pose naked (something she is completely entitled to do, her body her choice) and most importantly enjoy the absence of slut-shaming, a courtesy she didn’t deem necessary to extend to Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé.

It might be interesting here to remind Ms Doillon, who is probably totally unaware of that fact, having lived all her life in a privileged white dominant bubble, that women of color, and especially black women, not only have to live with the hypersexualization all women have to bear, but also have to endure pervasive stereotypes that specifically consider their physical traits ‘vulgar’, their bodies inferior and disposable, and their sexuality ‘Jezebel-like’ and depraved.

Had Doillon got off her high self-righteous horse, she would have realized she was doing nothing more that reinforcing these stereotypes with her comments and thus helping to put down women who are already oppressed by racism and sexism, which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is not the best look for someone who deems herself feminist.

Besides, Doillon is also deeply wrong on another account: while her grandmother might not have fought for your right to dance in your underpants, other people’s grandmothers, mothers, sisters and their friends did and still are. To be a woman, to be able to enjoy one’s body and to be able to enjoy the sexuality you have chosen free of coercion, discrimination and violence is definitely not a vested right in any place of the world. We are indeed fighting for our right to free body expression, and we are indeed entitled to enjoy that right without any kind of slut shaming coming our way, be it from men, authorities, institutions or other women like Doillon. It would be good to remind Doillon that women’s liberation from the shackles of respectability start with her mother Jane Birkin’s mini skirt and continues with Nicki Minaj’s G-string, dancing and enjoying her life and body. If there is one thing to take from all of this controversy, is that maybe patriarchal beliefs and attitudes, regardless of their source, should stop policing women’s bodies and leave us to enjoy them in peace.

Another pop culture event that happened this week is the so-called feud between Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj  (who’s apparently had an extremely busy week on the feminist front) on Twitter. Here, Minaj might have been sore about not being nominated for a VMA, who knows, but she raises an interesting point nevertheless regarding the lack of acknowledgment of the work of black artists, especially black women. It is indeed true that white thin bodies are glorified and erected as the norm all women should aspire to. When confronted by this tweet, Swift’s answer was to automatically make it about herself: ‘Oh but I love you, why are you doing this to me?’ Instead of acknowledging a dominant system she benefits from on a daily basis and position herself as a firm ally by calling this system out and choosing to opt out of these privileges, she chooses to bring the debate to an emotional, personal field where political debate get annihilated.

The take out from this week? Dear white ‘feminist sisters’: you don’t get to decide how women of color enjoy their lives and bodies. You don’t get to police us, you don’t get to shut our demands up by getting sugary and cuddly and telling us you love us.

We don’t want you to love us and carry on benefiting from systems that oppress us on a daily basis.

We want equality, equity and justice, and for this, we have to fight. And we are. And we will.

Motherhood Series 2: Intersectionality

I have already spoken (I feel like adding ‘at great length’) about the most common gender stereotypes associated to parenthood and motherhood. In a patriarchal society (that is to say, pretty much anywhere in the world), these stereotypes classify women as natural-born nurturers, beings who by essence are designed to take care of children and others at large, while men are positioned as providers, who need to fend off the outside world in order to materially and financially support their family. These sets of representations firmly place women and the roles they endorse within the domestic sphere whereas men are essentially defined as public creatures, leaving both sexes pigeon-holed in a rigid web of rules that prevent them from fully realising themselves. However, while patriarchy harms both men and women, it is paramount to highlight that the patriarchal system benefits men by putting resources, power and privileges in their hands, leaving women oppressed and dominated.

Such prejudices pertaining to women help glorify the myth of the sacralised mother, that is to say, the mother who sacrifices everything including herself to raise her children. Such behaviours of self-effacement and sacrifice are valued by society and presented as the ideal model of motherhood, one women the world throughout should uphold and apply. These stereotypes also help divide women and pit them against one another by creating a competition to become the perfect mother: just like patriarchy creates competition amongst women for men’s attention, the ‘motherhood race’ helps distract women from fulfilling their productive and community social roles.

 

While all mothers have to face these stereotypes and discrimination, women are not a unified bloc, and we’re certainly not all equal in the realms of motherhood.

Intersectionality posits that some people endure several simultaneous forms of discrimination and oppression in a given society. Women who belong to upper social classes certainly do not have the same experience of motherhood that women living in precarious socio-economic conditions, as white women do not have the same experiences as women of colour. The same goes for straight mothers who do not face the same hurdles as trans, queer or lesbian mothers. Class, race, sexual orientation, being valid or not: all of these factors impact women’s experiences of motherhood and the societal pressures they have to face, something we tend to forget when we talk about stereotypes associated with motherhood.

 

Indeed, the situation of mothers vary greatly depending on the material means they possess: being at the intersection of womanhood, motherhood and poverty means that not only will you have to face sexism and stereotypes associated to motherhood, but that you might not have the same quality access to reproductive health services, putting you at a heightened risk of maternal mortality and morbidity. Mothers with fewer means at their disposal will also have to face difficulties in accessing child care, thus making it all the more difficult to progress in their job, or to even keep a job. Childcare might not even be a viable option for some, as the cost of daycare might consist of the most part of the salary they receive, thus leading some women to stop working altogether, leaving them dependent on their partner, reducing their opportunities to fully realise themselves, to access better jobs and further their education. The situation becomes all the more dire for single mothers who can not afford to leave their jobs and who might have to resort undeclared child minders for example.

At the other end of the scale, women belonging to upper social classes not only have access to private childcare institutions if the public ones are already at full capacity, but they can also ‘delocalise’ child care to hired nannies, who are, most of the times, migrant women, who in turn leave their own children in the care of relatives back home in order to be able to provide for them. These migrant workers are often at the mercy of their employers, especially if they live in a country that enforces the kafala (sponsorship) system, and thus become victims of human trafficking. It is interesting here to note that, while mentalities are slowly shifting with regards to the role of involvement of fathers in child rearing, the majority of tasks pertaining to child care fall on women, either on the mothers themselves or on women’s workers.

 

Mothers of colour have not only to bear sexism, but are also faced with racism and xenophobia, which translates into discriminatory practices that often affect their ability to fulfil their community roles. One striking example of islamophobia is the Circulaire Chatel in France, a circular from 2011 derived from the law banning religious signs in public schools promulgated in 2004, which advises school principals to prevent Muslim mothers wearing the hijab to accompany children on school outings. Such practices publicly shame and stigmatise mothers for the simple reason of being who they are and of practicing freely their freedom of religion, a fundamental human right consecrated in many binding international conventions. This discrimination however led to the creation of the Mamans Toutes Egales collective, a diverse group of militants who stand in solidarity with Muslim mothers.

 

Trans, queer and lesbian mothers have to face many legal hurdles to become parents, when they’re not out-rightly vilified and persecuted: the latest debate around the adoption for same-sex couples and assisted reproduction in France is a clear illustration of the discrimination women living outside of heteronormativity have to face. Sexism and homophobia and transphobia team up to oppress this group of women.

 

It is noteworthy to underline that discriminations often comes in pack: it is not a rare occurrence that class and race and sexual orientation add up to lead to severe layers of discrimination. This is not to say that each struggle needs to be led on its own. On the contrary, this is to highlight the need to understand that no mother can be free while others are being shackled, be it by the ropes of sexism, capitalism, racism, islamophobia, homophobia or transphobia.

All women who choose to be mothers should be able to make their reproductive choices on an equal footing: these choices should not be constrained by the constructed archetypal model of what a mother should be, or by how much money a woman has, or by structural racism and persecution or by legislative frameworks oppressing a specific group. While we struggle for affordable, good quality, accessible and acceptable child care and access to health services and for paid maternity leave, we also need to struggle for the abrogation of discriminatory laws, for the end of harmful practices and dismantlement of racist, xenophobic, homophobic and transphobic belief systems and institutions.

 

It might sound like a lot of work, but think of the alternative.

 

 

Lebanon: This is How We Do Modern Day Slavery

Her name I won’t disclose. Let us just call her G. She told me her story because I asked her, it’s as simple as that. I told her she seemed down, she who is naturally so upbeat, and she launched into it, as if on cue, waiting to tell someone. So I gave her this space, and thought that her story deserved to be shared, if only to put a human face on all the statistics regarding migrant workers and the way they’re treated in Lebanon, if only to reveal the inhumanity with which so many people living in Lebanon are treated. Just to give you a bit of context, G. works in a beauty salon. So G., you’re on.

‘ I am so unhappy in my current job. I came to Lebanon under a woman’s sponsorship (Kefala), and when she stopped working they transferred me to my current employer. Last week end, my friend called me to invite me to a birthday party. I was pleased and wanted to look nice. Now, my previous employer worked in the same industry I’m in now, and used to let me borrow nail polish whenever I wanted for my personal use, especially if I had an occasion, provided I gave them back, which I always did. I just assumed my current boss would grant me the same permission, especially as it was the first time I did it while working for him, and was going to put the two nail polishes back first thing on Monday. I just wanted to to my own nails for once, so I packed the two little bottles in my bag. As I was exiting the salon, my boss started yelling at me, asking me to take everything out from my purse. It turned out the other girl working with me had gone and told our boss that I took two nail varnishes in my bag. My boss went ballistic, calling me names (thief, charmouta) and told me I had no right to take some products out. I told him my previous boss, whom he knows and has worked with, used to let me do it, and that I merely borrowed them in good faith. I started crying, but he took away my phone and was very angry with me. I was extremely sad as my cell phone was the easiest way for me to contact my daughter back home. I went to the phone center and called my daughter to tell her I wouldn’t be able to call her as much now that I didn’t have my phone anymore. I thought the whole thing was behind me when several days later my employer took me to the Maktab, the office that deals with migrant workers papers and affairs. There, the person in charge started yelling at me, telling me I was no good and had to obey my employer and ended his whole screaming match by slapping me twice. My boss was calmer with me afterwards, much nicer, he said soothingly the whole thing was over. It is not over for me.’

I asked her if she perhaps could work some place else. She answered she was looking into it but that it was so difficult in Lebanon because she was under the responsibility of her current employer, so that she was tied to him for papers.

Imagine yourself being unable to change your job if you wish to. Imagine being dependent on another person, being tied to this person to be able to continue working. Imagine being beaten up by people in power to force you into a certain behavior. Imagine having no freedom at all, doing all the thankless work while having to endure daily racism. It’s odd, isn’t it, that we would never dream in a million years to accept these conditions for ourselves, yet that we have no qualms about imposing them on other people. Aren’t these people equal human beings? Then why are they being treated so dramatically differently?

In her latest report to the 21st session of the Human Rights Council following her visit to Lebanon in October, the UN special rapporteur on modern forms of slavery stated what anyone who has lived in Lebanon has witnessed, that ‘many migrant domestic workers are not seen as equals to the Lebanese with the same rights, but as commodities, thereby further entrenching the idea that Lebanese employers own and have full control over their workers. Over the years, there have been reports of domestic servitude in Lebanon, whereby migrant domestic workers are economically, sexually and/or physically exploited, left totally dependent on others and unable to end the employer-employee relationship of their own volition. The victims continue to work under the threat of violence, or even experiencing violence, and may have restrictions placed on their freedom of movement and communication.’
The report also points out the dire injustice and oppression of the Sponsorship system: ‘under the Kafala system, a migrant domestic worker who leaves her employment without permission from both her employer and the Government, for whatever reason, is immediately classified as an irregular migrant and is subject to arrest, detention and deportation. The migrant domestic worker cannot end her contract and is legally tied to her employer.’

G.’s example is one among many others. We could all share many more stories we hear, like my neighbour in Lebanon who beats up the domestic worker working for him and locks her up down in the cellar, where the Syrian natour brings her food (otherwise she’d starve on top of being locked up). What is happening in Lebanon and in many other countries is modern day slavery, and the even more shocking thing is that it is happening with the blessing of the Lebanese government who still implements the Kefala system, refuses to see domestic workers who decide to leave their employer as victims but rather as criminals, takes virtually no steps to eradicate discrimination against migrant workers and allows its Labour Code to specifically exclude migrant workers from its provisions.

Join the anti-racism movement if you feel you can’t bear to live in a country where slavery is commonplace: http://www.antiracismmovement.com

The complete report of the UN special rapporteur on modern forms of slavery can be downloaded here http://daccess-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G12/149/40/PDF/G1214940.pdf?OpenElement

Sisters in Humanity

Participating to women’s gatherings never fail to remind me how diverse women are. Working in women’s rights, you sometimes tend to forget this basic fact, what with all the talk about sisterhood and harmony amongst women, the “common ennemy” being patriarchy.

I’m just back from such a gathering in Europe, and have to admit I was not expecting some things. Indeed, compared to my stays in Africa and the Middle East, I found a huge difference between Africa and the Middle East on the one hand and Europe on the other: while african and middle eastern women tend to question their own environement and beliefs, trying to point out what’s wrong in THEIR societies, European women (from what I’ve seen) tend to gloss over their issues in their own societies, and have a tendency to point out to other communities . HIV? A problem that only minorities from Africa have to face. “We don’t really need any HIV programmes, we’ve already done them 20 years ago” one of them said to me. The answer shot back from my mouth before I could soften them with diplomatic flowers “Oh really? Do you really think Europe does not need anti stigma and discrimination programmes for people living with HIV?”A wary stare was the only answer I got. Besides, the spectrum of discrimination, and yes, racism, is never far behind. All the calamities that happen to women only seem to happen to migrant women. The “standard” european woman’s only battle seem to be domestic violence, and even this issue is more of a migrant women thing. Now I’m not saying that middle eastern women for example are not discriminatory towards migrant women (the example of domestic worker is striking enough in the region) but women i’ve spoken to do not automatically turn to them as if the world was a bed of roses for them. They speak about both (this is particularly true about young women), emphasizing their own situation and putting into question their own prejudices and mentalities.

In any case, I also found similarities between the different regions. Indeed, as I was describing my job, which implies a fair bit of traveling, I was met with a question that I’ve now started to consider as universal: But, but, how are you going to do when you’ll be married with children? Well, I say, my husband will just have to manage now, won’t he? If I have to travel, I have to travel. More wary stares. People thinking I’ll probably be an unnatural mother. (Note: no one never ever seem to consider the possibility that I might not actually want children)

The issue of language is another thing that shocked me, what with all the talk about “helping” people and “saving” women. I know these women have all the best intentions in the world, but I’ve never been big on the “assistance” kind of vocabulary. 

However, I’ve met wonderful women as well, ready to share their experiences and views with an open mind. Like this Finnish nurse who volunteered in 1976 with the Lebanese Red Cross. Like this Italian doctor who went to Gaza to treat the wounded and train the on-site medical aid volunteers on emergency care situations. Like this Swedish young woman who stayed in Palestine for several months, partaking in journeys for justice. Like this Dutch young woman who puts on her pink bathrobes and towels to demonstrate against Ahava. Like these two young women who were pregnant teenagers and who now support women and girls in the same situation.

Not only do these women and many more act for change abroad, but also lobby within their own countries to force media to change the body image they’re promoting towards young women, advocate for equality in political participation, and fight to end stigma and discrimination towards positive people.

We shouldn’t however put women who may noth think along the same lines as us on the side. On the contrary, we should open up the conversations to any kind of comments if we’re truly committed to be agents of change.

It’s just that sometimes, when you’re a daughter of migrant people, the stigma does not go down too well.