On Angry Feminists, Women’s Bodies, and People’s Sense of Entitlement

When I put myself in front of my computer this morning, I had every intention to work and write the 28th chapter of the Tales of the Phoenix City.

However, it seemed life had other plans for me.

Fate, or maybe it was just random bad luck, put yet another person in front of me who asked me “if that baby was coming”.

I gave an icy cold reply, and that seemed to shut her up.

I never got how people can be so insensitive and feel so entitled to meddle in affairs that have nothing whatsoever to do with them. I always felt that these questions can hurt a person trying to have a baby but not succeeding, or sadden a person who has just miscarried, or anger a person who doesn’t want to have a child, or just plain bore a person into a stupor as they simply really don’t feel like discussing what’s in or what’s not in their uterus with every half wit that crosses her path.

However, this issue is bigger than the issue of having a child. People’s sense of entitlement to ask women personal questions most of the times seems to largely go unquestioned. As women, it seems that people expect us to nod and answer gracefully all the questions that get thrown at us, regardless of what we feel and think. Are you getting married? Yes? No? If Yes, when? If no, why the hell not? Once you’re married, it’s the child issue that raises its head, accompanied with well and not so well-meaning old wives’ tales about how time is running out and if your body gets used to your partner’s sperm you won’t be able to conceive (true story. Someone actually said that to a friend of mine). When you’re pregnant, your womb becomes public property with the same random people rubbing your belly like there’s no tomorrow, as if for good luck. Seriously, can you imagine people’s faces if I went around caressing men’s bellies and making stupid cooing noises? Once you’ve had your first child, when are you going to have the second? And once you’ve had your children, it seems that the world gets filled with self-appointed experts criticizing right left and center the way you’re raising your offspring.

My husband gets asked all the time questions about the progression of his PhD, about how his activities are going. Very few people, save for some members of his close family, ever ask him about when we are planning on having a child. On the other hand, random people seem to have no problem whatsoever asking me about the future occupants of my womb, each and everyone of them giving advice I did not remember asking for, or stressing me out because apparently a pregnancy would not suit my job.

Should you snap at the umpteenth person putting his or her head up your ass, people frown at you as if you were the living embodiment of their version of feminists, I.e, aggressive women always barking at patriarchy and their ‘so-called oppression’. Let me tell you one thing: us feminists are angry, that’s for sure, because the minute we put on our feminist glasses it becomes impossible not to see the gender bias and discrimination we have to live under, it becomes impossible not to notice that women are expected to answer obediently to all the shit that gets thrown at them and nod submissively otherwise they’d be frowned upon if not mocked and degraded, and something inside us just snaps and starts wanting to bite people’s heads off. Feminists are angry because they question what society takes for granted: gender stereotypes, gender injustice, discrimination and society’s sense of entitlement.

This sense of entitlement to ask questions about a woman’s private life stems, at least for me, from the general perception that women’s bodies and lives do not belong to them and them only. Women’s bodies are society’s , their family’s, their community’s, but never their own. This being said, it derives that questions can be asked and comments can be made. It is only when we make the conscious choice to respect every human being body’s integrity that we can truly say we respect healthy boundaries and can have equal relationships.

Don’t give me advice if I don’t ask. Don’t ask me personal questions, especially if I barely know you. Don’t tell me what my child should eat or do.

After all, you’re not seeing me asking your husband how his prostate is doing. Therefore, I’d be grateful if you could leave my uterus alone.

Meet Me Halfway

Bring me bitter chocolate, she said, the blackest and the bitterest you can find, please, to reflect how I feel.

Her words hung awkwardly in the air. What are you supposed to say when someone you barely know opens up to you in the most unexpected, blunt and sincere way? She said it half joking, probably not to spoil the buoyant Beiruti mood, the laughters, the glasses clinking, the distant voice of the young woman singer providing the soundtrack to her woes. Her mouth tried going slightly upwards when her eyes remained hollow, two hazel spheres burning my own retinas, trying to convey the most universal message: if you can’t help me, at least try and understand me. Her bleakest feelings in a heartbeat, barely time for the onlooker to catch the vibe, to comprehend the silence, barely time for an eyelid to shield her soul and for her social mask to be back on.

She caught my eyes, and understanding started fizzing between her and I. Come dance with me, she said grabbing my arms.

She was not asking. She was pulling me, yet pleading with me. Come dance with me, for this moment, and this moment only, I want to forget who I am, and I need you to be my crutch so that I can face these people and these stares wondering about me, judging me.

Her, the woman whose headscarf kept on perfect position throughout those glorious minutes where she found herself again, her old self, the woman she lost somewhere along the way in a fit of crazy, stupid, inconvenient love.

And so I danced, not because I felt like it, but because I  wanted to provide her with the break she so needed, because I could almost feel in my own mouth the ferruginous taste of her bile, the acrid disappointment of what she thought was but appeared would never be. I danced and I twirled and I jumped and I laughed along with her because she was like a prisoner on bail and that I wanted to do anything, anything for her to smell carelessness and forgetfulness again and caress the feeling of being free. I danced because I knew how she felt, I just had to look at her to think, Ah, but for the Grace of God, Go I, for I, too, knew bitterness and hurt, and I too, had needed shared laughs and the touch of a hand just to get through the next minute.

He was absent yet he was here, everywhere, in all her talk and in all her movements, he was in every glance she kept shooting towards the door, in her jumpy mood, in the ever slightly shaky hand that brought her drink to her lips. He was the much beloved threat that poisoned her, the frown he always wore now transposed to her own face, his of disapproval, hers of constant worry. I could only imagine the constant pain she had to live with, the constant ache of loving so deep someone who passed on judgements to her so often she could never trust him again, lies were were her only refuge.

What can you do when somebody you barely know pours out their soul to you? You get up and dance, you take her hands in yours and you laugh, you dance and you laugh and you sing out loud, in the hope that all the singing and jumping and dancing will pray the Devil back to wherever it came from, and keep the terrible fear at bay.

Even for a second, especially for a second, you sing and forget, and in that moment, life becomes possible again.

Portrait: Teta

Teta doesn’t really like that nickname, it reminds her of her own teta, an old lady, a lovely one, granted, but one who loved fitting into the teta cliche, with her cross around her neck and her labneh making and her kebeh labanieh and her sheesh barak, and her permanent black attire. She loved her, but she hated the teta concept: as soon as you become a grand mother you all of a sudden seem to have to make jars of jam and mouneh and be exclusively devoted to you children
and grandchildren. Teta has always been an active woman who fought at great lengths to keep her job and her family, both of which she loved dearly and struggled dearly with, and all of a sudden, because she became a grandmother, she was supposed to act as if all those years never happened and start behaving as if nothing mattered more than the perfect baking of her home made bread.

Er, why?

It seems even her daughter frowns at her when she says she can’t look after her child, as if Teta’s sole purpose in life now was to be full time super nanny, because of course, what else should she be doing? She’s old!
Teta mutters to herself, seated on her lovely balcony full of fresh flowers, and looks down at her wrinkled hands: when does it ever stop? I got judged when I was young for having my own mind and saying loud and clear what was on it, I got judged when I grew older for loving my ridiculously badly paid job instead of staying at home with my kids and now that I’m old, I’m getting judged for not acting the part.  Teta doesn’t look the part: she loved her husband more than anything else in this world, but would never dress only in black ad vitam eternam, the az3ar would never stop laughing from above. She’s not been to a surgeon to keep her features from testifying her age and chose to grow old gracefully. She’s neither the self effacing older woman nor the grandmother who’d rather die than say she actually has four grandchildren. 
The other grandmother doesn’t help, either. This one, she’s like the walking cliche on the Teta with a capital T: ya 3omri, to2borneh teta ana, let me make you some impossibly complicated dish in my quaint old kitchen with special mouneh that I brought from the mountains! Yi 3aleynah heyde, she makes me feel so bad.
Gloomily, Teta sips her delicious orange blossom flowers coffee, thinking of the so-strong-it-aches love she holds for her family, how crazy she’d go is something happened to them, how unfair society has always been, asking her to define herself only in relations to them, to choose, all the time, all these choices. Her own mother told her all these years ago it was every s woman’s lot, that suffering was something that came with the female condition. Teta never believed it and now she’s punishing herself, feeling bad when she should not.
Today, Teta’s available to mind her grandchildren, and, while she starts tidying up her place, she immerses herself in her life, in her role.
If a mother is a role model, then a grandmother should be an even bigger one.
Role model. I like that. I like that my granddaughter will retain a sense of self until the day she dies, I can teach her that. I might not make sheesh barak, but I will develop her curiosity, read with her and always tell her to hold her ground, no matter the circumstances.

Now humming gaily, Teta puts the hot chocolate cup down and prepares the sahlab ice cream. The little devil will come home hungry from school, and she needs her energy for the women’s cooperative Teta’s taking her to today.

To Read: Teta, Mother and Me, By Jean Said MAkdisi