International Women’s Day

So we have once again arrived at International Women’s Day which always puts me in mind of a few things. The first is something that happened early in my teaching career. The day was acknowledged on our morning announcements, prompting a boy in my class to petulantly blurt out,

“When is International Men’s Day?”

To which I replied,

“Every other day of the year.”

Let’s face it, putting aside one day to acknowledge and honour 50% of the world’s population is ridiculously scant and feeble. One might even find it insulting considering how the vast majority of women in the world are treated.

Most people are familiar with Malala Yousafzai and her brave fight to ensure girls have the right to go to school. It is impossible to get a firm number on how many girls around the globe are denied an education, but of all the estimates I read posted by international organizations, eighty million was the minimum. Holy crap that is a lot of girls! Malala is right to stand up for this cause in particular; there is no way we can make any large and lasting gains in the world until we are all educated. When you sentence half your population to a lifetime of ignorance and servitude, you condemn your entire country to intractable poverty and its concomitant sorrow. Yet the men who run such societies are so obsessed with maintaining power that they willfully or otherwise ignore this obvious fact, much to the detriment of themselves and those they love. I believe that is called cutting off your nose despite your face.

The main incident from my own life which comes to mind on this day concerns a young woman I encountered in Morocco some 30 years ago. My husband Douglas had met a family in Rabat when he went to Morocco alone in 1987, and they invited us to stay with them when he and I went together in 1989. We had only been at their house a few hours before it became clear that they took us in for a reason; they wanted Abdallah, their eldest son, to come to Canada and hoped that we would act as his sponsors. So much for hospitality!

Abdallah was, quite frankly, a dud. Lazy, entitled and doltish, he was not a person I would ever consider sponsoring. The second eldest in the family, Zahra, was the exact opposite of her brother. She spoke four languages and was fluent enough that she actually got off some decent jokes in English, she was intelligent and a talented artist, and she was full of energy and ambition. Surly this was the person with the skills and drive to make it in another country.

Zahra was the acknowledged black sheep of the family. She had taken off her hijab and cut her hair some months before we arrived – an act which still garnered tense silences and dirty looks from her father. She spoke and carried herself with confidence, and seemed completely comfortable being unlike any other female in her circle. I very much admired her.

Before going further with Zahra’s story however, I would like to take a moment and talk about how the culture of women in that house appeared to me. In Morocco, and probably in most other Islamic countries, the women prepare the meals and bring them out to the men who lounge around in the living room and eat at their leisure. The women then clear the table when the men have had their fill and, retreating to the kitchen, eat whatever is left. I was allowed to sit with the men and have first dibs on the tajine since I was a guest, but frankly would rather have stayed with the women. It was clear to me despite the language barrier that the men were boorish and boastful, an observation my husband seconded when we were alone together at night. The women, on the other hand, seemed genuine, and although they were very much segregated and kept down, they found ways of expressing and sharing joy in their otherwise servile lives.

For example, my husband needed a haircut and the men in the family volunteered to take him to the barbershop and for a walk around the neighbourhood, happy for any excuse to show off to this Westerner. It was Zahra would did all of the translating in our conversations, so Douglas was less than jazzed about spending the afternoon with a bunch of men he didn’t really like and couldn’t understand, but there was no way he could politely refuse their offer. It was after the men left that things really got interesting. There was a palpable lightening of the mood as soon as they departed, and before long two of Zahra’s female cousins showed up at the door.

After many hugs and much laughter, the mother came into the room with one of those massive boomboxes so popular in the 80’s. One of the cousins was standing beside me and began pointing at my pelvis and making appreciative signals with her hands and face as if to say,

“Now there’s a set of hips you can get your teeth into!”

Zahra came over to me and wound a bright purple scarf around my pelvis, tying it off at the side so the tassels draped down my right thigh. I had no idea what was happening but decided to just go with it, picking up on the joy and excitement of women who until then had been so dutiful and dour. The mother turned on the music and the distinctive skirl of North African pipes filled the room. Then came the rhythm of the drums and the over-arching sound of one male voice, singing in that unmistakeable Arabic way, with alien trills and a tangible yearning.

Now the young women in the room, sporting scarves that seemed to have magically appeared around their pelvises, started to dance, while the mother began to clap and ululate. Zahra came up to me, put her hands on my hips, and gently rotated them in time with the music. I picked up on the motion and began dancing on my own, freeing her to join in with her sister and cousins. Before long we were all gyrating around the living room, dancing together with huge smiles on our faces, sharing in an exquisite moment of freedom and sisterhood, when all of a sudden everything ground to a halt. The music ceased, the dancing stopped, the mother silenced, Zahra pulled my scarf off so violently that I actually spun around like a top – and in walked the men.

I felt privileged to share in that exuberant experience with the women, and Douglas was rightfully jealous when I later described it to him because his afternoon had consisted of having to politely smile and nod while being dragged from one dismal shop to another. I try to keep this shining moment in mind when I think of the sad encounter I had with Zahra the very next day.

It was late afternoon and extremely stuffy in the apartment so I went up to the roof to get some relief from the heat. I walked through the door and saw Zahra on the far side with her back to me. I came up quietly beside her and she acknowledged my presence with a sideways glance. It was clear that her mind was far away and filled with sadness. She had told me when we first met that her fondest wish was to study art at the Sorbonne in Paris (one of her four languages was French). Still looking off into the distance, she quietly said,

“I’ll never go to Paris. I’m never getting out of here. I can’t even get a passport without my father’s permission. Right now I am his property, and soon he will choose me a husband and then I will become his property.”

Then she turned to me with tears in her eyes and repeated,

“I’m never getting out of here.”

Her expression was equal parts pain and resignation, and I knew there was nothing I could say or do in that moment to ease her suffering. What she said was irrefutably true, and no one knew that better than Zahra herself.

I looked into sponsoring Zahra when we got back to Canada and wrote her several times about starting the process, but all of my letters were returned unopened. I assume her father intercepted the mail. So I am thinking about Zahra today and all the hundreds of millions of women around the world who are in similar or worse situations. Along with my hopes and concerns for them, I am also aware of and grateful for living in a country where I and all the women I know can freely accept Gloria Steinem’s invitation to celebrate and acknowledge this day,

“Any way we fucking well please!”

Amen to that, sister!

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