May 30, 2015

Struggle Makes You Stronger; on Phenomenal Women

The number of strong women I encounter in this part of the world is quite phenomenal, I was thinking the other night while cooking Pad-Thai. As in, this place seems to breed an unusual amount of strong women.
When thinking of the Middle East, people in the West generally assume that Arab women constitute a sub category of society. Men rule, women abide. There is some truth to that when you look at legislation. Laws do not often provide for equitable situations, and even if they do, local customs and traditions still may interfere with how a judgment is executed. Abuse, discrimination and domestic violence are issues many have to deal with, while the law will not protect them.
Yet in spite of this unfavorable situation, or because of it, the number of powerful women I meet is simply mind-boggling. Powerful in the sense that they run their own life - without help from the government or a partner - run it well, run it without complaining, and run it with flair.
The stories you sometimes hear are rife with suffering, and you wonder how they do it, but they do it. Single women, married women, widows and divorced women. And this is no simple feat in a society where simply making ends meet is a near impossible challenge.

The perception in the West that Arab women are weak and submissive, because society imposes this role on them, is – in my experience - a misconception. A misconception that was evident when a Lebanese journalist earlier this year told an irate sheikh on TV to tone it down a bit, and when that was not heeded, simply cut him off. It was quite a hit, indicating that this action surprised many.
But she was not the first one to call the shots.  The idea that women in this male-dominated society play a submissive role because this is what they have been assigned to do, is well embedded in the west, but not very accurate, as this journalist points out. This region is teeming with strong women; phenomenal women, as May Angelou would call them.
And so, as the author of the commentary, Nesrine Malik, points out, the standing up against a narrow-minded sheikh, “is not worthy of reporting because it shows a woman defying the norms and prejudices of Arab society; it is newsworthy because it challenges your views and prejudices about Arab society.”  
And I was reminded of that last week, while attending a Thai cooking class, hosted by a Croatian lady, and given by an Armenian Lebanese/Syrian lady who is member of the Egyptian’s Chefs Association. I am not a great cook.
Let me rephrase that, it’s not only that I do not cook well, I do not cook at all. That is fine with me. When I got married, my mother in-law saved the day by deciding that if I was not going to cook for her son, she would, and she would send entire meals, complete with salads and side dishes, on a daily basis to our house with a cab driver.
Was the mother in law content with having to cook for an extra household? Heck, she didn’t care, because she wasn’t cooking either. She was a designer and a tough business woman, who was not only a working woman, but also ran a household on the side through a network of employees.
An exception, you say? I don’t think so. She was married at 16, had her first child at 17, a perfect candidate for being cast into the role of weak women. But she ran three thriving three companies with an iron fist, and dealt only with men.
Phenomenal women – in my experience - are the norm here, rather than an abnormality.

Through my work in Lebanon, I’ve met so many of them; women who – despite hardship and unfavorable conditions – managed to shape a life that was meaningful and powerful. I think I should be working on a series to show this side of Lebanese society, which is infinitely more interesting that the fact that we have no president.
To tell you the truth, I had forgotten all about that. We do quite well without one. I dare say, they can send cabinet and parliament home as well; we’ll function, and quite well at that.
So why was I joining a cooking class, you may wonder? Well, I like Thai food. There is no decent Thai food take-out in Beirut, and the lady cooking in my house – the old aunt – is into the old-fashioned northern Lebanese kitchen; no noodles, Thai-pad or coconut milk will come out of her kitchen as long as she swings the ladle.
The other women present were – in this particularly setting - mostly ex-pats, and again, one by one, strong women. They are here because they either hold jobs that assigned them to this country, or are a trailing spouse.  But they too have lived through wars (Croatie, Serbia, Sudan and Lebanon) and family disasters.
There is something about this society, that brings out the best in most women, all women, Arab or not. Because they not only have to fight for their rights, but also fight what is rightfully theirs, but not necessarily doled out fairly. It’s a constant struggle, and struggle makes you stronger.
Just think of conversations you’ve had with plumbers, carpenters or painters. They will fix and hammer as they very well please, totally ignoring how you requested the work should be done. You accept it once, you accept it twice, and at one point you say, “well damn, you will do as I told you, otherwise get your toolbox and get the hell out of here.”
This approach, although hesitantly adopted by this Dutchie at first, is a role I now relish in. A role that I would never have to employ if I had been living in the west (I think), as it wasn’t necessary. That may have its advantages, but on the other hand, you do not really experience what you are capable of. 
It is under hardship that you become strong and confident, and this place has plenty of hardship, and an enormous amount of phenomenal women.  
So that’s what I was thinking about  as I was cooking Thai-pad.


Anonymous said...

Those knife wielding women sure do scare me. I'm outta here . :)

Gray Fox said... are such a gifted writer!! Best regards, Les Fox

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