When I began considering Anne Sexton, the American poet who could not bear the sexism of the mid-20th century Western world, and read in her work the struggle of American women against “patriarchal society,” I felt like telling her, “Are you kidding me?” If the social rules in the progressive West are considered “patriarchal,” considered to be undermining the female role and suppressing the feminine identity, what can they say about Iraqi society with its Aarb-Islmic traditions? If the women living in the open-minded West are still struggling against such patriarchy, then I and my peers of educated Iraqi women are dead and shrouded under veils of social convenience and “Islamic Identity.”
In Iraq, “good” Muslim women are asked to wear hijab, a scarf that covers their heads, as essential requirement for decency. Although my father is not quite strict when it comes to how he raises his daughters, he still asked my older sister to wear hijab when she started junior high school and began developing toward adulthood. We, the younger sisters, received the message and every one of us started her junior school covering her hair and dressing “decently” according to Islamic standards.
The dress code imposed by these standards did not trouble me for long; I got used to it by the time I started college and found the scarf and the Islamic dress to be a convenient time-saving routine in the morning. However, by the time I grew up, I realized that to cover my hair was not the only rule I had to follow: all my life people prescribe to me how women should behave, act and talk in public so that I am the image of a “good girl” who is “well-taught” and the pride of my family. I was asked to be timid in front of males, in the hope that one might think of me as a good future wife for himself, his brother, or any male acquaintance he knows.
To be educated and have a university degree was just a fancy wrapping for the commodity on display; in our society, a woman’s education will make her the “trophy wife” modern men require, to be shown off in social gatherings. In my society, an educated woman is in demand because she can help differentiate a “modern” urban family from the rural backgrounds of his ancestors.
In Iraqi society, as an educated woman, I should not be too educated. My education should not be of the kind that gives me an independent voice or intellectual opinion that questions the established social institutions.
As I thought more about Anne Sexton’s “Housewife,” I realized the mistake in my initial impression. Perhaps this was an American woman who once lived the same situation we suffer today in Iraq. Yes, Sexton had the choice to live on her own, to choose her husband, to travel, and to be model if she wanted –choices that are not really available for Iraqi women– but still she knew what it meant to be a woman in a society where “men enter by force.” She knew the curse of being bound to the same rules as our mothers, to enter into a role that we never wanted.
In the words of these poems I found my voice, and heard myself repeating “some women marry houses.” In the background of my thoughts, I hear my mother’s usual speech of how marriage and a husband can provide me with the house I need for future security. I see in “how she sits on her knees all day” my mother, my sisters and my colleagues who have been bent down by the burdens of the houses they marry.
But that was half a century ago, I thought. I read poems by Sexton and her female contemporaries and thought in envy that their situation is in the past, that women in the West got rid of their veils, and exposed defiantly their individuality for everyone to see. The more I read of their bold oppositions and rebellion against the limited role assigned by the masculine society, the more I grow convinced of my need to live in the West and lift off the veil that shrouded for long the freedom of my mind.
Not long after writing my paper on Anne Sexton, I came across an article in The Atlantic by Anne-Marie Slaughter called “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” which dampened my excitement about the contemporary American woman. At first I was curious: what can they still not have in the West? Can’t Western women do anything I can imagine without being stopped or judged? I read the article out of curiosity and heard in the words of this high-profile employee in the State Department the frustration of my sisters and colleagues who sacrificed great careers to take care of their family. In her words, I read the regret of every career woman who missed the chance to enjoy family life because she wanted to pursue her career, or sacrificed her career to marry and raise a family.
Slaughter’s situation is not alien to me, nor would mine be to her. Our grievances are one and so are our dreams. While she did not have to wear a veil, she did not have a father or husband who marked for her the path she would take in life, she still had to sacrifice a dream job to take care of her teen boy. Like all women of all colors and attires, and just as Anne Sexton did in the last century, Slaughter and I struggle to accommodate our dreams and often fail our potential in order to settle for a reality drawn by someone else.
Nadia Fayidh Mohammed (b. 1978) is Iraqi poet, translator and American and English literature professor. Her formal study of English literature started in 1996 till she received her doctorate degree in English language and Literature in 2009.
Nadia published her poems in English magazines like Sparkling Light and Poetry Quarterly.