Being “more than” “just” a housewife

Pushing the shopping cart through the fascinating (cheap) aisles at Tuesday Morning, Raihana heard the familiar sounds of baby babble. I saw her prick up her ears, so, to keep her entertained, I prowled in the direction of the baby.

There, pushing another cart with a child in it, I met a mother. We fell to chatting about daycares and children. We compared notes on the local childcare options and our children’s habits. As I chatted with her, I kept my academic identity in the background. When we exited the shop, we discovered we were parked right next to each other. She loaded her child into her minivan and I loaded Raihana into my Forester.

On a whim, I whipped out a business card and gave it to her, suggesting playdates for the kids. The businesscard may seem like an odd choice, but it’s an easy way of passing on my email and phone number.

She glanced at my card, saw the PhD in Education, and revealed that she was on the Institutional Review Board at the university. We THEN fell to chatting about research clearance processes, and realized that we had more in common than motherhood.

A man’s identity is not drowned by parenthood. I would not have essentialized and predicted a man’s identity and work in the same way. But I was forced to remind myself that when I meet another woman/mother, I should not automatically predict “housewife.”

People are probably even more shocked when I tell them, dressed in my casual, unemployed clothing, as I push the stroller or seal a pack of wipes, that I have a PhD.

And yet so much remains to be deconstructed in “just a housewife.” Housewifing without paid employment is a multi-job affair, involving a variety of disciplines and a multitude of skills. But since none of those tasks are paid, it loses status in the “world.” Housewifing loses status and income because it is associated with women. And even women’s non-domestic work becomes invisible when associated with women. Such are the ways in which we – even we smarty-pants academic feminist-type women – are conditioned.

Summer of ‘78: the aamil

This was posted on August 27, 2006 at the old Koonj.

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On shab-e-meraj, all three of us brother and sisters would pray 100 nafil rakaat on the kottha because that was the thing to do on shab-e-meraj. Yes, indeed, 10-year old Koonj hammered away on her jainamaz. And no, no reflecting on the meaning of namaz or khusu’ or fancy stuff like that. Just plain old fashioned hammering away on the jainamaz to get those 100 nafils done. As my brother and sister said approvingly how good I was for praying all 100.

On shab-e-meraj also we sisters—10 and 14—could stand on the balcony and watch the boys in the street lighting fireworks. Maybe we even had some phul-jhari’s (literally, “flower showers,” or sparklers). Since we were girls, we couldn’t hang with the boys in the street. My “virtual purdah” days were accelerated because of my elder sister’s age. We ended up together.

Oh, and on the same balcony, we once had a strange visitor. An aamil, to figure out who the thief was that had visited our house twice. We had a couple of attempts at theft at our house. Pitiful ones, considering we had nothing. But to people in the area, we seemed rich. My father was a doctor and we had returned from England, so surely there must be something hidden away. Well, they came in our absence one day, cut through the gauze windows, and rifled through absolutely all our photographs. They gave us too much credit for being imaginative in concealing our precious belongings. Unfortunately we were neither imaginative nor in possession of valuables.

The thieves made a gatthri (bundle), and didn’t have the time to take the gatthri with them. A pitiful little gatthri—full of small household items and topped by a little red alarm clock. They didn’t even manage to take the alarm clock.

Our neighbours prevented them from taking the gatthri. Mrs Penguin ….

—Okay, now I have to explain.

Our neighbours were a family of business-people, newly prosperous businessfolk from the inner city, very friendly, and very nosey. My sister always said they walked like penguins, with their toes turned outward—which is actually standard paindoo gait. So we called them Penguin Uncle and Penguin Auntie and their Penguin brood. They had a whole cluster of sons, no daughters, so we performed virtual purdah, not speaking or exchanging salam with any of the boys, — all the way down to the 8-year old. I can think of a few blog-readers who’d be happy with that. …

The Penguins had a dog, a plaintive little mutt, whom they called Jimmy Carter. Yes, I know, Jimmy Carter isn’t such a bad man, but to the Penguins—who were ardent Pakistan People’s Party voters and supporters of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto—Jimmy Carter was merely a symbol of the American imperialists who had allowed Bhutto to be executed.
Anyway, the Penguins were, just so we’re clear, extremely nice people. They cared about us, but we city folk couldn’t help being a bit bewildered at their anderoon-e-sheher (inner city) ways. Keep in mind, my siblings and I had lived in the UK for 7 years (I’d been born there), so we were always considered a bit clueless compared to “bharey puray gharon mein palley huay” kids (kids raised in large families). We never had the smart repartee, the quick snatch to grab other kids’ toys and so on.

For example, when Mrs Penguin, while telling ammi about her most recent ailment—a pimple inside her nose—suddenly pulled up her nostril, and demanded, “Vaikh. Hai eh?” (Look. Is it there?)

Mrs Penguin cared about us, as I’ve said, and kept a close eye on our comings and goings. She knew what we did, what we said, and where/when we went. She knew absolutely everything we did.
One afternoon, when we were out, she peeked over the low wall, and saw the door open. And she heard a noise. Well, the red Volkswagen (we’d brought it from England) wasn’t there, so we weren’t home.

So Mrs Penguin sent the males of the family over and apparently some thieves made good their escape. She told us the story of her monitoring of our house many a time.
Well, for some reason, someone–probably Mrs Penguin–thought we should see an aamil—a glorified magician of some sort—to figure out who the chor was.

Let me splain you: An “aamil” is someone who does “amal” – which in Urdu and Punjabi is not just “deed” or “hope,” but is an attempt to get powers (Divine or others) to get something done for you. An aamil might be one who uses anything from Qur’anic phrases such as duas or one who uses black magic.
If you thought Walmart was convenient one-stop shopping, let me introduce you to the aamil. You want success in your Matric exams? Go to the aamil and you don’t have to open the books. You’re in love? Get the aamil on your side and “mehboob aap ke qadmon mein” (your beloved will be at your feet – a favourite line in aamil ads). Impotence? Sneak off to an aamil.

This – impotence – is a great favourite with aamils, najoomis (astrologers), and palmists. When we were recent arrivals in Pakistan, as kids, we used to love to practice reading Urdu ALOUD in mixed company wherever we saw signs. Not such a good idea, when the biggest graffiti on the walls says in screaming red: “MARDANA KAMZORI KA ILAAJ” (Cure for impotence).

These days aamils don’t just sit around on footpaths waiting for you to ask them for help. They EMAIL you. They have websites. They even have half-page ads in the Urdu papers urging you to contact them if you are in love, failing your exams or impotent. The ads I see these days are more equal opportunity: they address neglectful husbands as much as they do impotence. “Neglectful husband? He beats you? Loves another woman? You are childless? Call this number for a solution to all your problems. Why suffer?” Why suffer indeed?

One time, I confess, years later (in the 90’s), during the insanity of my sister’s failing marriage, my parents went to see “someone.” This “someone” had a muakkil (usually a jinn) who came upon him every now and again. One time, the muakkil came upon him in the middle of a conversation, and the “someone” berated my sister’s in-laws. The jinn added, “You should have arranged chhoti waali’s (yours truly) rishta with this family. SHE would have taught them a lesson.” Yah, Koonj freaked the jinns out.

This particular someone had my parents hang an amulet to the fan and have it going for days at a time. My dad, always skeptical of such things, was furious – afterwards. In the heat of the moment, when your daughter is getting beaten up by some SOB whom you used to call baita, sometimes people will do anything.

Anyway, enough about aamils. Wait, okay, one more story. In a family we knew, the wife was seriously ill. Doctors could not figure out what was wrong with her. She continued to deteriorate. One day, out of desperation, they invited a “someone” over. They were extremely sceptical, but what could they lose. This someone came over, recited something, and then said, “You have something buried under the tree in your yard.” They dug around the tree and sure enough, they found the usual paraphernalia of black magic – something like a goat’s head and black thread and symbols and signs written on a piece of paper.

So Koonj’s position on all this stuff is: there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio… – And Koonj knows not everything by any means. At the same time, Koonj is aware that the Prophet was targeted by black magic and the last two surahs were employed to nullify its effect. At the same time, Koonj does not insist that to be her friend you must believe implicitly in black magic. Heck, she has even regretfully resigned herself to the knowledge that most of baby Raihana’s education in desi superstition must come from only one parent. Koonj maintains that there is no power that can cause any harm or any benefit to you except if God so wills it. And whatever harm or benefit that is meant to reach you, will reach you, no matter what.

Anyway, back to the story.
So people thought we ought to use an aamil to figure out who this thief was. In those days we used to listen to people. “Koi andar ka aadmi hai” (he’s an insider), people speculated, as always.

So this aamil was led to the balcony, sat up there, and asked for a silver tray. We had this silver tray, with little shiny circlets in it. its image is etched in my mind. The aamil summoned the children—and that was me (about 10) and my sister (14). He asked us to gaze upon the tray. Then he asked us who he saw in the tray.

Of course all I saw was silver circles. The sun blazed down and I saw the tray sparkling but still no men. The aamil kept droning on about how the man was coming in and over the wall and could we see him now? What did he look like? Still no man. My sister and I just kept looking blankly at him and repeating after long pauses, “Nothing.”
The aamil left, along with the friend who had introduced him to us. Together they apologized for the lack of results, and I remember hearing someone say, “It should be YOUNGER children. They should be more innocent.” After they left, my mother laughed about how un-suggestible we were, and how we just kept repeating steadily, “Nope. I don’t see anything.”

I always felt vaguely apologetic for not having seen anything in the tray at age 10. In my mind’s eye, I still see the silver tray and stare at the shiny silver circles to discern some man with a bundle of household things thrown over his shoulder, making his way past my mother’s colourful sweet-peas and over the wall.

He’s happier, she’s less happy

Well, I’ll be –. The gender gap in happiness. (ht-my blog-reader, a.)
Excerpt:

“Since the 1960s, men have gradually cut back on activities they find unpleasant. They now work less and relax more. …

“These trends are reminiscent of the idea of “the second shift,” the name of a 1989 book by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild, arguing that modern women effectively had to hold down two jobs. The first shift was at the office, and the second at home.

“But researchers who have looked at time-use data say the second-shift theory misses an important detail. Women are not actually working more than they were 30 or 40 years ago. They are instead doing different kinds of work. They’re spending more time on paid work and less on cleaning and cooking.

“What has changed — and what seems to be the most likely explanation for the happiness trends — is that women now have a much longer to-do list than they once did (including helping their aging parents). They can’t possibly get it all done, and many end up feeling as if they are somehow falling short.”

I think the article unnecessarily belabours the point that “The Second Shift” allegedly misses. Women are still overall spending more time cleaning and cooking than men, and working to make money too.