The refugee hitchhiker who haunts me

She stood by the Katara exit kiosk with two boys by her side.

I slowed down to a stop, expecting her to cross the road. But she walked up to the car and in Arabic interspersed with a few English words asked me to drop her in Dafna.

How dangerous could it be? A well-dressed hitchhiker of about 40, with 2 young boys in tow. Yes, it was close to midnight, but this is Doha, after all.

When I offered to help find a taxi, she insisted politely (almost a plea) that I drop her home. It was not too far away from Katara… The boys were hanging behind, obviously uncomfortable.

So there they were in the car, one second discussing the amazing Cinema Paradiso we had all seen at the last screening of Doha Tribeca that night, and the next second we were discussing the war in Syria.

The mother with her two sons and two daughters fled to Doha from Damascus. The daughters stayed with their aunt (her sister), while she lived in a single rented room with her sons. No job in sight, and unable to afford to send the kids to school. Four months in Qatar, having lost all that was familiar and comfortable.

She had left behind a 20-year-old career as a French teacher, her husband, friends, her home. Now in Qatar, she is not quite sure whether she was at the threshold of greater tumult or little hope.

In that moment she was as lost as a person could possibly be. She doesn’t quite remember the route back home to her room. Mohammed, the younger one who could not have been over 10 seems to have an inkling. He guides me through the lefts and rights of Dafna. He is chatty.

Ahmed, the older boy — around 12-13 — is stoic. I can’t make out if he is unhappy about his mother talking to a stranger about her worries and fears; or if he was just unhappy. It’s him that I worry about most.

To take a healthy, bright teen out of school and to a strange country… How do you keep him happy and positive? What kind of courage and desperation did it take for that mother to make this move?

We finally find our way to their home. We are by now on first name basis. K writes her name, number, email id and Facebook user name on a piece of paper. She takes down my details. She believes I could be one of the people who’d help her find a job here.

Her sons are listening. Maybe they are buying some of that belief too.

I feel crushed by the truth of the matter — I can’t do much but I can’t tell her that.

Three days after the encounter, I am still haunted by the eagerness in her smile, the determination in her voice, the sadness in her eyes and by Ahmed’s unsmiling face.

This is what war does. It splits families. It crushes dreams. It makes warriors of mothers and children.

 

PS: If you know of a job she can apply for please contact me.

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Take this Waltz: A Review

What I figured after a good night’s sleep and some early morning analyses of the film I watched last night is this:

The problem with relationships is not marriage per se, but that it demands living together. It’s the sharing of routines, the demand to share interests, to share space… You shit, I’ll brush my teeth. You cook, I will mop. I’ll write, you sharpen my pencils. It’s that stifling expectation of togetherness. It’s being sentenced to ‘ever after’ happily or otherwise. It’s the choking feeling of having to work on being interesting, to work very hard on keeping boredom at bay. 

“New things become old,” a middle-aged lady tells three younger women in the swimming pool showers. She is responding to the desire for newer, shinier things.

 The protagonist (Michelle Williams) of the film is one of the three women. Her sister-in-law (Sarah Silverman) in the same scene says something to this effect: that after 10 years she at least still likes her husband, why would she want to trade that for something that may not last.

The three women are in their late 20s/early 30s. They all seem in happy(ish) marriages. 

Earlier, the man (Luke Kirby) who is wooing Michelle asks her what was wrong with her, because she was restless… not right now, but generally in life. (I am paraphrasing.)

Most women say they want a man who makes them laugh, and her husband (Seth Rogen) does a lot of that. So well, we realise that’s not what we really want though.

Still from the film. The scene that follows this is so so amazing.

This movie spoke to me. Oh my goodness, how it did.

It was so honest, so raw, and it was an echo of all the conversations I have with my very close bunch of girlfriends. Sarah Polley the director has done a tremendous job.

I don’t want to talk about the plot, what happens, who is hurt, who is not.

If you are in that restless phase of your life when you have little to complain about, but still can’t quite feel at peace with who you are and what you have, do watch the film. It won’t give you answers. It will probably confuse you even more. Yet, it will talk to you. It might tell you that you are not crazy for being the way you are, or it might tell you that it’s ok to be 10 feet away from the nuthouse.

PS: Thanks Chatura for recommending this movie, and attempting to push me over the ledge.

Women in my life

For the longest time I believed that my all-girls school and college education was a disadvantage. Add to that the fact that I grew up in a family of women–mum, sisters, aunt, cousins who stayed with us, and a father who travelled a lot.

Yesterday while sitting on a panel, to discuss women in leadership (bossy pants or nanny 101), one of the co-panellists spoke about the invisible rules.

It occurred to me at that point, much of my life those rules didn’t apply to me because of what I thought were the disadvantages. At school we played a lot of sports, we did some heavy-duty cleaning, there was no boy-thing girl-thing; at home, we were expected to know everything from changing the fuse wire to handling the spanners and screwdriver for tasks around the house. We were taught to live life, and manage it, without a thought that they were gender-based roles.

Of course at school and college we were all rather guy-crazy, getting quite excited at the sight of any young, passably presentable man on campus. But other than that, I grew up more or less gender blind/indifferent.

Still, because of how I grew up, the environment, the most important people in my life are women. I have  large, very large circle of women friends. But for me, these six seven (+1) below epitomise all things strong, charming and beautiful;  AND the fact that they seem to unconditionally love me, despite knowing the worst about me (oh yes!).

They never make me doubt the friendship, or feel insecure. For me (the big fat doubter that I am) this makes them truly precious.

I thank them for being in my life, and for making me believe I am important and loved.

There is one other person. R. But I do know she might object to her picture being here, or tease me about this melodramatic post. But you know who you are.

So Happy Women’s Day people, and I do hope my little women will grow up with all that I enjoyed and more.

Edit: My sis whose maths talent has improved vastly, pointed out that i had the number wrong!

My highly-confused take on Sinner Against Gender Stereotypes Tag

IHM tagged me on this subject.

I took my time doing this, because I had both a lot to say and nothing at all on the subject.

Growing up, I was force-fitted into the tomboy stereotype — primarily because I had the shortest hair in class. What I couldn’t get through to the stereotypers was that the style was not out of choice. My folks just found my hair too unwieldy. When I had a choice, I let it grow. But I was NOT a tomboy. I was just loud and crazy.

I grew up in a family of women. Mum, my athai, 3 sisters, Anjalai, a floating group of girl cousins and aunts. I studied in an all girls school and college. I grew up with 3 boy cousins next door, but I always preferred hanging out with the girls.

Most of my friends are women.

And frankly, when I read and hear of stereotypes, it doesn’t click for me (because when we talk about shattering stereotypes, we are creating another stereotype). There are girly-girls, and not so girly girls. In my house the sister who was least lazy helped out at home, and was also the most boisterous. She was both the ‘stereotype’ and the ‘sinner’.

I grew up with strong, independent women, even if they were not women with independent income (I add this because the assumption is that working women are more liberated. But I’ve seen workingwomen with less spine than a creepy-crawly).

So this list that I make is not to prove that I am a stereotype or that I am a sinner.  Frankly, not because I am a damp squib but because I am confused.

Anyone who even has a remote/vague understanding of me will vouch for me being a sinner. Because, I fit a different set of stereotypes in their mind. The stereotype of a feminist or whatever ‘non-doormat’ monicker they wish to choose.

The list that makes up who I am.

1. I will absolutely not do something simply because a woman is supposed to do it. Like say, being the one who gives up a career to care for the child; being the one who makes tea for the guests; being the one who clears up after a party. But I will do all of that, because I WANT to at that moment.

2. I can sew fairly well (used to make a lot of my clothes while at college), can bake delicious cakes from scratch, hate doing the dishes and cleaning the house, love chopping vegetables, will make every excuse not to cook. Go figure — is that being a sinner or a stereotype?

3. I use my periods as an excuse to get away from stuff I don’t want to do. Visit relatives I don’t like? PMS! Go for a film I don’t want to watch? Cramps!

I have no problem asking for sex when I feel like it, and I will say no when I am not in the mood.What does that make me? Shameless, perhaps?

4. I am really good with a screwdriver (the tool, not the drink, silly. I prefer Vodka on the rocks), hammer, plier and drill. I am handy around the house. And I learnt thsse skills because my father was a tyrant who insisted we assist him around the house.

5. I can take apart a CPU, and put it all back together rather quick. My mental maths ability is pretty good. I have a way with technology, and understand computing quite well. Does that make me a sinner? Don’t think so — because my teachers for all this have been women. So you see, there is no stereotype in my mind.

6. And despite the above boast — I don’t like sci-fi books or movies. I look mushy love stories, and a bit of fantasy. I love reading glossies and celebrity gossip. I will go through a Filmfare or O Magazine with as much enthusiasm as I do an Outlook or Economist.

7. I love women-only facilities. I don’t care for equal rights. I like being treated special. I will use women-only billing counters, seats, queues. I want to be treated differently (and well) because I am a woman.

8. I don’t play any sports (unless Scrabble is considered a sport). But I can be a good spectator. Does that make me a female-stereotype? But how? Half the men I know don’t actively participate in sports either, or really suck at it and participate only to fit some stereotype.

9. As a child I loved my dolls, enjoyed playing house-house and even in my early teens collected stuffed toys. Yet, I am not considered a stereotype!

10. I get along quite well with men.  But at the slightest hint of chauvinism I will take the mickey out of them. This is also interpreted (mainly by the guys) as taking offence too easily. Sinner?

11. I can cry at the drop of a hat. I cry to manipulate. I cry when I am angry. I rarely cry when I am upset. And it’s only occasionally that I can’t not control my tears. I think crying is as important and as healthy as laughing.

12. I am pro-choice when it comes to contraception or MTP. But I don’t think breastfeeding is a choice. It’s a must unless there is medical/valid reason not to. Am I an anti-feminist?

13. I love the whole experience of being a woman and procreation — the sex, the pregnancy, the delivery (yes, even that), the breastfeeding. Is this because women are supposed to want this? Is this how our brain is wired? Am I prey to a stereotype?

14. I am not scared of the dark or of being alone. I travel a LOT alone — both within India and abroad. I can defend myself quite well. But I will shit in my pants at the sight of a lizard. And I have no feel for adventure sports — no crazy roller coasters, bungee jumps etc. But if it involves water, I’ll try. Again, stereotype or sinner?

So my long-winded response to the tag is one of confusion.

And I tag everyone who reads this.

PS: And I don’t mind wearing blue pants, because that’s what I wear everyday — my blue jeans. Pink lungis are fine too, I think they’d make a cool sarong.

PPS: There is also a fb group now on SAGS.

Gender stereotypes… nothing’s changed!

Disclaimer 1: Feminism sits uncomfortably with me.
Disclaimer 2: May offend/upset some colleagues.

At a recent event organised by one of my magazines, I sat down with 16 women from different countries and of varying ages.

One of them, from down under, seemed to be taken aback that we were talking about ‘feminism’ issues in this day and age.

But why? Even in the most developed of nations (barring the Scandinavian countries?), women are still fighting stereotypes. There is still a struggle between staying at home, going to work, being independent, being the perfect wife… So why was she surprised that a bunch of mainly Caucasian women, living/working in Qatar, were discussing women’s issues?

I am going to discuss two separate things here.

One is the never-ending, ever-annoying debate on working mum vs stay-at-home-mums.

For me it’s a matter of choice (when it’s not need-based). I’ve seen really indifferent SAHM and fantastic hands-on working mothers (and the opposite, too).

And when I looked around, and consciously compare myself to some SAHM mums, I feel even better about the choice I’ve made.

The pressure on women to be the perfect mother, wife and whatever else is just too overwhelming. There is nothing wrong with being mediocre every now and then.

Also check out this interesting post, and the comments.

Here is the second, where I have more to say.

The role of women in workplaces. It’s so fraught with confusion, insecurity and judgement.

I am 36. I started working fulltime when I was 21. My first boss was a woman. I was the only other female in the department of 13. I was given hell by my boss. I had people tell me that it was because she was a woman. I disagree — her being a woman did not colour her attitude, it only coloured the perceptions of those judging her.

She did what a boss was supposed to do with an intern – extract as much work out the person as possible, put them through the ringer, rip their work apart, make them redo their work a dozen times over… if either she or I had been a man, it would have only been considered good training.

Now, 15 years down the line, I am the ‘b-lady’, and not much has changed in terms of perceptions. I will come back to that shortly.

At this coffee morning event, one of the ladies stated she didn’t believe in equality, that men and women were different, and had to be treated as such. She said it was unfair to women to be treated as equals, because the roles they juggled were so different and that has to be taken into consideration.

I couldn’t agree more with her. But what I didn’t agree with is what she said next.

Women need to bond more and compete less with each other.

Why? Why are these two mutually exclusive? Why can’t we bond AND be competitive? Why can’t we draw those lines between the personal and professional?

I studied in an all-girls school and all-girls college. I have three sisters and no brothers. My closest friends are mostly women. I can be the poster-girl for female-bonding.

However, at the workplace, it can’t be about bonding alone.

Barring the first 2 years of my working life, and another 2 here in Doha, there have always been a good number of women where I work.

I do bond with women at work (it comes naturally, so it doesn’t affect my work), but that’s not my primary goal and it shouldn’t be.

As I mentioned earlier, I am the ‘b-lady’ now. My boss is male, most of my colleagues are male, but my immediate team is mainly female. It was not planned, it’s just the way recruitments worked out.

Each of these women try doubly hard to prove a point. And they multi-task with such ease, that at times their effort goes unrecognised. Most of them have bonded with each other, as well. They are there for the PMS-attacks, troublesome teen kid issues, pregnancies, and some just good old gupshuping.

BUT… and this is a HUGE BUT… I do think women find it more difficult to draw the line between the professional and the personal. I find them being more sexist than the guys.

Such an irony – it’s with my women colleagues (yep, I know some of you are reading this – sorry gals! There is more below…) that my gender begins to gnaw at me, and them.

I wouldn’t receive the reactions I do, if I had been male.

I’ve noticed through the last 15 years, despite working in a sector that is considered liberated, gender issues haven’t gone away.

Even if we don’t fall in one of these extremes — disregarding or dissociating oneself from their gender and quick-to-take-offence feminists – we seldom forget our gender.

Like I was told that I treated some members of my teams like daughters-in-law! How sexist is that!

If I had been male, I would have merely been described as partial – my gender would not have played a role in my meanness.

Or a comment sometime ago that one of the female colleagues was more driven because she was single, and would have nothing else to do or think about when she leaves office.

These are the kind of damaging remarks that enforce stereotypes.

We have to plan our day, live our life, in a way that best suits our needs, our environment. We can’t download a template for working mums, or working women.

I don’t switch off from my work the minute I step out of the office. Just as I don’t forget my home when I enter the office.

I do call home ever-so-often, I check my personal mails at office, but I also take official calls at home, and catch up on work after the kids have gone to sleep. That’s the balance that suits me best, makes my life more seamless, and I don’t have to think too hard about balance. I do what I want to, and what’s important, when required. Sometimes, one or the other does get adversely affected — hey, but that’s life!

I understand that this won’t work for some others. I am fine with that. At the end of the day, work entrusted to a person – be it male or female – should be achieved with best results, in whatever method or fashion that suits the individual.

The problem is when every professional/official dealing gets an X or Y chromosome tag.

Many women say that they are not ambitious and career-focussed, because they want to give priority to their family. Which is FINE! But keep in mind, not all men are ambitious and career-minded either — but their sex is not thrown in their face because of that, so don’t use your gender-defined roles as an excuse for not being ambitious.

I do believe that the most damaging comments about working women is made by other women – working or otherwise. Because it comes from the sisterhood, unfair criticisms receive undue validation.

What do you think?