Far far away, in a land you haven’t heard much about on TV, there is a woman, just like your friend, your sister, your mother, your wife, who wants to be happy and live in a world that unconditionally gives her respect, dignity, and opportunity. She wakes up every morning to the unpleasant sound of the 5 a.m. alarm. As she walks swiftly to the door, she tries to go over her entire day and remind herself of the habitual tasks that she ought to do on that dreary day.
Now you have probably established some sort of image, an idea about this woman’s life and what she goes through every day. You might have already developed a feeling of pity towards her, before even being certain if her life does, in reality, deserve pity. If you are a woman, you may have felt more strongly about this mysterious lady and her curious case. If you are a man, you might have felt the same, or otherwise convinced yourself that this is yet another feminist story that has no relevance to your own life, but is still somehow significant and you’re obligated to show sympathy.
The water was too cold for her to wash the dishes, but she has no time to heat it up. So she uses bitterly cold water that burns the skin on her hands just so she can make breakfast for her five kids who are still sleeping in the corner room behind the kitchen. “I am a fighter”, she tells herself in an attempt to comfort her pain. In fairness, her skin has always looked burnt and irritated, but she doesn’t care much. She always said to herself that underneath her pain, her tiredness, her burnt skin, there is life, and there is love, a whole world full of hope and ambition that she never stopped believing in. The way she executes tasks is almost robotic, as if her mind was programmed to automatically move to another activity as soon as she is done with one. She then tenderly wakes up the children and gives them bowls of insipid ground oats with a little bit of warm milk that she had just prepared.
The husband – who you might have wondered about his location – is still sleeping in the bedroom, snoring so loud like a troll, unaware of the 5 a.m. alarm, or the bitterly cold water, or the insipid little breakfast his children are having. He had lost his job at the marble factory due to misconduct at the workplace, and hasn’t found another one since. His wife, our mysterious lady, had spoken to him multiple times about finding a new job, but every time she did, she ended up beaten aggressively and mercilessly until she can no longer walk straight. She had gone to the emergency room one time after “his anger gained control over his behaviour”. She lied about it to the doctors. She said she had fallen on the stairs. Her house, which had no stairs, was her husband’s. He had inherited it from his father who worked in the army until he passed away a couple of years back. It has always been his only asset in life. Without it, he was nothing. Without it, she also, was nothing.
“The children are finally in school and I am finally free”, she said under her breath with a little bit of guilt. She is getting ready to go to the house of a female lawyer who lives on Garden street, one of the best areas in the city, about one hour away from her house. It was the first house she was going to clean, before moving on to three more houses, all in different parts of the city. But she did it with care, and attention. She made sure the house looked immaculate when she’s done and the owners were satisfied with her services. At times, she would actually enjoy the work because she had all the tools and products that she needed to do the cleaning. In her house, she does not have that many options. Her broom and dustpan are as old as Blessing, her eldest.
So now you know our lady has been in an abusive relationship, is a mother of five, works as a cleaning lady, does not have her own cleaning supplies, and does certainly not have stairs in her two-bedroom house. Did you also know she worked a total of twelve hours a day, and she had just gotten a mastectomy after her husband refused that she receive treatment or even get a check up when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer? Oh, and she was almost disowned by her parents when she dared bring up divorce about three years ago. They said she’d become a burden, once more, and that her story would ruin the family’s reputation.
When she got married at the age of 14 and had her first child at the age of 15, she thought that was the meaning of marriage, starting a family and having babies to raise. She loved her first child so indulgently and passionately. And she had convinced herself that she would bring her a sibling four years later. Little did she know, her husband wanted more children, because first, he wanted more boys, and second, he wouldn’t let her space out the pregnancies, and – God forbid – use any contraceptive methods, for they are the creation of the corrupt West. “A woman gives birth”, that’s what he always told her, and that’s what she always believed. And the madness and the fury her husband would release on her whenever she said no to more children, were impossible to live with. She reminds herself every day, at every 5 a.m. alarm, that she loves all her children, even when her health was at risk because of uncontrolled unwanted pregnancies. She also knows, bitterly, deep down, that her life would’ve been easier and more pleasant if she were in charge of her decisions, notably those concerning her body. But she keeps telling herself in a remarkably courageous and positive attitude “I am a fighter”.
What on earth was she thinking when she said yes to marry this man? And what on earth was I thinking before writing this story? Well, as might be expected, she didn’t have a choice, much like myself; I also didn’t have a choice. She had to marry this man, and I had to tell this story. But how much of this narrative is actually true? And most importantly, why is this not-so-eventful story worth sharing? To answer all these questions, we need to learn about something, something of a paramount importance and relevance in our lives. That something is called “privilege”. And we’re not only talking about male privilege here, because men are privileged by default, and that’s a historical and statistical fact. But we are addressing every single one of us who does not and cannot relate too much to this tedious uneventful and unfortunate story.
The fact that women like this lady still live this way in many parts of the world, if not all, is a proof of the ineptitude of human political and organizational systems to put an end to or at least control phenomena like early marriage, forced motherhood, breast cancer, unsafe abortion and pregnancies, domestic violence, amongst others. And then we so confidently and cheerfully come up with what we call international movements and campaigns such as “HeForShe”, “Bring Back Our Girls”, “Girls Not Brides”, or the well-liked marketable Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations that might bring about positive change amongst a relatively exclusive young audience, but are, in no way, sufficient to save girls and women from an untold dark narrative that can only be transmitted through storytelling.
To make it sound less of a meaningless blame and more of a logical observation, let’s remember how we used to think that fire is a monster, or that tomatoes are poisonous, or that if one sacrificed their child they will get more rain for the crops to grow. All these conceptions and beliefs did not but generate from our own reasoning and own judgement. Just like our reasoning today in many parts of the world makes many of us believe that a woman is naturally inferior to men, that she should only aspire to get married, have as many kids as possible, be good at cooking and cleaning, obey her husband under all circumstances, and never dare not comply with society. So if we drastically changed the way we think and act in the past, why can’t we do that again today and ensure that no one has to endure violence, inequality, and oppression? Life is all about fighting for better chances and better opportunities for all of us, and all it takes to make it better is a second thought.
By the time she got back home, her children were all crying, the five of them, as they were hungry and had to wait for their mom to come home so she could make supper. As she’s singing to them their favourite song – which at that moment became so dull and unexciting – she opens the lower cupboard and finds one medium-sized well-round brown potato.
PS: This story is fictional, but inspired by the true story of a woman I had interviewed during a visit to northern Ethiopia and by the many stories I heard while working with Planned Parenthood Global.