Have you ever had to do something, or pretended to believe something, even though you still had some doubts about it?
As a human, we have doubt about almost everything. Additionally, we ask questions, we conduct research and do experiments. We want to reach the result that there will be a reasonable explanation for our doubt. If not, we might refuse its fact or existence.
Will you agree if I suggest that sometimes even though we have a doubt about something, we keep it at a corner inside ourselves and accept an idea for the sake and wellness of our love ones? But we will find a reason to convince ourselves later, because it is our human ability to wonder and question.
When I was young, I had doubts about gender roles. In my family, there were 5 members; my parents, two older brothers, and me. Most of the houseworks burden fell on my mom, the only female in a family. To handle them, she had to order us, her three sons, to help. For me, it was so boring. I could not have time to go out and play. There were people who appreciated how helpful I was to my family, but generally there were people who laughed and made shameful jokes about me when I said “I need to go home and do my (girl’s) housework.” At first, I didn’t like the housework and I was angry with my mom. I felt that I did not fit into those gender stereotypes, but I kept my anger and doubt at a corner inside me for the good sake of my mom.
There was one thing I often wondered. The housework was repeated every day, nothing new or exciting about it at all, but I saw how my mom was so diligent. I thought that because it was her ‘job’, so she had to, but that wasn’t the reason. One day, while washing the laundry with her,
– “Mom! Aren’t you bored with this repeated bunch of so boring tasks?” I dared ask her.
– “Son! It’s not about how boring it is, but it’s about how it will make my family be at the most comfortable. I do it so that my family can enjoy the wellness in this house. My family will be healthy, tidy, and happy when these things are done in the finest way. It’s about how it will benefits my love ones, not the actual boringness at the moment. And, you are a great help for me.” she responded and smiled.
So that’s it! Suddenly, I felt so differently after hearing this response. I had done something for my family, especially for my mom, who is so dedicated to providing the best of us. I don’t care so much about outsider’s thoughts anymore. I tried to do every task diligently like her because I would be excited to see that what I had done would be rewarded with the smiles and wellness of my family.
Additionally, I remember the time I forgot to finish my housework because I was instead finishing my homework. Later I found my mom had done it; she appreciated our studies. She gave priority to education, but she always challenged us with those houseworks to demonstrate how valuable our study was. I remember the time I had so much houseworks to finish in the morning that made me late for classes. She pretended she didn’t care by just a sharp sentence, “if all chores aren’t done, there will be no school! Only after you finish your houseworks, you might go to school.” Then, I asked if I could finish half of the houseworks in the evening, she smiled with appreciation and agreed to help. She always woke me up to finish our work on time! The best memory with my mom was how she was so bossy and ordered us to do many things, but she always led the action and demanded our passion and care in doing those tasks, not just only about finishing it. My mom is the first person who challenges me to take wise challenges in life. With her support and love, I am motivated.
A few years later, we received a new family member; my little sister. Despite her female chronic illness, my mother risked her life for her only one daughter to see the sunlight. We love her, take care of her, and want all the best for her. One day when she was 10 years old, I suggested my mom to let her work with me so that I could teach her the houseworks. My mom didn’t agree due to the reason that she was still young, and we could handle all the works.
Time passed, my two older brother went to university, and it came time for me to leave the family too. So, all the houseworks burden returned to my mom who stayed only with my father and their little daughter. I tried my best to help her with what I used to do during the weekend that I was back home. I did enjoy it as always. But, there was one thing that made me feel uncomfortable about.
My mom kept insisting my sister to learn and focus on schoolworks, not the houseworks. I got tired of her when she kept complaining about how difficult it was for her to do everything alone again. I helped when I could, but a doubt had already rose up to my mind. So, once while she was complaining again, with deep strong voice and anger,
– “So what are you keeping your sweet little daughter for? Putting her on the shelf and pray to her as goddess*(Khmer idiom)? She is big enough for these works! She should learn to do it, because it’s her works in the future!” I asked.
– “She always makes mistakes and I couldn’t handle to see it that way, so the best way is to do it myself and let her concentrate on her study.” she replied with tension inside.
– “I and my brothers did mistakes too! You corrected us. You had showed us the right things to do! I’m proud that I could do it with your guide, so you still can to it to guide her.” I said.
– “With time, she’ll learn! Don’t worry! I might handle it! I just want her to focus on her study.” she replied with deeply thought.
– “Achievement that comes through challenges is more meaningful and worth more. It’s what you’ve told us, isn’t it?. And I’ve done it! It’s not equal when you ordered us to work hard on tasks that aren’t boy’s works, but after, you just let her does nothing about her chores and just keep complaining to me.” I retorted her.
– “Dear, the situations are different! I always want all the best for my children! Just! During your time, our condition was far worse than now. With this better wellness, I still want a better one for my daughter. I wish I could provide the same attention and chance that I’m giving to her same to you too! I know you understand what I meant.” She finished her reason.
I wasn’t satisfied with her respond, but I did believe that she wanted the best for all of us. So, I asked no more questions, and I kept a new doubt in my mind again. I took a different approach. I tried to use reasons with my younger sister that her mother is getting old and her older brothers are away from home, so she is the one to look after them, help them, and learn to do necessary tasks to share the burden of the family as like her brothers did. I persuaded that it was her duty to all the family to do housework. I was glad that my sister took my reasons seriously and tried her best even though she complained the works’ difficulties and how easy our mom get bad-tempered about unfinished, delayed or unorganised works she did. All I could do was to calm down my mom while motivating my sister to keep learning step by step. I also enjoyed the time I did houseworks with my sister and could be a close help to her questions she had about our family and study.
Until one day! I didn’t learning something new, but I remember somethings.
My mom accused my sister of her laziness in studying and delaying in her chores that had led to the failure in her exam. She said sharply and disappointedly to my sister that; “If you don’t study hard, I will get you married at the young age just like me!”
Was it a threat or a reminder?
For me, it was a powerful reminder of what my mom has been through and the actual reasons she kept on insisting for our, especially my sister’s, best achievement in study. Just with my grandmother’s reason, “when a girl can read and write so well, she’ll be able to reply to love letters to boys!”, my mom was taken away from a reserved scholarship seat at the university into marriage at the age of 16. By the time she was 23, she became the mother of 3 boys and worked to support the family. According to what I’ve seen, the only lucky thing about my mother is her husband. My father, despite his low education background, is a fine, caring, supportive, and hard-working man for his family. He is my role model; to be a husband and a father in the future.
Her dream to be something she had wanted shapes our future. She wanted to go to school, to be a doctor, and to be healthier (she has female chronic illness, because she got married and had babies at the young age). She sees herself in her daughter. Sending her daughter to school and providing the best chance for her kids can heal her wounded feeling about herself and her misfortunes in her childhood. I know, she could not articulate her feelings directly, but her actions demonstrate it. I got motivated to tell my mom’s life story to my little sister, and ask her to consider this threat as a reminder of what our mom has been through and what she wishes for us. I also tried to negotiate with my mom how she was too dominant about her kids’ school performance that it wasn’t the only option for being successful in the future.
There is another story about my sister. Now I’m aways from my home in Cambodia, and one day, she wrote me a question online, “Why was I born as a girl?” Her question was short but showed how teenager girls feel about themselves when social expectations were too much against their desire. She is expected to be compliant in her ‘gender duties’ and manners, while she has to prove her excellence in achieving success against the social gender prejudice. I paused myself for an answer. I couldn’t respond at that moment, not because I hadn’t got any ideas, but because I’d like the best answer for her to be written with my best understanding. So on her 16th birthday, I responded to her with my best thought that I could think of.
“Do you know how powerful a girl is? She’s the future mother of the society, family’s caretaker, a tough and striving person in work, creativity, inventor, and the main part of the society. Maybe the society and family have expected too much from her and have seized her freedom, but girls can overcome those uncivilised pressures and expectations with her knowledge, confidence, resilience, and intelligence which can be developed by education and actual practices everyday. That is why our mother wants the best for your education. We have got a great mother as a role model. Powerful and skilful people aren’t easily formed. One needs challenges, failures, and success to define this power. It is what we must go through.”
I wished her the best for her birthday. I showed how much our family love her, secured her in the knowledge of how much we care for her, teased her how much crazy and lazy she is (like her brothers), reminded her how we support and trust her, and warned her to study and work diligently.
For me, I see housework as the delicate sacrifices that should be embraced for family wellness and happiness, not as a role for any specific (female) gender. Helping each other is better than dividing the roles and duties, because It shows the mutual family devotion. For this reason, I always look for meaningful, hidden, deep-rooted reasons as the inspiration to work diligently for other challenges I face. There will be passion, there will be calmness and patience, there will be delicate work, because we know what we are really doing it for.
Family is the core cell of society. Like my mom, we might not fix the past, but we can fix the present and the future to make our dream become real. Implement the gender equality and tolerance in the family environment will be a big leap for the general awareness in the society.
My mom is one of many women who didn’t know how to raise her voice for her right, but she’s raised kids to understand what she’s been through, who appreciate the the tolerance for gender equality, and will raise a louder voice for her to the society. She and millions of mothers are the role models for a better humanity.
Gender equality is a long process of resilience in many aspects against the unfair social expectations. Women have strived for centuries for herself. We should have done something for gender equality earlier, but it is also not too late to take action.
To women in the world, as I have told my sister in the early paragraph, discover your power and use your chance wisely.
To men in the world, embrace female’s role in the society, provide them with all possible opportunities that we have long taken for granted, and make them your companions, not an enemy or an inferior human being. Redefine your masculinity with understanding and tolerance. Treat women with kindness and appreciate their efforts in ensuring that the family, society and humanity can be sustainable with wellness and happiness. When women strive to make their voice heard, it doesn’t mean she wants to let you down, she wants to stand next to you and build a better life together.
It’s not about who is going to take over the world, because we depend on each other to survive. So let’s embrace each other and shape the world to a better place together.
Inner doubt can be disturbing, but it is what humans like us are capable of. Explore your doubts, ask, listen, question, research, read, and especially think critically and personally about what does it really mean to you, so that when you accept the awareness, you will be passionate and motivated to act.
There is a Khmer idiom that says; “I wish you be strong as an ant, be powerful as a ghost, and be sharp-minded as a woman.” So don’t mess up with this beautiful and [creature. Give them your affection and empathy and respect to make them feel secure from heart so that they will give you their beautiful world and future, or if not so, their sharp mind going to be your gift!
This small article is dedicated to every mother out there who could not reach her dream because of gender inequality they faced, but put her hopeful dreams in her children and sacrifice her best for their future.
Written by: Seyhassneth Heng
Banner picture credited to: Global Partnership for Education
Date: 27-29 July, 2018