This year’s International Women’s Day is only three days away and some people have been thinking through the theme of women subjectivity as in this piece by a teacher at New Designs Charter School, Los Angeles, California, United States of America
By Maryam MA
“And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” – The Alchemist.
One of my favorite books of all time is The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. So far, I have read this book perhaps a dozen times. The Alchemist is simply a story about following our dreams or “personal legend.” The story is about (Santiago), a shepherd boy from the hills of Andalusia, who goes on a quest to realize his purpose. Along the way, he learns many life lessons about understanding “the language of the universe” and “reading omens.” On his journey, the boy meets and falls in love with a desert girl named Fatima. As they get to know each other, Fatima tells Santiago that, as a desert girl, she was obligated to wait for him until he achieved his legend. As much as I love this book, Fatima often comes to my mind when I think about a woman’s search for identity. I usually ponder these questions. What was Fatima’s legend? Did she have one? Would anyone have cared if she did? Was her legend simply to wait for the shepherd boy? How many of us – women, represent Fatima? What does it mean to lose our identity as women when we get married? Is it just a necessary compromise required to make the marriage work? And do we have to give up a part of ourselves in exchange for our partners? So many questions with few answers.
When I started writing this piece, I knew I wanted to center it around The Alchemist – especially the book’s theme of discovering our purpose and acting on it (as women). I had written quite a bit about how I had to put my dreams on the back burner after I got married, and how I had to pick up the pieces later. But… then my daughter walks in on me and stands behind me, reads my long first draft, looks at me, and says: “I hate to break it to you mom, but I am your personal legend! All three of us (your kids) – are your purpose”. We both erupted in laughter and went on to discuss the book we both love. Her comments got me thinking about women all over the world who may be feeling like they have not discovered their reason for being the ones at home raising children. Here’s my take on this as my position continues to evolve on the subject of the identity, dignity, and empowerment of women. I believe our empowerment can be whatever we want it to be. There’s a caveat though. Education is the key to unlocking the doors!.
As women, how do we define our identity? This is a question every woman must learn to answer for herself. As women, for us to be able to define our own identity, we must educate every single girl-child (and boys too). Although these words may seem somewhat cliche – because of how often they have been spoken – it feels like we have barely made a dent in girl-child education in the last twenty-five years, since the Beijing Women’s Conference. When we fail to educate our girls, we open up a vacuum for women to misread their “omens” or “purpose” on this planet. Lack of education also makes it easy for women to be excluded from decision-making in many aspects of life. This is dangerous because no society will prosper by excluding more than half of its population. Many young girls grow up believing that their peak attainment in life is to find a husband and raise a family. And there is nothing wrong with that – it is a noble endeavor to contribute to humanity by increasing its population. However, without the proper education, many have children but fail to raise them to be contributing members of society and, in a few years, these children are unleashed on society to deal with in schools, workplaces, and other strata of socialization. My point is, for our world to do better, we must ensure that the family unit is preserved. How? By educating every single girl-child. Every educated girl becomes the first link in a chain-effect of positivity. Hilary Clinton famously spoke these lines in her speech at the Beijing Women’s Conference in 1995: “If women are healthy and educated, their families will flourish, if women are free from violence, their families will flourish, if women have a chance to work and earn as full and equal members of society, their families will flourish…” Although her words ring true, we don’t necessarily need to hear them for us to see how education can impact the family. We just have to look around us. As an educator, I have had the privilege of interacting with many children and, with time, I have become very good at identifying students who were raised by educated versus uneducated parents. The difference is not on their level of intelligence, the difference is their worldview. In the United States of America, this is not a huge problem because the school system identifies this disadvantage and ensures these children are provided some kind of scaffolding. But how about Africa and other parts of the world? In the case of Nigeria where I migrated from, the majority of children in northern Nigeria are raised by uneducated mothers. Unfortunately, the majority of the women are not allowed to learn such basic skills as reading and writing. Recently a good friend of mine who worked with Doctors without Borders in remote parts of northern Nigeria told me how he saw women having children from puberty to menopause, nonstop. Imagine if these women had received some form of education, would they have kids they know they cannot properly cater for? Kids that, if they survive malnutrition, illness, or whatever else the elements throw at them, will grow up to roam the streets as child beggars or laborers. I think the answer to my question is obvious – unless of course, the women are auditioning to be on a reality TV show like “19 kids and counting”.
The overarching theme of the Alchemists (i.e. whatever you do, make sure it is what your heart and soul desire), is one I can relate to personally. I am from Northern Nigeria and, even though I grew up with privileges most women from that region of the world do not enjoy, the story of my life is still one of losing my identity. I lost my identity after I got married. I am from a culture that proclaims following your heart may be a dangerous undertaking. We were raised to believe we could not always follow our heart desires, we were to resist the temptation to do so because sometimes our hearts may want something that goes against the norm. I often argue that my heart is my spiritual voice, sort of the compass that helps me navigate to my purpose. In one of such discussions, someone said to me, “What if your heart wants you to steal, or commit murder? Will you follow your heart then?” I said nothing at the time but what I should have said was “If our hearts tell us to commit any sort of crime then we must seek professional help immediately.” So what do I mean by listening to our hearts? Simply put, it is understanding our goals, aspirations, ambitions – that one thing that makes our heart beat faster, whether it is a passion, a hobby, a mission… For me, when I got married I gave up a huge part of myself. I did this not because I wanted to, but because I was raised to believe that was what would make my marriage succeed. I wanted my marriage to succeed so I complied, pretended, agreed, changed my persona, smiled, entertained, gave up dreams until… I couldn’t. As women, we are already expected to give up so much; our last names, homes, family, etc. Why should we then be the ones to give up our dreams?
When I was in college, I was involved with student politics, activism, community organization, etc. I knew those were along the lines of my “Personal Legend” or purpose because they were the only things that truly made me feel alive and happy. I was happiest when I was volunteering, organizing, campaigning, interviewing interesting people, and so on. I gave all that up when I married. Did that make the man I married happy, even though that was what he wanted? The answer is no. Why? Because I was unhappy. I was not happy therefore, I could not make anyone else happy. Oftentimes, women bend over backward to please their partners, give up a huge part of themselves, sacrifice what they love the most, etc. and it is usually never enough because they give up their identity, they give up who they are. It is important to note that many women are fortunate enough not to have to give up their identity for their partners or perhaps their identity is to be a wife and a mother. And that is ok! My point is, whatever we do as women let it be because it is truly what we want – our personal legend!
As women who are fortunate enough to be educated, have careers, have meaningful relationships, and identities that are defined, what can we do? I believe we can all do our part, starting with our families because, as the saying goes, “charity begins at home.” We can start by raising kind children, empathetic children, children who will grow up and contribute positively to society, children who will learn to read their “Personal Legend” and understand the “language of the universe.” The language of the universe is the understanding that we are all the same and the knowledge that what binds us together is greater than what separates us. While growing up in a patriarchal society, I struggled to define my identity as a woman. Now that I feel my identity is well defined, all young girls should know that it is okay to be unclear about who they are or what defines them. Their dreams may change and evolve as they grow older, and that’s ok. If their heart continuously tells them to be a desert girl like Fatima, that is ok. If you are a Fatima and a Malala Yousafzai, that is ok too. It doesn’t matter If you are a Hilary Clinton, Michele Obama, or just a woman who wants her family to be her “Personal Legend”, it is all ok! Just know that your identity is whatever you want it to be. Learn to read your “omen.” Your omen tends to start with that one dream that keeps recurring. The one that makes your heart beat faster, and sometimes keeps you up at night. Remember that when you follow your heart, all the universe comes together to help you achieve it. May the world conspire to make our individual and collective search for our identity and dignity, in a society where masculinity holds sway!