sex & honor – my father and my vagina

Years ago, my father came from Australia to NYC to spend the summer with me, my son, and my husband. One afternoon, while I was in the kitchen preparing dinner, he was putting the kettle on the stove for a cup of tea, and began chiding me for putting my husband in a bad mood. I’d gone out the night before to a friend’s birthday party. The friend was a friend of both my husband and I, the party was one we were both invited to, but that my husband just didn’t feel like going to. Being the mother of a toddler I had few nights to socialize with friends, so it didn’t occur to me to stay home. “Ok,” I said. “I won’t be late.” And I wasn’t. I came home at a chaste 10:30pm.

I woke the next morning to my husband’s very cold shoulder. “Is everything ok?” I asked. “Mmm-hmm,” was his response. Barely audible, no eye contact, indifferent. I wasn’t clueless as to him making a point, I just didn’t know about what. So I decided that my husband was either going to learn to use his words (just like I was trying to teach our one and a half year old son), or I would ignore him. The sulking could be stressful though. He was a master at making me suffer for his wounds. I would try to not let it bother me, but he could keep it up till it would. Barely audible, no eye contact, indifferent. It worked like a charm.

My father was no fan of my husband. But it turned out that my father was less of a fan of me. For when I complained to him that my husband was being an asshole for no apparent reason, my father gave me the reason –

There is a rule of thumb that when a husband is at home, his wife should be at home with him.

I was at that moment chopping carrots for a casserole. I wanted to reach over to my father’s thumbs as they tapped the kitchen counter-top waiting for the kettle to boil, and slice them ever so thinly with my pairing knife so that they fell away, sliver by sliver, rolling off the counter-top and falling to the floor like rounds of blood sausage, irreparable and never to be used to rule again.

My jaw clenched, my grip firm, I struggled to focus my fury on those carrots. I had to be careful. I was acutely aware of the damage I could do if I allowed my focus to stray. One should be able to expect more from one’s father than of one’s husband. But (rule of thumb) not if one’s father thinks more of one’s husband than he does of his daughter.

Apprised of my husband’s disapproval, my father disapproved of me too. I now had two barely audible, no eye contact, indifferent moods to contend with; four thumbs down. I tried not to let it bother me. This is what I would do when deep down I knew I had done nothing wrong. This is what I would do when I would ask if everything was ok, and my husband or my father would not use his words.

A rule of thumb is a guide – something to be easily learned and applied without having to do the math. It is not precise and it is not reliable in every situation. It is what you rely on when you don’t have all the tools to figure something out on your own: when you have only thumbs, and no fingers.

But here was the conundrum – my father never tolerated me being anything but a sharp blade. There was no room for rules of thumb in my life. Everything had to be precise and reliable. Once, when I picked up a ringing telephone and forgot his request for a cup of coffee, but brought it to him a little later, he didn’t look at me, but he waved his hand at me to take the coffee and go away. I was threatened with boarding school when my grades slipped, reprimanded for not matching up his dark socks properly when folding and putting away his laundry, and locked out of the house because I arrived home too late one night. It was 11.30pm, I just came back from law school after staying late to work on the student yearbook, and I was 21 years old.

I had to be precise. I had to be exact. These things I had to work on, and work very hard. I worked so hard that I had an edge over just about everyone my father knew, including him, and including my husband. They could be idiots, but idiots their wives had to stay home for. I knew not to bother asking why a husband didn’t have to stay home while his wife was at home. I’d heard the answer so many times: “It’s different.”

“It’s different” had ruled my nights and days for more than 30 years, by virtue of so many of those rules of thumb. I convinced myself that intellectually, I was liberated, because I made my objections clear. I kicked and screamed, even if it made no difference to how I was treated. At the time intellectual liberation kept me warm at night, while I was sure actual liberation was just around the corner. It would be manifested the moment I “got through” to the proponents of “It’s different.” I was just waiting for that moment. But as I waited and waited, I’m not sure how I tolerated the thumbs of those rules digging into the back of my neck as though I was a child being bullied on a school playground, how I tolerated the headaches when those thumbs dug into my temples, or the shortness of breath when they dug into my solar plexus. I didn’t pay attention as they stamped out my laughter and joy, rubbing away my calm to make way for anxiety and sleepless nights, leaving me with mornings where, rather than push the covers away and jump out of bed, I would pull them over my head and wish and wait for nighttime. I didn’t notice how those thumbs had in effect rammed themselves into my eyes so that I couldn’t see straight.

When I got pregnant I was petrified of having a daughter because I was frightened of what the world would have in store for her. I was determined to raise my child so differently from the way I was raised (as so many of us are determined to do) but I feared the world around us would overwhelm my determination and have more of an influence on her than I did. If my child was a boy, the world would be kinder to him. He would always have it easier than a child of mine who was a girl.

I was born in Australia to Egyptian migrants and lived there until I was 24. Mine was a very strict upbringing – the kind unfortunately of stereotypes. My parents were not religious until I reached my late teens, so the restrictions placed on me were purely the cultural remnants they had chosen to hold on to. Those restrictions made an early feminist out of me, but there was always a disconnect between what I believed and how I behaved.

Somewhat inevitably my marriage was textbook – I married a man whose talk was unlike my father’s, but whose walk was just the same. My husband, unusually, didn’t care if I cooked or cleaned. Another woman could be paid to do that, but he cared that he came first. He made business decisions without me, making use of both our finances, he was a parent who was only in it for the fun, and he was emotionally demanding while expecting me to be the strong, independent, self-sufficient person he married who didn’t need to depend on him for anything. Seeing how I had easily fallen into the same situation I had seen my mother in, I worried that it was almost inevitable that any daughter of mine would too. I didn’t want to know if I was having a girl or a boy and refused to let the sonographer tell my husband. He pretended not to care. Even if he didn’t care what he was getting, he would treat it differently depending on what it was.

When the doctor pulled my son from my body and announced to everyone in the room, “It’s a boy!” my heart sank. My head started whirling with all the things I had to do to make sure he didn’t turn into a man like his father or mine. I felt so overwhelmed – like a failure before I had even begun. But I began – my son took my name as well as his father’s (though not without a fight), I vetted TV shows and books for gender-specific stereotypes, I made sure my son was surrounded by families of all sizes, shapes and colors, and I exhausted my vocal chords using “he” and “she” together and interchangeably when I spoke of things in the abstract; hard at work trying to engineer a gender-neutral upbringing.

There was a part of me that was relieved I’d had a boy. Along with not being subjected to those rules of thumb, he would not be subjected to the kind of judgment that turns little girls into baby seals, always trying to do fancy tricks to win approval, to snare that reward dangled before your eyes, that you only get it you’re good enough – love. But no matter how many tricks, the circus is always in town. There are no breaks and you can never let down your guard.

A source of conflict between my husband and myself concerned an ex-girlfriend with whom he maintained a close relationship. She was American so he was never going to marry her. But, he could not admit or relinquish the guilt he felt about toying with her for years and so he felt responsible for her. He was also pleased to still have her attention. My husband took great pleasure in telling me she burst into tears when he told her we were getting married. He was her “go-to,” so when she couldn’t fit her sofa into a new apartment, my husband bought it from her, and I came home and found it in ours. I shared all of this with my father. Desperate for love and support, I put aside all my anxieties about being judged as a failure or at fault.

One morning my father woke up looking very ill. He was shaky and ill-tempered. I took him to my doctor and she told us he appeared dehydrated and just needed fluids and rest. Physically he got better, though his temper did not. He was very nasty to me, but I thought little of it. I was used to it. There were so many times in my life that I did something, without even realizing, to upset my father, and he would snub me for days or weeks on end – sometimes months. I also, at the age of 31, started exhibiting symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis. I was in so much pain and was so debilitated by medications I was taking, that I didn’t want anything more to have to figure out.

After a few weeks my father left, but before he did I gave him three things – sunglasses to replace the pair he lost on his trip, a wallet because he didn’t have one, and a book to read on his flight. He tried on the glasses and said they were uncomfortable and I should return them. As for the wallet, he didn’t bother with one, so I should return that too. After he had gone I noticed he left the book behind.

I did not hear from my father for five months. He had gone to Egypt to spend time with his brothers and their families and he never called to speak to me, or my son. When I spoke to my mother she told me he was well and busy with family. I spent the next five months experimenting with medications and waiting weeks, sometimes months, for doctors’ appointments and test results, with little reprieve from the pain I was in. So I decided to return to Australia, for its universal health care, but also because I hoped my family would help take care of me and my son while I got to the bottom of what was happening to me. My father arrived back the day after I did. When I saw him I was stunned. He wouldn’t look at me and he wouldn’t talk to me. The whole day he looked as though he wanted to spit on me. The next day it continued. We were having breakfast and I decided to ask him what was going on; what was he so pissed off about? His response was, “Everything!” I frowned and asked him to elaborate. “Everything. Your whole life. Everything about you and your life.” Wow, I thought. That was a lot to be pissed off about. I got up from the table and went to my room. My mother followed me a couple of minutes later and found me packing my suitcase. She went downstairs to tell my father and he came up to my room and sat on my bed.

My father proceeded to tell me about a conversation he had with my husband when he was staying with us, about the ex-girlfriend and how he thought the relationship was inappropriate. My husband apparently became very defensive and angry. His response was, “She has ex-boyfriends, and I don’t care.” That was the end of the conversation. My husband put a lid on it. For my father though, he had opened up a can of worms he could not put a lid on. And my father, his brain being what it is, made a quantum leap from boyfriends to lovers. His son-in-law seemed to tell him that his daughter was not a virgin on her wedding night.

I don’t think you can understand how devastating that must have been. His daughter, he believed, had dishonored him in the most dishonorable way. Women are slaughtered for this kind of thing. His daughter, as far as he was concerned, was a whore. It didn’t matter that she was married with a child, did good things for people and had good friends, had four university degrees, went to Harvard on two scholarships and had a successful career. What mattered was whether her hymen was intact when she married. That was what defined her, and gave her value. At that moment I understood how parents could kill their children. I remembered how ill he got, how he left me In New York when I could barely walk, and how he obviously wanted to forget me – because how I was defined, defined him. I had that power over him. How should I have felt do you think? Empowered, or devastated?

I felt violated and defiled. I started screaming: he was disgusting and absurd and my husband would never tell him anything like that, and it was none of his business, and what did I amount to anyway, and how dare he judge me, after all I had achieved, and when I was practically crippled by illness! I was hysterical. My mother stood shocked and my son, then two years of age, came running into the room, jumped on my bed and started beating my father’s chest. He was yelling at him to stop being mean to me. My head was spinning so fast I couldn’t even cry. When I screamed at him about my brother’s behavior, my father’s response was, “It’s different.”

My mother struggled to wrench the clothes from my hands and was telling me to calm down. My father tried to calm down my son and came over to me and said, “Ok. Maybe I can trust you again.” “Oh, thank God for that!” I said. “That just made it all better.” He needed to believe my anger was my denial, completely ignoring the real reasons for my outrage. I told him I didn’t think I could trust him again, but he tried to hug me anyway. As he put his arms around me I stood very still, unable to move. I was in the arms of a man heavily invested in and preoccupied with my sexuality, as though he owned it. I always understood what was expected of me, but there again was the disconnect – nothing could have prepared me for the horror of actually being told that an intact hymen on my wedding night was all I amounted to. I was always trying to achieve to surpass my biology; give my parents enough to brag about so “It’s different” made no sense. But unless they believed I had an intact hymen on my wedding night, I was nothing. Clarity can be shocking.

I stood looking at my mother as my father walked out of my room. Her words were as follows: “He must have misunderstood.” “He doesn’t know how to express himself.” The look on her face was more of the same: “He’s your father.” “Just let it go.” I wondered to myself what I expected of her then. To defend my honor? Or to defend me? She too seemed confident that my outburst was my denial, not really listening to a word I said. Why should she? I was only doing more of the same – kicking and screaming. I wasn’t really going anywhere.

And I didn’t. Where I would go? My joints had become so stiff and swollen that I couldn’t dress myself and I couldn’t properly take care of my son. Going back to NYC to a husband who wasn’t going to take care of me didn’t seem an option. So, I stayed in Australia for five months undergoing chemotherapy until the arthritis was under control. During that time I didn’t speak to my father. He reciprocated, contemptuous of me for not forgiving him. Even though the arthritis was crippling me, he did nothing to help me – silent, no eye contact, indifferent. Islamic jurists will tell you the punishment for the crime of making reference to someone’s sexual conduct is 80 lashes, and the accusation is false unless supported by a confession or the eye-witness testimony of four witnesses – to the act of intercourse. There can be no implication, no supposition and no quantum leap. Oh, and there are no rules of thumb, and it’s not different if you’re a woman. Jurists will tell you that the rules aren’t there for individuals to police sexual conduct. They’re there to tell you to shut the fuck up about what’s none of your business. So I figured, unless my father was willing to take his punishment, I wasn’t interested in talking to a criminal. I spoke to my husband. He denied making the suggestion and refused to discuss it. He was lying, because no matter what words were used, he was acutely sensitive of honor in another Arab man’s eyes. It was the one subject in which he had a wealth of compassion. He knew the repercussions of whatever it was he had told my father. Every Arab man knows it is used as ammunition.

When I returned to New York, my marriage was over. But it took a few months to muster up the courage to tell my husband. For more than 30 years I was bullied by “It’s different,” so it took a while to start feeling worthy and to try to put back the pieces that are etched from you every time you’re subjected to such a stupid and abusive, dehumanizing and baseless rule of thumb. No matter what I believed, so long as I did not shirk it, did not take a knife to it and destroy it, I was upholding undeserved and unjustified male privilege that was making my life miserable. For some men this is the objective. The lower you descend into emotional hell, the higher they soar. But I promised myself I would never be reduced like that again. And while I was mustering up that courage, I became grateful for the confrontation with my father. He had shown me what he could be reduced to, and without that I wonder when I would have confronted myself and manifested my feminist rhetoric in something other than just kicking and screaming. I needed to not just reject “It’s different,” but also reject its proponents.

When I was young my parents would always tell me I would only truly understand and appreciate them once I had a child of my own. They couldn’t have been further from the truth. Having a child of my own polarized us. My ego is not pitted against my son’s in a zero-sum game. There is no socially-constructed, gendered “It’s different” way he can shame me, and frankly, so long as he keeps himself safe and doesn’t hurt anyone with it, I can’t imagine having any investment in his sexuality. It’s his and he already knows that. He is now 10 years old. He knows why he doesn’t have a maternal grandfather in his life and he takes no issue with it. When someone says to him, “It’s different,” he looks at them like they’re stupid.me & salam 3

“It’s different” is a tool, a very useful one if you’re a poor sod who needs to subject others to artificial standards in order to inflate and beat your chest. Usually, you’re a man, who needs a woman under your thumb to make you feel like a man.

So that’s what I took a knife to. Whether you’re a man or a woman. It’s no different.

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6 thoughts on “sex & honor – my father and my vagina

  1. Thank you for sharing such a deeply personal life lesson. I admire your bravery and courage for firstly taking action and standing up for what you believe in and taking the knife to the injustices and inequalities that you were subjected to. Cultural expectations and rules of thumbs have a lot to answer for. Thank you secondly for being brave enough to share this with others so that we can also feel empowered to change our own situations. Very appropriate on International Women’s Day!

    • Thank you! It has taken me a long time to say NO and to stand firm when I say it. I still sometimes wobble, but it’s important that we refuse to be quiet, refuse to stay put and suck it up, and refuse to uphold male privilege. Our silence upholds it.

  2. This story really grabbed me…I could relate ever so much to so many elements of the “it’s different” debacle. I too was subject to a father who could not give me any reason for my uber strict upbringing other than “it’s different” and “because I said so”. Most of the rules I was expected to follow were irrational leaving me feeling oppressed and suffocated…and they instilled a deep hatred in me for any man that felt he was superior simply because of his gender. Kudos to you for opening up about such a sensitive topic; It’s sad but I am sure so many women could relate.

    • I think many women can relate. Patriarchy is everywhere and women are afraid of standing up to it. We are all afraid of being outcast and cast off if we refuse its edicts. But, it’s not nearly as lonely as the loneliness you feel from the absence of unconditional love and respect. The loneliness of questioning your self-worth is what we all need to escape.

  3. Oh baby. Do you remember dinner in Brisbane with me in the middle of all this? I don’t know what to say. Mostly I’m having a sense right now of having feasted on your hard-won wisdom and on the triumph of your return to the truth of your own body. Not to mention the crystalline clarity of your writer’s voice. With love and admiration JMJ

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