Brides of the Organization, and why I will NEVER be one

I was asked recently while on lunch with a colleague why so many single women at our organization, and particularly at our office, come into the service young and promising, then turn slowly over the years into embittered, old, and tired spinsters. He put his question rather politely of course, using words like “seem not to find their way to a proper private life”, and did not use any offending adjective to describe their outcome.

Aha, I thought to myself. So the men actually do notice these things. I have contemplated this phenomenon with my girlfriends. Privately, I called these women the Organization’s Brides. I also watched with trepidation the way my working  life has sapped my energy over the past four years and turned me from a tanned, healthy and happy woman into a pale, wrinkled and somewhat flabby woman, who has firmly set foot on the threshold of middle age. Yes, this type of workplace does exist, even in a highly esteemed organization. Because unfortunately, you do not work for your organization, you just work with your  direct boss. And this boss (or supervisor) comes with the complete package of his culture, upbringing, and education. Regardless of whether they are men or women, these bosses also come with the scars of all the past abuse they endured, and seem to mete it out indiscriminately upon their underlings.

I do not know whether my colleague’s question about the single women at our office was a general or particular one, but I honestly answered it from my vantage point as observer. I do not count myself among the brides of the organization. I have a very fulfilling life as a mother, and I do not let work take over my free time.

I devoted a lot of thought to the question of why women suffer so much in our workplace, and it all boils down to culture. Not organizational culture but our own brand of regional patriarchal culture. Women who are born into this culture are usually unaware of abuse or bullying from male counterparts, until they grow a backbone. Sometimes they never realize the wrongdoing of others until it is too late.

So a young woman like this arrives here, faces up to her predominantly male colleagues, and tries to prove herself capable against their prejudices. Meanwhile, she carries with her the baggage of conservative thinking, the deep-rooted fear of doing wrong, disgracing her family or being classified as a slut.  Moreover, there is a trap waiting to swallow workers with lower self-esteem. In my office these people are invariably women, who are starving for recognition in this male-dominated arena. They are desperate to please and prove themselves capable, so they take on all the jobs that nobody wants, rush jobs, weekend work, and sometimes night duty. After all there are no children at home, and no husband who would mind. Work becomes a respectable alternative for partaking in the pleasures of life. They first resist the temptation to live, then they totally forget about living. Work becomes life, and takes over. Depending on the age of these sad women, the male boss takes on either the role of a dominant husband or all-powerful father. They are incapable of contradicting this type of authority.

The experience of female Arab students at university abroad is another example. Their male colleagues from the same background are prepared by their culture and upbringing to take one of two roles, either the protectors, or the conquerors. After all an Arab young woman is too proper to have a relationship outside of marriage, unless a person from her own background becomes her mentor in the ways of love, then it is okay.  Regardless, there are very few Arab men who “would buy a cow if they get the milk for free”.  And imagine a single woman working with this type of mentality in the 21st century.

If I came here at age 25 or 30 I would have perhaps succumbed as well to that type of bullying. I may even have accepted the protection of an alpha-male colleague, under the guise of love. Like every other woman born in that environment I was programmed for submission and dependence, not leadership and independence. I am more likely to obey and say yes, than protest and say NO. But I learned to say NO and it was the most important lesson of my life.

Not For Me

Twice in as many days I have been told that I should be open to change in my life and look for a mate. One well-meaning friend and her mother spoke again about getting me to color my prematurely grey hair. And my supervisor at work told me that I should not let the child rule my life. Sometimes, like today for example, I feel they are right.  My child who turns five tomorrow is a tyrant in the making, he figures he owns me.  When I went on a long-deferred bike ride with him this afternoon, I could not even ride in a circle of twenty meters around him, and he did not want to ride next to me complaining it is too hard. In fact, I can hardly call my outings with him exercise because I normally ride so slow, that I always feel a breath away from toppling over. Not fun at all.

Yesterday I started thinking about relationships again. After breaking up the only dating experience I had since my divorce, I have come to the conclusion that I do not have it in me anymore to invest emotionally in a new relationship, with all the insecurities it brings. If I were ten or even six years younger maybe I would have had no other choice than to go through the endless questioning of am I beautiful enough, tall enough slim enough, or hot enough to be marketable with men.

Today, I do not want to market myself as a commodity or promote my female assets and attractive appearance. Yes, I may be open to love again, but it is a different type of love that I am looking for. When I was still brand new on the marriage market I settled for a second-hand candidate, who is much older but far less mature, so I got duped twice.  Had I married the boy next door from back home, I would have had the wonderful comfort of being with someone I have known all my life, growing with him and through him. I gave this transformation process my best shot with my ex, and I changed dramatically to adapt to him, but even that hasn’t helped keep my marriage together.  Today I feel I have neither the time nor the energy to learn about someone and adapt my personality to suit him, least of all a man who has never gone through the journey of a marriage.

When my supervisor raised the subject, and she is perhaps the nosiest woman this side of the Atlantic (a quality that comes naturally to almost all women of a certain age, from a certain are in the middle east), I brushed off her suggestion of having a boyfriend by saying that it is hard for me to shake off my conservative Arab identity and adopt a free attitude to casual relationships; I only wanted to protect myself from her nosiness. However, I feel that my excuse is not that far from the truth. Middle Eastern culture is one that expects a woman to mold herself to the wishes of her partner, so a traditional relationship is not entirely a 50-50 partnership, the woman does two-thirds of the work while a man, a good one that is, can get away with one-third.  For a long time, women have resorted to various dubious methods to overcome this particular mindset, and they usually get their way by rejecting their men in bed, or denying certain privileges. These soft-power devices can only be used in traditional settings, and are thus becoming less prominent in the modern world. Nevertheless, the traditional role of women in a marriage will take longer to evolve into an equal partnership. Men still expect women to meet them more than halfway on most issues, and what is worse, is that mothers raise their daughters to lower their expectations in regards to partnership in marriage, thus repeating the cycle endlessly.

My parents have a traditional marriage. The role of my mother was mostly confined to raising the children and looking after the home. Thus, I was raised with these lowered expectations and carried them into my marriage. It took me almost seven years to realize that when things went wrong in my marriage, it was not because I could not cook, or did not keep the house up to the standards of my husband. After years of desperately trying, I understood that my marriage was a disaster, not because of my failure to meet the golden criteria of my ex. It just shattered because I was with a man who expected me to change completely to please him, while he was never ready to do so. The lesson was tough, and it took me too long to learn. That is why I am forever afraid to fall into the same trap. And that is why I am afraid of this traditional Arab identity to surface if I ever let my guard down and entered into a partnership where I felt the tiniest bit inferior.

This is perhaps what killed my relationship project. It came down to a woman in the middle of her life, and a younger man who is still starting his first test-run. I feared that at some point I will have to change too much, or sacrifice too much to make it work. I feared that I would be obliged to make myself look younger, maybe try for another child at the eleventh hour, or change too many of my ways to be accepted as a possible partner.

My friend’s mom already flashed the warning signal in my face. No matter how much men tell you they like you the way you are, they always love you in younger or prettier versions. This was true in my experience, and unfortunately it doesn’t even stop at the color of the hair, it went beyond to influence, taste, friendships, and private activities. Even how long you stay awake every night after husband falls asleep.

If my life was a Hollywood movie, I will meet tomorrow a single father, a blameless victim who is trying to rebuild a family for his kid,  or stumble upon a long-lost male friend, who has finally found the courage too look for me after he became free himself. But, eish, as we say in South Africa, Hollywood this isn’t. It is just the drudgery of everyday life, and no matter how I wish for it, It is impossible to have an already broken-in husband, without first going through the pain and blisters of trying to fit a boyfriend. If I really wanted a mate, I will have to go to square one, and look amongst the junk, the flotsam of broken marriages, or the ones nobody bothered to pick in the first place. Try to sift the one genuine gem from mountains of fakes, and go through all the idiocy of dating, pretending, and trying to please. No sorry, not for me. I am particularly proud of who I am now, and where I am. I did not arrive here without pain or sacrifice, and I am comfortable and happy in my own skin. My gray head of hair suits me fine. My boy is my buddy and my companion and I enjoy being around him, most of the time. When the time comes for him to spread his wings and leave me  for his own set of friends I will resort to my work or the activities I normally never have time for. I will not be different from many of my single childless friends, I will still be happy. I will not change to catch a man, I will not change to please or keep a man. I will only change to please the woman who looks at me from the mirror every morning, because she is the only person who is guaranteed to stay with me for the rest of my life.


Book: Knitting

KnittingKnitting by Anne Bartlett

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

An easy and quick read for a sensitive and insightful novel with a strong connection to knitting, yarn and fabric. I wouldn’t have picked up this book if I was not a hobby knitter myself.

The story is set in Adelaide, southern Australia, and follows the lives of two very different women. Sandra is a tightly-wound academic, who is trying to cope with the recent loss of her husband to cancer, while Martha is a free spirit who gives most of her time to her creative knitting. A chance meeting of the two women starts an unlikely friendship. As they work together on a vintage knitting exhibition, both women need to deal with their deepest secrets and conflicts. There are no dead bodies or sinister powers at work here, just the usual scars of life. Sandra and Martha slowly find their way to healing them, and to accepting their own flaws.

I found the book’s rambling about the connection between knitting and writing a bit tiresome. Sandra’s perfectionist tendency to crafting words irritated me, especially as I did not see or read any parts of her lean, and brilliant writing. In contrast Martha’s perfectionism was endearing because the garments she created in the process were aptly described. I had the distinct feeling that perhaps the writer is better at knitting than word-crafting.

Reflections on Breastfeeding

I am grateful that my little one got over “mama” (mom’s breast milk) so quickly, even though it is still a big deal for me, emotionally.

As I was reflecting on this wonderful bonding gift that I gave myself and my son, I spotted this article in the I found it because the local radio stations made such a big deal out of it : Salma Hayek breastfed a malnourished African baby while visiting Sierra Leon. The article above links to the actual video. Most commenters agreed that it was so beautiful and natural, but of course to the westernized world this is such a big deal. One commenter even mentioned the dangers of cross-breastfeeding. In Middle Eastern and Islamic culture the practice is not so unusual. So much so that there is a degree of kinship resulting from breastfeeding in Islamic tradition.  A woman who breastfeeds a baby becomes “a mother by nursing” and the child becomes a sibling “by nursing” to all her biological children because he or she was fed from the same breast.  Children who nursed at the same breast are not allowed to intermarry even if they are not biologically related.  I find it interesting that Islamic tradition recognizes the importance of nursing and the kinship that result from it, especially if  you consider that the same culture does not recognize step-brother or step-sister as a valid relationship.

In my family I became a little bit of an oddity, because I breastfed Robert for almost 18 months.  The Islamic tradition recommends two years until weaning, but in my mother’s days the practice was in sharp decline. It was considered somehow less than modern to extend breastfeeding beyond six month. Yes, there were those moms who nursed for much longer, but they were mostly uneducated housebound moms from conservative religious families. I do not know what the practice is like in my birth country today, but it has returned to favour in the west or at least here in South Africa. Even in my playgroup I was not the only mom who chose to extend breastfeeding. Salma Hayek is still breastfeeding her daughter at 12 months, so I am not such an oddity, I am glad.

In the past 17 months I enjoyed almost every aspect of nursing: the closeness, the bonding, and the carefree relaxing time with my son. I failed, however, to appreciate what it physically endowed me with: A perfectly womanly hourglass figure. In the absence of their primary function my breasts have shrunk to their pre-pregnancy size, and I realize with dismay that I am very small, blast that.

Check out this funny video of Salma Hayek in a talk show, talking about insecurities on this particular issue.

Hit Me Where it Hurts

I think my brother-in-law is an idiot. But then again there are so many of his kind in my old country.

Recently, I lamented in this post the plight of women in my country of origin. The piece was brought about by what I think of as my sister’s digression into blind submission to the dictates of society. This submission is well-disguised as Islamic morals, values, and mostly dress code (wearing the headscarf or Hijab).

Today my good sister’s husband came up with another gem from my erstwhile people who have been dozing for the last thousand years. He splashed a “funny” post all over Facebook’s “Funwall” and forwarded it to his numerous friends – most of whom are WOMEN if I may add.

I am translating it from the original Arabic:

Behind every great man .. a woman

Behind every prisoner.. a woman

Behind every problem.. a woman

Behind every war.. a woman

Behind every traffic accident.. a woman

Behind every fight between neighbours … a woman

Behind the demographic imbalance… a woman

Behind the corruption of young men and their depravity.. a woman

Behind every mother and father who were thrown into an old age home… a woman

I want to know who was the stupid ox who called them the fairer sex.

End of gem.

Given my current situation, I am not very good friends with the male fraternity at the moment. But this particular post would enrage me even on a good day, and I do not think it is funny at all. It simply illustrates the male (and especially the Middle Eastern male’s) attitude of passing the responsibility of EVERYTHING onto a woman’s shoulders. Men get away with this because we women have broad shoulders, and can carry everything the guys throw at us: The groceries, the kids, and a good portion of the home-loan to boot. We do it with love, then we smile and ask for more of the load.

Yesterday I drew up a list of items I bought in the last two years and gave it to Mr. Negativity. I did that because in the settlement he stated that I will be getting X thousand Rand’s worth of household effects. I annotated the items I would like to have and added them up to come up with the amount HE said I would get. His response: “I don’t want to go into nit-picking”. Of course, it is nit picking, because I am the one who is asking for stuff. In contrast it is not nit-picking when he demands that I throw petrol in the car on the rare occasions I dare to use it, or when he makes me pay for his son’s passport applications.

His latest antic: I am not allowed to use the car for moving my few belongings to my friend’s house down the road, no more than two kilometers away. And of course it is too much “effort and expense” for him to drive me there. Yet, he wants me “out of his hair” sooner rather than later. Perhaps I should do a sit-in protest on top of my boxes, and wait to see who will break first. Believe me, I want out as well, but I have put up with this crap for nine years, what is a few days more?


As I sit here near the Southernmost tip of Africa wearing shorts and sandals, my sister still perches north of the Arabian peninsula and dons her headscarf to go out shopping.

When I first heard about my sister’s conversion to become a newborn Muslim, if I may use the expression, I was fuming with anger. How dare she, I thought. It is the ultimate betrayal of women’s rights and liberty to bend to the needs of society and cover one’s head. It is absurd, since the head and the face are neutral parts of our anatomy and cannot be considered seductive. Not even the thickest and most bouncy hair can be considered sexually alluring, or am I thinking again in the logic of western societies?

I grew up in an Arab country, where Christians and Muslims live side by side. The increasing religious zeal was apparent as I grew up. It has resulted in clear distinctions between the so-called secular or non-practicing Muslims and the orthodox faction. The absolute majority is orthodox and their pressure on the rest is very strong. After all they have the voice of Allah on their side and literally the threat of hell.

If you couple this with the prevalent misogynist view of society, you come up with a situation where the morality of society is dependent on the way women dress. I have been brought up to the tune of : “Men are creatures of lust and they cannot control it, it is a woman’s duty and obligation to put a stop to their advances”. Women kindly dispense of such advice to their daughters and female charges, while turning a blind eye to the dalliances of their sons. I think it is ridiculous to expect women to carry society’s morals on their shoulders, as if they do not have feelings and desires like men. Men are secure in the knowledge that they aren’t the ones to get “caught” and therefore, and in true male fashion they just pass on the responsibility onto the female.

The society I was born into does not give evenhanded instruction to young men and women when it comes to sexual knowledge. Women are prohibited from any sexual adventures prior to marriage, yet it is acceptable for men to have such an experience. It is purposely overlooked that this sort of experience will only come about with willing female partners. Whether these are frustrated married women or poor girls who are willing to go loose for a new item of clothing, or just girls who have slipped once and no longer need to preserve their image of purity. Regardless of what sort of woman gives the man his first initiation into sex, her existence makes this patriarchal society even more distrustful of women. Therefore men try to enforce veils on their women, to prevent other men from ogling them. This is another one sided solution that does not require or expect the participation of men in enforcing morals. Women are forced, coerced, or convinced to cover up in the manner of the last century, while their husband walk alongside wearing the latest fashion. They would never dream of wearing the ‘dress’ of the prophet and his ilk except to prayer. And while their own women are safely covered there are hundreds others whom they can freely ogle. The fact that they are not covered up labels them as available and willing prey for flirtation and maybe more.

Women need to carry the weight of children and family, in addition to keeping the integrity of their marriage. They are also responsible for the immorality, women are the root of all evil. Meanwhile, men can contemplate this sad state of affairs while watching scantly clad women on satellite television, or while conversing with other buddies over tea and bubbly (water pipe). What a wonderful life.

Why Some Women Are Not Management Material

Being a woman myself, I say this with some regret. However, I do realise that sometimes we do not have the right temperament to lead people, and I am one of the biggest offenders.
The months I spent managing Alex Motors are a case in point. Dealing with the demands of around 20 staff members was a constant strain; it drained me physically and emotionally.
I am happy to admit that I am not management material. My absolute limit would be perhaps supervising five people, but to be honest I am most content when I only work to the limits of my own incompetence.

The staff at Alex Motors might have considered me a humane and benevolent manager, but most of the times I was weak and could not offer them the strength of leadership they needed; I stood shoulder to shoulder with them, leading from the flanks rather than the command position. My biggest fault was getting my emotions tangled in the employee’s problems, applying my own reasoning to these problems and getting exasperated when their behaviour came short and did not measure up to my principles.
In effect I placed an unnecessary burden on myself; I tried to manage and correct people’s lives for them when it was only necessary to deal with their working performance.
By the same token, I did not succeed in detaching myself emotionally from the working environment, I was troubled by the staff’s mistakes and shortcomings, because I judged them by my own standards. I also could not handle crisis, and flew of f the handle at the first sign of trouble or mishap. In short I was a reactionary and emotional leader, not at all a calm and collected trouble-shooter.

Today I was on the receiving end of the exact same type of behaviour. My days as a manager are long passed, and I am happy now to be a simple employee, one of many pegs in a giant wheel, doing a singularly unspectacular job.
Admittedly, the query I raised with management today was not of great importance. It was a whinge, basically pointing out a minor hitch in planning the allocation of break time for the agents on the floor. What I did not expect was the vehement reaction I got. The answer was simply that the planning was not perfect, and we the employees should take the initiative and fix things amongst ourselves.
I am afraid that this type of argument does appease me. These people work so hard to elevate themselves into positions of responsibility, but once they get there they try to wash their hands off the very same duties they are required to perform. I am tired of this policy of shifting responsibility downwards. I am sitting here at the bottom of the food chain, the buck stops with me, when I bungle up there is nobody to squirm or hide behind; I am simply instructed to make a statement explaining myself. Furthermore, my mistakes will directly influence my performance bonus. Meanwhile the people supervising and evaluating me, keep making the same mistakes over and over again; they mess up working schedules, shift plans, break allocations and pay cheques, and we here at the bottom are supposed to grin and bear it, no we should even take the initiative to correct their mistakes.
All these thoughts went through my head, but of course there was no way I could escape with my skin intact had I given voice to them.
I simply pointed out to the duty “manager” that even small inconsistencies should be communicated to admin, because otherwise they will be totally out of touch with the working procedures and problems on the floor. I added that there were already some people on the floor who feel that admin has no clue anymore about the actual operations here.
When I finished my sentence, the woman in question jumped up as if bitten by snake, made a snap decision of rescheduling my break, crossing out the previous scheduling for the day and arbitrarily putting in a new one, then she stormed out towards who knows where.
I was shocked at receiving this reaction, but on further reflection I realised that I was not a stranger to it. Here was another reactionary manger flying off the handle for no reason at all, when it would have sufficed if she just said: Thanks for bringing this to our attention, I will forward it on to the relevant parties.

People in positions have to realise that most of their work will be fielding questions and dealing with staff. We are human too, occasionally there will be complaints and whinges, and sometimes people will give substandard performances or not perform at all. However, it does not serve the organisation at all if the leaders jump into the fray and get themselves involved. No general jumps into battle to save one of his soldiers. A leader has to stay in control, keep a cool head at all times. Yes, it is not easy to deal with the constant flow of complaints, whinges and failures of your people, but unfortunately it comes with the property and if you can’t take the heat then stay out of the kitchen.

Leadership is an art and a discipline, it is a skill that can be honed with experience and training. However, I get the feeling that men are more capable of perfecting it than women. Women take ownership, while men take responsibility. And taking ownership is by far the more painful route to management; it implies deeper personal involvement and opens a person up to disappointment. Taking responsibility on the other hand is a more sober approach, since it excludes or limits the emotional involvement.
Taking responsibility can be done with the cool reasoning of the head, while taking ownership is a personal cruisade and a battle of the heart.
Having said that, I still believe that women can make good managers with the correct training and discipline, and if they can learn to put aside emotions and motherly instincts, but I also know that neither myself nor my duty manager today can quite cut it.