Where are the Women?
There is a piece written by the poet and mystic, Rabia al Basri titled, Reality, and she is speaking about being in the presence of a god– and the line that is most poignant for me as I am awakening to the reality of woman blotted out in the presence of man is this,
How can you describe the true form of Something
In whose presence you are blotted out?
And in whose being you still exist?
I have known the world through the eyes of man. My father’s work was alive within my mother; my grandmother is still shamed for leaving my grandfather in order to reclaim her personhood; my aunts’ smiles hang from the fingers of their husbands; and I have understood the history of mankind, the fight against injustice, and the pride for my country through the words from the men around me that had voice to teach. Nobody asked where the women were. If my mother were sick in bed, the maid would be the one to put the tortillas, beans, and rice on the table for my father when he came home to have his lunch. I never knew to question why my history textbooks and my literature texts held no memory of the women that fought simultaneously with the men depicted within. Why was it that I sat alongside my Abuela, my mother, and my aunts, at the same table as my father and my grandfather and none of us would talk with our mouths and with our hands about the opinions in politics like them? We are observers of a world dominated by men; we are poorly represented in government, and rarely represented in family, but exist as adjuncts of the hands of man that wield their power to speak.
To unfold the dynamics of power, it is necessary to look into the lives and the corners that we often deem irrelevant. One can look at the power structure within the home of the family to test the representation of the woman. My father left my family, and with him, the legal status of my mother was retracted. Under the screams of crisis, the women were called in to pray over my mother that a new husband would come into her life; that god would become her new husband. I had nightmares for three years that a blonde-haired white man would not let me into my mother’s bedroom. My sister and I were prayed over; that our knees would remain closed by god our new father, that our futures would remain pure. My brother was prayed into the family, inducted as the new man of the house; prayed over that god would bring him a man that could walk next to him, and lead him in the right ways. My brother spent three years falling asleep on the side where my father used to sleep, waiting. I told my therapist that my father was going to come back and that he was going to pay for our health insurance again. I was convinced that we were only living in another family’s basement temporarily—that my mom kept a fifth plate in the microwave, because otherwise, our home would continue to deflate without his presence.
An unmarried mother is told that god will straighten her life when she puts her values in line; when she marries the man she is living with, god will honor her life and surely multiply her resources. Single women earn less money than single men. Single moms receive fewer benefits than single dads. The door of our home, the door of our country, the door that dictates our comings and goings are for the woman to find presence, stature, dignity, and the right to life by all men. A woman is woman because of the men that stabilize her body, her health, her home, her finances, her children, and her ability to love and be loved. The term feminism has never scared me, and to be a feminist means to place the spheres and spaces we are a part of under our criticism. It means that we question why we believe the things we believe, and why we do the things we do. And it is the responsibility to make sense of this space that gender occupies and look at the tiniest details in this sphere of the tensions between the masculine and the feminized.
Take for example, the tortillas laid on the table for my father’s lunch. Those tortillas were handmade by the ladies at the market, and it is a store owned by a man. A stack of tortillas cost no more than 2 dollars. This is the same price that the women receive as their pay per hour, if they manage to sell the number of stacks expected by the owner. This man purchases the ingredients to make these tortillas from the manager of a cornfield and farm. In this farm, there are barracks for men and women. The men cut the corn husks, the women work a 12- hour day shucking the husks and preparing the corn to be packaged, shipped, and delivered- whether it’s locally, nationally, or internationally. The conditions within the barracks are deplorable—and the abuse that the women receive from the managers of the farm and fields in order to maintain the order of the power hierarchy is inhumane to say the least. In the bites of our tacos, of our enchiladas, of the corn in our soups and salads, are the hands and the sweat that are treated as machines—but as machines, that if they fail, they will not be fixed or helped, but beaten down for their inability to perform at the quality level the managers expect them to reach every hour, and every day. Here is a look into the politics behind one bite at the table: the same table where my father’s work, health, and wellbeing are the priority of the family.
We actively forget that we are part of this abusive hierarchy. A hierarchy that depends on women remembering that they are the caves that hold men’s future, and their world of opportunity. Through the criticism of the forces that drive our world into its successes or its failures, we shift our paradigm from actively forgetting to actively analyzing. Justice, then, becomes the analysis of the hierarchy of gender: from the lofty levels of political and social affairs, to the tortillas on the table.
Feminism is asking where the woman is and who she is: is woman a breath in the work of man, is woman the sum of space- a means to an end? My mother believes that choosing to abandon her career, as a lawyer, is the best means for the creation of home and for taking care of her husband and her children. We believe that home, husband, and children thrive when the woman is fully present here. Man’s presence is vital because he supports the family financially, but he is also expected to rise within the hierarchy of the masculinized world of power. The woman is the home that is expected to create the best space for man and family to inhabit. She is nutrition, a clean space, an environment for child rearing, and the scented candle for man after his long day at work. We do not ask where the women are, because we know that women are where we need them to be.
Mami, why aren’t women in history?
Well, Marianthy, we stand behind the men-
we’re not seen, but we are the ones that get
I remember my mother telling me this one day during the years that I was home schooled. I remember loving when the mother in My Big Fat Greek Wedding explained to her daughter that, maybe the man was the head of the household, but the woman was the neck. I build myself as the neck, and the language that I use to position myself in relation to men is, I am behind you.
In 1910, Mexico entered into what would turn into a decade of civil unrest and major armed struggles. What began with an uprising led by Francisco Madero against Porfirio Díaz to dismantle the established order of power, turned into a very complex and multi-sided civil war. This conflict was one of the most important sociopolitical conflicts in Mexican history, as it led to reformation in social organization. Some of the major individuals involved in the struggles, battles, and intellectually reforming the structures of Mexico were Pancho Villa, Venustiano Carranza, Emiliano Zapata, and the Catholic Church—all of which are male. When studying this part of Mexican history, women live in infamy as the camp followers. And though they carried bullets across their chest and were some of the best shots within battle, they are still glorified as the sustaining mirages for the struggle of the men. We consistently miss the role of women in political and social movements as we pass them by blotting them out in the presence of man, and maintain their existence within the struggle of man. Feminism is seeing the obsession with femininity, and acknowledging the hand pressing to squeeze out the female in me. Feminism is the refusal for the continuation of our castration, where we are expected to continue in our subordination. We miss woman because she is swallowed up, not considered as an entity of her own.
On October of 2014, Mexico was overturned as a response of the disappearance of 43 students from a town called Ayotzinapa, all of which were men. The whole country responded in protest to a crime that meant a loss to so many families and a whole community, but this became a beacon that represented the nation-wide problem where around 45,000 people disappear a year. This crisis caught the nation’s attention because it was the disappearance of 43 male students. Their identity as students underlined over and over again. No matter that mothers, wives, daughters, and female students, embody the greater part of the 45,000 disappeared persons a year. Ayotzinapa is a male tragedy. In order to make the point that something extreme has happened, we picture the weeping mother of one of the 43 students. She is nothing to us but the symbol of the national crisis, a means to move us over her disappeared son. I am not minimizing the pain and chaos that these families are experiencing. Rather, I am detailing this crisis and looking at it from a feminist perspective: we miss the women. If it is a national crisis it is a conflict spearheaded by a group of men. And the women that continue to vanish from our streets, from homes, from schools; they are a loss, but not our loss. We only respond when it is a male tragedy.
Feminism is folding the tortilla in my hand and living fully engaged with the world around me. The two lines above Rabia Al Basri’s poem that I begun this essay with, go as follows,
The one who tastes, knows;
the one who explains, lies.
Like a prayer, I have explained to myself since my dad left that I did not need a man to survive. Then, I explained that, I don’t need a man to be defined– then, I don’t need a man to understand, to believe, to do anything. This in itself is not a lie, but a room to heal so that I could recognize that my feet had the ability to walk out, and taste the beast within me. The term, feminism, I have learned to be a source of life. It is all moving, changing, shaping, and cannot die. And this is because the world of men has attempted to isolate women- heads above necks and the history of mankind- but our narratives continue. We look for words to express the systems that contain and make us; and when we taste our world, we become feminists.