It happened after dinner one night, many years ago. At the time, I think I was in my teens. My grandfather, who only spent part of the year visiting us, got up from the dining room table and invited my father and me into another room for a chat. He felt it was time for one of those man-to-man moments exclusive of the women – his wife (my grandmother), my mother and my sister. I promised I would be along shortly, but then added something that caught him off guard.
“I’m going to help clean up the dirty dishes first,” I said.
He gave the dishes and the table a condescending gesture with the back of his hand. Then he scolded me. “No. No,” he said. “That’s women’s work.”
I think it was in that moment – over something as ordinary as dirty dishes – that I realized the vast difference between the world in which my grandfather grew up and my world. His pre-First-World-War Greece had existed for generations under very strict guidelines for men’s and women’s work; men performed certain jobs and women the rest. And never the twain would meet.
Or, perhaps even more offensive to me, never a change would be tolerated. In other words, my grandfather had brought his Old World traditions, rituals and customs with him and as far as he was concerned they would trump anything my New World could invent, including a liberated, equitable sharing of work – even the work in our household kitchen.
The gulf between my grandfather’s and my values has always bothered me. I’ve never really understood how a society so heavily based in agrarian culture (where, it seemed, all work and responsibility were shared equally among citizens) could be so discriminatory. Nor have I figured out why my grandfather’s gender bias could flourish in a Greek society credited – thousands of years after the original Athenians – as the birthplace of democracy. Why should picking up the dishes from which I had enjoyed a meal be beneath me because I was a man? Why should my grandmother, mother and sister be expected to clean up after me, simply because they were women?
All that subtle (but hurtful) job inequality in my family kitchen from years ago came back to me as I’ve watched recent events unfold in the courts, in our streets and even the other night at the Oscars. I don’t have to go into the details of the Shafia murder case in Kingston. But I would like to think that most Canadians were equally appalled by evidence in the trial proving that a man (and his son) somehow equated the rebellious activities of three daughters (and sisters) as a capital offence.
Further, that their form of “justice” had to be administered by the father (and son) to defend the family’s honour. Not that my grandfather’s strict adherence to men’s and women’s work could ever have descended to that depth. I just fear that too many patriarchal cultures, transplanted from the Old World, still operate with impunity here.
But I don’t have to look to an Old World culture to see anti-women attitudes in our midst. I still hear far too many misogynist epithets when men of my generation discuss a marriage gone wrong or a misunderstanding between the sexes. Yes, I’m quite prepared to consider that (as American author John Gray surmised in the 1990s), “Men are from Mars; women are from Venus.” But his thesis that “men complain about problems because they are asking for solutions, while women complain about problems because they want their problems to be acknowledged,” is merely the recognition of different psychologies. Not a fight to the death.
Then, the other night during the Academy Awards, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy stopped me in my tracks. She is the woman who won an Oscar for co-directing the documentary short film “Saving Face.” In case you missed it (apparently most media in this country did), her film chronicles the work of plastic surgeon Mohammad Jawad reconstructing the faces of two women attacked by men who threw acid at them for violating local custom and ritual in Pakistan.
“To all the women in Pakistan who are working for change,” she said in her acceptance speech Sunday night, “don’t give up on your dreams. This is for you.”
Additionally remarkable, Obaid-Chinoy was born in Karachi, Pakistan, but grew up in Canada. She was one of five daughters in a family where all were encouraged to express themselves and seek professions and relationships of their choosing. She holds dual citizenship in Pakistan and Canada. And until the Oscars, nobody in Canada had noticed.
I don’t think it could have changed him or his attitudes, but I wish my grandfather had witnessed her achievement. Perhaps there’s still time for generations since to learn her life’s lessons.