This article was written for the November 2012 edition of United Arab Emirates Woman magazine, in which I was asked to argue against the idea that a woman should submit to her husband in all things. It was published in gratifyingly swish style - God I love glossy magazines.
There is no person more boring, or bored, than a stay-at-home wife in a wealthy family in a wealthy country. I would recommend such a role only for women who have small brains, small hopes, small potential and small personalities. But I know no such women. What I do know is that five thousand years of inequality, machismo, conditioning, intimidation and oppression have resulted in this strange, stunted creature, the surrendered wife who finds some kind of sick nobility in grovelling to a man. The wretch believes that her highest virtue lies in giving the greatest attention to the smallest things: the dustpan, the oven, the crib, the sink – and the contents of her husband’s underpants.
The surrendered wife deserves our sympathy. Without realising it, she has been subjected to a deep cultural, social and political lobotomy, internalised the propaganda that says she is naturally destined for wife-work according to her innate capacities and has emerged competent but wholly unrebellious. She is good at organising the home, judicious with her children’s upbringing, efficient about the family’s comings and goings, savagely chic when entertaining. But she is dependent for her survival – and that makes her submissive. If she doesn’t please her lord and master, she has nothing to fall back on. In order to survive, she must turn herself into a prostitute in the bedroom, a maid on the landing, a cook in the kitchen, a nanny in the nursery, a secretary at her husband’s desk, a housekeeper in the pantry and a hostess in the lounge. No matter what reflected status she may gain from her husband, at the core of it she herself is merely a geisha: there to serve. She exists to be exploited for her sexual, social and physical labour. As a dependent subordinate with no power of her own she can be bullied, hurt, disparaged or replaced whenever her owner chooses.
When a woman’s scope is reduced to the four walls of her home, her soul shrinks accordingly. Her frustration, boredom, bitterness and ennui are sublimated into obsession with petty surface details, extreme self-objectification, obsessive shopping, the bullying of staff and competitive house-maintenance. Because she is isolated, she doesn’t have the resources to fight the source of her oppression – that is, her husband and the entire macho ethos that keeps her in her place – and so she transfers her rage onto other women, satisfying her insecurity by making small-minded, shallow, sniping judgements. She begins to police other women’s behaviour, perhaps even her own daughters’ behaviour, punishing them if they do not conform. This is understandable and it’s what oppressed groups have always done. It is easier to lash out laterally than face the reality of oppression. It’s easy to submit to misogynist ‘tradition’ and shrink to fit the time-honoured roles it has decided are ours; it’s hard to break out and fight such entrenched views, especially when they are backed up by the threat of force and the possibility of extreme social disapproval, community rejection or other severe losses.
I believe that women deserve much more than a life of service. That is not a life, it is merely an existence in which all of our resources are used up for others’ benefit without being acknowledged or compensated, leading to any meaningful influence or wider power or ensuring that we are listened to respectfully as experts on everything from family life to economics to psychology to the proper care of growing youngsters and sometimes-vulnerable elders. The hardest and most profound free work we do – bringing up children, caring for elderly relatives, keeping communities together peacefully, all often in addition to other full-time careers – should be acknowledged, honoured and credited instead of being assumed, expected, unpaid, undervalued and taken advantage of.
Instead of women judging each other, or themselves, they should judge machismo. We deserve to go into the world to fulfil our potential without being leered at, opposed, judged, sexually harassed, sexually assaulted, beaten, controlled, followed or abused. We deserve to be treated equally as minds and personalities, not as objects. A woman has a basic human right to be seen as a person in her own right, an individual and not someone’s wife, someone’s daughter, someone’s mother, someone’s sister or someone’s neighbour, with all the labour and duties that entails. And when we come home unmolested from our studies, our work or visiting friends and family, we will do precisely half of the work required, and the man should do the other half. Since a man makes half a baby, he should do half the childcare. Since he makes half the dirt, he should do half the cleaning. And since he eats half the food, he should do half of all the kitchen work.
Men have killed each other in great wars, put other men on the moon, created vast architectural structures and tiny electronic circuits and constructed complex governments in which men help other men achieve wealth, status and power. (Women have done so too of course, but their names are erased from history and their contribution ignored, belittled, downgraded or sidelined.) Men have developed intricate religions, laws and courts in which, year after year, men who abuse women walk free using a variety of excuses, supported by the victim-blaming and apologism of the wider world. Are you telling me that Man, this great and complex creation, in all his genius and abusiveness and hypocrisy, his greatness and his pettiness, his qualities and flaws, is not capable of wiping a baby’s bottom?
Being a surrendered wife is dull, repetitive, unjust, unfulfilling and submissive. Obedient women don’t make history, they merely clean it and furnish it for men to inhabit, and are not credited afterwards. Never forget that surrender is the very last resort of great heroes, warriors and adventurers. It is easy to be a slave because you know what your fate is: to be a slave forever. But that is no life. Women are too interesting to be hidden from the world, too intelligent to be barred from contributing in full, too witty to be silenced in public, too dynamic to be held back from the outside world and too strong to be denied.