I am currently in my final year of university, very close to graduation. Several of my friends will be “walking” at the June graduation ceremony, young men and women of different majors and walks of life. Though perhaps our dreams will not come true, we have been wistfully sharing those dreams with one another; pursue higher education, be a diplomat, start my own business, open up a professional theater company, run a football training academy, produce movies. Beautiful dreams coming from beautiful individuals with beautiful ambitions.
I have, however, heard different concerns being expressed by the young women than by the young men. Both are, of course, concerned about having to dig for wasta in order to nail the job they have in mind, but the young women were concerned about something that the men casually dismissed. To quote, “Are we supposed to go for a Masters or get married?”
Before jumping to judgment, it’s important to keep in mind that the students asking this question are independent young women who work hard to assert their potential; they are not the type of girls who have spent their university years trying to find a husband. In fact, at my university, the valedictorian of each graduating class has been a woman for the past ten consecutive years. The question being asked is a valid one, it is one that is recurrent among young women and it can be traced to societal pressures that make them feel obligated to choose a single path, as opposed to their male classmates who can and do choose the dual path of family and career.
First, women in Kuwait are told that there is a ticking clock for the marriage train; if they don’t catch it by the time they are thirty, they are then lumped into the “A’anis” boat, regardless of what other accomplishments they had achieved during that period where they chose not to marry. Second, many are pressured to settle as a result of this ticking clock, and do not end up in compatible marriage relationships; though divorce is becoming common in Kuwait, the equation is made complicated and that choice made more distant once children are involved. It is at this point that motherhood comes into play.
Wanting to be good mothers, the women stay with the husbands who aren’t the best match for them, or they take on jobs that are not as demanding so as to pay more attention to their babies; it is precisely at this moment of sacrifice that society’s pressures are victorious. The husband is not expected to cut back on his work hours, or eliminate the possibility of pursuing higher education; he may choose career advancement and he may choose to continue studying. In both cases, his wife will be there to take care of the children. On the other hand, there is a constant expectation for the woman to fulfill the role of the good mother. This is not something that only comes from outside forces within that society, but also an innate desire to give her children everything she can give them. The woman’s desire to excel in her career and to be a loving mother at the same time creates a conflict that, until today, has yet to be resolved.
In a discussion at university about this particular topic, one male classmate offered what he said was the “obvious” solution: women need to focus on their destined roles as caretakers, and allow men to be the providers as they were meant to. He said that he would feel “like a princess” if he had that option. Though I realize that many share his belief, I think it’s necessary to point out the flaws in that argument that would be particularly relevant in today’s world. First, today’s economic familial demands require that each household has two providers rather than one. Second, it ignores the woman’s own right to choose the path she prefers. “Housewife syndrome” is a depressive state where wives feel crippled and repulsed by their unchanging daily routines; this was originally ‘diagnosed’ among American housewives in the 1960s, but is absolutely applicable to other countries and time periods. Restricting a woman’s options to looking after her husband and children is not at all “princess”-like, but suffocating. Housewife syndrome specifically occurs to university graduates, women who were intellectually stimulated during their undergraduate years and then are not given the opportunity to invest their skills into a field they are passionate about.
The reality today is that women in Kuwait have both the potential and the desire to excel in a career path or their family lives, but that it grows difficult when they are told, “You have to choose.” This is something that I have been personally told; I was told that I had to decide if I wanted to get married and have a family, or pursue higher education and be a professor. I see beauty and success in both, and yet I can understand how it would be hard to balance the two. Still, ten years from now I would like to see my classmates happy with their jobs and their families, and not resentful that they had to give one up in order to keep the other. It is unfair to impose such an ultimatum on women who have both the intellectual and emotional capacity to do well in both, and I think this is a basic right that all young women should have: choice. The fact that so many of my classmates are already concerned about this is deeply worrying. Surpassing this fear can only occur through cooperation, through a fair distribution of tasks between mother and father, through a willingness to be flexible; or through the support of friends and family in the case where a woman decides to solely pursue a career path. The role of women is rapidly changing and progressing in Kuwait; our expectations and perceptions must, too.