Posted in dating, Feminism, Filipino, relationships, Self-Discovery

Where’s Your Boyfriend?

Every time I come for a visit to the Philippines – and especially as I reach that age where everyone you know is either a wife or a mother – there’s just that little bit of anxiety and a touch of resentment mixed in with the all the excitement.

You see, I come from a culture where its more or less expected, nay, required for a woman to be either in a serious relationship if not married by the age of 25. For a long long time I bought into the whole Stepford wife illusion of white picket fences, loving husband and 2.5 babies. That to me was THE goal.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, moving to London saved my life.

The Giving Tree

I once volunteered to help less fortunate children to read and one of the books we read was The Giving Tree. I must have been 27 at the time and I remember trying my best to keep it together and to keep my emotions in check so that I wouldn’t blubber like a nutter in front of all those kids who had so much more to worry about than my love life.

I was in a very self-destructive, unhealthy and pathetically one-sided relationship in college that gave new meaning to the word friend zone. I lost myself completely in my misguided quest to make another person love me. I was stupid enough to believe, just like that bloody giving tree, that if you give of yourself enough that other person will love you back.

It took me about 8 years to realise that love doesn’t work that way. You shouldn’t have to work so hard to make someone else love you. You don’t need to lose yourself in a relationship. Even as you become partners in all things, its still healthy to retain that sense of individuality, and the sense of who you are as a person outside of the relationship. In short, to be able to truly give yourself to someone, you have to be whole, and you have to know and love yourself first.

This was not an easy lesson for me to learn and in a way, I’m probably still in the process of learning it. Its hard for me not to be a giver (I probably always will be) and it was so hard for me to gain back my self-esteem and my self-respect.

That’s one of the main reasons why I’ve remained single for a long long time. I date, sure, but at the back of my mind I know that my head wasn’t in the right place for me to even think about starting anything serious. I had so much to discover about myself, so much lost time to make up for, so many things that I still need to do and a boyfriend would just get in the way.

I’ve probably been a bit self-absorbed for the last 6 years or so – about the length of time that I’ve lived and worked in London. It was all about what I want to do, what I need to learn, where I need to go. I enjoyed the freedom of having no one to think about apart from myself. If I make mistakes no one else needs to suffer from it.

And to be honest that was probably a good thing. My experimental forays into trying things that are outside my comfort zone have gained me new skills, new friends and new experiences that cannot be bought by any kind of money. I have a job I love even as it often gives me stress, a side job that pays me to do one of the things I enjoy most, a blog that keeps me sane, a comfortable flat, and the kind of life that if I really think about it, brings me happiness. I’m one application (and 2 thousand pounds) away from being British. I’m so damn proud of all my achievements and I’ve never had any reason to doubt myself and my life choices. Until I come home to the Philippines of course.

I’m Alone…But Not Lonely

Look, I date okay. Not that I need to explain myself to anyone, but I do in fact go on several dates a year. The quality of those dates are sometimes suspect and none of them have panned out yet, but I’ve yet to lose hope that I’ll meet that someone and I’ll just know it was worth waiting and holding out for something more meaningful than a one-night stand.

I know, I know, I turned 30 and I’m losing fertile eggs as we speak. But seriously, the notion that being a wife or a mother is the measure of how successful a woman is is really outdated. I came home this year and people start to look at me funny because I don’t have a man by my side or an infant in my arms. No one wants to hear about every thing else I’ve done or what I have achieved, they just want to look at my finger to see if anyone’s put a ring on it.

I admit, I had my moment of panic when I turned 30. For maybe a day. And then I gave myself a kick in the arse and reminded myself that first of all, its not a race to the finish and second of all, 30 isn’t exactly ancient. I’ve had dates that never would have taken me as seriously at 27 as they do now. My life isn’t over, its not quite time for me to think about adopting cats yet.

The Measure of Success

It drives me mad to think that there are people who think I’m somehow less just because I’m “still” single. I have all the admiration in the world for mothers and for women who have chosen to start a family even at the expense of having a career – I think those women should be celebrated (sainted, really). But equally, credit should be given to those women who chose the other fork in the road and have fought to build a career despite the challenges and yes, despite being alone for most of it.

And its not like motherhood is not part of the plan. I, for one, would like to see my genes propagated (is that the right word?), but I’m not sitting around twiddling my thumbs while waiting for the future Mr. Angela. Its part of my bigger plan, its not my only plan. So yes, I do want to get married eventually and this is the first time that I can honestly say I’m ready for it (cue Taylor Swift music) so the answer to that question is a “not yet” rather than a hard “no”.

I hate having to defend my life choices to other people, I promised myself that I would rise above the weight of society’s expectations (I absolutely knew this was coming). It sickens me to think that I can still be affected by other people’s small minds and narrow world-views. I sometimes want to scream in frustration that there is a world out there bigger than the very small circle in which your lives revolve, but I don’t want to seem like I’m belittling anyone’s life or the choices they have made. I just wish they’d exercise the same caution when they choose to judge mine.

Where’s Your Boyfriend?

I don’t know. I don’t know where my boyfriend is. Twice in the past 6 years I thought I’ve found him but it turned out I haven’t. I haven’t met him yet, but I can feel myself getting closer. I’m enjoying the roundabout journey I’m taking to find him. It might take me a little longer, but when I meet him he can be sure that I’m whole, I’m ready, and I’m excited to share my passions, my dreams, and my life with him and to have him share his with me in turn.

Like I said, there’s a great big world out there for me to see. Life is one very exciting adventure and it would sure be grand to be holding someone’s hand as I live through it.

So for all you women out there who get asked the same questions from well-meaning and sometimes not so well-meaning friends and family: DO NOT GIVE IN. DO NOT SETTLE. And absolutely DO NOT let it be a factor in your decisions. You will come to it in your own damn time, and in your own way. Be strong.

Posted in Books, Feminism, Politics, Women's literature

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale and what it means to be a woman

I went through a phase last year where I suddenly felt like I should start reading books that are grounded in reality, books that will actually teach me something rather than books that merely perpetuate the myth that a woman needs a man to feel complete (ahem, romance novels). It then got me thinking about feminism, how far we’ve come in terms of achieving equality between the sexes. At the same time, there’s a sense that there’s still so much more we’ve yet to learn.

The Romance Novel: One step forward, two steps back?

Take romance novels, for example. To be fair, they’re no longer the bodice-ripping rompers that they once were. There are less plot lines of women being captured by barbarians-masquerading-as-heroes who are then imprisoned in some castle in the middle of nowhere and virtually raped. Johanna Lindsey is an author that gets a lot of flack for her love scenes, and to be honest when I was younger I never even thought about what her books meant or what message it sends to young girls like me. On average, girls of my generation probably started reading Ms. Lindsey’s books at around 13-14. That is a very impressionable age, and its around that time period that we form a mental image of what kind of woman we would someday like to become. Its at that age where we need strong positive influences more than ever.

I loved Johanna Lindsey’s books when I was younger and to be honest, I don’t think I’m the kind of girl who would internalise whatever it is that I read from these books. I was fully aware that these books are fantasies. I also had strong role models growing up. My aunt is unmarried, but she’s achieved so much in her life that no one would ever say her life is somehow less just because she’s not a wife or a mother. She’s worked for 30-something years, on her own I might add, in the United States to provide a roof over her brother’s heads (including my dad) when their parents died. When our family business was failing about 15 years ago now, she came out of retirement, went back to the States and resumed her career as a teacher even though she was nearly 50 and dammit, deserved to be relaxing in a beach somewhere after all her efforts. But she unselfishly took on the problems of the family on her undeniably strong shoulders, and I am where I am now because of her courage and selflessness.

The point is, not all girls would have role models like that. For some girls, these heroines that they read about in books form the backbone of their mental image of what it means to be a woman. So I get the backlash now, with the maturity that comes with age. Books like Prisoner of My Desire are not appropriate for young girls to read, and thankfully, young girls these days are so conscious about feminism that those kind of books would probably have less of an appeal anyway. We’ve come that far at least.

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Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale

This brings me to Margaret Atwood. I would recommend her books not just for women but for readers of every gender because they deal with subjects that are so relevant in society today. The best book to start with, and undoubtedly her most famous published work, is The Handmaid’s Tale. There is so much discussion surrounding this right now because it was recently adapted for television on Channel 4 (in the UK anyway). I’ve never seen the series but I read the book late last year and it gave me the creeps. That was my first impression of this book: it gave me the creeps51VHe12RxJL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_

This story was described by Margaret Atwood as not so much science fiction as it is “speculative fiction”. By doing that, she’s basically saying that it doesn’t take much of a stretch for this book to become our new reality. In some developing countries, it probably already is. The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives in a time where birth rates are falling and where women are basically useful only for their ability to give birth to a child. They are sent to some kind of school that teaches them to handmaids. It teaches them to be submissive, to be obedient and subservient; it basically stamps out any sense of individuality they might possess and turns them into nothing more than vessels of procreation. When they ‘graduate’ they join an official’s household and takes on the name of that official. So Offred is literally of Fred. In that household, she might as well be just a uterus. She exists only for the monthly ‘ceremony’,  where she engages in sexual activity with the ‘husband’ while his wife holds her hand.

The alternative to this demeaning existence is exile and death. A woman has no choice but to submit basically. In addition, there is a finite number of years for her to achieve the goal of childbirth because these women are not taken into schools in the first blush of youth as I initially thought. Through flashbacks, it turns out Offred was previously married and had a child of her own. Then some kind of war or revolution happened and the whole world changed. Anyway, they’ve got about 5 to 6 years before menopause happens and they outlive their usefulness in society.

There are so many themes to explore that I don’t even know where to begin. I guess the overarching theme is that of the woman’s place in society. Its like the novel is saying, who are you if you’re not a wife or a mother? In this world that Margaret Atwood has created you can only be either one or the other. This really resonates with me because I’m nearing 30 and I am in no hurry to settle down and procreate. Never mind the fact that I’ve not met anyone I can imagine spending the rest of my life with, I just feel like there are so many things I still want to do. I haven’t even found my life’s passion yet. I don’t think nursing or even teaching is my passion, although I am quite passionate about the latter. All I really know is, I would like to have the opportunity to explore what it is that gives meaning to my life.

It would be easy to vilify the wives in this story. After all, they seem like they have a cushy position. They don’t live in fear and they don’t have to submit themselves to a demeaning ‘ceremony’ every month. However, they are just the other side of the same coin. All the women in this book are victims. The handmaids because of the role that’s been set for them, but also the wives because of the sheer nothingness of their existence. They are barren and therefore useless. They can’t even be partners to their husband because they don’t get to have a say, or to make decisions. They’ve given up their right to expect fidelity from their husband because of their inability to bear children. So, what are they really? I don’t think there’s anything more painful than a life lived in perpetual inconsequence. 

A slow and painful death

There’s this one scene in the book where Offred is just staring at the walls. I think she was carving something on the bedposts for lack of something better to do, I can’t remember what exactly it was she was doing. The only thing I remember was the overwhelming feeling of boredom that I felt when I read about how she spends her days. I think about the days when I don’t feel like going out, I just want to stay in bed and be alone for once. But then, I have the option of watching television, or reading or writing a blog. Because I am allowed to cultivate my mind and to enhance my knowledge. The women in this book are barred from anything that might stimulate them to think. God forbid they should have one original thought, or any thought. They can’t even read magazines, for crying out loud, not even Cosmo? You would think Cosmo would be encouraged. Isn’t it all about pleasing men? Buy this product, wear these clothes, learn this sex position and the man will be your slave. I could be totally wrong here, I haven’t read Cosmo in a while, they could be all about empowering women now for all I know. I just make it a point NOT to read fashion magazines anymore because it just does nothing for my self-esteem.

God, I can’t imagine a world where I am not allowed to read. But then, wasn’t it only in the last century that there was a big to-do about women being allowed to enter into universities? In the 1950s, weren’t there separate colleges for women in universities such as Oxford and Cambridge? Even now,  I sometimes get comments about hiding my intelligence when I meet a prospective date because apparently an intelligent woman intimidates and drives away men. That’s absurd. Any man that I would even consider dating would have to be strong enough to handle the fact that I have a brain and am not afraid to use it. I don’t suffer fools.

What’s in a name?

The women in this book are not allowed to use their given names. They are instead identifies by the name of the head of the household that they enter. So there’s Offred (Of Fred), OfWarren etc. I would like to say with conviction that I find this demeaning. But then I remember a conversation I had with one of my Italian friends about taking on your husband’s surname when you get married. I was raised in a culture where I just assumed that this was an automatic thing for you to do. You get married, you take your husband’s name and so do your future children.

Apparently, in Italy (and other major European countries) this isn’t a given. You have a choice to keep your surname (or hyphenate). At the time, this was a major revelation for me. It made me think about how I would probably rush to change my name and how proud I would be to wear my husband’s name. Is this a step back from feminism? Am I somehow less of a feminist because I see nothing wrong with changing my name when I marry? Is it somehow seen as a mark of ownership, that I am a property of my husband or something?

I don’t see it that way. Maybe I do still have an idealised view of marriage and being a woman. Those Johanna Lindsey novels may have influenced me more than I thought. I just think of marriage as having a sense of belonging, like you entrust your life to this person who you know will support you, keep you safe, cheer you on, celebrate your achievements and will always have your back no matter what. Taking the name of your husband is a symbol of that trust and that joining. I don’t know, I could be totally wrong here, but that’s how I feel. If my feminist card gets revoked because of it, then so be it. I can’t pretend to change my opinions to please anybody.

Feminism and fighting for women’s right to make their own choices

The Telegraph published this great article about why The Handmaid’s Tale has made such an impact. The truth is, this book hits closer to home than we would like to think. An Anti-abortion bill is now either being passed or has been passed by the Trump administration in the US. In the Philippines, the church is still adamantly against any form of birth control other than the calendar method. The use of a condom is akin to murdering an unborn child, never mind the fact that its just safer these days to use one. I suppose because the church is still under the impression that people don’t have sex outside of marriage (let us all laugh). Women have been fighting for control of their bodies for ages and its a fight that doesn’t seem to have an end. For as long as women can bear children, men seem to think they have a say in what we do with our bodies.

Okay so women are educated now; they can even have careers. But when they marry, they’re still expected to prioritise taking care of the child. I get that, but shouldn’t the husband have equal responsibility? Here in London, I know couples who work on alternate days so that one of them will always be around to care for their children. I suppose that’s because no one can afford to raise a family in London if only one parent is earning money. I find that practice admirable. However, in the Philippines, I know a few women who, back when I knew them in school, were one of the smartest women in our class. They graduated with honours in university and had several prestigious job offers. They gave all that up because their husband was earning enough money and expected them to stay at home to take care of the children. Meanwhile, my other friend postponed her wedding to her rich boyfriend because she insisted on going to Canada and getting her residency there. She refuses to waste 4 years wherein she studied Nursing, just to become a housewife.

It all comes down to choice

All these women that I know had one thing that the women in The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t: the right to have a choice. I think for me, that’s the kind of feminism that I’d fight for: the right for women to make their own choices. Do you have what it takes to make it as a lawyer? Great, apply to university and get a degree. Its your choice. Don’t want to marry? Don’t. Its your choice. Don’t want to take your husband’s name? Don’t do it, its your choice. Don’t want any more kids? Have a tubal ligation, its your choice. Accidentally pregnant and don’t want a baby? Have an abortion. Its your choice. I may not necessarily agree or see the reason behind why women do the things they do or make the decision they make, but I absolutely agree that it should be the woman’s choice. No one should get to coerce or make these decisions for them.

Make the choice to read The Handmaid’s Tale if you haven’t already. Enjoy, bookworms!