Thursday, October 25, 2007

On Hair, Tears and Air

This Guardian article by Fadia Faqir about her relationship with her father is very touching. She recounts the battle they had over her refusal to wear the veil, something which her Muslim father regarded as extremely wrong. She also recounts their reconciliation:

Now he is 76 and I am 51, and writing this piece has brought us closer still. A few weeks ago I sat with my father in the basement of our old house in east Amman and read it aloud to him. I choked and stumbled over many words. He also filled up twice. He said he did not know that the veil had caused me so much suffering. "Perhaps because you have nine children you did not notice," I said. He also said that the piece was accurate. When I finished reading we dried our tears, laughed, and walked out together into the autumn sunshine. The veil is still covering my computer but I feel we are father and daughter at last.

How painful relationships can be. Anything that strips your shell and opens you up for love also opens you up for rejection. So very painful and so very hard. Yet without relationships, what are we?

Do daughters need their fathers? Need their love and their approval? These questions may look silly to you, my wise reader, but for several decades popular psychology books have often argued that the role of a father in his daughter's life is to prepare her for her future life as a wife. The father is supposed to give a good example of the "opposite" sex and to keep his daughter safe. That's about it.

On the other hand, fathers are viewed as crucial for their sons' well-being, and that is why divorces are so bad. Because they usually remove the father from the immediate family environment and leave the son without a male role model. I have read repeatedly that the daughters won't be hurt by the divorce, because they still have their sex-specific role model on hand.

If you reverse these arguments you might expect to read that mothers aren't that important for their sons. All they need to model is behavior which makes their sons good husbands one day, and to feed them. That's about it. But of course it is not the same when reversed. Most things aren't.

I always thought these messages to men about their duties towards their daughters were incredibly sexist, incredibly insulting and probably caused a lot of suffering. Human beings are complicated things and some sort of sex-appropriate modeling is not all there is to fathering, not even when added to financial support. Consider, for example, the fact that in a very traditional family the father would be the person with the most power. If that powerful person is told to pretty much ignore his daughters, what is the message they get about their own worth? And note that I'm not even touching on the deep landscape of love and what it might mean to wonder if your father loves you at all.

These are some of the feminist thoughts Faqir's article gave me, although I also read it as a fable about the way children must fight for their independence from their parents and a meditation on the question why our childhoods have such immense power over some parts of our lives.