Author: Sadaf Farooqi
She hurriedly sets the food on the dining table and calls out to him, “Come on, food is ready!”. She checks again to make sure everything is there: the plates, a glass of water, and cutlery. As he rushes in and takes his place at the table, he says, “Turn the TV on. The show is about to come on.”
“Alright, you please start eating.” she says, as she hurriedly grabs the television remote and puts it on to his favourite channel.
“I want a spoon for the yoghurt,” he says as he starts munching, his eyes riveted to the images on the screen. “Getting it,” she replies from the kitchen, and swoops in to plant the spoon in the yoghurt dish. “Anything else I can get for you? Would you like chutney with that?”
He shakes his head, without taking his eyes off the television set. When he’s done, he stands up, pushing the chair back, and goes to wash his hands. She hurriedly comes to take a look at his plates, commenting with a frown, “Why didn’t you eat all the casserole? Was it not good?”
“It was okay,” he says distractedly, “You know I like meat, not vegetables. Make me that dessert tonight.” With that, he sprints outside the house without as much as a goodbye.
“Alright. Give me a call in an hour!” she shouts after him, as she picks up the plates laden with half-eaten food, and takes them back into the kitchen to wash.
The above scenario is an everyday occurrence in most households. However, the conversation that I have attempted to portray above is not that which takes place between a husband and wife, but rather, that between a loving mother and her son, from the time he is four years old and can barely seat himself properly at the dining table, to the time he is well into his twenties, thirties or even forties.
The relationship that most domesticated housewives, especially those in my home country (whom I have interacted with and observed the most), have with men in their families appears to revolve significantly around food. Be it their father, brother, husband or son, when he needs anything from the kitchen, the women of the house want and prefer that he immediately summon them into the picture. That is, it pleases them to know that their men need them as long as their stomachs keep growling.
No matter how resignedly women might undermine themselves, sigh submissively and say with melancholy, “What can we do? It is a man’s world, and we are mere women,” the fact is that a woman has the most influence over a man, especially in the relationship of mother and son. This is because when he is a small child, he keenly observes and absorbs her mannerisms and behaviour – including those pertaining to himself and his father – and takes non-verbal cues from these relationships well into his manhood, to determine how he will himself treat the women in his life in the future, as an adult.
What starts off as a natural maternal instinct that makes a mother pick up her baby on its first bawl to nurse him or her, continues unabated well into a child’s adult years if not checked, especially in Eastern countries, where women seem to derive immense – and sadly, often the only – joy, satisfaction, and positive sense of self-worth, from filling the bellies of their families with fresh food.
However, whereas serving family members and catering to their gastronomical needs is a noble action, especially if it is done with the intention to please Allah, the way it is actually done is what determines whether it turns, instead, into indulgent pampering – which might not always have positive results – or whether it remains the noble service that is worthy of Divine reward.
Once the initial childhood years drift by, daughters are usually made independent in catering to their own household requirements (fetching food from the fridge, putting away the laundry, laying the table), and ushered into the kitchen as active contributors to the process of food preparation, from ages as young as 10 or 12. However, the boys transition into the VIP dining area, trained to sit and wait for the ladies to cater to their needs. In some families, the men eat first as the women serve them, and the women eat only after the men are done – leaving behind only meagre shreds of chicken and dry rotis, having eaten the meatiest portions and the greasy parathas themselves. Daughters are taught never to question this system, and hence, the belief that men are superior to women, is subconsciously ingrained into the psyches of young children. The worse part is that sons then grow up to severely undermine their mothers, especially in such sad cases where there are double standards in child upbringing, and are slowly turned into misogynistic male chauvinists, who repeat this vicious cycle with their own wives and daughters in the future.
What I find disconcerting is when even young, educationally enlightened and professionally qualified mothers of today similarly create self-indulgent, gluttonous, chauvinistic monsters out of their sweet little sons. A mother has immense power over her little boy when the latter is a child, because children are like clean slates that absorb whatever they see around themselves, and act accordingly. Why is it then, that a thirty-something, educated, urban housewife of Pakistan turns into a pampering personal chef and valet for her minor son, catering to all his demands? Why can she not let him fetch his own plate, glass of water, and also make him wash them after he is done? Why can she not train him not to watch television as he eats, and to appreciate what he likes from the food with a simple, “This was delicious, Mama!?” Does she not realise, that the domestic habits she is ingraining in her boy will be taken by him into his adult life, to impact his wife in the form of hard-to-fill, high expectations? Why does she not give her 8-year-old son yesterday’s chapati or paratha, or even dry bran bread, to have with his curry? Why is she making him used to the fact that each time his stomach grumbles, he has to wait for a woman to get up and prepare him fresh food at the stove, especially the piping hot, butter-laden paratha or chapati?
When we marry men whose food habits are etched in stone, we grumble about how they cannot make their own breakfast when we are sick (even something as simple as butter, toast and tea), or if we stayed up all night with a cranky baby. When we have a son, we repeat the same mistake that our mothers have been making since decades: we pamper our little boy even after he is old enough to help us lay the table, heat food on the stove (serving him yesterday’s leftovers is not a crime, you know), wash the dishes, clean up the kitchen, and put everything back in its place!
If you ever visit a local (Pakistani) khoka (an outdoor establishment like a Soup Kitchen) or a car-repair/mechanic’s shop, please observe how boys as young as 6 or 8 run around doing errands, serving people tea, kneading the dough for the naans (flatbreads), or fixing broken appliances and automobile parts. Why do some of us then get scandalized if our sons try to wash their plate and put it back in the dish rack? Or if an adult son comes home and does not summon his mother to give him his food, but rather, saunters into the kitchen with a sense of self-confidence and helps himself to a meal?
Could it be that some mothers actually fear not being needed by their sons anymore? Maybe they think that his making his own food or doing his laundry himself, will undermine their importance in his life?
If that is sadly the case, then we must really analyse why a mother’s self-worth and self-esteem as the most worthy-of-respect, honourable woman in his life, depend upon her son’s need for food/clean clothes? Surely, a woman is important – even if the men in her family no longer need her whenever they are hungry, desire a cup of coffee/tea, or any other “personal service?”
Here are a few other maternal faux pas that some women unfortunately commit:
1. Believing that a son will be better for her than a daughter, because he will garner her a strong standing in her in-laws, and secure her future as a financial provider. Not to mention, keep the ever-present fear inside her, of being discarded for a younger woman in case she doesn’t produce at least one male child, at bay. Incidentally, I know of a lady who had 4 sons, with the first baby also being a boy, but that still didn’t stop her husband from having sly extra-marital flings, nor did it stop her mother-in-law from taunting her, “Be grateful that my son married you, otherwise you’d still be single today.” Go figure!
2. Favouring a son over a daughter in love, attention, nutrition and belongings.
3. Believing that a son’s upbringing after the age of 10-12 is solely the father’s responsibility, and hence not stopping him from striking up friendships with girls, going out late at night for un-Islamic leisure and entertainment, or hanging out in the streets/restaurants/markets with questionable company, for no reason.
4. Allowing the son to get his way with her, and with the other women in the house, from a very early age. “He is a boy. He will get his way. I cannot stop him.” Worse: allowing him to hit her as a child, deride her, or make fun of her in front of others.
5. Not stopping a son from looking at women when he starts coming of age. “Men will be men. We cannot expect them to live like monks in this day and age. Its the fault of all the loose girls outside who wear revealing clothes that he stares at them, my poor shareef bacha.” [*Cough, sputter, snort*]
6. Overlooking a son’s mistreatment of women by passing it off as machoism, manliness or praiseworthy “ghiyarah” (sense of honour).
7. Serving and pampering a son even when he disobeys her. E.g. a few hours after he screams in her face for telling him off about not studying enough for his exams, and shuts the door to his room with a bang, she knocks to ask, “Are you hungry? Can I get you anything?”
8. Not raising him to provide for, and be responsible for his family. This is usually done when the parents give him pocket money even when he is well over 18 years old, instead of training him to earn and manage money from an earlier age, no matter how humbly he earns it, or how little it might be.
Son Today, Husband Tomorrow
In our day-to-day interactions, when we meet someone who has exemplary habits, character or morals, we give credit to their parents for ingraining these impeccable qualities in them.
As mothers, we should realize how our home dynamics and values influence are children’s future personality. Children absorb their values and life lessons primarily from the family front. A cursory glance at the mannerisms and inter-gender attitudes of adults lends credibility to the theory that most of their perceptions regarding the other gender are based on childhood experiences.
As an example, if a Muslim woman allows her son to shout at her, hit her or deride her in any way e.g. by demanding service for little things like getting him his fork from the kitchen, or fetching fresh socks for him from the laundry – he will grow up expecting women to be perpetually subservient to his demands. These women would primarily be, of course, his sisters and then his wife and daughters.
It is quite acceptable for a mother of a 3-year-old boy to change his clothes, help him brush his teeth and lay out his food for him on the table. However, most mothers make the mistake of staying in this “indulgent Mama” mode even after their boy is well into his teens. They will make his breakfast, lay out his food for him; even pour his milk! Further, when he discards his dirty clothes on the floor of his bedroom, they pick them up without a word.
Eventually, the sisters of the “boy” – who is well into manhood – catch on to their role of providing ‘personal valet’ services to him, in case mum is absent. Whilst they, as girls, make their beds and iron their own clothes, he will not do the same for himself. In this subtle fashion, mothers and fathers indirectly become responsible for gender stereotyping in their home – a dynamic that the “boy” takes with him into marital life.
For all mothers of boys out there, I have a few tips that might help them raise a more caring, considerate and chivalrous son, who will one day be an asset to his home as head of the family, insha’Allah:
Delegate chores to him on an equal footing with his sister(s) – whether it is washing the dishes or folding the laundry, try not to demarcate chores in your home as “women’s work” or “man’s work”, unless dictated by Islamic Shar’iah. Also, train him to cook simple food himself, such as breakfast items, sandwiches, or pasta. Please stop personally serving him his food on the table after he becomes a teenager!
Make him take on responsibilities: when your son is old enough, according to your discretion, delegate grocery shopping and other outdoor errands to him. Teach him how to manage money by encouraging him to earn his own, for example, by doing odd jobs or giving tuition. Train him to repair broken household items. Strictly discourage any extravagance or wastage of money on overpriced goods.
Teach him how to lower his gaze and help women: It is a fact that men are more physically powerful than women are. As his mother, encourage him to play outdoor sports often. You should also gently remind him to help women in laborious tasks, such carrying heavy bags or the laundry hamper, or pushing the shopping cart.
Also, before he enters teenage, train him to lower his gaze around women; yes, even around his mother’s friends who have held him as a baby. This will indoctrinate respect of women into his psyche, preventing him from thinking of them as mere objects of pleasure or servitude.
Avoid hooking him on games and films: Men are hooked on digital video games and films from an age as young as three, simply because they saw their father similarly hooked, or because their mother bought them the requisite gadgetry willingly. When we hark after our 20-year-old sons for lazing around playing games all day, we forget that we facilitated this ‘hobby’ for them ourselves! Encourage your son to build shop outside, play sports, or organize Islamic youth events in his extra time, but spare him and his future wife the misery of passive video gaming!
Finally, never allow him to demean your status as his mother: You should not allow him to shout at you or ridicule you in any way. If he will not respect his mother, the one person in his life who most deserves respect, good attitude and consideration, he will not show respect to others outside the home either.
We often tend to overlook how subtly and subconsciously we encourage gender stereotyping in our homes; even more, what impact this will have on others in the future. As a married sister once commented to me, “I have no choice about what to cook in my home. My husband’s habits had been set in stone by the time he got married.”
For the sake of Allah, my dear Muslim sister, if you cannot change the habits of your father, brother or husband, at least wake up and and realise that there is still ONE man in the world whom you CAN change for the better – and that is your son!
….Where Practice Makes Perfect
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