I watched this short video on facebook about Sisa, an Egyptian woman who spent forty years a man in order provide for her family. There is a longer version on YouTube. Sisa, a widow, decided to work to feed her children, and consequently grandchildren. In Egypt, a woman can only do unpaid jobs within a home. So Sisa had to pretend to be a man by wearing male clothing and head wear. She takes casual jobs, such as shoe shining or brick laying.
Then Sisa made the news and was honoured by governmental officials. There is footage in the report of Egyptian men watching that footage. Apparently, the men were impressed by Sisa’s efforts and they developed respect for her. One man, who knows Sisa personally, says for camera: “I treat her like a man, because she works like a man”.
The implication being, I assume, that Sisa is only worthy of respect because she acts like a man is expected to act. And another implication is that Sisa is an exception. He only prepared to treat her differently, as all the rest of the women in Egypt apparently cannot work as men.
My immediate reaction was that it was not so much a gender inequality story, as region inequality and poverty story. No person, man or woman, has to take menial jobs in order to survive and keep their family alive. However, this is the reality for most people in the Global South, while we in the Global North get to watch touching videos about these people, (short versions on facebook and longer ones on YouTube.) In our leisure time.
Another reaction from me as a feminist of course was: It is not enough for us to respect one woman as an exception. Gender stereotypes must change, so that all people are treated equally and no gender roles rule people’s lives.
But this is the eternal question, is it not: do we as feminists demand change that leads immediately to the perfect outcome, or do we accept that change will happen by incremental improvement. Each step will not be perfectly feminist.
There is this story from the life of the early Buddhist community, where the Buddha allowed a less than perfect practice while maintaining the ultimate worth of the ideal. It is in Vinaya Pitaka, a collection of monastic rules, Chapter Cullavagga, verses 5:33.
Basically, the Buddha sneezed as he was delivering a Dhamma talk to his monks. The monks responded with many “Long life to you”, thus interrupting the flow of the speech. Afterwards, the Buddha pointed it out to the monks that a person’s life will not actually lengthen as a result of this saying, and told them not to respond with these to people’s sneezing from then on. [Source: Bhikkhu Nanamoli, “The Life of The Budda”, p. 173]
As a norm with these monastic norms, what happens next is some disruptive interaction with the lay community. In this case, this came in a form of embarrassment on the part of the monks, when they could not reply with “May you live long” to the laypeople who said “Long life to you” when the monks sneezed.
So the Buddha said: “Bhikkhus, householders are accustomed to such superstitions, I allow you, when they say “Long life to you”, to reply “May you live long.”
Thus, it seems that in order to keep harmonious relationships between the Buddhist Sangha and the surrounding lay community, the Buddha allowed the monks to participate in what he knew and they knew was a mere superstition. A small concession in return for material support that householders were providing.
Furthermore, the fact that the Buddhist bhikkhus continued subscribing to common courtesy common for their society meant that the lay people did not see them as outcasts. Nobody wants to learn spiritually from teachers who are seen as rude. It turns out that in order to teach higher truth, Buddhist monks had to partake in societal conventions, which they knew, had no truth underlying them.
So, shall we feminists see some non-feminists beliefs as superstitions, which will be overcome eventually? Perhaps letting Egyptian men know that there is at least one woman who is capable to work as a man and thus is worthy respect, is the first step? The next step would be letting everyone know that all women are worthy of respect? And then the step after that would be affirming that gender roles are conditional, and that people should not be forced to follow them?
Oxana Poberejnaia is a frame drummer, writer and an artist at http://poeticoxana.wordpress.com. She was an Officer of the University of Manchester Buddhist Society while studying for a PhD in Government, and had been involved in organising the Manchester Buddhist Convention. Oxana is exploring the Sacred Feminine through frame drumming, working with her menstrual cycle, and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Her world music band Soma can be found here.