JAPAN:  The Glass Door

JAPAN: The Glass Door

glass doorGender equality has been in the news quite a bit in Japan recently, sort of, and some things have happened closer to home that have me thinking.

It started when a (female) Tokyo assembly member was heckled in a sexist way. Then Prime Minister Abe introduced some new policies to let women “shine.” (He needs to get them doing something for the economy.) He even appointed several women to cabinet posts, for about five minutes, until they were slapped back down into their places over minor scandals.

In Japan, people are talking more about issues women face but no one seems to be doing much about them.

(Lest I forget: strangely enough, the declining birth rate is treated as a “women’s issue.” I seem to remember my husband being involved, too.)

I never considered myself a feminist growing up. Some members of the evangelical, conservative community I grew up in doubtless felt “feminist” was a new version of the  “F-word.”

OK, so I went to a high school with more sports options for boys than girls. And yes, girls were encouraged to take chorus and home economics instead of woodworking or mechanics. So maybe I heard men from my community refer to grown women as “broads” or “gals.” There also were some restrictions at church regarding women’s and men’s roles. But I never felt that possessing certain types of baby-making parts limited my potential.

Then I moved to Japan, where gender roles are more firmly entrenched and my way of thinking slowly changed.

As I get older, and because I am a mother, I find that I am limited in ways that I couldn’t have foreseen as a young girl.

Some people may find life here in Japan freeing. If you aspire to be a homemaker a la Martha Stewart, then your life’s work would be very much respected and appreciated here. My husband wouldn’t bat an eyelid if he came home to a messy house because I’d spent the day at a preschool mothers’ lunch. He knows that is part of the job (on the other hand, it would never occur to him to pick up the mess himself.)

If, as a woman, you have other aspirations, Japanese culture seems designed to work against you. The glass ceiling is very much in tact. On the news here you do hear issues like lack of childcare and “maternity harassment” being addressed. But what gets talked about less often is that to many women, including myself, it feels as if there’s a glass door as well.

It’s my front door.

Before a woman can even think about what is facing her out in the world, she needs to address the forces that are keeping her at home. Some of these are practical, some are logistical, some are cultural and perhaps peculiar to Japan and it’s work culture.

For me, it starts with my husband: He leaves home at 7am every morning, but I have no idea what time he will be back. Sometimes it’s 7pm. Sometimes it’s midnight. He may be in the office that day, or he may suddenly be sent to another prefecture. He’s made international trips on 12 hours notice. I cannot depend on him being home at a designated time, by no fault of his own. The idea of him taking time off with a sick child is preposterous in the extreme.

I have been lucky enough to have two job offers recently, both of which would be more or less during school hours, but neither is nearby. If a child were to get sick and need picking up, or if god-forbid there was a natural disaster (which is always in the back of your mind if you are a mother in Japan,) then my husband would be closer. I mentioned that, and he completely shot me down. Not just the idea of him picking up the kids in case of an emergency, but the idea of a job anywhere outside of cycling distance from the school.

We live in a residential neighborhood. I patch together some part-time work here and there, but it’s not like there are loads of professional opportunities in a two kilometer radius.

I suddenly felt very limited, penned in, in a way I haven’t felt before. The glass door was slamming in my face.

I don’t think I’m alone in this conundrum. Go to almost any supermarket in a residential area during the day, and you will see women in their prime working years manning the register. Many of these women have university degrees. Many have licenses and qualifications to be doing other kinds of work, but they want to stay close to home. They also need salaries to stay under $10,000 year or face a peculiar Japanese tax code and insurance system that penalizes families where both partners have incomes over that amount.

Then there are my kids: Like 2/3 of Japanese women with children under 6, I stayed home when they were small. They now completely depend on me for everything. It seems to have never entered their minds that someone else could give them a bath or help them find their missing socks, mostly because no one else has ever done anything for them. Especially when they are sick, they want only me. It was very hard when my daughter was in the hospital, both children wanting to be with me and emphatic that no one else would do.

But now my youngest is in elementary school, and I would like to just be doing more of something….else, but for me to plunge into the workforce would be a huge adjustment for my children. Is it worth the stress? Can we survive what is sure to be a painful adjustment period?

Maybe if I had more family support, it would feel less impossible but as it is, it seems like everyone is against me.

Which brings me to the final characters in this comedy, my in-laws: They say they’ll watch the kids, then they change their minds. Or something better comes up. From their point of view, this house and these people are completely my responsibility. Anything they do is extra credit.

To be honest, we’re getting to the point where my in-laws need my help more than I need theirs.

They aren’t shy about letting me know my place.

One day not too long ago, my son was playing at the park with his friends. It was getting close to homework time, so I called him and told him to come home. He said he was playing with Jiji (which is an endearing term for grandfather used in our region of Japan,) and could he play for a bit longer? Since he was out with an adult, I said okay.

The next day, I got a verbal whipping from my father-in-law over the phone, accusing me of being irresponsible, a bad mother. It took me a few minutes to understand why he was saying this, but when I got to the bottom of it, I realized my son had lied to me. He was playing with his friends when Jiji walked by and told him to go home. My son told him I wasn’t at home and said he couldn’t come back until I did. (I must have called right at this point.) “How dare you not be home in the afternoon?” said Jiji.

Putting aside that none of this nonsense was true, so what if I wasn’t home in the afternoon? Of course I wouldn’t have left the kids to wander the neighborhood like stray dogs, but why was my not physically being inside my house such an issue to him? His assumption that it was my duty to be always available to everyone took me by surprise.

I could almost hear the glass door slamming again.

There are also other barriers for women in Japan—an over active PTA for one, and a myriad of community responsibilities attended to exclusively by women for another. I imagine most women in the world encounter both the “glass door” and the “glass ceiling” in some form or another, but in Japan only one of these factors is seems to be getting much attention. Building new daycare facilities isn’t enough; the government stating goals to increase women’s participation in the workforce isn’t enough. Until we do something about that glass door, nothing will change for one of the best educated, least utilized group of women in the world.

Do you feel you are fulfilling your potential, both at work and at home? What’s the situation like in your country?

This is an original post for World Moms Blog from our writer and mother of two in Japan, Melanie Oda.

Melanie Oda (Japan)

If you ask Melanie Oda where she is from, she will answer "Georgia." (Unless you ask her in Japanese. Then she will say "America.") It sounds nice, and it's a one-word answer, which is what most people expect. The truth is more complex. She moved around several small towns in the south growing up. Such is life when your father is a Southern Baptist preacher of the hellfire and brimstone variety. She came to Japan in 2000 as an assistant language teacher, and has never managed to leave. She currently resides in Yokohama, on the outskirts of Tokyo (but please don't tell anyone she described it that way! Citizens of Yokohama have a lot of pride). No one is more surprised to find her here, married to a Japanese man and with two bilingual children (aged four and seven), than herself. And possibly her mother. You can read more about her misadventures in Asia on her blog, HamakkoMommy.

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UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: Feminism Matters Because…There Are Too Many Reasons To List

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES: Feminism Matters Because…There Are Too Many Reasons To List

skater girl

In March, I wrote a post in honor of Gloria Steinem’s birthday, in which I mentioned that when Steinem spoke at my college graduation way back in the 1980s, my friends and I had wished for a speaker who was more “relevant.”  In our innocence, we believed that Steinem had won her fight; we were graduating from a women’s college and thought that fight for gender equality had been more or less won.

More than two decades later, I wish I could say that Steinem was irrelevant and that gender inequality is something we only read about in the history books.

When I wrote that post about Steinem, I was thinking about the Common Core curriculum, which relegates women’s contributions to history to the sidelines.  Now, of course, we are all confronted with the horror that’s unfolding in Nigeria, and while the plight of those schoolgirls devastates me, it has become, in my mind, another instance in a long list of the ways in which groups (comprised mostly of men) attempt to score political points by seizing control of women’s lives.  As an example, think about the Tea Party conservatives in the US, who prove their conservative bona fides in the United States by voting against support for Planned Parenthood, or Head Start, or universal kindergarten, or…

What is so scary about educating a girl? In the middle ages, accusations of witchcraft were often leveled against women who had amassed too much wealth or land, or who in some way differed from those around them.  We teach our children that things like the Salem witch trials happened because “people didn’t know better” or because of “mass hysteria” but sometimes I wonder how far we have progressed since those days.  What happens to women who challenge the status quo–or who have the potential to challenge the status quo?  Don’t they still run the risk of being punished, whether literally or figuratively?

It’s funny to me now, but when I first moved to Abu Dhabi the two most obvious indications that we’d left Manhattan behind—besides the searing heat—were the adhan and the abaya-clad women: religion and covered bodies. I found the abayas more unsettling than the call to prayer, even as I sometimes envied the women their public invisibility.  The longer we live here, however, my perceptions have changed so that I no longer see hijab as an automatic symbol of oppression or subjugation or second-class citizenry.

 I would imagine, however, that as women here, we’ve all had moments where we’ve felt marginalized, silenced, lesser: the day I trotted down the sidewalk to get in a waiting cab and the cab driver chastised me by saying “women should not run, madam, I will wait, and you should walk.” Or when a guard at the border crossing into Oman looked over at the passenger seat where I was sitting (in long trousers) with one foot propped on the dashboard and told me “to put my foot down, sit like a lady, more properly, sit properly.” When that happened my first impulse was to laugh: surely he couldn’t be serious? But, of course, he was serious. I put both feet on the floor and looked at the map so that I didn’t toss out a few well-chosen swear words.  (A general rule regardless of where you are: don’t swear at anyone, male or female, who is wearing a uniform at a border crossing.)

So yes, in that instance, I was silenced as I suppose I was by the cab driver too, who took it upon himself to offer some unsolicited advice. And yes, there is now a slight internal pause before I leave the house as I run through a kind of inner checklist about what I’m wearing: if short sleeves, a long skirt or pants, or vice versa (long sleeves, shorter skirt or shorts); do I have a shawl (equally for frigid air conditioning and bare shoulders); if I’m going to the beach, I make sure that my beach cover-up is more than a ratty t-shirt. There are days where I know I’ve failed the checklist and am too busy or late to care, but overall, I dress more modestly now than I used to and probably that’s not a bad idea: no one needs to see a fifty-year-old woman slopping down the street in cut-off shorts and a tank top.

Am I being repressed, or respectful?  Does my feminism mean that I yell at the cabbie, keep my foot defiantly on the dashboard, saunter down the street in a halter top and tight jeans? Or, alternatively, does feminist politics remind us that silencing and the policing of women’s bodies happens—sadly—in almost every culture in the world, including the US?  Without making light of the specifics of being female in this region, I’ve come to think of the issues facing women in this part of the world as being differences in degree, not kind, from the problems facing women in other parts of the world.

What do we, as women, do to help other women and girls find their voices–find our own?  How do we create strength to silence those who would silence us?

This is an original post to World Moms Blog by Deborah Quinn in the United Arab Emirates of “Mannahattamamma.”

Mannahattamamma (UAE)

After twenty-plus years in Manhattan, Deborah Quinn and her family moved to Abu Dhabi (in the United Arab Emirates), where she spends a great deal of time driving her sons back and forth to soccer practice. She writes about travel, politics, feminism, education, and the absurdities of living in a place where temperatures regularly go above 110F.
Deborah can also be found on her blog, Mannahattamamma.

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World Mom Feature: Miss Pip in Laos on Equality & Raising Daughters

World Mom Feature: Miss Pip in Laos on Equality & Raising Daughters

Today we’re sharing a post from a World Mom living in Laos! If you’re interested in telling your motherhood story on World Moms Blog, email us at contribute2@worldmomsblog.com!

This first “World Mom Feature” is by Miss Pip of Laos

Just like mum

“Equal to None”

A concerned citizen, upon realizing we had three daughters, recently offered to take my partner ‘upcountry’ to the village to meet the local witch doctor. Apparently, this particular Shaman was able to supply an herbal concoction that would guarantee us a son.

(For the record, we are not having any more children. We are very happy with the ones we already have.)

I am fascinated by how often people feel compelled to tell me that my family is incomplete because I don’t have a son. They remind me that, despite over 100 year of feminism, my three children and I are still considered “LESS THAN” because we were born without a Y-chromosome.

Becoming a mother has enriched my life. I love my daughters, unconditionally. I treasure the opportunity to guide them towards adulthood. Nonetheless, becoming a mother has been a struggle. I have had to fight some very personal demons and have been rather lost and confused along the way. Fundamentally, I have had to redefine myself within the context of being a “Woman”.

Until I had children, I naively defined myself as a “Human” first and a “Woman” second. I studied Feminist Theory at University, but I kind of blew off any notion that MY life was influenced by the patriarchy. I was a kick-ass individual, and I lived my life on equal terms with anyone else.

But becoming a mother made me realize that, in reality, I still live in a world defined by and dominated by men, and my life decisions have been profoundly influenced by that.

My partner and I have been together for 15 years. We got our first jobs together, moved in together, paid the rent together, traveled together – as equals. I was hell-bent on our roles in the relationship being defined equally even though that meant that sometimes, after we have paid our ‘equal’ share of the bills, he still had money to go out, and I didn’t. (Interestingly, even at minimum wage he was paid more than I was!) We shared the chores equally. I NEVER ironed his clothes. I was a proud, fierce and independent woman with my own life and my own career.

But over time things started to change. My business ventures, which had sustained us adequately in early adulthood, became less profitable than his career. He was offered the opportunity to move, first interstate and then overseas. I couldn’t justify preventing his progress just because I was wanted to pursue what was, quite possibly, a pipe dream. Also, I loved him. I was proud of his success. I choose to support him, to follow him. It was my choice.

I could still work, I told myself. I was strong and resilient and very capable. But we moved a lot and, eventually, we reached the point where my income could no longer be relied upon. I was, I realized, financially dependant on my partner.

Becoming a Mother

Then, somewhere along the way, we decided to have children. We talked about it, at length. Having children did not mean ME taking on the only responsibility for caring for the kids and the household. I wanted to work. We would share the responsibilities. Equal opportunity parenting. Yep, sure, sounds like a plan, I am on board, let’s do this.

… Needless to say, that is not quite how things worked out.

My partner now works longer hours and spends more time away then he ever did before we had children. He sometimes feels overwhelmed by what he perceives to be his duty to support and provide for his family.

I now earn less money and spend more time in my house than I ever did before children. I regularly feel overwhelmed by my assumed role as the primary carer, wet-nurse, cook, cleaner, manager, taxi driver, nurse, psychologist, nutritionist, disciplinarian in our family.

My family IS the Perfect Little Patriarchy!

But wait… no it’s not perfect… I forgot… I don’t have a son!

I have three complicated, passionate, articulate, intelligent, determined, manipulative, magnificent GIRLS.

Raising Daughters

One day, my little girls are going to grow up to be WOMEN, how unfair for them and how wonderful for them. They are going to grow up to be HUMANS, what an opportunity for them.

I am their mother and, for me, it’s complicated.

• Shouldn’t I be an example to them, a strong, female role mode

• Have my choices perpetuated the status quo?

• Will they grow up with notions of ‘what women do’ that will go on to influence them as they grow into women themselves?

I am their mother and, for me, it is simple.

• I will practice compassion, identify inequality and I will teach them to do the same. I will continue to grow as a woman and a human because I owe it to them to be the best person I can be.

• I will be proud of my choices – they have given my daughters, a loving and safe home.

• I will encourage my girls to embrace their womanhood. I will teach them that with hard work and dedication they can achieve anything they set their minds to. I will show them they can be the change.

I am their mother. They are my daughters. They are ‘MORE THAN’ anything.

Miss PipThis is an original post to World Moms Blog by Miss Pip. She lives in Vientiane, Laos with her partner, their three incorrigible daughters (aged 5.5 years, 4.5 years and 16 months) and two well-traveled cats. She says that she used to be fabulous! (We say, she still is!)

Last year Miss Pip turned forty. She says, “That sucked! I had no idea who I was or what made me happy. I was ashamed of who I had become and conflicted about being a mum.  It was all very boring, very depressing and was making me, and the people who loved me, miserable.”

So she decided to change.  Miss Pip decided to let go of the past, accept her present and embrace a future where SHE IS the fabulous version of herself that she knows she can be. You can also find her on her blog, 44 and a Fourth

 Photo credits to Miss Pip. 

World Moms Blog

World Moms Blog is an award winning website which writes from over 30 countries on the topics of motherhood, culture, human rights and social good. Over 70 international contributors share their stories from around the globe, bonded by the common thread of motherhood and wanting a better world for their children. World Moms Blog was listed by Forbes Woman as one of the "Best 100 Websites for Women 2012 & 2013" and also called a "must read" by the NY Times Motherlode in 2013. Our Senior Editor in India, Purnima Ramakrishnan, was awarded the BlogHer International Activist Award in 2013.

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