Elisabeth: Occupation, Housewife

This morning we have the last of our 2012 intern Reclaiming Wife posts, this time from Elisabeth (who converted to Islam and then planned what may have been the world’s longest long-distance wedding ever).  I’ve found Elisabeth’s posts this year to be particularly interesting because of the ways she’s had to grapple with her feminist identity in a mostly traditional marriage (traditional, of course, depending on who you ask). And today she’s back, talking about gender roles, choice feminism, and the division of household labor. It’s a perfect complement to the first post she wrote for us, and an excellent musing on the ways that institutional sexism can force us into boxes we’re not comfortable living in.

—Maddie for Maternity Leave

I am writing this on the airplane that is taking me to Pakistan for the last of my multiple wedding-related parties and my first visit to my husband’s country of origin. Our immigration issues are finally over (for the time being), and as soon as we leave Pakistan, we are headed on our honeymoon. After that, I think I may finally feel like I am married and like my marriage is really, honest-to-god, starting. Yesterday we calculated that our five-month anniversary will also happily mark the moment since the wedding when we have spent more time together than apart, and we’re already looking forward to that.

But none of that is what I want to write about. Last week we went to apply for my Pakistan visa, my husband and I, and when they asked me my occupation I said both “unemployed” (accurate) and “writer” (slightly more aspirational but also accurate). What got written down was “housewife.” It was the first time I had ever been described that way by myself or anyone else.

I was viscerally uncomfortable with the description. I am still uncomfortable reporting it to you now.

I’ve spent the last week trying to figure out what it is exactly that makes me so unhappy about the label because, you see, I was raised by a housewife. My mother dedicated all of her time and energy to me and my sisters, and I would (and have often been) the first to say that we benefited enormously from her decision. So I don’t think I’m troubled by the idea of me, or anyone else, making the decision not to work outside the home.

On the other hand, it has been clear to me for a while that my mother is not entirely comfortable with her decision to stay home. Now that my sisters and I are grown up and out of the house, she sometimes feels unneeded and at loose ends, and I think occasionally she regrets not pursuing a career more seriously. For that reason, I’m very ambivalent about the idea of staying home myself, and I think ultimately the decision will be dependent upon where Amin and I are in our careers and how we feel at the time we have to make the decision.

And again, I guess we tend to refer to my mother more as a stay-at-home mom than a housewife—has the latter term gone out of style? Is that why I don’t like it? Is it the implication that a housewife is cooking and cleaning and keeping the house to serve her husband that annoys me? Well, I have been cooking and cleaning (and unpacking and knitting) for my husband—isn’t that what a team does, when one of them is stuck at home by choice or circumstances?

I suppose there are obvious gender assumptions in the fact that the word is used at all, so I’m sure my feminist buzzers went off. That “housewife” is something I have the option of being, something that is suggested to me as a possible occupation with no hesitation. On the one hand, it obliquely suggests that my proper place is in the house, so, that’s offensive. On the other hand, my unemployed husband would not be offered the choice of putting down “househusband” or “homemaker”—he would be “unemployed.” Sexism hurts everybody, folks.

I think the problem I have here is with the feeling that my agency was compromised. If I am going to be a housewife (or, let’s not call it that, but instead say “if I were going to stay at home and cook and clean and take care of the household”), I want it to be a choice. I want Amin and me to sit down and review the possible options and decide that it makes sense for me to stop working to pursue something else which would possibly include cooking and cleaning. And when I DO cook and clean, I want it to be seen as a contribution to my family, and one I choose to make, rather than my natural function as a member of the gender of cooking and cleaning. At the Pakistani embassy the term was used as a catch-all occupation for “unemployed married woman,” and honestly I’d rather be listed as an unemployed married woman than be forced into a role I did not choose.

So fine, maybe at the moment I kind of am a housewife. I am not working. I am doing the cooking (I made an apple pie the other day!), I am doing most of the cleaning, and I am doing it in order to care for my husband. And that’s perfectly alright—I enjoy cooking most of the time, the cleaning has to get done by somebody, and I’d rather be busy doing all of that than sitting around watching television and feeling guilty for not yet having found a job in London.

Because as I’m constantly and correctly reminded, feminism is about giving women a choice—a choice whether or not to cook, whether or not to work, whether or not to describe yourself as a “housewife.” It’s not about what you do with that choice, it’s about whether or not you made the decision freely and for some reason other than “I’m a girl and everyone tells me this is what girls have to do.” And whatever my visa application may say, I have not chosen to be a housewife. Not yet. Maybe not ever. And can we please pick another name for it?

As I may have written about earlier, mine is a surprisingly traditional marriage (from my perspective; from Amin’s perspective it’s surprisingly untraditional). Amin and I did not live together before getting married. We have no financial entanglements. Amin’s family does not date before marriage, so the wedding put an enormous and very tangible seal of legitimacy on our relationship. And when I was a child I did not see myself ever needing to negotiate with the fairly conservative norms that still prevail in large swaths of Pakistani culture. But here we are, and I am richer for it.

Writing for APW has been an invaluable resource during this past year as Amin and I navigated the stormy waters of interfaith and intercultural marriage (and a new conversion!). This community has been a wellspring of support and positive vibes during a stressful time, and a fount of information and experience for a bride who had nobody to guide her. I feel a huge sense of accomplishment that Amin and I actually managed to get hitched this year (woo!). But mostly, I am enormously grateful to this amazing community that reaffirmed on a daily basis that there are endless “right” ways to do a wedding or a marriage, no matter how weird or wrong those ways might look to others. I was a Practical Bride and I am doing my best to be a Practical Wife.

Photo by Elisabeth’s sister

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