Monthly Archives: January 2014

Gender discrimination works both ways

Image from NY Times 23 Dec 2013

Recently there was a disturbing expose in one of the UK’s major newspapers. Reporters had trawled through the data of the 2011 consensus and concluded that a worrying number of female children were missing from certain population groups.

An even more upsetting picture was painted during a phone-in at the BBC’s Asian Network. Alongside stories of unhappiness at the birth of female children, one woman gave her own account of being forced by her in-laws to have two abortions of female fetuses.

I am one of four girls. I grew up in a country where giving birth to four daughters in succession was a fate closely rivaled by having leprosy. People thought nothing of sadly shaking their heads and telling my parents that maybe the next one would be a boy.

At university I joined my fellow like-minded peers and went on candle-lit marches demanding better lighting on dark streets for the safety of women, debating the evils of gender discrimination and the shocking state of the UK’s own extremely low rape conviction rate.

If girl-children were going to go anywhere into the world, they might as well come to me, who would love and appreciate them, I reasoned.

Then I had two sons.

There is absolutely no doubt that gender discrimination is a huge problem, but since becoming the mother of two boys I have had the privilege of seeing the other side of the coin.

There are sites on the internet that can be accessed easily where women exchange tips on how to conceive a child of a certain sex. The users of these sites are almost exclusively from the Western world and here, women openly describe their disappointment at conceiving children of a certain gender.

Spend a few minutes on any of these sites and it soon becomes apparent that the gender of choice, at least in most of the Western world, is female. I would say that around 85% of the posts on such sites are from disappointed mothers of boys.

Having been so sure, determined almost, about having female children myself, I’ll be the first to admit that I would openly say as much to anyone who asked. Friends and well-wishers would often say “Have a girl next and you’ll see how wonderful it is” at the news of my first son’s birth. On hearing the second child was male too, I received earnest pats on the shoulder and comforting advice that never mind, the third one would surely be a girl.

And I, to my shame, loudly voiced my own hope that I would one day have a daughter too, until I realized that I was doing to my own children what I had experienced myself as a child, that stinging stab of anger whenever my parents were consoled about their disastrously female family.

We live in a world where we are closely examining the pressure little girls face at the pinkification of their childhoods and the media they are exposed to. But what about our sons? Buy a chemistry set for your daughter and you’re a right-on gender equality advocate. If your toddler son, however, wants to play with your makeup set, you’re suddenly a weirdo encouraging weak behavior and confusing your son about his place in life.

We tell our boys not to cry, not to show weakness, that no, they can’t play with that Barbie or the baby doll. Our world swings between giving male children an over-inflated opinion of themselves (the East) to making them feel like they can do no right (the West). This creates the kind of power-tripping, emotionally dysfunctional men that cause wars and banking crises and we sit around wondering how it all happened.

I used to think how easy it must be for men, they didn’t face any of the problems that women did. But becoming a mother to boys has made me look at things from a different perspective. I’m no fool. At home I may encourage their free expression but I know that outside their own front door they will face a battle. And it starts so young. It’s so ingrained in our societies that people we know think nothing of telling our sons to man up, not to cry.

Last year I took my son shoe shopping because he’s the kind of kid that refuses to wear shoes if he hasn’t picked them himself. He turned down everything. Then some sparkly golden girl’s shoes caught his eyes and his face lit up. Those were the shoes he wanted and I had to tell him no. He wasn’t even two years old yet and already the boundaries were firmly in place. If a little girl ditches her twinkly toed shoes for sneakers though? A-okay.

Small children do not understand the concept of gender. Can’t we just let them be children?

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Rioting, Greek style

Kanellos, the riot dog

It’s been a long time since we had a decent riot in Athens, and this got me thinking.

Whenever I travel away from Greece I very often get asked the question “So, what’s it like in Greece?” And when I get asked this, I know that nine times out of 10, the person asking is not actually interested in what Greece is like as a country. They’re not interested in the sparkling clear waters or the glorious blue skies.

They’re not interested in hearing about the racing chiftitelis or the heartbroken rebetikos that stream out of the narrow, tavern-lined streets of Plaka. They couldn’t care less about the lobster spaghetti of Astipalia island, that butterfly-shaped heaven from where it’s said Cleopatra’s chefs sourced their fish, or the juicy, plump kebabs you get in Monastiraki, slathered in onions, tomatoes and tzatziki and wrapped in hot pita bread.

No, what they really want to know is the cheap tabloid drama. They want to know if Athens is burning down around my ears. Do we have to barricade ourselves in every night to escape the wrath of marauding juvenile delinquents running the streets? Have we given up recycling because we now need all those bottles for our stash of Molotov cocktails? Really, tell me, on a scale of one to 10, how bad is it? Is it 11? Please say it’s 11.

My response to how bad it has been could be plotted as a bell-curve. In the beginning I was assuring everyone that it wasn’t that bad, to saying it was sort of bad, to admitting that it had got really bad (for example when parents started leaving their children at orphanages, unable to feed them) and now maybe, just maybe there is the tiniest inkling of hope that we might just be starting to crawl out of the worst of it.

It is pretty fair l to say that the media loves a bit of drama. When a round of serious rioting broke out a few years ago, I didn’t even know it was happening because that Saturday it happened to be a pretty lovely day and so I had gone to the beach with my son and husband. When my mother called me in a panic saying the riots looked terrible on the television, I asked “What riots?” It was only later in the day when I got home and turned on the television that I saw the reports of a spate of rioting that was at least an 8 on the Greek riot Richter scale, which is pretty bad.

It’s a common joke that rioting is a nation sport in Greece. When we riot here, we really mean business and we take no prisoners. I once saw a news report of a riot in Belgium I think it was, or some other such homely place.

A bunch of nicely dressed young people were squaring off with riot police. The police, in their helmets and guns slung over their shoulders, were staring grim-faced and unmoving through plastic riot shields at the crowd which was shouting and shaking their fists angrily. These nicely dressed young people were throwing flowers at the police. I practically fell off my chair laughing. “This is a riot?” I asked my husband. “Does the Greek government realize how much money they could make just outsourcing rioting?”

In Greece, riots go from zero to all-out psycho mode in less time that it takes to say “Where’s my balaclava?” The speed and intensity with which a riot can breakout here is a natural phenomenon in itself. And the rioters come prepared, not just with lovingly assembled Molotov cocktails, but also with motorcycle helmets to protect themselves, wet rags for teargas and lemons. I have it on good authority that lemon juice in the eyes is a painful but very effective remedy for teargas.

There is even a riot mascot, a little brown dog called Kanellos. By all accounts, this dog is a stray, but always turns up during a riot in downtown Athens, and without fail he takes the sides of the rioters against the police. How this dog knows when a riot is happening and who the good guys are is anyone’s guess, but he always turns up. Now that’s loyalty!

This article ran in the Khaleej Times on 25 Jan 2014.

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Sugar Babes and Sugar Slaves

There has been a lot of press lately about the evils of sugar. Sugar is, apparently, as addictive as alcohol or nicotine, and Paul van der Velpen, the head of Amsterdam’s health service wants to see its consumption regulated as such. In response I have read a rash of articles where the writer has tried to quit their sugar addiction and then written about it.

This doesn’t impress me. Years ago, I did the same thing and wrote the obligatory confessional article about giving up sugar. I am, you see, a hard-core, lifetime sugar addict.

My relationship to my poison of choice can be traced to a younger age. I was a skinny child that struggled to put on weight.

My poor mother tried her best and thus a snack often consisted of a slice of white butter dipped buttered side down in sugar. We would stand in the kitchen waiting for fried puris, popping holes in their domed tops and filling them with sugar. When chewing gum lost its kick, we would dip it in the sugar bowl and carry on masticating.

As childhood ebbed away and I entered adolescence, sugar was still very much a part of my menu. I was, on the right side of 24, one of those irritating people who can eat whatever they want without putting any weight on. And I did so with gusto. I would slice large wedges of chocolate fudge cake and sit them in deep bowls which I would then fill with a generous pouring of cream.

My creation of these confectionary dessert islands floating in their creamy seas, note the deliberate spelling of dessert, were a source of much pride for me. My older sister would stare, incredulous. “Do you have to eat it like that?” she’d ask “Yes,” I would reply “because I can, and one day I won’t be able to.” Cellulite free and yet to face the realities of normal metabolic rate, the world was my caramel-dipped oyster. This time of joyful gluttony is one I look back on with much fondness.

And then my metabolism caught up and weight suddenly began to stick where it had not stuck before. This was a disaster for me. Yet, I refused to face up to the obvious and give up the demon white stuff.

My moment of clarity, the moment when I realized that maybe my addiction was getting out of control came on a trip to France, homeland of fine pastry. My husband and I stopped off briefly during our road trip in a village whose name escapes me. He went to buy coffee, and I spotted the grand temple at which sugar lovers worship – the boulangerie.

I bought one chocolate tart, one cream tart, a strawberry mousse and a chocolate éclair that was not only smothered with chocolate, it was filled with it too. Back in the car, I methodically ate through all of them. This was not mass produced junk. These were pastries made with good ingredients and real butter.

Within in an hour I felt sick to my stomach as the overload of sugar coursed through my veins. It was horrible. My head pounding, I suddenly had a vision of myself in the future, stuck on a bed, too fat to move, with only king sized bed sheets to preserve my modesty and saying “I don’t know how it got this bad”.

I did know how it was going to get that bad. The sugar had to go.

And so I discovered for myself what a strong drug sugar is when I went cold turkey for two weeks to get myself off it. For two weeks I endured terrible headaches, muscle pains and shakes, while my husband had to endure the monster that I became. The withdrawal was intense. All I could think about was sugar. This experiment was proof enough for me that sugar is ridiculously addictive.

I was chastened. But with time I learnt to control my love of sugar and eventually I came back to allowing myself a treat once in a while because, let’s face it, life is hard enough as it is and I’d like to think that a bit of sugar now and then does no harm. A spoonful of sugar does, after all, help the medicine go down.

This article ran in the Khaleej Times on 18 Jan 2014

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