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On International Women’s Day, I celebrate Um Ehab

One of the many —many— things that bothered me about my culture was the obituaries of women. The deceased is often not named. Instead, she is referred to as mother of x (um x), wife of x. Of course this was all the confirmation I needed that my world was a patriarchal complex that denied women their own names even in death. We are buried nameless. Until I thought of Um Ehab, a beautiful, thriving, living powerhouse of a woman I get to greet every morning when I drop my daughter off to school.

Um Ehab has worked at my daughters’ school for what seems like forever. I don’t know very much about her, except that her smile never leaves her face. She hugs me every time she sees me. She knows my daughters by name. I know she is a mother of successful adults including Ehab, with grandchildren of her own. I assume she is of retirement age but she is still at work every day and often late until the last person leaves the campus. I have never heard her complain. I suspect she smokes. I know she has high cholesterol and diabetes. She somehow knows I am interested in nutrition, and so she asks me about food sometimes. She also asks me if I want Turkish coffee every time I visit the school. She asks me. She asks me!

I won’t share the wild tales I have spun in my head about Um Ehab. I won’t tell you that she wakes up before sunrise to pray, before she sets the table and makes breakfast for her large and growing family who still lives at home. I don’t want to assume she makes her delicious Turkish coffee right around the time she wakes up her grandchildren to get ready for school, so their parents can be tempted by the intoxicating smells of the coffee and za’atar to nudge them out of bed. By the time her family is fed and ready, Um Ehab makes her way to the school where she works so she can do the same for the 800 students and tens of teachers and staff members stumbling their way into school. She will greet the students with her warm smile, and even offer her Turkish coffee to some parents that seem frazzled some days [cough cough.] I will tell you Um Ehab stays at work till the last person leaves. But I won’t share with you what she does when she gets home, how she walks in straight to the kitchen, to warm the meal she stayed up cooking the night before. By the time her family is resting, Um Ehab is preparing the meal for the next day. She will make her way to bed at midnight, waking up a few hours later to begin another day.

I don’t think Um Ehab knows about International Women’s Day. She is too busy supporting future leaders and their teachers to do the work that needs to be done so our world thrives.

You see, Um Ehab is the force that carries, polishes, and nourishes the table my daughters, their teachers, and educational leaders sit at. Um Ehab also shines the glass doors and ceilings my daughters will shatter.

Meanwhile, here I am celebrating International Women’s Day on Instagram, making this world safer and brighter one social media post at a time. And Um Ehab asks me if I want Turkish coffee, so I can continue to work out my thumbs.

A simple search of crazy international celebrations confirmed my suspicions that we are living in strange times. January 3 is apparently “Festival of Sleep Day.” There is “Ice Cream for Breakfast Day” on the first Saturday of February, after which on the 9th the world celebrates “World Toothache Day.” [I am not joking.] And to make sure February continues to be festive, there is “Single-Tasking Day.” [This should be renamed International Men’s Day.] March 1 is “Plan a Solo Vacation Day.” May 6 is “International No Diet Day.” June 2 is “Leave the Office Early Day,” September 6 is “Fight Procrastination Day.” [This may explain why my husband pushed himself and decided to marry me on that day centuries ago. Aha-moment!] “World Smile Day” is on the first Friday of October. [I think this should be a Jordanian national holiday.] And “International Observe the Moon Night” whose date changes every year.

No wonder it feels awkward to celebrate women along with toothaches and ice creams. I cannot reconcile awards and rewards bestowed upon sisters who have “shattered ceilings” by posting affirmations on their social media platforms, while Um Ehab remains the “unknown soldier” clearing and paving the way for my daughters to have an equal opportunity in life.

Let me tell you something else about Um Ehab that has altered my view on life and the role of women in this telenovela of living: She wants the world to call her Um Ehab because that is the resume she carries proudly. She is mother of Ehab, Karima, Masa, Aysha, and Khadija. She is mother of every student that worked her way out of the school gates she polished. And when it is her time to transcend, she will be proud to leave with her resume on her tombstone.

Her heart is full and her identity is grounded in her legacy. She is the mother of leaders —in whatever capacity they are living today.

I get it. We are “mothers of” because we bring life. We are “wives of” because we are the wind beneath their wings. We are “daughters of” because we are the light, the way-showers, and the precious legacy. We are woman.

Happy International Women’s Day.

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