Ramiza Shamoun Koya shares the concern of being a mother to an expectant daughter, revisiting the hardships she persevered while growing up.
The road undulated gradually into the Middle Atlas Mountains from the city of Fes, spring starting to unfurl in the ragged fields. Soon there would be incandescent waves of red poppies and pulping olive trees and bursts of green usurping the dry brown winter, in the coming spring when my daughter would be born.
But that day, we were driving home from the clinic just after finding out the gender of our child. We were silent. I put on music to cover it, and then, out of somewhere that I didn’t know I owned, came tears. I cried, because I had learned that I was going to have a daughter.
This was not what I expected. I thought I didn’t care, would love a son or daughter so exactly the same. I told myself that dangerous lie, that gender was not relevant. I might have said ambiguous. Never negative.
And then, like a truth as elemental as the sun, my self told me a different story: It wasn’t okay to be a woman. It was a disadvantage, it was these very tears. It was fear and danger and helplessness, it was being stalked and raped, being followed or ignored, being manipulated and underestimated. It was never being good enough and never being free.
The road started to curve around itself, following edges of mountainside, sailing us perilously close to crumbling dirt edges. My husband didn’t ask about the tears. They were a path to a cave I didn’t know I had inside, a hollow in my heart where I had tucked away the thought that it was a curse to be a girl and forgotten about it. I had internalized a truth of our world so completely that I had missed it inside of myself: A son could have everything. A son could be adored without reservation. But not a daughter.
We made the trip from our mountain village to Fes so many times in those years, and never more often than when I was pregnant.
The doctor spoke French to us, and we to him. His office was an emergency room of pregnant women and families; the women in long, dull djellabas, the young girls in bright shorts and T-shirts. It was a little like visiting a guru or a holy person. The doctor, surrounded by women, was short, brisk, erudite. He was the best OB-GYN in Fes, and anyone with a real fertility or pregnancy issue would seek him out, wait in the clamor of that anteroom, hope for a miracle that only he could deliver. He gave me my girl.
He told me not to worry, that childbirth was natural. He would check me physically, hand all the way up to my cervix, indifferent to my discomfort. A woman’s comfort was not a consideration. All that mattered was the child.
What was wrong with a girl?
Many of my friends had expressed the desire to have just one child, a daughter just like them. I never felt that. I didn’t want a child at all until, at thirty-seven, living in Prague, I felt overwhelmed by the realization that my husband and I needed family, our own family, one that we were not alienated from, a family to console us because we didn’t have enough consolation stored up to fill the holes in each other.
We went out for an anniversary dinner at an Italian restaurant, the most similar establishment to fine dining in New York that we had found. In the midst of the warm wood and candlelight I said, “I think we should have a baby.”
He said, “Okay,” with a small, pleased smile. He had been thinking the same thing.
I knew, without him saying so, that he wanted a daughter. We both came from majority male families, and he was no traditional man. I thought I didn’t care; I was beyond caring about gender, wasn’t I?
On my way to being a mother, I tried so many ways to be a girl. I neglected to examine what it meant to be a woman.
As a kid, I was a classic tomboy, unwashed, tangled hair, jean suits chosen over dresses. I guess we didn’t think about gender as optional then, but I knew I felt more boy than girl. As I grew up, I became more feminine, so that even as a teenage goth, I wore velvet dresses and high heeled boots, my long, uneven hair crimped. It was a costume, one of exaggerated femininity, that helped me see my way into the world that had befuddled me for so long.
I struggled, as a young woman, to find how I fit in. Men liked me, in ways both good and bad, and they pushed and pulled me in different directions. When I worked in public, they asked me out, but they also made rude gestures, gave the kind of threatening compliments that young men believe you will enjoy.
As a young woman, I was felt up, followed, harassed, assaulted. All the normal things for a pretty girl.
I faked bravery, traveled alone around India, got myself into graduate school in New York, where I pretended to fit in. But I was never rich enough or thin enough, never in the right clothes, never from the desired background. I was Indian but not Indian, I was a forceful personality without any power. I was living in a city of beauties in Old Navy clothes and uncertainty, pretending. I wanted to be smart and pretty, an intellectual in a mini-skirt, bad-assing her way through the contradictions.
But I faltered. I lost my way. I searched instead for a love that would give me meaning. I knew I was doing it, but I couldn’t stop myself. It was easier than figuring myself out.
When I was raped, at the age of twenty-eight, by a man who would be caught twelve years later, I gave up bravery for a time. I cut my hair short and wrapped myself in thick coats. I stopped going out. But I continued, I found a new path forward, and I hid the damage from myself as long as I could.
Nine years later, my girl began to grow in me, and I felt the hard seed that had lived inside of me for so long, the terror and helplessness and the ache of rage that had never left me.
For a long time, I thought that the amount of sexual harassment I had experienced over the years, the hands on my ass and the crude comments and the constant requests for smiles or hellos or looks, helped me to build an outer force field, an armor. It seemed efficient and useful to be resistant to all that men threw at me.
But I was wrong. It wasn’t outside of me. It was inside, all the way through, making the female self that would recur like a fractal shape in my female child.
To change that, I would have to rescue myself. I needed to love her differently than I had been loved.
To change that, I would have to rescue myself. I needed to love her differently than I had been loved. Luckily for her, there would be no genius brothers, no one else who could light up the room, leaving her in the shadows, incomprehensible and difficult, implicitly unwanted. Boys were better, not just in my family, but everywhere I looked, spoken in every dismissive look I received. A small, brown girl; what could be good about that? My brothers mostly dated blondes, my mother was never not on a diet, and I learned exactly how to hate myself.
But I would not offer that to my daughter. She would see every possibility laid before her like a red carpet; I would protect her from the constraints that had muffled me, that had kept me from my own self-realization. But I could only do it if I became the woman I wanted her to be, if I became the woman I had for so long failed to see.
There was so much work ahead. I would have to be different. Everything would have to be different. There was more than I ever imagined, the kind of work that destroyed you and forced you to rebuild with carefully chosen pieces, the discard pile intimidatingly large. But as my daughter grew, so did I, and there was a place on the other side where she would look at me in admiration. Where she would say, “Mama, you’re strong.”
Sometimes, driving down the road to Fes, we would see car accidents. Once, a car fell off the narrow edge of the road and lay on its nose in the deep golden grass. We passed with caution, giving the edge a wild look, as one does a dream that has become real.
Sometimes, carts pulled by donkeys stopped traffic, or the car had to be woven carefully through herds of belled sheep guided by young boys with hair the color of malnourishment.
One time, I was pulled over by a mustachioed policeman in immaculate uniform who looked at my university ID and waved me on, like an honored person, like someone of consequence.
Sometimes, we debated what to name her; would it be Sofiya, Ella, or maybe Alma, after my grandmother? I never considered any names that weren’t overtly feminine. Those were the names we liked.
The day before she was born, I was leaking small amounts of fluid, so we drove down to the clinic. It was the day the young Moroccan king was due to arrive in our small town for a stay at his mountain palace and crowds had gathered, waiting for a glimpse of him. A wind storm had struck that morning and the banners that lined the streets to welcome him were swept into disarray, hanging in the streets and swinging wildly. We drove with even more care, my belly huge behind the dashboard.
The road passed through the tiny village of Ifrane, where we lived and worked, then through a bigger, neighboring town where we would have to nose the car slowly through crowds of people in the street, and then to the long, sweeping downward curves, with views of ruined towers and walls, the plains below, eventually rolling into fertile farmland. The road at the bottom was lined with olive trees and, in the spring, as it was now, fields of wildflowers, especially red poppies, waving in thick rows of romance.
At the clinic, the doctor looked impatient with my worry, but lubed his hand and felt my cervix.
“Maybe,” he said. “We’ll wait twenty-four hours and, if you’re not in labor, we’ll induce.”
We left behind the crowded waiting room, the gathered women for whom his proclamations might mean disaster or a cushion of hope.
We drove back up that road, silent again, worried. The road seemed longer this time, the incline steeper. I didn’t want to be induced. I didn’t want more pain.
As the road finally curved into the village, we saw that the crowds had grown bigger; the king still had not come through in his motorcade. Berber men had decorated their prancing Arabians in filaments of metal and cloth and rode them up and down the road to try to decrease their agitation, ancient rifles strapped to their backs. Women in colorful djellabas crowded in groups, hoping to see the man they worshiped as a petal of god. They would be there as long as necessary, by choice or by order we could never tell.
That night, we would drive it again in reverse, as my contractions increased, coasting in the pitch black, hoping. My daughter would be born in the millennia-old city of Fes just after the first call to prayer, and the doctor would hold her up by her long legs for us to see before she was taken to be cleaned and swaddled. She was healthy and I never doubted for a second that she was special, the wind storm sweeping in a girl who was born on Earth Day, her arrival heralded as if she were a queen, a girl who would change the world, a girl who would change me.
But for now, we were still on the road home, anticipating the difficult curves, the herds coming in after a day of foraging, the ancient cedar forest coming into view. Beyond the horizon were divorce, the novel I battled with finally arriving encased in a purple and gold cover, the struggles of cancer, the new family that failed, the new career that didn’t. The learning to pitch a tent on my own, the music, the heartbreak, the trying.
Sometimes, the heat on the plain below shimmered and shifted, an ocean that hovered above and around and through the city. The promise of the labyrinthine medina with its carpets and carvings, its tiled riads, small paradises that hinted at how to make a world for yourself.
Sometimes, wild dogs chased the car, territorial and mad.
Sometimes, we would see rainbows.