Documenting the stories I’ve collected from the perspective of a listener and outside observer.
As a woman with freedom and a basic grasp of feminism, it is easier for me to take a stand on civil liberties. I ask myself: if other girls and women had the same opportunities as I did, if they were empowered, educated and had access to income generation, would marriage still be the preferred route to a better life? Would they be able to stand against marriage or livelihood dependence on another, on principle?
I have devoured books and stories from the moment my mother taught me to read. At every meal at every open-ended family gathering, I would have a book propped against my plate. Easier to do this with a hard-covered book but if it’s a paperback, the trick is to flatten the pages to loosen it from a rigid spine of archival glue.
Books were and still are my windows to the world. My favourites are the translated texts, offering a glimpse into another culture, another way of thought and life. This insatiable appetite for stories has spilt over into adulthood.
I remember people not by names, but by the anecdotes shared which creates a narrative of everyone I encounter. However, one only receives such details with a peppering of questions. I have had to temper my interest as an adult because unbridled curiosity often leads to misguided assumptions.
I’m fortunate to have had a diverse exposure to people in the UAE. I would not have had the same opportunities back home in Singapore, a tiny island state where everyone is connected by a three-degree separation. And yet, even in the UAE, I’ve met friends of friends from Pune who are cousins of someone from Singapore that I went to school with. We really are the hyper-globalised generation fuelled by monolithic cultures and widespread immigration.
I’d like to start documenting the stories that I’ve collected here in the UAE from the perspective of a listener and outside observer.
Over many a deep tissue massage as she elbows the knots away, Melissa* has told me about her life as a Thai divorcee, mother of two and grandmother at age 42. She used to be an occupational therapist in Bangkok, but has since worked in the Gulf for more than a decade. Melissa is now a massage therapist in Dubai working a 14-hour daily shift. Happy endings cost dhs100, never anything more than hands.
Estranged from her daughter who was raised by her ex-husband, Melissa said that her daughter only reaches out when she needs money. She believes that her mother is living the expat dream and flush with cash. Melissa dotes on her son, a university undergrad living in the care of Melissa’s sister – to whom she sends a monthly remittance for childraising. Everyone back home always needs money, Melissa lamented.
Melissa had been in a long-term relationship with a Lebanese shisha cafe manager. They shared a room together in a partitioned apartment. He was kind and helpful around the house, did her laundry and cooked her dinners. While he was on vacation in Beirut, Melissa struck up a romantic relationship with an American* massage client, a man in his 50s who works in the glitzy financial district as an asset manager and likes his happy endings.
After just one month of intense dating – with Melissa waking up to money tucked under her pillow every morning – the American* asked her to stop working at the massage parlour. He made grand promises that what was his would be hers. A drawer full of American dollars, the equivalent of dhs20,000, was a testament to his love. Use this money for whatever you want – shopping, groceries or for your family back in home, he said to Melissa.
From Melissa’s point of view, here is a successful man ready and willing to take care of her and her numerous dependents back in Thailand. It has not occurred to her that this might be suspect and only temporary. Or that before the American became her client, he had frequented the massage parlour and was a regular of Patricia’s* – another Thai masseuse. He would pester Patricia to have dinner with him, call the parlour and demand that Patricia provides home massages in his apartment. He eventually moved on after his untoward solicitations were met with repeated rejections.
Now, Melissa is a stay-home something (the role is still undefined). She doesn’t have to clean the American’s ritzy apartment with its blue-tinted windows and expansive balconies, because a part-time cleaner comes around twice a week. When he’s home, she’s not to leave the house. She is to remain his devoted companion.
I can’t help but wonder if this is a form of modern slavery disguised as a financially-secure loving relationship. It is an unsettling social contract.
I may be oversimplifying the situation at hand, but this just reinforces my belief that quality education (SDG 4) and decent jobs (SDG 8) are essential to gender equality and freedom.
Marrying rich or living off a rich man should not be approaches to addressing income inequality. It denies women of their financial independence, leaves them vulnerable to predators and getting caught up in undesirable positions.
As a woman with freedom and a basic grasp of feminism, it is easier for me to take a stand on civil liberties. I ask myself if other girls and women had the same opportunities as I did, if they were empowered, educated and had access to income generation, would marriage still be the preferred route to a better life. Would they be able to stand against marriage or submit to livelihood dependence on another, on principle?
I also admit that I may be wrong and quick to judge as a mere observer. The American might just be a lonely, busy man willing to pay a price for companionship (maybe love?). Melissa might be the happiest she’s ever been with him, safe in the assurance that she has money to send to her family every month.
But then again, what if it isn’t so?
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