Fatima’s life reads like an overcooked African movie. Twenty-nine summers ago when she was born, news of her beauty spread like a Sahel wind and within days, aunties from all over Mali queued around her bassinet to catch a glimpse of her heart-shaped face. But like any African movie, Fatima’s life is not without drama. She is eight months into her first pregnancy and she is troubled by a burden some muslim women in Africa face – her first child must be a boy.
Fatima* was the honored guest at her very first baby shower, held at Creperie in the hub of uptown Toronto. Her pastel flowered dress fell lazily around her engorged belly. Heavily pregnant and burdened with the expectation of her in-laws to birth a son, she clasped her fingers at the base of her stomach and planted a plastic smile on her face. A bevy of beaming aunties and friends in their traditional bubus had come to enjoy the shower. As the aroma of freshly brewed tea wafted in the air her in-laws stood in one corner of the room and Fatima’s family stood protectively at the other end. Unable to bear the tension anymore, Fatima gently eased herself into a chair in the middle of the room. The women from both corners made a beeline for her.
“Are you okay, is the room temperature too hot? Drink some tea; it is good for the baby. Here, put your feet up it’s good for the baby.” Without her permission one of the buxom aunts lifted Fatima’s feet and placed them on a footstool. Reflexively, Fatima’s forehead furrowed in anger.
“Auntie…” she huffed. With great effort, she pushed herself up and out of the chair and walked into the kitchen. Ever since she announced her pregnancy, Fatima feels as if she does not exist. People ask about the baby before they ask about her well-being. Her in-laws, who have never liked her, now trek from the east end of Toronto to bring her homemade dishes. They are even the ones who have organized this lavish baby shower in an upscale tea parlor and decorated it with stuffed animals and balloons. All the fuss is in preparation for the birth of their first grandchild – a son they hope. If Fatima is able to fulfill this long time tradition, it would help them overlook the many ways that she falls short of the perfect Malian wife. She is career oriented, she talks back and she wears short skirts.
Abdul, Fatima’s husband, is the first-born son. His father is also a first-born son, so if the baby growing inside Fatima were a boy, it would mean the blessing that comes with having a son will continue to flow through this family. Fatima grimaces as her mother in-law fills the room with her shrill voice.
“Oh, I can’t wait to meet my grandson! Eight more weeks to go and I just can’t wait to meet him.” Fatima does not respond, but when her mother-in law was not in earshot, she confided to one of her friends that much as she respects tradition, there are elements of her culture that disturb her.
Fatima entered the life of this conservative Malian family when her parents agreed to an arranged marriage with a well-to-do family. A lavish society wedding ensued. However, once the festivities ended, the bickering began. Abdul’s family insisted that it was important for Fatima to live with them in their Toronto home, because that is how it is done back home. They demanded that she quit her job at the bank and stay at home to learn how to make traditional African food. Fatima admits she forced her husband to buy a house an hour away from his family so she could have her own space and order pizza for dinner if she wanted to. Yet, even with the distance between them, the pressure did not cease. Her in-laws could not understand why Fatima would want to wait three years after the wedding to get pregnant. Now that she is pregnant, they are hoping she will not return to work after the baby is born. Fatima intends to return to work. She also wishes her husband would stand up to his parents, but he prefers to remain silent as a demonstration of respect to his family.
“I can’t wait for this charade to be over” she muttered under her breath, throwing a disdainful eye at the dainty teacups and unwrapped presents. But the charade was in full swing. Guests streamed into the room carrying wrapped gifts with blue bows glued on the top. The aunties rubbed their henna-decorated hands on her protruding belly and spoke blessings to the cocooned baby.
“Okay, it is time to open the gifts.” They cooed.
Two women placed firm hands on Fatima’s shoulders and lead her to the middle of the room. Gently, they eased her into a red sofa.
“Okay, now open this gift.” A lady in a blue bubu ordered. Fatima’s acrylic nails tore through the gold wrapping paper. With a placid smile taped on her face, she opened the box and showed the curious crowd the basket of Aveeno bath set. Four ripped boxes later, she stopped to fan herself with a card. It was hard to tell whether it was from a hot flush or stress. Without invitation, her sister in-law rushed to her side.
“Are you okay? Is the tea too hot, should we open the windows?”
Fatima’s beady eyes suddenly bright with visible anger. “Can’t I just breathe?” She exclaimed.
The conflict between Fatima and her in-laws is being played out in immigrant homes across North America. Many newlyweds her age are having heated conversations about how to maintain their independence without disrespecting their culture. Most of the time, Fatima is acquiescent, but being pregnant has made her less tolerant. When an aunt once again lifted her feet and elevated it on a footstool, Fatima quickly removed her feet and placed them firmly on the parquetted floor. There is a stirring within her to take a stand for her unborn daughter.
*Names and identities have been changed.
Photo credit: Flickr Nature link Safaris