We Don't Stand Still: Half a Century of Gendered Class Mobility

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My mother and I are a class apart. It is probable that my father and I are too. I come from a family that for half a century has been zigzagging across class positions, even though I only experienced the last thirty years or so of it. But my relationship to class is as much about gender as it is about my family’s financial situation. It is always tricky for me to locate my class position. I have repeatedly found myself in situations where I wanted to identify my class, but I have no easy answer to give. Because that would require telling a longer story that is not my story alone, but those of my parents, the dissimilar lives they’ve lived, and my own, that is also so different from theirs.

The starting point:

The starting point is not really a starting point, because life histories do not have neat beginnings and endings like that. But I will start this story with a parent growing up in poverty, working in the day and studying at night; cutting his education as a teenager to travel and work in his cousins’ shop in a West African country, coming back to continue working in the day and studying at night, slowly working his way out of the working class.

My mother had a very different starting point. Her father owned some land and held a job in the public sector. And so her life was financially content. It was also abundant with people. Unlike me, she came from a large family. Unlike the long periods of semi-seclusion from relatives that I experienced growing up during the war, in her parents’ home, to this day, family and neighbors fill their house from the first sip of coffee in the morning, to the last cup of shrab el tout or juice at night. She and two of her sisters never finished school. For a short period, she did some sewing in a factory, but that was never meant to be a lifetime job.

The rise:

At the beginning of the 1980s when my parents got married, his financial situation had become solidly middle class. My siblings and I were born in the comfort of a spacious house and garden (or houses rather, we moved a lot during the war years), nice cars, expensive toys, private schools, private piano lessons, and lots of books. And when the war intensified, being middle class allowed us to leave Lebanon for a couple of years, or to move more easily inside Lebanon when we came back.

From my mother’s perspective, when she got married, it was with someone who would offer her a good life she was accustomed to. What her marriage added was having a more urban experience for a while; the abundance she had lived had been very rooted in the land and the village life. Soon after she married, my parents moved to Beirut to be close to my father’s work. It was a time when she would become familiar with the streets of Hamra and all its shops, and she took some control over her what she spent on the house and the needs of her family. I paint it as an easy life, but I have to remind myself that their financial security was also under the bombs and the snipers’ bullets. But as horrific as the war was for them (though they do not talk much about their experience of those years), class provided them with easier escapes from the violence and devastation.

And the fall:

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the story of my family changes considerably. My father experienced increased financial losses and a downward mobility. My mother—and all of their children, not yet independent, moved classes with him. Whereas my mother had some freedom to go out and spend in the past, increasingly she found herself limited to staying at home, as they moved back to a smaller house in my father’s home town. For some of the older members of my family, financial vulnerability was a return to familiar, bitter place—quite literally as well, since my parents were now living in the same neighborhood where my father had grown up in scarcity. For me, it was a gradual change, I was able to continue to have a comfortable life, the changes happened slowly enough to normalize themselves, that I barely remembered the difference between back then and now; more importantly, with the support of a close family member, I was still able to pursue my education as far as I wanted to. My education was my ticket out of Lebanon, out of social awkwardness, and out of the norms and expectations put on so many girls and women around me—heterosexuality, marriage, motherhood, and sacrifice. None of these things attracted me. Of course, my education is also expected to be a little ladder I am to use for upward mobility, back to where I started.

                                                                                      --------------------------

My mother and I are a class apart. The opportunities I’ve had and am expected to have, in comparison to many of the women in my family, make it feel like we are from a different class. Even though we live under the same roof, my privileges are clear in most social interactions with the outside world, and in my ability to leave the house every morning, as I pursue a career she supports with her unpaid labor.

Given the changes of expectations on women, of education, some of us young educated women earn a steady income and have more social capital than older, or poorer women in our families. The differences are thus as much about changing gender expectations over time (but still present with us) as they are about class. My mother’s story is an inheritance I live with daily. Because it makes me aware that even as I am now passing through periods of financial stress and panic, I am often accompanied by the possibility, the hope of landing a stable, well-paying job and the fine life that supposedly comes with it. And many women in my family do not have that option; what is expected of them is more emotional and homecare support, patience, thrift and endless sacrifice.

Families, from their extended past to their nuclear or quasi-nuclear present, have long been founded on gender hierarchy. But there are hierarchies between women of the same family. In the past, some women may have had more power within their families over other women who live under the same roof—based on age, their entrance into the market—including the marriage market, skills etc. There were also women who helped them, whether related to them, from distant villages, or from another sect/community. Today of course, it is the hierarchies between a woman from another country with very little legal and social rights, and the woman/women who are part of the family.

This is a story made from so many stories, about money, education, family, trade, land, property, travel to West African countries (and the exploitation that happens there), war, changes in economic policies, and personal decisions. And there are gendered aspects to every thread in this story. Where we are, here and now, we don’t stand still yet the past fifty years and more of class mobility, and of gendered changes, have also left us in the in-betweens, in histories and positions folded upon each other. There is a lot of guilt in these positions. Class brings out the guilt and defensiveness in so many of us, as do the spoken or unspoken tensions between our mothers’ lives and the paths that have been open to us. There is also so much to talk about in these positions, and not enough chances to do so.

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