I always had the idea of a romantic love on my mind. The kind of love you feel with every single part of your existence and it makes you suffer when your partner is not around. Talking to various women in Mexico, Senegal and Ethiopia, I realized how European my view on love was. If I was to give a voice to women from other continents, I had to open my mind to other perspectives.
Kenia from San Dionisio del mar at the coast of Southern Mexico was the first woman we interviewed for our project Women Who Stay. Talking to her in her living room, I felt my questions were not meeting the woman’s reality.
I grew up in a society where women have the right to choose their partners. Nowadays, more than ever before, they take their time to search for Mr. Right. We can talk to anybody anywhere in the world. If we decide to, we can go and meet him. Too many options, however, create more expectations — from ourselves and our partners.
I have always wanted a relationship where the two people listen to each other. A relationship full of respect, freedom, and support that comes with believing in the other one and his or her passions. A relationship where you share your happiness as well as sad moments. I longed for the mornings when you are hugging each other and do not want to get up from bed; evenings when you can listen to the same music and drink wine together, or talking politics and arts. You know, simply love — the purest emotion!
What if this kind of love is only a luxury of the nowadays Western world I come from?
Kenia has not woken up next to her husband for the last nine years as he is an illegal migrant in the US. When talking to her, I found out my idea of what love is can be pretty naive.
The situation in indigenous Mexican villages is very different from what I grew up to believe in, or dreamt of. And so is the situation in Senegal and Ethiopia. These are three countries we have visited to collect stories of women who stayed in their countries of origin while their family members migrate.
Amalia, Oaxaca, Mexico
She rarely looks up at me. Consumed by making her clay plate look perfect, Amalia seems happy. She is one of the sisters Mateo from San Marcos Tlapazola, they are famous for their ceramics.
They are also a family affected by migration, like many others in their village. A few brothers Mateo left to the US, women stayed, working hard with their clay.
Amalia’s husband is also gone, for more than 30 years. First, he left to the US at the age of 13, yet he came back after a few years to find himself a wife. “I was 15 when we got to know each other, he was 21. He had to ask permission from my mother, then I moved into this house,” Amalia recalls with a shy smile on her face. This used to be a very common scenario for women at her age in these areas. If anybody from the village saw a girl and a boy walking together, they considered them a couple. A marriage had to be arranged.
“Young women get married because it is beneficial to have an older man,” explains a psychologist Jorge Reyes Barrera. A marriage is an act to profit from, not an act of love. I had to reevaluate my hypothesis: perhaps not all the women who stay behind suffer from romantic love when their husbands are not around.
“Women who are less educated tend to suffer less if they are left behind,” adds the psychologist.
Less educated women usually live in rural areas. These Mexican women also tend to be more religious. They believe their husbands sacrificed themselves to bring a better life for their families. “It has been years since he left, he wanted to build a house for us. But now, the house is already built, he can come back,” Amalia says. She never wanted to follow her husband, she loves her work a little too much to leave Oaxaca.
She saw her husband four years ago when he came back to Mexico for a brother’s wedding. Then he crossed the border back to the US — again as an illegal migrant.
Khady, Gandoile, Senegal
“In Senegal, marriage is not a connection of two people. It is a connection of two families, two communities,” Codou Bop explains. She is a Senegalese feminist, human rights activist and a former journalist. She also got married with her husband without being present at the ceremony. “It is normal in our culture, it was my decision,” she says.
Twenty-three years old Khady got married without her husband being present. At that time, he was working in Spain. To be precise, he still works there. Except, now he comes back to visit her and his family once a year, as they have a little daughter now.
It was Mamadou’s father who was there representing his son on the day of the ceremony. Parents from both sides had to agree on the marriage.
A few months after, the young Senegalese came back to his home village and he brought his new wife to the house of his family. It is common in Senegal that when a woman gets married she moves into the house of her husband. It is not unique though that she becomes a servant to older women in the family, usually a mother-in-law. One of the reasons why a man gets married is to bring home someone who will take care of his parents. More so, if a man is a migrant in Spain.
A single Ethiopian woman
Marriage is what gives a value to any woman in Ethiopia. “The governmental structure itself tells you a lot about our society. We have a Ministry of Women and Children Affairs,” says Enguday Alemayehu from University of Addis Ababa. She refers to the view that a woman is always connected to her children. Enguday herself is single while according to Ethiopian society she is already of age to be married.
“Thirty and single? Impossible! Something must be wrong with her, society will not respect such woman. At the end, she might have to migrate,” comments a gender expert Mitslal Brhane who works for Adigrat Diocesan Catholic Secretariat in Northern Ethiopia.
I have talked to various single Ethiopian young women at the age between 20–30. Tigist, for example, is running her own restaurant in Addis Ababa. She even employs her brothers. She had already migrated to Saudi Arabia, but was unlucky and got sick there. She had to come back to Ethiopia. While listening to her story, I spot a ring on her left hand. “Is it a wedding ring?”
“No, I am single,” she says, “I wear it as a wedding ring though. I do not want men to bother me,” she admits. Four of her male customers listened with great curiosity at that moment.
Very often, young women in Ethiopia get married not to face social pressure.
People often ask me what it is that links more than 50 women we have interviewed so far. I usually state that to me, one thing all stories have in common is the sadness. Yet, I am not sure if this is not my European, young generation perception as well.
Women in many parts of the world only know about romantic love from telenovelas they watch every night. Discovering this was a very important awakening. It has also become the reason why we want to give women a voice.
Sometimes I wonder, how many people asked my grandmothers about their relationships when they were young… From their stories I know it is not so long ago when women in Slovakia had similar position and dealt with similar social pressures Mexican or Ethiopian women in rural areas do.
Text: Magdalena Vaculciakova (Slovak freelance journalist, currently working on the long-term project Women Who Stay)
Photo: Noel Rojo (Mexican-American freelance photographer, currently working on the long-term project Women Who Stay)