Fight For Those Who Can't
art by Rebecca Lopez
My mom had her life set out the day she was born. The second the doctor announced “It’s a girl!” in the small Yugoslavian hospital, the main course of her life was decided.
She would grow up, continually lectured on how to be a “good girl”: to never wear her hair down, to never talk to a boy you aren’t related to, to march straight home after school. If she was accused of anything, there would be punishment without asking her to explain. She would be accused one day of cutting school and beat before explaining that class ended early because of the teacher’s family emergency. She would be a nurturer from a young age, babysitting little cousins while others went out to play. She would never be given the time nor the resources to excel in class, always barely passing.
But she found her own life in song. In music class, she was at the top of the course and even led when they would put on school concerts. People were complimenting her for once. Even her teacher said she could become a singer. Finally, she wasn’t a nobody; she was a talented budding singer. She dreamed of the day she could travel around Yugoslavia and even the world with her singing.
When my mom finished the 8th grade, she decided to tell her mother about her dreams. She prayed the Friday before in Xhami (mosque) that my grandmother would accept her aspirations. But her mom put on a mask of anger and told her to forget that stupid dream. She wasn’t mad, only fearful of what pursuing being a singer could lead to. Not only was their country falling apart at the seams, but her mother feared the instability and social stigma a singer would bring to their rural town. But all my mom saw were her dreams being crushed by her own mother. She was thrown back into the life determined by her since birth.
She wouldn’t attend high school. Any protest against that decision was met with hostility or violence. In the warm seasons, she was needed at home to do housework and cooking so her parents could spend their time farming, and in the colder months, she needed to help her grandmother and keep her company. Besides her grandmother’s company, she was mostly alone. Her brother and sister both went to school, and there usually wasn’t enough time in the day for her to visit cousins, let alone friends.
It wasn’t uncommon for a girl to get an arranged marriage at a very young age; in fact, if a woman wasn’t married by the time she was twenty-five, it was too late for her. For a while, my mom and her parents had rejected requests for her hand in marriage because she was still very young, and they didn’t feel the need to marry her off. War started, and suddenly most of the eligible men had been drafted to fight. Her family not only had to worry about food insecurity but also the genuine threat of bombing.
But then a matchmaker suggested the idea that she marry Safet Palevic, who had fled from Yugoslavia right when the Bosnian War started and was now living in America. He was from a well-off family (meaning they owned a german car) who was looking to marry him to a “good Albanian girl” instead of those “ill-mannered Americans.” Her predestined life was over, and now she was steering her own destiny.
After two attempts to come to America, she found opportunity. She worked an actual paying job for the first time ever, and instead of giving it all to her husband, as was customary in Yugoslavia, she made financial decisions alongside her husband, and she had her own savings to do whatever she wanted with.
In a way, it was shocking, terrifying even. The tall skyscrapers of Manhattan were intimidating in comparison to the small brick houses she knew. Suddenly she wasn't surrounded by townspeople who have known her family for generations, but rather by complete strangers who didn’t even speak her language. She struggled to learn English and was called “Russian girl” by coworkers who didn’t care to learn where she was actually from. She didn’t know a single person, and phone calls back home could run her a dollar a minute. She didn’t even know if much less when she would be able to see her family. But there was something freeing about the way no one knew her. She could become her own person, not molded by what people already knew about her or her family. It was a whole new country who hadn’t yet met her, so she was able to show them all what she thought herself to be.
It was also in America that she found you had to stand up for yourself, that it isn’t okay to be walked over. She had her own voice and her own opinions.
Still, she wasn’t free from the endless judgment she garnered as a woman, but now she was met with different expectations. Now she was judged for her limited education, her figure, her accent, her job as a cleaner, and so many things that made her head swirl. When she had me, she would be judged for the way she chose to raise me. When she quit work to be a fulltime mom after my brother was born, she was judged. When she started working again to help create a college fund for my brother and me, she was judged. My dad would only experience a percent of this judgment because he is a man.
I never understood her stressing how important it is to stand up for a cause you believe in and to uplift others when I was little. I hated how she’d volunteer me to be some first grader’s tutor and not even ask. How she’d invite distant relatives over who had just suffered a loss even though they never did the same for her. I never even understood the long speeches about how important it was that I get a good education.
It wasn’t until I came outside to throw out the trash just to see her on the door stoop watching the speech I gave during my 8th-grade graduation from two years ago and crying. I stopped to ask her if everything was alright. She told me that she was proud of me and that she just wished that her fourteen-year-old self could’ve seen an example of a smart and motivated girl her own age. The speech I had haphazardly written in a few hours those years ago convinced her that I could and I would help girls like the teenage girl with shattered dreams she once was.
I know now it was coming from a place of her wishing someone would stand up for her and lift her up. She wanted me to help the fight for no girl to be raised in the same way she was, and for future women to not have to face the back-breaking judgment of any action they do. She inspired my commitment to community service and my dream to become a lawyer.
In America, we have a while to go before we have true equality between the sexes, and abroad there’s an even further distance that every person worldwide should be fighting to lessen. Living in a first-world country, we have the ease of fighting and standing up for ourselves, but women elsewhere do not have that privilege, so we need to fight for them. No girl should have to live that predestined life.