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09. May 2008

Wild things © Xenia Hausner

The Other Mothers

A commentary by Edit Schlaffer

Mother’s Day has a bad reputation. It brings back memories of 1939 when Hitler awarded child-bearing women with medals for being heroines of the German nation. Modern women ask not to be honored.

Feminists and non-feminists alike find it absurd when their husbands – who otherwise have no interest in household activities – go to great efforts to prepare breakfast and deposit a loaded-down tray awkwardly in bed. The kids recite poetry and business at the flower shop booms.

But there is an alternative to this approach to Mother’s Day, which goes back to the early days of the women’s movement in England and the U.S. A young philosopher by the name of Julia Ward Howe called for “no more sons for the war” in 1870. With this request, Mother’s Day was established as a day of protest against the Civil War, and the Peace and Motherhood movement in the United States had begun.
Today, motherhood has an explosive meaning that transcends melancholic family idylls. Mothers around the world are confronted with challenges, and how they defy these challenges is decisive not only for their personal happiness but also for the cohesion of society.

Mairead Corrigan Maguire was just a young girl in Belfast when an IRA activist was shot at the wheel of his car and consequently ran over her sister and her four children in 1976. Only one, the little Mark, and his mother survived. After Mairead’s traumatized sister committed suicide, she took over the care of Mark and her sister’s widower; the two were later married and together had another three children. Mairead went on to organize the largest peace march in Irish history and was thus awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She later recounted: “The children gave me the strength to dream and fight for a peaceful world.”

Rajaa al Khuzai, an Iraqi gynecologist and mother of seven children, saved countless lives during the sanctions and the chaos of war in her country. She was one of the first women – one of only three – to hold a seat in parliament in the transitional government. She was able to cope with the threats against her, but she became nervous when her colleague’s 18-year-old son was shot as a warning for his mother to stay out of politics. She held down the fort, but moved her children, one by one, out of the country. After a bullet was mailed to her son, she began to find it difficult to remain brave at the cost of her children’s lives, and she abandoned her political career.

Footage from Palestine often brings us images of distraught, screaming mothers digging for their loved ones in the debris of destroyed homes. According to Naila Ayesh of Women’s Affairs Center of Gaza, a modern woman dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, the desperation of Palestinian women with the hopelessness of the political situation is perceptible. She was arrested and interrogated as a young woman for being the wife of an activist, and she lost her first child in prison. While in the hospital, she noticed the sympathetic looks of the Israeli nurses who cared for her. The empathy of these women from “the other side” gave her the strength to start her reconciliatory work. “In male-dominated Gaza, we have a great responsibility – for us and our children – to stop this violence,” said Naila.

And one group of mothers cannot count on sympathy: those whose children have pursued the path of terror. The mother of Maajid Nawaz, a former top recruiter for an Islamic organization in London, struggled to maintain contact with her son while he was in prison in Egypt. “I began to live again after he turned away from this ideology,” she explained. And how does Hasina Patel, the wife of 7/7 perpetrator Mohammed Khan, feel? He bid her farewell in a video that pictured him affectionately playing with his daughter while he told her to take good care of her mother and that the two should fight together.

Aicha el Wafi, mother of the alleged 20th hijacker of the 9-11 attacks, broke out of her seclusion and also through her emotional deadlock. She approached the mothers of the victims, which was the “most difficult step of her life.”

Mothers are the backbone of society. This much they know, but they desperately need our support.

This article was published in the Austrian newspaper Die Presse on May 9th 2008.


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