Let’s take a moment to remember the grandmothers who shape our lives

Muftia, the grandmother of US congresswoman Rashida Tlaib

These women form the backbone of our communities, yet their contribution often goes unseen and unpraised

Shelina Janmohamed

The National  /  August 22, 2019

Last week, amid the tirades and pervasive trolling, the internet did something magnificent. It gave us a heartfelt celebration of those who shaped us but whose stories are untold.

This rare moment of beauty was, however, born out of controversy. Palestinian-American congresswoman Rashida Tlaib was initially denied entry to the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem, then begrudgingly offered the right to visit with certain restrictions. Given the constraints, she eventually decided not to take up the offer, even though it meant she might never see her beloved 90-year-old grandmother again.

Unexpectedly, the images of the twinkly-eyed Muftia, her entire face creased into a broad smile, sparked an outpouring of love for grandmothers on social media, with the hashtag #MyPalestinianSitty going viral.

Named after the colloquial Arabic word for grandmother, people shared photos and stories of their own Palestinian grandmothers, an homage to lives lived in extreme hardship and speaking to a powerful relationship that crossed oceans, wars and the lines of occupation.

“My Palestinian sitty fled to Jordan in 1967, on foot, with eight of her children,” wrote one person on Twitter. “Although she died never able to return to Palestine, she carried her people and her culture everywhere she went. She was the strongest, funniest and most courageous woman I’ve ever known.”

Ms Tlaib herself wrote: “I’m her dream manifested, I’m her free bird, so why would I come back and be caged and bow down when my election rose her head up high, gave her dignity for the first time?”

While it was Palestinians who rallied to post odes to their grandmothers, there is a takeaway message for all of us in the clarion call to honour women in our lives who are often invisible and under-appreciated. Even those of us who are not Palestinian should take from this the importance of celebrating the stories of our grandmothers. As Ms Tlaib said: “I am who I am because of her.”

Women have been almost fully erased from humanity’s history – older women even more so. It is mostly the kings, chiefs and scholars who loom large in the grand histories of our nations and cultures, shaping our sense of who we are and what we stand for.

But the people who shape us from an early age are often women. The stories that lodge in our hearts often come from our grandmothers – women who patiently attended to our needs, their wisdom helping us navigate past childhood tears and teenage angst.

Their devotion, wisdom and experience gave us confidence and assurances early on in life but we are not always mindful when we leave them behind when we fly the nest. One study by Ancestry.com in the US revealed the shocking news that one-third of Americans do not even know the names of all their grandparents.

These women have lived lives and, over decades, witnessed the world, society and governments changing before their eyes. They form the backbone of our communities, yet their contribution often goes unseen and unpraised.

So let’s all make a special effort to remember the women who laid the groundwork for all the oportunities we have today. As women today, we work, support extended families, juggle responsibilities and do our bit for our communities and society at large. We might think the working mother is a new concept but our grandmothers endured much tougher conditions to do the same. They often worked to bring in money, whether it was in the fields, on their sewing machines or in the kitchen. They kept houses running. They fought for women’s rights and were on the frontlines of nations that battled for their independence. We do them a disservice by forgetting that.

To know who we are as women and men today, we need to know who came before us and the challenges they faced, before their stories disappear altogether. In the publishing world, the stories of previously uncredited extraordinary women in history are gaining popularity. But we have history right here in our homes.

Some like Ms Tlaib are physically separated from their grandmothers by geography and circumstance. For some of us, it is too late altogether. The least we can do is to record the legacy of these women, whether on social media, in a book, or retelling their stories to younger generations. The oral histories of our families shape our sense of self and our identities. Take a moment to listen – because in the stories our grandmothers tell is the story of who we are.