Ethel Karskens

Belgium

Ethel Karskens
Belgium

Anspach Boulevard, one winter morning, the faceless crowds live under their coats. Staring at their shoes, they untie their attentions, not realising someone might hit them. Then, in front of them, they see it: the silent human tide taking over the streets. They let themselves be driven by the waves until they drown, until they disappear.

Brussels unfolds in anonymous swarms at every corner. Faces end up forming a unique mask, frozen in fear of the future, the magnified memory of the past and the present abyss. 

Center of Brussels

“They take you for a nothing. When you ask for help, they already think you’re a social case. We are social cases… We crawl, we humiliate ourselves and then, they just shut the door. They welcome you as if you were the last piece of shit, even more when they say ‘Look, there is nothing we can do for you.’ They don’t understand, they don’t know what it is (…) They tell me ‘Hey! You wanted gender equality!’ But I reply no, I didn’t ask for that. One day, a woman stood up and asked for that. They imposed it on me. I couldn’t ask for more than a man to go to work and bring money home for me to spend. And I will take care of the house, take care of the child etc, don’t you worry, you’ll get your meal on the table.”

M.’s voice is resigned but solid. In her apartment, in the North of Brussels, she tries to give a sense to the chaos. M. is one of these faces that we all see in the streets of Brussels: marked by tiredness, fed by bitterness, a solid skin — against the cold, the wind or indifference. They are young and old, from here or around. When looking closer, feminine traits take over the rest. Precariousness, face-to-face with our own grave, has still no border nor specific targets. She invites herself at the turn of life accidents, swells in the shadow and explode without notice. She has a distinctive taste for women: she hugs them on the first note, devours them at the second. Wires are evoked, intertwined. Since it is impossible to understand the why, gender inequality, one of the greatest injustices of our world, invites herself to the table and we accept her like a cumbersome guest. We ignore her whims, we forgive her cruelty.  

M. at home 

Today, in Brussels, the poverty rate, brought back to an individual level and not the household anymore, is almost four times higher for women.*

“We notice that they are mainly single mothers.” confirmed by social services of the capital. Two reasons are invoked: financial dependency and children. In a couple where the woman has partially or entirely given up any professional activity, the divorce is a double sentence. After investing their time in a household that does not exist anymore, they find themselves with little experience on a labour market with brutal mores. 

For most of them, opportunities are restricted to temporary jobs, wages that struggle to make her live, to make them live. Indeed, women are also the ones who, nine times out of ten, are at the head of a single-parent family**. Whatever the reasons that brought them there, other lives depend on their misfortunes and twists. 

Roofs of Brussels 

“This is true, even when there are also single fathers, most of us are women… I was talking with my son yesterday (…) He tells me ‘Mom, in our generation — he is in his thirties —, fathers are all gone, the mothers had to take care of everything on their own. (…) Also, the trigger for men, you see, it’s the idea of ‘rebuilding their lives’… So they leave and the former life does not exist anymore, the kids do not exist. Many of them do that…” Being alone has never stopped K. Her gaze is frank, her voice is clear, confident. Her pervasive curled hair is brought back with every laugh. While K. tells the story of her life, the tables around us clear and are taken over again. When an emotion freezes in the air, some faces look at us before returning to their glasses and forget. 

M.: “I was surprised you contacted us… I thought that, you too, you were a single mother. I’ve got to say, nobody cares about us, it’s not common.” While all voices have their own circumstances, their particular desires, the words are built around the same fights. These battles are won by endurance. They are told, detailed, broken down. To not forget why we are here, where we come from. The fists are ready, tired but alive. They stiffen at every crossroad of Brussels and all the rest of the world. They are the fists of the single mothers, the forgotten women. They are also the trenches dug under November, hurt by the storms, bitten by adversity. After all of this, only the heart remains. 

M. and the others talk about the need of dignity before anything else. That is one they remove in the first instance when, landing at the social services, their lives pass through the calculator in order to determine what they might receive. At the end of the digits, conclusions come from above: the final amount will be, says the metallic voice, enough to live and, for the least advantaged, to survive. “I have 1200 euros as an unemployment benefit, I have to pay 700 euros for the rent.. After that, I have to pay all the other charges like school, internet,… I have 300 euros for a credit… Then, there is the electricity, the gas,… At the end of the month, there is almost nothing left… I can’t take it anymore (…) And, when we ask for help, they say we have more than enough, that we should not complain… My hands and feet are tied.”

K., between the misadventures, says: “Dignity should be defined by the civil code, because, under human dignity, we can’t make it.” After several life accidents, she is indebted, financially doomed. A mediator is assigned to her; she loses the control over her expenses and incomes. Everything is in the hands of a stranger that will abuse his power. “It’s a shame, what he has done to me. He won his life like that…” When she has to attend court, she is advised to “get down on her knees”: “Don’t wash your hair for ten days, put your tracksuit on, a dirty tee-shirt… Hey, is everything all right here?!…” 

With no strength left, K. consumes herself, falls. Like all men and women who were taken from one side to another in the bureaucratic nightmare, the ones we do not listen to anymore, condemned to social exile, she falls into a depression. 

S. illuminates when she talks about her old job. Her smile blooms with the memory of the others, their complicity, the compliments on her work. Sparkling eyes, a spontaneous voice, S. is another soldier in the poverty war. When she talks about the shutdown of her clinic, her gaze starts to change. That dismissal, S. felt it like a heartbreak. She is one of the first to leave. The next ones are other pregnant women, to whom the door is shown with pity and excuses. It is that future lack of flexibility, worst fear of the employers. She needs to understand: see, ‘it’s for the best’, as they say. S. understands and, single mother-to-be, hits an important crack/fracture. After her daughter’s birth, she is back in the game. Training after training, she acquires new skills and manages to get a few temporary jobs. Despite that, her position — being a single mother — brings her always back to the starting point. It darkens, from the very beginning, all the experience and formations she has. At the interview, some of them don’t hesitate to ask the kids’ age. She promises she will take a baby-sitter. They seem confident. Later, they refuse with the same words, as if they were sharing them between them: “We could have, but…”, “We found someone else”,… 

The story comes back, invisible to some, ever-present to the others. The first notes in the voice introduce the cacophony of the last years. 

Mont des Arts, Brussels 

M. keeps the pillow between her knees. She rests her thoughts on it while she gets lost in the memories, the humiliations, the hopes. Around us, her daughters takes every space of the living room: from the pictures to the toys, and then the movies, the clothes. 

“At the interview, they ask me ‘Are you flexible?’, I say ‘What do you mean by that?’… Starting early, no problem, but after six… I would have to pay a baby-sitter. With the salary they offer, I would rather be at home and not leave my daughter alone with a stranger… I have that problem with every job, they always ask for flexibility but they don’t give it, that flexibility… But, most of the time, they don’t want single mothers… They don’t say ‘No, we don’t want you because of that but things like ‘We have other candidates’… The reason comes from the fact that, well, if there is a problem with the kid, they are the ones who are gonna run… They can’t say ‘Hey, darling, can you take care of that?’… No, they are the ones who will leave the office… It’s always like that, it’s complicated…’ M. takes a long breath. She dives again, head down, without fear for the right words, the ones that need to go out, for her and the others. 

“In Spain, we say that a kid always comes with a bread under the arm. It means that it’s a joy, it always comes with good news… But not when you’re a single mother… When you’re single, yes, you have joy, yes, you see your kid laugh, you deprive yourself for her. But, no. You cry more than you smile. 

E.

One morning, from the window of the bus, the South area of Brussels rolls. The movie starts between the small houses, pleasant painting with green shades, before moving towards the chaos in the center, step by step, street after street. E. calls: "You know, that would have never happened if I was a man… My brother, he wasn’t placed for adoption. He hasn’t lived all that.” ‘All that’ is the long journey of E. since birth. Born in Rwanda in the fifties, she is quickly placed in a Protestant Mission by her father, an official working in the Belgian Congo. From there — and until now — she is buffeted from one house to another, from Belgium to Boston, from New York to Brussels, with half a diploma there, a sort of husband here. E. followed the hazard of life in silence. Metis, she was born in a between (“in Rwanda, I’m white; here, I’m black”). Woman, she is daughter and wife, microscopic element fold in the gigantic institutional gusts. 

“I survive more than I live… I try to stand on my feet.” 

E. has a light American accent. She expresses herself softly, in music. In the busy coffee shop, because of the noise, she has to repeat certain sentences. The constant bumps in her life life drew her a silent visage. Her eyes don’t shake anymore with abuses, nor betrayals, nor deaths. 

“At work, I became indispensable.” 

Every breath snatches her from a house, a life, a promise. Over the years, the only tangible thing that is left is work. During more than twenty years, she lets herself be taken again by the current. First, by the chain of fixed-term contracts, then by the lack of recognition for her work. Finally, she is completely put on the side when her skills and experience are devalued. The professional erosion spreads to the other parts of her life. During the breaks, she isolates herself to cry. The sick leaves start to be too numerous. Today, she is at two months of the retirement date. Same tone in the voice when she explains her reason for leaving will end. 

I survived my childhood, I survived my adulthood… I don’t really have the feeling I had a woman’s life either… A woman has friends from her age with who she has activities, she has relationships with partners who respect her, who see her as an equal person…” 

Roofs of Brussels 

The woman and her half-life. The voice of M. rises for the others: 

“[After work,] the woman needs to take care of the children, take care of the house… But she has no life. She can’t get anything. The woman is a slave, that’s why. That’s how I see it. It’s hidden slavery. Because she is paid by what… Besides being cheated on… Yeah, because, you see, she has no time to take care of her… The ones who are always fresh and pretty, they have cleaning women or something… The real women are dirty, with no make up and sneakers —because you need to run all day. Heels get broken when you run… No, I can assure you, the woman is a slave, the men leave[…] You do everything for the man and the kids and you forget. The woman is an omission. Yes, an omission, a robot. A multifunction tool.” 

“What is a woman?” The next seconds are soaked with the memory of the encounters, the softness of some moments — inspired, expired, dreams are in the sky —. The answer seems impossible. Some will say the question makes no sense. At best, she is the gender that gives birth. And then, and then. They are the ones who know, who smile. 

K. smiles. “So, I have a very violent theory: to me, there are women and there are females, you see. They are not the same […] Women are supportive… We live in a war zone permanently. We need to do more, we need to do better. Being equal with the men always means more work. We always need to be more more more… With all that, there is barely solidarity… If you did something wrong one day, the females will make you remember ten years later, in some way.” 

“If a woman meets another woman, we need to get together to do something. Because, if we have the same ideals, we need to be supportive.”

The Courthouse of Brussels 

At the bottom of the Courthouse, architectural power overflowing to the Marolles neighbourhood and spilling itself to the Régence street, trams stir with grindings, cars barely avoid each other, tourists catch every moments with their phones. Time is cut and then dragged under the gray and the rain. Streets interlock, coats panic, greetings startle — are rushed by the wind, the boredom and other crimes against words. Women come across, look at each other, smile, ignore. Because gender inequality prefer mothers and minorities, we quickly forget and forgive her. As if some destinies deserve less attention than others. Justice has never had a better sight. 

Behind the words, resistance refuses to give up. It is now an optimism boost by the kids’ looks and a courage without borders. It shines in the eyes of S.. It rises in E.’s smile when she explains her projects, her desires. The resistance is in the hands, in the voice. At the meetings, tips come from every part of the room. There is complicity for every address: social grocery shop, parental assistance, discounts. The words go through the generations and the cultures. Some women who would have never talked to each other in “real life” start to be friends. All the barriers that we once erected don’t exist anymore. When facing the same situations, solidarity spreads again, hope comes back in a forgotten humanity. 

K.,M.,E.,S. and all the others are the Women with a capitalized W. Their destiny steered by their gender, they are the relentless souls who feed our world; they give life, they remind us courage and define endurance. There are continents of women, first ones on the front lines of injustice. They are captains in an infernal storm and, even with head under water, they stay the course. For them, for the children.

“[I see the woman as] someone who would be in the evolution of society… In front of everything[…] I am very optimistic: I see her triggering revolutions, big changes.” These last words bring the curtain down. S. offers the words we need to move forwards, to find our path. What is a Woman? A human being who fights. What is a Woman? A part of history we write. What is a Woman? The fear and the desire to be a woman.

 

 

* Femmes, précarités et pauvreté en Région bruxelloise: rapport bruxellois sur l’état de la pauvreté 2014, Observatoire de la santé et du social Bruxelles, 2014.

** Monoparentalité à Bruxelles. État des lieux et perspectives, plateforme technique de la monoparentalité en Région de Bruxelles-Capitale, 2013.