Gender Roles

-Written by Judy Piercey

Ali Mahdi cooks a pretty tasty tomato sauce. He shakes his head, somewhat dismayed, when he tells the story of his fear that he would never be able to feed himself once he left Somalia. "I was coming to the United States in 1989 for schooling. And I wasn't worried about the language even though academic language is different from the English I spoke. What I was worried about the most was how was I going to feed myself? Was I going to live on KFC and McDonalds?"

Ali, one of the most senior cultural navigators with the REACH Immigrant & Refugee Initiative (RIRI), tells his story to illustrate the difference between gender roles in Somalia and here in Canada. Growing up, he was never allowed in the kitchen because it was seen as a woman's domain.

"I learned how to make tea in North America. And I wasn't a child. I wasn't a teenager," he says softly.

After almost 30 years in North America, Ali admits his cooking has become respectable. "I can't make rice the way a woman can. Rice I will burn it because you have to control the heat. But tomato sauce, I can make."

Even though Ali laughs about his own experience, he's not making light of the conflict around gender roles. Confusion, tension, and sometimes even violence, are often the result of new expectations for immigrant couples.

Dinke Gamtessa, a cultural navigator with the Oromo and Eritrean communities, is often in court supporting clients with marital difficulties as part of her job with the Multicultural Health Brokers. A lawyer before she came to Canada, she measures success by her ability to negotiate and mediate to keep families together.

Smiling, she describes persuading a husband to take small steps to repair the damage to his family.

"I ask him if he can wash the dishes when he comes home from work instead of sitting down and watching TV. Could you vacuum on Saturday?"

The cultural navigators all draw upon their own experience as newcomers to Edmonton to help their communities understand the expectations and rights, including those covered by law, for families in Canada. They also connect each other to their own networks, sharing information about resources to help men and women adapt to unfamiliar gender roles.

Their networks have connected REACH project coordinator Ryan Valley, to immigrant and refugee men who now meet on a regular basis for conversations facilitated by Ryan. He uses scientific research as a tool for opening up discussions around family violence. One example he cites is the Alberta Men's Survey, in which about 2,200 men answered probing questions about barriers to healthy relationships.

Their answers are part of a well-known story to the cultural navigators, who constantly hear the reasons cited in the survey: financial problems, family conflict, addictions and unsatisfactory jobs.

"Often the man's education is not recognized here," Ryan says. "They may be highly educated people who, in their country of origin, had nannies, security guards, and lived in big houses. And now they're here and he's been forced to take a job with a big loss of social status. There's a lot of shame."

The sense of shame deepens when the man can't find a job and his wife becomes the breadwinner.

One man from Somalia is succinct in summing up his thoughts to Ryan's men's group: "We say back home woman is 50 and man is 100, but here they say woman is 100 and man is 50. Back home there is a system, 'man catch fish, woman cooks' here, there is no system."

Another adds: "Culture in Canada is very different, Canadian culture is more open. Canada has more freedom for women. Men are scared of women having more power. Families need to stay together. Back home there is lots of family support, lots of support for kids."

Joseph Luri, a South Sudanese mentor, who tries to help men adopt a new way of thinking about family life by emphasizing that newcomers to Edmonton don't have the support of extended family the way they did back home.

"It took a few of the men quite a while to understand, to take the point of view that 'I'm providing support to my partner,' it's a difficult thing. The man's assumption is she works or goes to school, comes home, looks after the kids, cooks dinner, then you eat, then she collects the dishes and then she washes the dishes. I say: 'It's too much for one woman. She's a human.'"

"Back home there is extended family to help. Lots of helping hands. There are no helping hands here. The only helping hand is that of your partner."