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Reclaiming Mothers’ Day

Jessica Lee May 11, 2009

Reclaiming Mothers’ Day

By Jessica Lee

“While my son was deployed to Afghanistan in 2003 I awoke from nightmares almost every single night: the knock on the door, uniformed military personnel on the doorstep, ‘We’re sorry to inform you…,’ images of my son disabled like the soldier in Johnny Got His gun, bombs raining on a family’s home while a mother screamed out her children’s names,” writes mother and activist Susan Galleymore in her new book released May 10, Long time Passing: Mothers Speak About War And Terror (Pluto Press).

Mother’s Day is a day we are told to honor our mother, to cook her breakfast, send flowers, buy her gifts. It is a day we are supposed to focus in on our own mother, rather than outward on all mothers around the world.

Galleymore began to question what it meant to be a mother when her son signed up with the U.S. Army. As her son crossed oceans and borders with the military, her life immediately became connected to the mothers of Iraq and Afghanistan. “… from the perspective of a mother with an enlisted child, I felt a sudden rush of astonishment and energy: How could we mothers allow this to happen — how could we have allowed it throughout history?” Galleymore writes.

In 2004, Galleymore defied her son’s wishes and journeyed to Iraq to visit him at Camp Anacanda, one of the largest U.S. military bases in the world located 40 miles north of Baghdad. She said she had to see her son, and that as a mother, no one was going to stop her. She joined a trip to Iraq organized by the womens’ peace group CODEPINK. During her visit, she began interviewing Iraqi mothers. Life under the occupation was unbearable.

One woman “Widjan” detailed her cesarean birth in a dirty, understaffed hospital and how the medicine the doctors used was from her own personal stash. When the electricity shut off, the operation continued in candlelight.

Another Iraqi mother, Anwar, described how U.S. troops fired into her family’s car at 9:30pm Aug. 7, 2003, killing her husband and three children. Her 10-year-old daughter Abir fell out of the car and was left for dead. Barely alive, she remembered how a female U.S. soldier kicked her foot, then bent down and stole her gold earrings.

Galleymore took on a project of interviewing mothers throughout Iraq, Palestine, Israel, Afghanistan and Syria. While she doesn’t offer any recent stories, in a way it does not matter. The stories the mothers tell — despite the names, dates and facts — are timeless in their depth of rage, compassion and pain.

In a Mother’s Day video statement by Michelle Obama issued May 10 throughout the Armed Forces Network and partner channels, she directly addresses military mothers:

“Hi, this is Michelle Obama and I wanted to wish all the mothers out there a happy Mother’s Day. Know that we love you, that we’re praying for you and we hope that you enjoy this day. Take care,” she says in the spot.

It seems a superficial message given that U.S. mothers are still grieving for the 1,145 soldiers killed in Afghanistan since 2001 and the 4,287 killed in Iraq since 2003 (Three names have yet to be released because the U.S. Department of Defense is contacting their families). And mothers throughout the country are caring for the tens of thousands of sons and daughters who have returned from war with physical or psychological injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder. Hopefully this Mother’s Day, 134,000 mothers received warm messages from soldiers stationed in Iraq and another 38,000 mothers from their children serving in Afghanistan.

And it is difficult to comprehend how mothers in Iraq must feel after six years of occupation, the death of hundreds of thousands of people and the two to four million who have fled the country.

“Another worry for all Iraqi women is that so many Iraqi men have been killed in these wars…” said Baghdad resident Eman Ahmed Khammas in a 2004 interview with Galleymore. “Many smart, well0educated, loving women in our country will not marry and have families because of the lack of men. It is a tragedy that will affect our country for a long time.”

From the White House on Mother’s Day, President Obama had the audacity to highlight the names of two prominent women in the history of the holiday while he continues to fund military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Israel/Palestine, Colombia and Mexico, just to name a few.

“The time-honored tradition of recognizing mothers grew out of the imagination of a few bold women. Julia Ward Howe, composer of ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic,’ urged mothers to advocate for peace through a day dedicated to them. After her own mother passed away, Anna Jarvis sought to recognize the great influence mothers have on society,” Obama said in a Mother’s Day Proclamation May 8.

Before President Woodrow Wilson declared the first U.S. formal Mother’s Day in 1914, women had been organizing for decades around peace, health, equality and community. In West Virginia during the 1850s, Ann Maria Reeves Jarvis organized “Mothers’ Work Days” to improve sanitation and share healthcare resources in local communities.

When the Civil War broke out, mothers organized and helped within both Union and Confederate camps, tending to the wounded and the dead. With more than 600,000 of their people dead, U.S. mothers knew they never again wanted a war to tear their families apart and shred their children and husbands. Mothers’ Friendship Days were established by mothers in 1865 to bring the two sides together.

Still shaken from the Civil War and witnessing war rise again in the Franco-Prussian War, feminist, peace and civil rights activist Julia Ward Howe took action in 1870 calling for women to rise up across borders and oppose all war. In her “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” she stated:

“We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies/ Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn/ All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We, the women of one country, will be too tender of those of another country/ To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs. From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: “Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.”

Every day should be a day to honor our mothers and grandmothers, but the holiday needs to be reclaimed in the name of peace. In an act of apostrophe misplacement, we have forgotten the history of Mothers’ Day.

It has been long argued by historians how, and when, the apostrophe change altered the meaning of the holiday. From the feminist and politics Blog Hoyden About Town, writer Tigtog took up the issue in 2006.

“See the difference that apostrophe position makes? Mother’s Day is a day where you do stuff for your mum: sentimental, sweet and ultimately trivial. An inward-focused family centered event. Mothers’ Days were a gathering of mothers, time spent together for mutual reflection, when mothers en masse might mobilize politically, which when it occurs is rarely trivial at all. An outward-looking society-focused event. … What this shows is that between the Mothers’ Friendship Days of 1865 and the Mother’s Day Proclamation of 1914, common usage (or deliberately inculcated and disseminated trivialization) had shifted that apostrophe from the power of a mothers’ collective action day to the sentimentality of honoring “motherhood,” a conveniently numinous term, and this was now enshrined in law.”

If we want to honor our mothers, we all need to take up action to help care for all mothers.

More than 145 years since mothers brought a nation back together, Galleymore is just one of the many mothers trying to make sense out of the Iraq War, the “War on Terrorism,” and aggressive and undemocratic U.S. foreign policy around the world.

Nurit Peled-Elhanan might have said it best in her 2004 interview with Galleymore about her role as an Israeli mother.

“Mothers have always been rebellious. In the bible, in Greek mythology, there is always a mother who defies authority. The Talmud described mothers as prophets, because they looked ahead and understood what would happen to the children, then the defied — or lied to — their king or husband. … We have to blame those who send them [soldiers] to war and the war-supporting mothers.”


Some Resources for Women Peace Groups (very incomplete list):

Women in Black – www.womeninblack.org
Organization of Women’s Freedom in Iraq – www.equalityiniraq.com
CODEPINK – www.codepink4peace.org
MomsRising – www.momsrising.org
Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom – www.wilpf.org
Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women – www.rawa.org
Madre – www.madre.org
Global Fund for Women – www.globalfundforwomen.org

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