I have been a diplomatic wife for the past 10 years, and I frequently deliberated what it means to be the woman behind the man.
In my experience, it could mean that women are valued as sources of strength and inspiration, possibly even the real power behind the man. Or it means that they stand behind the man, rather than next to him or in front of him. They have his back, but they are secondary to him, protected by him who walks the front lines, invisible in his shadow. In all cases, women are usually acknowledged as playing a significant role in his success, partly because this is true and partly because diplomats have a professional interest in presenting functioning relationships.
In diplomatic life, I often encountered women behind men in secondary roles, and I believe this is due to diplomatic life being inherently conservative and, one might argue, professionally dishonest. Diplomats' sweet tongues are meant to avoid wars; their displays of 'perfect' family lives with responsible men at work in Embassy offices, supportive women at work in the Embassy residences and children in school are meant to be re-assuring.
In a world where the faces of a man, his wife and their children are expected to represent the face of a nation, it is clear that these people have to look trustworthy and behave in an agreeable way so that others are happy to talk to them, consider their proposals and sign agreements. For women, this often means that they provide an environment of social ease where people can meet in a relaxed atmosphere -- talk and get to know one another. Social events are often created as occasions to break the ice or to deepen existing relationships into friendships. In real terms, this usually means that the man conducts formal meetings in the office and signs off on agreements, and the woman organizes lunches and dinners, shops for groceries, cooks, decorates and so on. It is a secondary role in so far as female ambassadors usually hire staff to do this work.
African embassies often rely heavily on wives to help out due to budget constraints. It can be a primary role, as some ambassadors' wives have made it their ambition to throw the best parties in town; they excel at this work, and some ambassadors laughingly refer to themselves as the husband to the Ambassador's Wife, thus perhaps suggesting that there exists something like a professional Wife.
While some relish this lifestyle, others struggle with it -- I both thoroughly enjoyed myself and thoroughly struggled with it.
I spent five years as an Ambassador's wife in Moscow (from 2005 to 2010, representing South Africa). Most of us expats agreed that it was a fascinating but difficult place to live in. I enjoyed the city and what I saw of Russia. I experienced some of the heights of diplomatic life with state visits in the Kremlin and evenings at the Bolshoi ballet. I struggled with the undercurrent of xenophobia, often directed at people of colour, which was hard to ignore for African diplomats and their wives. People in such an environment tend to become insular, which I found at times suffocating.
From 2010 to 2014, we were posted in Beijing, China. Life on the street was easier, but diplomatic life remained the same with small talk at cocktail parties and fundraisers, at ladies' coffee mornings and dinner parties.
I think it is important to take a step back, to listen deep inside yourself and find out if this life is acceptable to you, or if it makes you feel deeply disconnected from your previous life which may have involved a professional job and a familiar social and physical environment, a language you were able to communicate in. I found I could cope with diplomatic life, but I did not want to spend too much time away from the things that defined me before we left. I was a university lecturer in German Studies in South Africa before we were posted abroad. On arrival in Russia, I was suddenly dealing with things like 'the official silver', studying recipes and selling South African wines at fundraisers. I went to Ambassadors' wives' lunch meetings. I shook the President's hand. It was a new life quite different from the one I was used to -- academics wearing jeans, teaching students and writing books.
I saw most of this new life as a great opportunity to learn -- some of it as a challenge to overcome, some of it as quite impossible for me to engage in. My husband watched me struggle through all of the above, silently praying that I would find my way through this jungle. He needed me to have his back, to tell him what to do and to accept that mine was the life behind the man.
While I can say that I embraced this life and tried to do my best, I also learned to withdraw from it whenever I felt I needed to and my husband allowed me plenty of space to do so. I continued to write. I finished my doctorate. Then I began to write fiction. 'A Year in the Village' is my first book. It represents the kind of withdrawal that allowed me to reflect and, at the same time, capitalize on all that I have experienced.
I think that diplomatic wives are exposed to all the challenges of a modern woman -- being a wife and mother, being educated and attractive, having a professional career and a comfortable home. In addition, these pressures are heightened by diplomacy's preference for the more traditional role of the woman as primarily supportive -- by being a representative person and living your life on a silver platter.
I think it is paramount to find out who you are and what you want. This knowledge will guide you through all the decisions you need to make as you consider the roles you are expected to play and those that you want to play.
Author of "A Year in the Village"
Petra Langa is a freelance writer and former lecturer in Pretoria, South Africa. She received a doctorate degree in German studies from the University of KwalZulu-Natal in South Africa. She is married to a former Ambassador of South Africa to China, and has lived in Germany, England, South Africa, Russia and China.
"A Year in the Village"
By Petra Langa
Author House Pub
Published May 18, 2015