I See You

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Get married and you can do what you want. We’ve heard it all before, so many times. Too many times. That refrain: shaadi ke baad, shaadi kar te phir. (And I’m sure there’s probably an Arabic equivalent).

I can’t speak for other cultures, but for those of us of Pakistani/South Asian descent this is a favourite refrain when loved ones need to keep a female child from pursuing interests that don’t fit in with their own ideologies. The idea that somehow, after marriage, there will be this magic cap lifted on everything is a narrative fed to us with our rotis and ground into our rice and the very essence of our being. The message is clear: everything you want to do is dependent on whether a man wants you to do it.

So, you want to work/travel/study/volunteer abroad? You have a zeal and passion for it? Perhaps you have an aptitude for Quran or languages and want to specialise in a particular Islamic discipline? So, you do your research, you even look into accommodation and travel expenses and make a plan, tentatively making suggestions to your parents, drip-feeding them the information over time so as not to frighten them. But mainly you drip-feed in the vain hope that if they believe it was their idea in the first place they would let you go. But you gave up one night and just blurted it out at dinner and everyone exchanged glances, apart from your brothers who just kept on eating – this was not their fight, not yet. Your mother looked pointedly at your father who pretended he hadn’t heard, hoping you would disappear, so you said it again, this time your voice smaller, more uncertain.

Those of us who know, can predict how the conversation went. But it culminated in that final, inevitable refrain: get married and you can do what you want. In reality, what this means is “get married and you will be someone else’s problem”. Out of sight, out of mind. As though the baton of your ambition can be passed onto someone else. You’re a commodity, to be packaged up and posted onto someone else. So, you get married, expecting to be able to do all the things you want. Except you can’t.

From the earliest time, as little girls, we are taught to make ourselves smaller: be ambitious, but not too ambitious; get educated but not too educated; be religious but not too religious. Temper yourself and keep yourself from spilling over, lest your ambition and personality, lest your will, prove greater than a man’s. And that’s what it comes down to: overly-ambitious women, whatever their race and background are considered unattractive, but more so in South Asian communities. They’re unmarriageable, flighty and “too free”. Whatever phrase you use, whatever ideology you use, it all culminates in one thing: women can and should be modified, monitored and controlled.

Historically, religion has been used as a justification for modifying and controlling the behaviour of women and girls with a strong element of shame as an all-pervading cloud colouring everything we do. Not specific to Islam, control of women has been a useful tool in maintaining the status quo of a patriarchal society in general, a society designed from the outset to favour men in every aspect. This is much more pronounced in so-called “Islamic” communities where women are cast as home-makers, primary care givers, and even if they work full-time outside the home, maintainers of the domestic sphere. And there is nothing wrong with any of these roles; they can be immensely fulfilling and liberating for women; I know I found myself a privileged position, when, on the birth of my first child, I had the choice to stay at home and care for her, pursuing my postgraduate studies while my husband provided for us. It was a luxury to have such a choice.

Ay, there’s the rub: choice. I take no issue with women choosing the domestic sphere over the work sphere, or vice versa, as long as there really is a choice. But from the earliest time, girls are taught that self-sacrifice is more important than their own dreams and the happiness of the wider family and societal expectations take precedence over their own autonomy and sense of self. Give. Keep giving. Over and over. Give up yourself and give up your dreams. Women are creatures of sacrifice. Women are self-sacrificing by nature. It’s natural for you. When all you are taught is to make yourself smaller, more palatable, you crush your own dreams, there is no need for anyone to do it for you, because you internalise the narrative that you don’t matter; your dreams don’t matter and everyone and everything else in your life takes precedence over you. And that’s when it happens: the choice is stripped away; there is no need for physical restraint when cerebral chains take hold.

We eliminate our own choices when we internalise the narrative that our dreams do not matter.

Your husband is not a bad man; he is not a dictator, nor does he treat you badly; but marriage is not the liberator it was promised to be. Yes, you were passed on like property, but he never treated you like a commodity, like a thing. You were a person. You are a person. Except now, the narrative has been internalised, you have stripped away your own choices and those beautiful children of yours need you and you can’t bring yourself to begrudge them their need. Nurture them and help them grow; they need you. They should not suffer because you want to do other things.

We eliminate our own choices when we internalise the narrative that our dreams do not matter.

There are no easy answers, there is no quick fix. But it just needed to be said. It needed to be acknowledged because there are hundreds of women in the same position; having given up on their dreams for the sake of family, societal pressure, “religious” reasons, they continue to exist but not really live.

This is not a war cry or an attempt to free women from their metaphorical shackles. This is not a call to arms. This is not incitement to a rebellion for you to throw down the mantle of motherhood and enforced femininity and rise up.

This is an acknowledgment: I see you; we see you. For too long we have existed separately, believing ourselves to be alone; we see so many others, fulfilling their dreams and we feel isolated and cut off, as if we are the only ones who had to crush that part of ourselves that was so filled with passion; we are not the only ones who have had to modify ourselves to become more digestible.   We sit here, individually, the sun seemingly setting on own hopes and dreams, but we need to know,  we are not alone. You are not alone. I see you; we see you.

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