Throw up a status on Facebook asking educated Pakistani women, your contemporaries, what issues are important to them, what are the things we should be talking and thinking about, and the response will leave you breathless. Edgy suggestions, thought provoking sentiments, and witty ripostes will fly at you with breakneck speed and at the end, you will have your eyes opened to a heavy truth.
When you see woman after woman respond “Can we be honest with each other?”, “I am tired of feeling judged by other women”, “How can we become allies instead of competitors?”, you begin to understand a difficult truth: Men are cruel and unfair to women. But women are also cruel and unfair to other women.
Why do women feel the need to categorize and indict each other? To embellish our lives, manufacture smokescreens to hide our weaknesses and treat each other as competitors and not cohorts? Why is it that we have let the size and scale of our weddings and where we shop for groceries define ourselves? Do we really hide behind clothes and preschool admissions? How is it that we have been convinced the pie for womanly success is limited and we have to trample on each other to secure a slice?
Underneath the common perception of women being naturally nurturing and good at relationships lies a historical reality of internalized patriarchy that blocks our ability to support, protect and fight for each other. And today’s Pakistani woman is sick of it.
I come to see that I am not the only one to have been made to feel that my concerns are somehow less legitimate, because I’ve made choices contrary to what other women considered “right.”
I am married to a cousin, through an arranged marriage. I have covered my head since I was seventeen. I am a stay at home mother. My life choices are what many other modern women would find abhorrent.
An undercurrent of resentment subtly pervasive in our culture right now is often felt by women who live lives similar to mine. At the very outset, other women find it difficult to believe that any of these choices (hijab, arranged marriage, no career) are, in fact, my choices and not forced upon me by anyone. Further, there seems to be a general idea that “conservative” women believe, by virtue of their choices (or more tritely, their dressing), they’re more virtuous than other women, feel they deserve special treatment, are perpetually needy for their husbands’ approval, and too distant from the lives of “modern” women to have a legitimate point of view. To me, this is simply the latest manifestation of the long-held desi belief that education makes women dangerously audacious and makes them forget their rightful place, initially as subservient, invisible daughters and subsequently, as subservient, invisible wives.
The idea that conservative women really should just either shut up and put up or embrace “freedom” in the exact way prescribed by other women, comes through loud and clear every time someone condemns a real or imaginary Durr-e-Shahwar or Khirad. (For the uninformed, these are heroines of television fame, roundly criticized for being weak because they chose to forgive their husbands even when greatly wronged by them.) This idea is disconcerting and offensive because it perpetuates that I, or these women, are the sum of their choices, no more and no less. That if I have embraced values of sacrifice, tolerance, compromise in some aspects of my life, I am somehow less evolved, less valuable, less intelligent, less a modern woman. The possibility that I may actually consider these values noble and venerable and as worthy goals to pursue rather than as by-products of my circumstances is rarely considered.
Along the same vein, when women speak out about their choices, their values or even their personal experiences, they are viewed critically or dismissively. As someone who writes about motherhood and marriage regularly, my written musings are frequently dismissed by other women as the scribblings of a bored housewife, “complaining”, “whining” or “being ungrateful”. However, when educated, modern men write or speak about other educated, modern men - and isn’t that what most political commentary is? - they are never said to be “whining” or to be limited by the narrowness of their gender, choice and experience.
I use myself as only one example, because, women who have made life choices polar opposites to mine, far too many and too varied to mention here, also feel scrutinized and criticized which speaks sad volumes about the pervasiveness of our internalized misogyny.
In an effort to break free, the Pakistani woman embraced “modernity” vis-à-vis cultural and financial liberation. “If a man can do it, I can do it better. Who needs men, amirite, ladies?” became the general sensibility. The idea was that if women became more like men or beat them at their own game (by pursuing higher education, establishing careers, conquering the public sphere), they would become visible, successful and respectable. While I am all for a woman making these choices for her personal satisfaction, it troubles me when women think that only matching men, those so called standard bearers of independence and modernity, achievement for achievement is the true measure of successful womanhood. It is a grievous loss to ourselves and to our future generations if we sideline all the glorious facets of what makes a real woman, essentially deny ourselves the right to be ourselves, in our misguided pursuit of membership to the good old boys club. If women don’t start recognizing that betraying ourselves is a battle lost before its even begun, we’ll spend all our time fighting each other instead of fighting what we should be fighting for – what women want.
Because, what women want is a recognition that most of us perpetually live in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” state of limbo. Some women want (some need) to work, and many want to have families and many want both and some want neither. What women want is an environment that will support, encourage and allow women to choose either or both and a safe public sphere where women can move freely. What women want is to talk about morality, philosophy, psychology, nation building, post-retirement futures, joint finances, fashion, annoying children, nihari recipes, the latest HumTV drama, the best place to get a hair cut, without being laughed at, condescended to, or reminded that our discourse is naturally limited by virtue of our sex. What women want is to have all those conversations, honestly, sincerely without second guessing themselves or each other. What women want is the right to be wrong, to make choices, without fear of judgment; to be allowed the human luxury of faltering without being crucified, of recovering without being demonized. What women want is for everyone, but especially other women, to remember that it’s really not easy being a woman in this country so let’s not make it any harder on each other than it already is.
Or perhaps the question itself of what women want, is problematic, because it furthers the misguided belief that women function as a collective, a homogenous whole. It insinuates that no matter how we might choose to identify ourselves - teacher, adventurer, scientist, mother, writer, doctor, athlete, artist, nature-lover - we are essentially just female. Lumping us together as one uniform monolith only has the sad effect of marginalizing us. It erases the reality that we are half the population within which resides a huge range of opinions, desires, preferences and lifestyles. We are a rich and varied group of humans with rich and varied beliefs, hopes, and experiences.
And what we want, what we really, really want is what everyone should want: Kindness. Truthfulness. Izzat. And through that, as Adrienne Rich said, “the creation of a society without domination”.
Last week we asked you if lawn promotes social divides and here is what you had to say
Do you think designer lawn is overrated?
Do you think marketing techniques used by lawn-makers accentuate social divides?
A shorter version of this article was published in The Express Tribune, Ms T, March 10th, 2013.
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