“We teach females that in relationships, compromise is what a woman is more likely to do. […]We teach girls shame. Close your legs. Cover yourself. We make them feel as though by being born female, they are already guilty of something. And so girls grow up to be women who cannot say they have desire. Who silence themselves. Who cannot say what they truly think. Who have turned pretence into an art form.”
~ ‘We Should All Be Feminists’, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 1
Women talk. And when we talk, we talk about subjects beyond the stereotypical conversations that concentrate on men, household politics, clothes, and fashion. We talk about the role we play in what is perceived as an evolving society, where progress by and in favour of women is glacial at best – and why victories are so cathartically celebrated – and all of this sandwiched between a regular eight-hour workday where, it must be noted, we are better qualified than the men, but paid substantially less, because apparently we don’t “need the money”. As though a woman’s needs can be accurately assessed by the organization’s (mostly male) senior management. As though our ambitions don’t supersede a man’s by 2:1.
In a wonderful article titled ‘A Woman of War’, 2 Pakistani-American writer and feminist Mehreen Kasana speaks to the different societal pressures between both sexes in Pakistani society, “Male-entitlement dictates a woman’s silence. If we could see the mimetic model of the erasure of a woman’s voice, it would be an incredibly bloody sight.” But look closer and you’ll discover: it’s not just us. Patriarchy and the male gaze exists just about everywhere and they will continue to exist until we, the women, the ones unfortunately tagged as the childrearing parent, push for a change. It may very well be a grassroots campaign that starts from one household and carries through to others.
Girls taught to shine but never outshine their brothers; taught to be the childbearing crucibles of household warmth; taught to make food and present it just right; to do well at school but have the showmanship of cake-baking trumpeted over academic prowess.
When I was growing up in Pakistan in the nineties, there were far too many television serials attesting to the difficult and problematic relationship between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, given that both were competing for the attentions of the man they loved. Why must it always be about pitting women against each other? Especially how infrequent the “catfights” are among men which are termed “competitive behaviour” or “male aggression”. Aggression, it would appear, is strictly correlated with testosterone. We seem to be rooted in the same barbaric tradition that existed in pre-Islamic Arabia, of burying our daughters and elevating our sons. I cannot speak to how many female infants are buried alive in our rural areas, but the urban approach is no less barbaric. Girls taught to shine, but never outshine their brothers; taught to be the childbearing crucibles of household warmth; taught to make food and present it just right; to do well at school but have the showmanship of cake-baking trumpeted over academic prowess.
When women allow for their sons to be shown preferential treatment at the expense of their daughters, an entire generation of economic security, not to mention intellectual and emotional welfare, goes right out the window. We may talk ourselves to death about the pervasiveness and sheer disgustingness of the “male gaze”, but we as women have allowed the culture to perpetuate by treating the men in our lives like gods. These are the husbands and fathers of tomorrow and how they treat their wives and daughters falls equally on the men and women who birthed them and the parent who raised them. Teach your sons to honour their wives and the whole patriarchy is thrown on its head; teach your daughters that they are only as ambitious as how high their arm goes and you curtail their boundless enthusiasm, creating the stereotypes so many of us are trying to break through. It doesn’t help when men stomp around the world like it’s their oyster, leer at women, make passes at women, all the while knowing that they won’t get their due.
In ‘Everyday Sexism’, author Laura Bates, who uses testimonials from girls and women across the world including Pakistan, notes (in a strikingly similar way to Nigerian writer Adichie whose quote starts this piece), “It feels a bit like a punch in the stomach every time I read an Everyday Sexism entry about girls being told, unequivocally, at such a young age, that they are somehow by definition inferior to their male peers. Marked out – sometimes even at their very moment of success – as if they’re somehow defective on the basis of sex alone.” So this isn’t just a problem that men perpetuate; they parrot the world that society’s created for them and the women who ultimately live with them. In an earlier editorial, I wondered why the burden of marrying and procreating must always fall on the woman, such that if there’s a party that must give up and compromise, the automatic assumption is always that it will be the woman. If she chooses to do neither, “there must be something wrong with her”, but in the case of a man, “he’s just playing the field.” The term “womanizer” and “slut” refer to the same thing in scathingly different terms (the term “man-whore” is no better; why not just call the man a whore? Why must it be so undeniably gendered?). And somehow, especially when it comes to domestic abuse, the burden to compromise and “keep the house intact” almost always falls on the woman. If she cheats on you, she’s a bitch and you should leave her. If he cheats on you, well… he’s a man. They’re sexual beings. What can you expect?
Because sex is such an underrepresented topic in Pakistan, rape (and other forms of sexual assault), sexual harassment and domestic abuse are almost always blamed on the victim, who is almost always a woman. Because “she must have deserved it”, or “she must have said something to provoke him”, or “did you see what she was wearing? Serves her right.” Serves. Her. Right. As though a man’s natural state is a rapist; anything with breasts and a vagina qualifies. But rape and sexual assault aren’t the only forms of sex in the country; because of the pervasive need to not talk about the subject openly, teens as young as 14 – awakening as they are to their own sexuality and all these newfound “urges” – are discovering sex and pursuing it. Bring it to the attention of their parents and, in the case of boys, you’ll get one of two responses: “mera baita aisi harkaton main mubtila nahi hai” 3 or “larka hai”, 4 but in the case of the pristinely clean girls where such an act is the definition of a stained reputation, there are instances of terminated pregnancies, parents kicking them out of the house, and in some cases, honour killings etc. As though there weren’t two people in the room; as though it’s okay for men to “experiment” and want a “zero-meter” wife.
What is the equivalent term for stripping a woman of her ability to exist as an individual, on her own merit, quite apart from who she married or who “sired” her? Where is the term that defines “don’t venture too far, lest you wound your man’s ego”?
It’s important to bring this devastatingly misogynist and sexist culture into the drawing rooms of society, supplanting the ever permanent discussions of politics and religious discourse, two themes sewn into the lifeblood of Pakistan. How we treat women and how they are perceived in society are sadly closely intertwined with how they see themselves. We must teach young girls the power of ambition, something they have in droves as children – ask any five year-old girl what she wants to be and I doubt you’ll get “housewife” as an answer. These are protocols we imprint on them as they grow older, reminding them to never dip a toe out “too far”. Adichie writes, “We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man. If you are the breadwinner in your relationship, pretend that you are not, especially in public, otherwise you will emasculate him.’” Emasculate: “[to] deprive (a man) of his male role or identity”. Just what is a “male role”? And what is the equivalent term for women? What is the equivalent term for stripping a woman of her ability to exist as an individual, on her own merit, quite apart from who she married or who “sired” her? Where is the term that defines “don’t venture too far, lest you wound your man’s ego”?
What are we so afraid will happen if women are given access to the same resources as a man and the same words of encouragement? We teach this to our children, to the generation that stands to break past our insufferable prejudices that are dutifully weighing down our society and preventing true reform. In my day job, I’ve travelled to Pakistan’s remote villages and there are an alarming number of women who are working as teachers in schools or ploughing the fields and who are, for all intents and purposes, the reasons their households are running so smoothly both financially and civically. But when it comes to spending, their unambitious men are aces, and lord over the existences of their wives, daughters, mothers and sisters. And this culture has been allowed to persist in urban society just as much as it has in “backwater places”.
The move to change status quo has to start from somewhere, but perhaps the best place to start is by asking young girls and young women what they want and to not bring a media culture that myopically defines what toys are “for” boys and which ones are “for” girls; that bombards them with ideals of impossible perfection to “land”… not a job, but a man (I’m sure there are far more ‘How to Get Your Dream Guy’ books than there are ‘How to Get Your Dream Girl’ ones); and that raises girls up on a steady diet of “princess” stories just waiting to land their “prince”, into our homes. Start from treating your children, sisters, mothers, other women in your lives with respect, merely as human beings and watch a society transform.
This change in mentality is a long-term investment in the emotional futures of the generations that follow; there needs to be some measure of honesty; some tempered expectation of what a woman’s future can look like if she was treated like a human being. Educating boys especially on what both men and women go through on a daily basis, and encouraging girls to be more affirmative and assertive at home builds the environment required for women to be seen as independent individuals, not hanging on to the words of the men in their lives, being actively involved in social discourse, and working just as hard to effect change.
I’ll conclude with a quote Google tells me is from Lebanese philosopher (and former President of the United Nations General Assembly) Charles Malik: “The fastest way to change society is to mobilize the women of the world.” What else is there left to say?
- Ngozi Adichie, Chimamanda, ‘We Should All Be Feminists’; Fourth Estate, 2014
- Kasana, Mehreen, ‘A Woman of War’; The Nation, March 3, 2015
- Translated from Urdu: “My son isn’t involved in such activities.”
- Translated from Urdu: “He is a boy.”