by Ruwaida Shaikh
It really wasn’t until I turned 8, and my little sister was born that I felt compared for the first time. Until then, I was too young to be aware, or care, and comprehend. I woke up one morning for school, brushed my teeth, wore my uniform and made my way to in front of the mirror, waiting for my mother to braid my hair like she always did. She never came. I waited and waited, getting anxious about missing my school bus but she never came. Instead, I saw my father groggily make his way to me, mumbling something about how my mom was attending to my little sister, and that he can help me braid my hair instead. Needless to say, together we did a terrible job at braiding my hair and it was then I had to learn to become independent. There was no passing of knowledge or talk around it, it was simply this instance along with others that made me feel less important than before, and one that taught me to attend to myself.
In the following months, I learned quickly that I wasn’t my mom’s priority. I came back from school one day, crying because I was bullied by the older kids for my messy hairdo. My mother, who was playing with my sister at the time, was too busy to listen to my cries but was quick to remark “Well, your sister hardly cries. Why do you have to be so sensitive?”, eliciting a pang of grief in me. I felt insignificant, but more importantly, unheard and invalidated by my own family, which added to my lack of self-worth growing up. My mother would walk around our apartment singing tales about my sister’s well-disciplined manner and clearly call her favorite of us all, while she showed disinterest and disappointment in my life choices as a 10-year-old.
I lacked an older sister or a role model, and my only reference point for womanhood was my mother. My mother was an Indian immigrant, that had moved to Dubai with a man she hardly knew at the age of 17. She didn’t know English, and she held onto traditional values as a safety net. We also conveniently lived in the “Indian” neighborhood of Dubai, so it felt like little India, where she never had to learn English really, and she would buy her groceries at the local shop where she could gossip about the happenings in the area. She wanted to pass on those values into me as a growing. But I was my own person, even at the age of 10, I knew I didn’t have the same views they had. I knew I wanted to be creative in every way. I loved expression, I loved the underdog, I loved reading and writing and these things were unheard of at that time in my house. Usually, the girls around me at that time were obedient in the way that pleased the parents, you know- coming home at 6 pm, having little to no friends, had no boyfriends (let alone girlfriends) and wore modest clothes. The more they added structure to my life, the more I resisted it.
During my preteens, I developed a love for music. It was expressive, it had words to a beat, and I wanted to express my words in that way. I wanted to share my story. Excited to share my new found love for music with my parents, I walked into the kitchen and found my mom was making daal chawal. And I could sense that she was frustrated with the chores she had to complete in the day. She tossed utencils around with a heavy hand and yelled at inanimate things. So I timidly said, “I want to learn to play the guitar”. To that, my mother said, “Why can’t you be like Priya? She never does anything her parents don’t want her to, and she sticks to studying, her heads always down.” I felt my heart sink. I felt different, too different maybe. Too different for my parents to even understand me. It was lonely.
It wasn’t like I didn’t like Priya, I just didn’t relate to her. In my humble 10-year-old mind, I felt that Priya too was afraid to have an identity of her own, in case it offends her parents. We all functioned from a place of fear, a result of an overprotective and authoritative parenting style. It didn’t stop me from trying though. I pushed the envelope by constantly doing things outside of their narrative: I was 14 when I dyed my hair red. I had not anticipated the disappointment my mom would feel because of this decision. I walked into our apartment, hoping that my parents would love my new hair but we hardly made it to my room, and my mom was almost in tears. She exclaimed, “You have shamed me, you have shamed us, why do you have to go and do these things? Why can’t you just be normal?” What was “normal” anyway? I wanted to express my individuality, I didn’t think I was weird or not normal until it was repeated over and over in my home by my parents. They never realized the impact those words would have later on in my life. It came back to Shreya, another peer, who lived in the same building as me- “Shreya never ever dyes her hair, or does anything that shames her family. Why can’t you be more like her?” my mom yelled fighting back tears. I personally thought Shreya was boring. I never hung out with her, because we had nothing in common. I wanted to talk about crushes, boobs, and lipgloss at sleepovers but these topics felt haram (forbidden). The only girls that wanted to talk about these topics then were the girls I wasn’t allowed to be friends with. They were “poorly raised Indian girls” my mom wanted me to stay away from.
My mother wanted me to model after the highly educated Hindu families, a desperate attempt to change our family’s history of being poor and uneducated in India through my achievements. I was suddenly a catalyst in the “immigrant dream”, a dream that she never got an opportunity to live out but was keen for me to unleash. I wasn’t against this as I do have dreams, they just simply weren’t suitable in her opinion. I did not want to study economics, or be a doctor, or do an MBA. I had dreams that were threatening the traditional Indian daughter path, and I certainly wasn’t going to marry straight after college to some dude they wanted. There was a general lack of trust between me and her, and she eroded that further by telling on me and constantly showing her disappointment.
My mother’s idea of what it is to be a “good and suitable” woman was deeply backed by misogynistic values that came with her during her move to Dubai, one that never got challenged but only reinforced by the community around her and of course, my father. The idea of a “suitable woman” is inherently destructive to the growth of a young woman, for it handicaps her from exploring her own interests and individuality. On top of this, comparison as a means of control and enforcing obedience is only damaging. By constantly pitting women against one another from a young age, we learn that women are our competition but not in the sense that it is healthy but rather, in a very structured patriarchal world that has a clear idea of what makes a woman good or bad. At the backdrop of this world, women are constantly trying to be “good” by not being “too sexual” or “too individualistic”, while the men get to not only make the rules but also break them as they please. I realized quickly that I couldn’t have an opinion too loud in my own house, as “Priya” or “Shreya” never did that, so I shouldn’t either. But I was never meant to be them anyway. I was my own person, a concept lost on my family.
The concept of gossiping isn’t entirely new to my community. I grew up around aunties that would comment on any weight gain (or loss) with a bitter taste in their mouths. I never understood the resent, the jealousy. But I’m starting to wonder if the way we raise our daughters into women has anything to do with how we view other women as adults. I was constantly made to view other girls my age as my competition, never “friends” in the real sense, and never knew what sisterhood truly meant. We had to be better than each other, in education, in obedience, in modest clothing, in religion. The real aspect of what friends are, the bonding, the sharing, cultivating, the support, the strength- the wonder of sisterhood, none of those things were valued or encouraged. The women older around me (including my mother) never had any friends, and their conversations revolved around talking about other women: was it a love marriage? Did she run away? How did she lose all that weight? It was superficial, based on what they’ve been told that women should behave like. I saw the women around me repeat the same knowledge passed onto them, without challenging or questioning it, and simply upholding toxic misogynistic values even as they continued to harm future generations. They were stripped from their individuality and now forced to be good mothers and wives, while their husbands were never held accountable by society.
There isn’t a ‘live and let live’ culture, but a ‘live and be talked about’ culture that upholds women to an unreasonably high standard of perfection, and refuses to accept them as fully functioning individuals with a right to their own opinions. It perpetuates shame and guilt, and therefore, I understand why my elders never really challenged an existing narrative. Maybe, the auntie we love to hate is riddled with fear and shame just like the rest of us. And suddenly, I feel sorry. I feel sorry that my ancestors, my mother, and all the people in my family have been a product of this society that enables women to compete against each other in such insignificant ways. I feel sorry because I cannot possibly go back in time to help them, and I know my mom is too old and set in her ways to change. I feel the weight of this ancestral trauma, and I am keen to bring it to a stop. The purpose of evolving as a generation is to learn new ways to adapt and thrive, and I don’t see the harm in pushing the envelope if it means we all collectively unlearn the way misogyny has a hold on us. This trauma ends with me.