A series of calls to my name leads me to get out of bed and throw on a socially “appropriate” outfit. My father’s childhood friend from Pakistan is visiting for the weekend, and I mentally prepare for a routine conversation as I take my time to walk down the stairs –– alaam, yes I’m fine, how are you? School is going great. No, I'm actually not going to become a doctor. Nope, no plans to get married anytime yet. As our conversation begins, I silently applaud myself for my accurate guess.
Out of habit, I set a kettle on the stove and started making tea for the two gentlemen who’ve been brought up to expect it. We continue conversing, and he asks me what my future plans are if I’m not pursuing medicine. I tell him I’m moving to New York for work before applying to law school. My dad interjects with the usual, “I keep telling her to stay in Atlanta for a couple of years; she needs to be close to home. She can move to whichever city she wants when she’s married.”
I wonder why we think our daughters’ livelihood can only begin when they get married.
The uncle responds back saying, “No, no let her go live her life now. When she marries, she won’t be tied up in all this nonsense work and travel business.”
My mind switches: I wonder why we think our daughters’ livelihoods should end when they get married.
My mind drifts towards the concept of romance. Out of habit, I start daydreaming about the ideal Desi Muslim man who I’m supposed to marry. He should be from a good family, have a stable job with a salary higher than mine, and share the same mother tongue as my family. If I’m lucky, his family will be not just tolerant, but happy about me wanting to foster children and work long hours. These few things are more than enough to fulfill my parents’ checklist. Marriage with a decent enough man is the norm; any bonus, and I’m one lucky girl.
When I talk to my mom about love and that being the path to marriage, she argues back saying that the statistics for arranged marriages in “our” culture are significantly longer than love marriages than in Western culture. In her eyes, we are lucky to have arranged marriages. I tell her she needs to read between the lines: longer marriages, but at what cost? Unreported domestic violence cases, fears of social isolation higher than fears of divorce, and our own obsession with the concept of izzat (read: honor) translate into more “successful” marriages.
But this success isn’t served to us; it’s served by us with a side of chai and cake rusk to our unwavering families and husbands. But at whose expense? Pain, struggle, and inequality in marriages are hereditary for our mothers and their mothers. We grew up seeing tolerance towards violence, financial inequality, and unappreciation to the women in our family; unknowingly, this becomes the standard for us. So, if and when we find a South Asian man who gets some of our pain, who believes in the basics of equality, we treat him like God, reversing the effect of equality in the first place. Because for us, injustice is the norm, and respect is a reward.
We are forced to think that marriage is better than being alone. We go our whole lives without the chance to be protagonists in our own stories.
Our entire lives, we are fighting a battle. Even when we are resting, we are fighting. Pain, struggle, and inequality are hereditary, engrained, and expected. When our eyes are closed, we’re made to see everything we’re not. When our eyes are open, we’re forced to turn a blind eye to the injustice happening before us.
It feels like an autobiography was written for me the day I was born, a template timeline:
0-3: Our time to be loved despite some disappointment that we were not born male. My time to be dressed in frilly pink dresses, the only time it’s acceptable for me to wear dresses that hit above my knees.
4-9: Our time to play and enjoy a glimpse of life and adventure. My time to be patient with the little boys who hit me and get away with it.
9-14: Our puberty years. The years I was told to put a “stroll” over my clothes to cover my developing chest as if it is my responsibility to shield the eyes of men away.
14-18: Our time to do well in school and get into fairly reputable colleges. Some family members are already thinking it’s time for me to get married off.
18- 22+: Our time to finally pursue an education (read: medicine) or, for some, none at all. My time to secretly pursue our side passions, kiss a boy I like but know I would never bring home to our parents, our “ticking time” years.
From here on, the years hardly seem to matter. The phone rings and we hope the family memberis calling in to congratulate us on our recent job promotion. Instead, they ask “bachae wachae sub teek hain? Job kaisi chal ri hai — ab ki valid ki?” How are the kids and the house and all? How is the job going — your husband’s I mean?
Our dear women. They do not deserve this. Their Google search histories filled with phrases like: “job posting with no degree” or “how to make an abusive husband change?” The first memory we have of our fathers should not be of them locking our mothers out of the house, in the cold; our daily conversations with our family members should not revolve solely around when we are getting married and what recipe we learned during this lockdown.
People ask why I’m always “on” –– active, progressive, working, why I always have to turn one small thing into something more. I answer that so long as these issues are active, so am I.
We’ve grown comfortable in our struggle. Without struggle, what’s the meaning of our existence? It feels like my generation is living a hyphenated life; women who want to fight but are tied down in the process of doing so. Desi-Americans. We are the glue holding together stereotypical. Oxymorons such as Independent –– Desi Woman. Ambitious-ladki.
I stop the train tracks running in my mind and look at my mother, who’s busy prepping dinner while the men continue to enjoy their tea in the dining room. A physician by trade who moved continent after continent by default, her steps trailing behind her husband’s career. Everyone was impressed by the path of hard work my father undertook; everyone was impressed by the large house and nice china my mom has.
I take in her facial features and notice a layer of spark gone from her eyes and skin, replaced by the dull drear of sheer tiredness. I think back to the time my mother was once given a book as a gift, folded in 28 layers of wrapping paper as though it was made for a game of hot potato. When we finally got to peeling the bottom layer, the words “How to Deal with a Narcissist” peeped out from the book hidden underneath.
I wonder what happened to that book.
Aiman Shahab is a member of the Class of 2020 at the Georgia Institute of Technology.