Home   |  Issues  |  The Daily Star Home | Thursday, October 15, 2008

By Sabhanaz Rashid Diya

The echoes of Maghrib azaan ring across the hallway. She comes running from the room, fixing her hair and gulps down a glass of water kept on the dining table. She eyes the 'family' seated around the table, mentally confirming everyone has got their food. She looks at her husband, who mumbles how the haalim seems too thick. Alarmed, she tells him she'll fix the problem by the time he's done saying his prayers. Almost immediately, she goes to the kitchen, fiddles with the cookery and as promised, delivers a less thickened haalim on her husband's plate. He gives her an affirmative nod and with a breath of relief, she sits down on the table and begins her iftar.

Note: her meal waits while his is done.
I am not reciting a fiction piece screaming extravagant feminism. I am not telling stories of bourgeois or poverty. This is an everyday scenario, practiced 'round the clock around the table in perfectly balanced families. The woman, committed to please the man; and the man, apathetic and poised. There is absolutely nothing morally wrong about trying to please another person. Your chances of not getting thrown from the gates of Heaven apparently increase by a small percentage every time you satisfy another being. It just happens so that in your desperation to please that other person, you've forgotten your priorities. For instance, in the aforementioned incident, I suppose the world would not have turned upside down if dear haalim for dearest husband waited until she had her fair share of iftar first.

Perhaps, I am being overtly sentimental. This really means nothing after all. So, she had her food a couple of minutes later. Why am I beating about the bushes for something so trivial? In my defense, I humbly confess this particular she was someone I admired greatly for many years. She represented a liberal entity, someone who always took charge of any given situation and spoke her mind. Someone who stood up for her beliefs, was infallible in her judgment and would never give into any form of subservience. Only recently, in front of my very eyes, she has transformed into the typical, exemplary wife who puts her man's priorities above hers. She, the fiery chunk of individualism I once looked up to, now seems like a stagnant mothball.

What does she tell me to calm me down? That he is the better man? He doesn't beat her up. He's not stopping her from working outside home. He's not intervening in her career. He doesn't choose her friends. Aren't all those more than a woman in a patriarch society can bargain for? Hasn't she had had enough? In an evolved system where women are brainwashed from the moment they gain intellectual conscience that her ultimate goal in life is to be a sensible home keeper in tandem to holding a basic job with an average salary; honestly, getting all that is a lot. But, what about having higher aspirations? What about being better than mediocre? How about the woman coming home late at night from work or not staying up 'out of love' for the man to serve him dinner? How about her attending a dinner buffet at the office while the he's having it at home with the kids? The kids aren't only hers; they're his too. Is he still the better man?

Honestly, even the narrowest peek into imagining such scenarios seems like an appalling reality. It challenges a perfect arrangement that has successfully dominated human psychology for decades.

How could anyone with the least sense of foresight have the audacity of toppling this system of rules? Before you conclude this text as a repetition of the hackneyed concept of the victimized women; allow me to conclude: it is the woman, rather, who victimizes herself.

Perplexed? Provoked? Am I finger-pointing the 'weaker sex' although I belong to it? We all know of incidents where the aspiring female was overshadowed by the daunting male, and she was cast into a life submerged in submission and stoicism. What about incidents where the woman wants to be thrown into such situations, rendering to the need of security and projecting her vulnerability? It's not the fear of being 'unloved' or dissatisfying the man; it's simply a precondition, a state of mind that she has been brought up with.

Mary McCarthy in her autobiographical novel, 'The Group' writes about eight Vassar girls in the 1930s. Intended to be a partial parody, it portrays women as they embrace ideas of political and social progress in the 1930s and 1940s. One of the most interesting 'facts' outlined in the novel was how on average, every girl who graduates from college is wife to a rich Republican lawyer and mother of two children. Similarly, the movie 'Monalisa Smile' starring Julia Roberts and Kirsten Durst is a refined depiction of how the Wellesley girls have hopes of marrying a decent man because they are well-educated. The fact that the woman has dreams and comes from a more educated background makes her a more attractive catch to the man. Whether those dreams are seen through is unimportant.

You may argue these are occurrences from '40s. Times have changed and women have become more independent. I don't disagree; we have, indeed, harvested more liberal mindsets about different things. However (subtle as it may seem to you), in reality, society has progressed very little in terms of the 'trophy wife' concept. Statistically, on average, every girl in their fourth-year at medical school becomes a talk for marriage. The simple facts that she has undertaken such a challenging course and carries the revered degree on her back make her a prime attraction to potential bachelors. She, herself expects to be 'the first pick' in a marriage talk because of her background. Countless times I have seen parents lecturing their daughters about how a complete college education will give them a better ground with her in-laws. Men today want a working wife; it's just more fashionable! Unfortunately, women take it as a way of life. If she studies and has a place in corporate or other fields, regardless of whether she's earning big bucks or being the most dynamic, she will create an impression wherever she goes. Education is a sense of security, a perquisite; not a substantial self-acknowledgement or personal development for more bountiful returns.

So, how about a woman who pursues a PhD in Anthropology? How about a working mother who runs an export firm? How about that female doctor specializing in Spinal Surgery and attending conferences across the globe? Now, wouldn't that be one heck of a progress? Yes, it's a painful struggle and communities will censure that woman. But, isn't that a fight worth striving for? I often face counterarguments about how the woman is a bigger need to the children. She must pull strings to maintain 'peace' in the family and make sacrifices for 'the greater good'. I'm not undermining women's roles in a social infrastructure; I'm only asking her to want more things for herself than what society has allotted for her.

I am not asking women to rebel against society; I'm begging her to pursue her dreams. She shouldn't have to grow up with preset ideas about where in life she'll have to make sacrifices. These days, I've come across too many girls who're determined make the cut in their careers for the sake of future families. Maybe that's a sign of maturity, but at the cost of losing your very singularity is too big a loss. I'm asking women to not eventually transform into a wholesomely different person the moment they step inside a household they are supposed to be responsible for. She doesn't need to bang her head on the table to impose her presence, but simply work into making her opinions and priorities count and have a strong voice. Breaking out of the box or removing a Queen of Hearts from the house of cards is the first step in bringing about a social reform. That can only start when she begins looking at things differently from what she's been taught to do.



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