Why God, why am I a woman?
Sexual violence towards women have reached epidemic proportions worldwide. It doesn’t matter if you’re covered in a shuttlecock burqa or strutting your stuff in a bikini, our existence as females is under continuous attack. As women, we are supposed to be pliant, obedient, great chefs, honourable, sexually available and constantly blamed for the ills of society including the misdemeanours of men.
Having lived in the West and East, my perspectives and observations are unique. I can honestly say that things on both sides of the world don’t look good for women. Being born and raised in Saudi Arabia, one of the most socially-conservative countries in the world, I often saw young boys, who could barely get their eyes above the steering wheel, driving abaya-laden women around the city, most of whom were older than the driver. Religious police or ‘mutawas’ often patrolled the streets preying on women who breached some morality code that was tenuously linked to their interpretation of a Quranic verse. I once had a harrowing experience when a mutawa berated my mother for not covering me up. I was nine. The forced imposition of the abaya on me has made me repel it passionately. Coercion never garners respect of the veil.
Moving from Saudi to Pakistan, life became even more confusing. Whilst covering my whole self was no longer a pre-requisite to stepping out the home, the persistent staring and unwelcome touching by strangers made me feel extremely uneasy and dirty. On one occasion, my breasts were groped by a man while my mother was sitting right next to me. I was too stunned to complain and too young to know any different. I just remember hot tears falling down my cheeks and telling my mother that I just wanted to go home and crumple up in bed. When I complained about the lewdness to relatives I’d be, rather confusingly, told that it was my own fault for not wearing the right clothes or standing out in a crowd and, most importantly, I was told not to make a fuss. Never fight back or make a scene. Being sexually assaulted and then blamed for it was like being stabbed and then having someone else come in and push the knife deeper. I became outrageously depressed, anxious to step out into the bazaar and prone to fits of rage.
Next came the pestering phone calls from individuals who happened to get our home phone number from some innocuous source like a doctor’s registration form. Some of the callers used language that still burns in my ears today. It was a harrowing experience and oftentimes I wondered how the call to prayer could sound so loudly from minarets while men behaved like this so openly? How was it possible to reconcile the respect for women our religion taught us with what was happening in reality? I tried my best to make sure I didn’t do anything that might remotely entice a man in public and yet, each time, I would fail miserably.
This prolonged harassment led my family to a decision that a life in the United Kingdom would be better. Life certainly was calmer when I moved to the UK. I could walk into the local town alone and not be harassed or stared down. It was a reassuring experience. My clothes were not a source of arousal and neither would any man even think about touching me inappropriately.
However, the odious outwardly behaviours that were so closely legislated and controlled in the West led to a repression of male desires that simply moved underground. The depiction of women in popular culture like movies, pop songs and magazines made me question whether women were ever truly free in the West as well. In the movies, a woman’s whole objective in life was to find a man to love her, even though she would have to change everything about herself to do it (think Bridget Jones Diary, Miss Congeniality, Legally Blonde, She’s All That, 13 going on 30). Manly movies instead focused on women as a side note and usually only a fulfilment of sexual desire (think Godfather, Scarface, Goodfellas). I used to cringe when I’d see smart women debase themselves for men. It angered me that being a smart, highly-educated ambitious, single woman was not celebrated and encouraged, especially since western women worked so hard to achieve independence from patriarchal shackles.
In the western world, women’s bodies were used as commodities to sell everything from toothpaste to sofas. Women were solely judged on their appearance and not their intellect. The models who helped sell products all had the same vacant, sexually pliant look in their eyes and the same toothpick figure. The modern advertising industry only exists today because of female exploitation of some sort. About three years into my school life in the UK, I began restricting my food intake in a bid to look thin and beautiful like the women in magazines and movies. Two of my school friends were hospitalised for anorexia and I soon found myself following the same path. Being thin meant I would be popular, loved by all and relevant in the eyes of the world. Little did I know I was actually damaging my entire body irreparably.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the advent of internet pornography made things a whole lot worse for women all over the world. The rampant usage of porn desensitised men completely and they regarded women as objects, things to be used and then thrown away. In order to get a greater dopamine high, more violent videos involving rape and sexual assault would be sought by men. Women would be referred to using abhorrent language like bitches, sluts, whores and a plethora of other words too offensive to mention. Women in rap music videos were paraded in front of men and have money thrown on them and almost gang raped in jest. By the time I got to university, the men I encountered were crude, crass, aggressive and encouraged to have sexual relations with as many women as possible to show just how masculine they were.
When I started my professional life, I became increasingly dismayed by the huge disparities that existed between men and women in the western world. There would be a sea of women working as secretaries, administrators and assistants in an open office but, as you rose up the career ranks, fewer women would be seen. By the time you’d reached the boardroom, where all the executive decisions were made, women would only be seen if they were wheeling in pastries and tea. If a woman did happen to be present, she’d be there at the expense of never marrying or having children.
I became even more dismayed when I realised that men get paid more than women for the exact same work. A natural instinct like motherhood was actively repressed and discouraged because it hampered a woman’s ability to further her career. I often met women, beset with bitterness, who never had children to focus on their career only to find they’d been ignored for a promotion but their younger, male colleague went up the ranks a lot faster than them. As a woman, I was disappointed by the whole experience.
So now in a perpetual quandary, I am quite assured that life for women anywhere in the world is not easy. Our choices are either too limited or too superfluous, but never easy. I would also like to state that men are not the only evil doers. It is often said that a woman’s enemy is always another woman. This statement doesn’t become more apparent than when a woman marries in Pakistani/Indian culture.
There have been reams of articles, books, movies and dramas depicting the fractious relationship that exists between a mother-in-law (MIL) and her daughter-in-law (DIL) in precise detail. Sometimes it’s the MIL who is devilish or the DIL ‘steals’ the son with her modern thinking and charm. Add to this explosive mix some deranged sisters-in-law and you realise just how difficult we can make another woman’s life, sometimes out of sheer boredom or vexing frustrations with our own lives.
To alleviate these problems, I would encourage our women to find something constructive to do with their lives. If a woman has known nothing else apart from child rearing and husband pleasing than an outsider who marries into such a family has to go to great lengths to try and cut the umbilical cord which still ties her husband to his mother. Women should, therefore, be encouraged to work or pursue a hobby to keep them disinterested in the happenings of their sons lives. However, in patriarchal societies women are rarely encouraged to pursue work or hobbies (unless an absolute necessity) since men have an inherent fear that they will lose control over their family’s affairs or ‘mardaangi’ (masculinity) in the eyes of the world.
To conclude, Donald Trump’s repulsive talk of grabbing a woman’s genitals and the killing of Qandeel Baloch through honour killings shows the enormity of work that remains to be done towards recognising a woman’s right to humane treatment. I, for one, am increasingly concerned at the manner in which sexual violence has risen against women. Boys as young as eight are now watching pornography and are attacking young girls.
Six-month-old babies are being raped and killed. Something on a global scale needs to be done to ameliorate our situation so our daughters and sons can learn the importance of tolerance, respect and peaceful coexistence. We need to be telling the next generation that women are human beings with feelings, with emotions, with dreams and teeming with plans that are wholly unconnected to men. The pursuit of a suitable husband should not be our sole purpose in life and instead, we want a world where harassment, inequality and injustice of any kind is not present.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.