He asked me why I never “act like a woman” – what does that mean?

Published: March 7, 2017

My marriage or lack thereof has no implication or effect on their lives.

Earlier this week, I went bursting into the courtroom to show my fellow colleague the new book I was reading. I exclaimed,

“Oh my god. You have to see this!”

Although no one was alerted by my vivacious excitement, he was completely mortified. He exclaimed,

“What is wrong with you? Why do you never act like a woman? They are supposed to be quiet and elegant”.

As annoyed as I was with his remark, I had to admit he revealed an unearthing reality of our society. Women are expected to be clones of the typical damsel in distress – quiet, shy, dignified – any variation from this is not only seen as a breach of elegance, but as a breach of the predetermined roles the Pakistani society had constructed for them.

Turn on your television sets, and every other advertisement is targeted towards women: advising them to be fairer, slimmer, better cooks. Girls of ‘marriageable age are encouraged to go to grooming classes – not for self-improvement or growth – but for social acceptance, akin to dogs being sent to obedience schools so they can learn to act properly in a domesticated environment.

I am an un-married woman in her mid-20s, and the only question I am constantly bombarded with at any social gathering is,

“When are you getting married?”

The most fascinating aspect of this interaction is not only that my worth in society is inherently tied to my matrimony, but also that most of the interactions are with individuals who do not even know my last name. My marriage or lack thereof has no implication or effect on their lives. However, this does not deter them from inquiring as to why I have chosen this inferior life. I may try and explain that this is not a circumstance forced upon me, and that I am immensely proud of the contribution I make to society. However, I am always defeated by the same pitying words,

“Don’t worry; your time will come too.”

As a young lawyer, I have working hours that sometimes run quite late into the night. I am constantly deflecting inane questions as to why I am at the office so late or why I cannot just leave and continue my work the next day. The focus of my professional existence is not my passion or commitment to it, but the large portion of my life that it consumes. I am well aware that a man in a similar position would simply be viewed as hard-working and would therefore never have to justify his time or endure such a humiliating set of questions. These queries are reserved for women, whose professional pursuits we view as ancillary to their central purpose.

In the same vein, the prominence of women in our society in various facets has done very little to change our general attitude towards them. A little over a year ago, a group of environmental activists had come to the Lahore High Court to petition against the environmental impact of the signal free corridor. The commentary from the gallery of lawyers and layman alike was an attack on the women’s’ physical appearance, designer bags, or disconnect from the general populous.

There was no similar sentiment or remark made about the male activists. Nor was there any introspection that many of the men on both sides of the issue drove luxury cars or also wore designer accessories. More importantly, the social standing or shopping choices of these women were not relevant issues before the High Court, and if there was disagreement with the women’s position, then that criticisms should have be channeled towards content, rather than their appearance.

While the mannequin challenge continues to dominate the internet, let us focus on the less watched, but infinitely more important moment after: The part where everyone moves on. It is long overdue for Pakistan to do the same.

As long as there is passing acquiesce to such a mindset, the future of women will be just as murky as the past. There is nothing wrong with teaching your daughter(s) how to cook or clean, however it should not be for social acceptance or matrimony, but because these are skills that may enhance her life. She does not need to be a cookie-cutter replica of anyone. Just as we celebrate individuality in our men, it is long overdue that we begin celebrating our women in the same manner. The notion that all 96,206,503 should be the same is outdated as my colleagues comment.

To borrow a line from the iconic Carrie Bradshaw,

“I will never be the woman with perfect hair, who can wear white, and not spill it”.

With the very same words her friend consoles her with, I say to myself also,

“It’s okay”.


Atira Ikram

The author is a practicing lawyer in Lahore. I, also teach for the University of London International Programmes. She tweets @atirashaw

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • ab

    woman should act like a woman and man should act like a man.There shouldn’t be any confusion in that. A woman is beautiful when she is a woman and a man is beautiful when he is a man. feminist lives in fantasy world ,away for reality. feminist worth lies in her career which is a very distorted view. Women worth should lies in being woman not doing what men does.Recommend

  • Ahmar Bilal Butt

    I don’t know if it is because of the upbringing or how society has been affecting someone’s life and attitude but I have also seen those women who have this attitude of laziness and want to be “protected” by their men.
    Not every woman in the country is as career-oriented as you sound from your piece. I wish more and more women are aspiring like you and have energy and career goals!Recommend

  • Ahmar

    So what are you proposing? That society should just shut up?

    Men also get asked often, “So when are you getting married?” Men get judged all the time. How much does he earn? What are his future prospects? Does he own a car?

    How do men cope with constantly being evaluated at work and social gatherings? We shrug it off. Grow a thicker skin if it bothers you so much, which it obviously does since you wrote a blog on it all.

    And if you can’t shrug it off then cut company with people whose opinions upset you.Recommend

  • asfandyar

    As it is International women day and again stating that i am not anti-feminist but let me clarify a few things
    i have never believed in nor i will that women are equal to men they are far much greater then men and these so called societal issues you are stating about sorry to say are also faced by many men.
    Turn on the television and you will see in every AD the most handsome, good looking and “RICH” guy being a symbol of desirability and men are also NOT sent to universities or good institution to gain some excellence or grooming they are only sent to be “SOCIALLY ACCEPTED”.
    Marriage!!!! Everyone should have the liberty to get married whenever they want whether women or men yes this is a flaw and women are considered to be married by the age of 20-25 or otherwise considered OLD.
    and i would also regretfully agree on the fact that a professional woman like yourself have to be answerable to my set of questions and also the fact that women are considered to be an easy prey in our society but this mindset is not going to change unless “you”(THE WOMEN OF OUR SOCIETY) do something about it in my opinion women are the one building a society the role she plays as mother, sister, Wife you and only you can change these mindsets because everyone start’s from a woman’s WOMB and she is the very first teacher.Recommend

  • Atira Ikram

    Thank you for your kind comment. We make the world we want to live in, LETS KEEP BUILDING! Have a great day :)Recommend

  • Atira Ikram

    Haha. No, society should not shut up. Societies inherently grow, which was the point of the piece.

    I agree this obsession we have in this country regarding superficial qualities with both Genders is ridiculous. I would hope that you would appreciate the difference between the pointed questions and challenges women face than men. While a man may be questioned about his career prospects and his financial success, at least they have an opportunity to show the world what they can achieve. Most women in this country first have to seek approval from their families, then their husbands, and so on just to have half the chance that men already do in this country, and even after succeeding or trying the focus of the conversation is still on inane issues like their timings, or their appearance, etc. They are not rewarded, encouraged, or praised for attempting to make a worthwhile contribution to society.Recommend

  • farhan

    you forgot..how much money men have…big cars.. gold diggersRecommend

  • farhan

    this generation is messed up.. every little thing bothers them and its a great issue..especially women..they make a mountain of moleRecommend

  • liberal-lubna-fromLahore

    its means get over yourself. stop getting offended by every little thing. Let go of foolish rubbish things. Live laugh and love.
    Forgive forget and move on. Everyone is going through something. Just because someone mistakenly unknowingly unconsciously made a sexist comment, doesn’t make them a bad evil person.Recommend

  • Ahmar

    You can’t change something biological.

    Men find demure and shy women interesting. Women find confident and bold men attractive. Gender behavior expectation is not a cultural thing. It is a biological thing.

    What you consider an “opportunity” is more of a responsibility. Men don’t have to ask permission because we have no choice! We are forced from a young age to go out and make a living to support our families or be declared the lazy, useless burden of a son/husband. I am amazed you speak of opportunity when hundreds of thousands of graduated men are desperately working at low paying, dead-end jobs in this country just to make sure there is food on the table for their families.

    By all means, change the society and you ladies can go and avail all this “opportunity” and do all the work while men can stay at home and watch morning shows, daytime TV and cooking channels.

    The grass only appears greener from the other side.Recommend

  • Atira Ikram

    Thank you for your comment and point of view. The Blog did not state that any individual becomes evil if they make a sexist comment. We all do indeed do things unconsciously that do not make us evil. However, we also hope that through writings and learning from each other we can improve ourselves and the content of our conversations. While this exchange or blog reflected a personal experience, there are millions of other Pakistani women that face issues far more serious than mine, and until we acknowledge that there are serious issues with our perceptions/images of women, the whole society will continue to suffer.Recommend

  • El Cid

    “I went bursting into the courtroom to show my fellow colleague the new book I was reading […] in my vivacious excitement. He was mortified, exclaimed “Why do you never act like a woman?” They are supposed to be quiet and elegant”.
    I think that he should rather have said that when you enter the court room to please observe decorum. Be professional, enter like an attorney or at least like a lady. Be vivacious on your own time. The court is serious business, not a pick up joint. That I think would have been more appropriate for him to say.


  • reza

    A perfect ReplyRecommend

  • Atira Ikram

    Actually, the Court was not in order at the time and there is nothing unprofessional about sharing a book with your colleague, at any time.Recommend

  • Atira Ikram

    Actually, most sociologists agree that gender is a social construction, which is why you have once patriarchal societies such as the British Monarchy have women in such diversified roles.

    It is indeed a grave responsibility providing for your family, one that should not be just on one gender. If we actually encouraged and utilized over half our population (women), men would not feel as burdened.

    I hope you realize that stay at home mothers/wives do much more than watch morning shows. They make our homes comfortable and fill them with love, we should appreciate their contribution.

    As you said, the grass is always greener on the other side, there is no need to mock what one has not endured.Recommend

  • El Cid

    Mind you I am all for vivacious excitement in personal life but they need to teach professional behavior in law school. Rushing into the court in “vivacious excitement” over a book does seem unprofessional as your colleague pointed out. And I agree with him. It was drama on your part. Recommend