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.