What Does It Mean To Be A Woman?

Or to put it in context, for myself: What does it mean to be a desi woman, exactly?

I tell myself everyday, it means pride, it means joy. I stand proud and tall and smirk internally because it is only in a predominantly white country that I learned that “beauty” is tanned. But I’ve always had that naturally. It is in a white country that I learned that patterns and embroidery that I have always loved (and rather taken for granted), are so valued (and taken out of context too, consequently), that they are sold at exorbitant prices, and for not great quality either. 

But that’s not all. That’s not all what it takes to be a woman. But what does it take to be a woman? 

And the simple answer is: I don’t know. I really, really don’t know. 

I was reading this submission on whoneedsfeminism about a competent woman being fired from her job because she refused to give her boss sexual favors. Which led me to thinking about another post I saw on Tribune Express Blog where female students in Universities were forced to give their teachers sexual favors. 

And somewhere internally I cringe. 

Let me explain: I am a Desi woman, and so from a very young age, this is what I have been invariably taught that my life would be: I’d grow up, go to school, maybe or maybe not get a job, and at the end of the day since I am a woman, my family would come first, and somehow, yes, somehow, I find it extremely difficult to imagine having children and having a career all at the same time. So it would be one thing or the other. 

I am not saying that it isn’t possible. Oh no! With great courage and fortitude, a lot of women and families do it, and I admire and salute them. But -it’s just that- I have never had a close role model to look up to and to say, yup, that’s possible. They are a happy family, I’d totally model myself after them. 

What does it mean to be a woman, to be a desi woman? It isn’t uncommon for me to hear horrifying stories from graduate school (or yes, even medical schools), where colleagues and students are blatantly harassed and asked for sexual favors. If you keep abreast of such issues, you’d know that it happens in the work place, and in the most mundane situations. And usually, the victims are without resources to fight back. 

It happens in America, in Pakistan, and everywhere else around the world. And this is just a small part of my identity: that of a woman. Simple as that. My identity of a woman. 

So let’s take this a step further: if you keep abreast of such situations, and see into racial aspect of it, you’d know that women of color, both in the world of academia and the job market, not only have to contend with harassment of a sexual nature, but also that of a racial nature. And because the media very *helpfully* (sarcasm intended there!) promotes very sexualized images of women of color, the pressure becomes double. [In instances where a women of color isn’t sexualized, she is portrayed as an incredibly dumb, idiot, ignorant fool. Guess what that does to our chances at getting a job?]

And so here I am, weighing out my stacks in a competitive secular world. Because the moment I turn around at home, I’ll be told: “It’s a good thing you have a husband, who has a job, and who doesn’t want you to work. Why would subject yourself to all these lewd harassment by men in the street and the job market anyway? Your place is in the home. It’s the jannat, the heaven on this earth and you were meant to build it.”

And dear Desi people, especially from Pakistan: you know this is true. There is enough literature and drama serials that will back me up here. 

So what does it mean to be a woman, a desi woman? It means a ticking time bomb. Because I know a day will come when my nani [grandmother] or ami [mother] will approach me, and tell me: "Tumhara rishta aya hai." [You got a marriage proposal]. And I am not sure, because I don’t like to talk about the future, but I can imagine my heart stopping. Not because I am against arrange marriages (don’t get them confused with forced marriages), but because, as simple and as complex as it sounds: I am not ready for marriage. Why? The question would invariably come. And: I wouldn’t know how to answer, because the answer becomes complex and long, but no, no, I am not ready for marriage. Not now, not yet, not for arrange marriage anyway (but the last part I would probably not utter). 

And the blame will come that I have become Americanized. Or if the battle ground is different, it would be because I am not American enough. It’s a lost cause anyway.

What does it mean to be a woman, to be a desi woman? It means a ticking time bomb, it means a constant battle ground. Behave a certain way, walk a certain way, talk a certain way. Don’t shout, don’t be too loud, are you mumbling, I can’t hear you, speak up. Have children, don’t have children, build up a career, but older women have pregnancy complications, but I can’t afford one right now, oh the Lord will provide, and yes, yes, get married, single women are looked down upon, (is that not so, dear Desi community?) everyone needs a partner at some point in their life, was she ugly and undesirable when younger? Oh, that’s right, headstrong, didn’t listen to her parents, hmph, these girls, so easily Americanized these days, why don’t they listen to their parents? But why do they, does the way she dress, is it because her father, her grandfather, her husband, it must be because someone forces her to? Oh she doesn’t have a husband? But I cannot imagine any woman covering herself up out of her own desire? Oh, you are free, and not oppressed, so you wouldn’t mind giving me a blowjob then? That’s freedom, freedom of expression haha that’s so funny! Oh, you Indian women, Pakistani? same thing same thing you guys are supposed to be good in bed, aren’t you? Oh I didn’t mean any offense haha but I was curious, and you know, a kiss doesn’t hurt, now does it, meant no offense. (Does it matter, sir, that I don’t even know you, or know you only in a professional way, but we both know I would never dare utter that). You think she’s smart, doesn’t look like it, if she was, she’d be in medicine or engineering or something, poor parents, saddled with her. Hey, you know, apply some ‘Fair & Lovely’, the marriage proposals are sure to come flocking, and use some ubtun, home remedy, always works, and well age doesn’t matter, you are still young, you still have that youthful innocence look on your face, in your eyes, your marriage night would be spectacular hain…….

What does it mean to be a woman, a desi woman? It means a myriad of voices, a constant battling of near exhaustion, trying to keep my sanity intact….

It means, reminding myself everyday as I wake up: it’s okay to be me. To have pride in me because I am brown, and  not very affluent, and it’s okay.

It also means, sometimes, to wonder what would life would be like if I were a boy, if it would be a little easier … .