There was a time in my life when I disliked the fact that I was born a female. I can’t believe I am actually writing this down; I feel so guilty just thinking it. However, it is true.
The tenacious adherence of the masses to a largely culture-based preference for sons in many Muslim-majority regions incidentally hails from the pre-Islamic ignorance (jahiliyyah), caused by the dominance of men in professional fields and their control in the procurement and ownership of income, property and wealth. This, combined with the twisted association of female chastity (or lack thereof) with “family honour” and reputation, topped with the blood-sucking dowry system that breaks the backs of daughters’ parents, all come together to overshadow the reality of the truth of Islam and the light of the Qur’an.
Coming back to my childhood, perhaps the fact that we were just two siblings, my brother and I, highlighted my chagrin at the way things changed abruptly when he and I hit puberty, almost at the same time (he is just one year older than me). Suddenly, my happy-go-lucky, carefree, childhood days – in which we both shared the same play and academic activities, excursions, and freedoms – started to be numbered.
We lived in an apartment complex where children came out to play outdoor games and ride bikes in the evenings. I was not prepared in advance, nor informed, about the change that my elders intended to bring about in my life when I turned thirteen. Expectations, permissions, rules and restrictions started transforming very quickly, as I confusedly looked on.
Now I was told to wear flowing clothes (shalwar kameez only), and I could not go outside without a wide, flowing traditional stole – the dupatta (a part of Pakistani dress) – that covered my bosom. My questions and protests, that arose out of curiosity and a quest for justifiable reasons, would receive criticism, if not prompt reprimand. I admit I was a bit of a brash loudmouth.
Nevertheless, my resistant attitude clashed with elders’ expectations for me to obey every new, out-of-the-blue command or restriction with mute acquiescence, which I was told was a becoming trademark of “decent” girls.
Ah yes, “decent” girls – another perplexing phenomenon I was often reminded about once I hit thirteen. Decent girls don’t joke or laugh loudly in public. They don’t argue or question orders. They don’t galavant around outside the home unchaperoned. They do not go out late at night. They do not wear tight clothing, especially jeans with short shirts. They do not wear loud make-up or high heels. They do not talk to boys. They do not stand in their apartment balcony; they help their mothers in the kitchen, bake, stitch, crochet, knit, wash the dishes, serve food and tea to the men in their family (including brothers, younger or older), lay and clear the table and know how to make the perfect chapatis – hot and fluffy flatbreads – that inflate like balls when perfectly done.
None of these decent girl definitive traits ever referenced Islam, the Qur’an or hadith.
Adding to my chagrin, was that I found it increasingly disconcerting how older men and boys had started staring at my face, whereas just a year or two ago, none of them even noticed me. Because of their stares, I’d check to see if I was dressed provocatively, even when I was not. I was never told that their staring at me lustfully was not just bad manners, but a sin in the eyes of Allah (SWT). As a result, I was shooed away from places with crowds of thronging men, without an explanation. Result? I started feeling like a piece of meat – a source of temptation. Frankly, I felt disgusted with my changing body and wished it had remained the same.
In contrast, my ‘Irish twin’ brother had started to enjoy increasing privileges and freedoms. He could stay out late, later than before. He could go out to the cinema or to musicians’ concerts with his friends or loiter around on his own outside in the apartment complex, riding his bike or idly chatting away with neighborhood buddies. He could also walk unchaperoned to the grocery store, a mile away, to treat himself to a soft drink whenever he felt thirsty.
Indignant comparisons of my increasing restrictions to his accelerating freedoms, compounded by the fact that there were just us two siblings at home, led to frequent, exasperated scoldings and reprimands. I admit that I used to be a tad rude, but I was seeking satisfactory answers. I was told not to question cultural do’s and don’ts (remember, references to Islam were nowhere in the picture), and to just accept the fact that things were different for boys than for girls once they became older. That was it.
“Stop this constant boy-girl comparison. Go help Ammi lay the table.”
I started to seethe. I’d pour out my angry feelings by vigorously scribbling into my tiny little diary. I’d write short stories and poetry inside obsolete homework journals. I’d play-act with my dolls in their makeshift doll-house for hours during long, summer afternoons. I’d draw and paint for hours at my desk, to not just channel my irrepressible creative urges, but to also let loose my inner confusion and turmoil. I still have the florets and colorful little mats that I crocheted during those inwardly tumultuous years.
In retrospect, I am grateful to Allah (SWT) that at least I got an “equal” school and college education. I continued to attend and excel at my studies in the same institution as my brother.
As he became increasingly vociferous in his confrontations with young and old alike, I started observing every changing family dynamic with a keen and critical eye. I’d notice how it was either my father or my brother who held the remote when everyone watched TV together, and I noticed how they’d flick the channels unilaterally, even if the ladies (including my grandmother) were watching something intently.
I noticed how no one questioned their authority. When I protested against anything I perceived as unfair, I’d be silenced with a scolding, as if I was harbouring the wrong train of thoughts. Whenever my brother and I went out in the car with one parent, it was understood which one of us would get to sit in the front seat.
Just then, when my frustrations seemed to have reached a tipping point, lo and behold! My menstrual cycle made its debut, bringing with it bodily pains and weakness, not to mention embarrassing leaks and stains.
I had literally had it!
I started resenting the fact that I was female and wishing inwardly that I had been born a boy. In my naive mind, this would have meant that I, too, would have been able to enjoy the numerous ‘perks’ of a life spent doing exactly as I pleased.
The reason I am going down memory lane, refreshing the experiences and thoughts that led to my disparagement with my gender, is so that all those young girls whose eyes come across this article are able to relate and identify with my frustrated feelings of yore. If they are also experiencing them, I hope they realise the folly of such thoughts are a result of the Shaytan, plus a combination of giving too much importance to culture, along with a lack of knowledge and application of Islamic tenets.
Allah I says in the Qur’an, “But when she delivered her, she said,
‘My Lord, I have delivered a female.’ And Allah was most knowing of what she delivered, ‘And the male is not like the female. (al-unthaa)…’” (Al-’Imran: 36)
This is a very powerful statement that goes in the favour of the female gender, particularly in this context, for that baby girl was Maryam, one of the greatest women in history.
Sadaf Farooqi wonders if, had she found Islam through the Qur’an during her childhood, she would have been less rude and rebellious?