Living as a Feminist Within The Bounds of Patriarchy
I’m finally escaping the patriarchy that’s held me back for so long
I give up on trying to bring change.
My husband hits me twice across the head. And then leaves the room and I hear a loud crashing noise. I walk out to see that he has smashed my laptop against the floor. Minutes ago, my parents were on a call with us to try to sort out our marital issues. And this happened as soon as the call ended. My head is throbbing and I’m standing there crying. I call my parents. Much to my surprise, my dad is not at all concerned that I have been hit. He casually asks my husband to apologize, which he does smirking, gloating that my father’s light reaction validates how I should be treated. I’m appalled. I say it’s not enough. To which my father says, “Shut your mouth, what more do you want him to do? He’s said sorry and now you stop being such a moody bitch.”
That incident happened a year ago. If there was one moment in my life that changed me forever, I would pick this one. Before that day, I was working on my very difficult marriage, because I was afraid of the toll a divorce would take on my parents. Or is that just the story I tell myself to feel noble? The truth it may well be, I was staying married to preserve my parents’ “honor.” In this patriarchal society, of which my parents are a product, a woman’s entire worth is tied around her marital status, of which only “married” is the acceptable one, regardless of the condition of that marriage.
I belong to what you would classify as the upper class of the Pakistani community. Well educated, wealthy, top military brass. A family of physicians, engineers, and senior management of leading corporations. My parents had lived two decades in the U.K. and Europe, where my siblings and I were raised. My husband’s family is a family entirely of physicians.
I had been brought up in London and a few other countries before I landed in Pakistan for college. Every single year since then, I felt like a misfit. I could see the way I was treated differently, based solely on my gender.
At work, I was a senior manager in a multinational company, leading a team of 25. At home, I was to be subservient and acquiescent, mild-mannered and meek. If I ever disagreed with anything, such as my husband’s extravagant spending habits, I was told I had become too vocal, and “This is why we should not let women work.” I figured the only way to maintain the peace at home would be to concur every time and concede if I had momentarily forgotten to concur. I didn’t want arguments in front of my son. I could voice my feminist views, as long as they were within the bounds of patriarchal tradition. Or as long as I added so many ifs and buts front and center that I might as well not have said anything. It didn’t take long for me to feel like I had developed a split personality, one for home, and one for work. I could be shifting between the two on an instant-by-instant basis. It was exhausting maintaining two personas. But so was standing up to the patriarchy. I just had to pick which one was less exhausting on which days.
What else? Sexist remarks on a daily basis. Jokes with grotesque sexual connotations. Husbands expecting to be treated like demigods but claiming they are equal partners because it makes them look good socially. Abuse, that you “deserved” because you raised your voice, and — God forbid — had an opinion that differed. Having an opinion in the first place. The same husbands proclaiming themselves as feminists in front of friends. It was all so nauseating.
Patriarchy is so deep-rooted, it seems to be one of the few universal entities that transcend class, education, religion, geography, and gender.
It could be small things, like my Dad saying, “You always talk about such big issues, can’t you talk about anything homey?” What he meant was, why I preferred to discuss women’s rights, startups, and my work, rather than talk about the only things he sees women fit to converse on, which are cooking, homemaking, and childbearing.
It was often funny, once I looked at him through that lens. Many times, something I had said would go completely ignored, and my brother would say the same thing in his male voice and it would be hailed as a very insightful addition to the conversation (and be quoted on phone calls with uncles and aunts as expert opinion later on).
Or it could be the big things. Like me believing that a relationship is an equal partnership. But being expected to be grateful for your husband “giving you permission” for the very basic of liberties, such as how to dress, whether to work or not, and when and where to go out — I never learned how to balance that. I was grateful to my husband for stepping up with childcare when I had work trips abroad. And I reciprocated that without the expectation of being rewarded or praised for it. But I could never wrap my head around being grateful for being allowed to work in the first place. That to me should always be a mutual (if not my own) decision, not a one-sided “permission.”
It could be reconciling my religion with my beliefs. Heaps upon heaps of authentic religious scriptures and quotes are used to validate and promote misogyny. Used to label those who possess liberal ideas as heretics. To accuse those who work for women’s rights, access to education and employment as infidels with an agenda to make the society immoral. As someone who is not religious but has faith, reconciling these two polarities, of what my religion outlined and what I believed in, was a constant struggle.
Up until that incident, I had thought of my father as someone who did not have (or want) any involvement in his children’s lives besides affording their food and education, but otherwise, as an okay person in general. That incident — and the many that followed — showed me how wrong I was. And they also made one thing very clear. This was not the person for whom I would live a life of misery. He simply wasn’t worth it.
He, as a father, was no different than the tons of super-conservative patriarchal males I detested, who built their egos on the misery of their daughters. Who measured their daughter’s strength by the amount of misery she could endure for them. He was no different from the illiterate, poverty-stricken, daily wage worker you hear of, who sends his daughter back to her abusive in-laws so she can maintain the family’s honor, and in most likelihood, that daughter ends up “accidentally” burnt to death. Just for disclosure, my father did do that later on. That’s a story for another time.
Standing up to my father took years of effort. He hated a lot of things about me. I had ventured into a different career path without his prior approval. (I had left clinical medicine to give more time to my newborn.) I had been very successful on that new path. I was earning more at the start of my career than he was at his retirement. I had had a great deal of exposure to industries, cultures, people, perspectives. He always had this expression on his face when I would speak, as if he was getting irritated. If I ever said something slightly contrary to what his opinion was, he would erupt into a tirade of name-calling and shaming.
Once I supported my brother in his decision to go abroad for residency, which was not what my father wanted, and he picked up the closest object he could find, his cell phone, and gestured that he was going to throw it at my face if I did not shut up. I felt sorry for him. Poor you, Dad, you can’t see your children doing well and becoming their own persons. Poor you, that you don’t get to control and dictate their lives in the authoritarian fashion you have become so used to during our childhood. Poor you, that your children, especially your daughter, have found their voice. During the cell phone incident, I felt my heart rate go up and my face flush. I started to tremble. It was a throwback from being abused by my husband. I decided I wouldn’t put myself through that again. I gave up on trying to get my father to see a different perspective. I now say yes sir to anything he says. He’s happy. I’m safe. All is well in the world again, but only on the surface.
The thing is, you could bend over backward for the system and have it walk over you, yet the system would complain that you’re not flat enough. You could tick off checkboxes of all that you are required to do, as an honorable, decent daughter, and you will turn the page to find a list of checkboxes for the role of a wife, then mother, then sister, and so on. There is always someone who is bending over backward more. You will never be able to win.
I’m leaving the country in a month. It was an intentional plan designed with just one objective in mind, to get out of here. It’s coming from an effort of self-preservation and taking time to heal before I decide what’s next. I have friends, both male and female, who are fighting the patriarchy every single day. Their work revolves around bringing that system to its knees. I wish them well, and I admire their resilience. I for one, have been broken down too much to carry on here. I plan to put one less patriarch out in this world, by bringing my son up the right way.