Love + Sex Love

I won’t apologize for not being married

A lot of us have been the victim of the once-over. Recently, that happened to me, with my friends and it wasn’t just one aunty but a bunch of aunties. Aunties who were looking for wedding rings. Not all of my friends wear wedding rings myself included.

I’m at the stage in my life stage where a lot of my friends and classmates are getting married or  having children, which is exciting. At the same time, that’s terrifying, because now you’re entirely responsible for a person. I know I’m not ready for that responsibility at all – but I don’t think that’s a problem.

As the married group gets bigger, the single AF numbers are dwindling.

The question, “So, are you married yet?” is always the top question for an aunty to ask either when you first meet or they’ve seen you after a long time. It’s practically a given in certain cultural and religious communities. Why? Because women are supposed to be married.

[bctt tweet=” A lot of us have been the victim of the once-over. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

When I’m asked this question, I usually respond with a courteous smile and a “no, I’m not,” to which there is a tight lipped “oh,” or unnecessary advice around how the time was past due for me to get married or suggestions for who I should marry. My favorite aunty response: “Your biological clock is ticking.”

I don’t need the reminder. It’s my own clock, of course I can hear it ticking.

[bctt tweet=”I can hear my own biological clock ticking aunty, I know I’m getting older.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I can’t stop aunties from asking me the marriage questions, but what I can do is respond differently. I’ve noticed that when I respond with a no to the marriage question, there’s an apologetic tinge to my voice, as well as mixed feelings of shame and regret that I’m not living up to what many people my age are doing. That what I am now – single – is antithetical to what people perceive as normal in this stage of life.  It’s as though I’m stuck, when everyone else is moving on to the next stage of life.

[bctt tweet=”I feel like I’m stuck when everyone else is moving on in life.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Sometimes, I shrug off the conversation, but there are many more times where I’m deeply affected by it. It’s a realization too close to me knowing how old I’m getting, and I am abundantly aware that so many people are getting married while I’m still single. Yet the reality is that an aunty hovering doesn’t help the situation at all.  There are other questions that can be asked to show concern about me. My life doesn’t revolve around a man.

My existence isn’t solely to be someone’s wife. I have other things to do in this world.

I’ve heard that marriage can be a selfless act: putting your spouse’s happiness before your own. It’s not something I entirely agree with, but seeing people you love happy makes you happy.  With that in mind, though, shouldn’t it be your prerogative to be happy and content before you get married, so your spouse will know just what makes you happy? That sort of self-realization takes time – and questioning.

[bctt tweet=”Put your hands up if you’re single AF.” username=”wearethetempest”]

What issues really matter to me? What am I passionate about? How do I learn, grow and challenge myself to be better? What impact do I want to have on the world, can I? Those questions rarely get asked but they should. Those are bigger burdens than finding a husband.

There’s a ridiculous pressure on women to find a husband by a certain age, an incredibly unfair pressure given that it is missing when it comes to men. We’re socialized instead to forgive men, to allow them the excuse of how “he’s not ready yet.”

Guess what: women take time to get ready, too. Marriage is a big commitment, and pushing people into it will work against them, especially if they end up bitter and unfulfilled, their self-actualization put on hold. Being forced into something that society tells us it’s time never ends up positively.

[bctt tweet=”The world revolves around you girl, not a man, YOU.” username=”wearethetempest”]

We need to stop inculcating in our girls that the order of life is not school, work, marriage, children. Life is so much bigger than that. From too tender an age we drill into our girls that their life will be revolving around a man.

The pressure to be married gets to us and can be overwhelming, I know. Trust me, I know. But there is nothing wrong with being unmarried. It is fine to be an unmarried woman.

Granted, my opinion when it comes to this matter is a work in progress, because it’s really difficult not to be affected by what people tell you, no matter how strong you are. What has helped me are articles like this and this, written by women who are unapologetic for the decisions they make about their life. 

Hearing from other unapologetically single women has helped me to not give a damn about what anyone else thinks about my life. I’m not going to be made to feel like anything is wrong with that when it’s not. I don’t know how long I’ll be in this stage, but I’m not going to be forced to fit into society’s expectation of what ‘good single women do’. Nah.

I strongly believe that it’ll happen when it’s supposed to.

I won’t feel sorry for myself because I don’t have a man. Pfft.

My existence is not hinged on having a man. Not now. Not ever. 

So if you’re here to give me a once-over, looking for a wedding ring, know this: I’m committed to me.

Gender & Identity Life Stories Life

My Desi parents are obsessed with asking me, “Log kya kahenge?”

“What would people say?”

This question, often put forth by parents to their daughters, is so pervasive in South Asian cultures that Desi feminist groups are organizing discussions around the underlying ideology behind it.

When it comes to how you dress, your career choices, your friendships — anything and everything — you had better consider what people will say. If you transgress the perceived standards of morality or success in some way, other members of your ethnic or religious community could gossip about you like crazy and cast negative judgments on you.

This is, apparently, the worst thing ever.

In my hometown, my family isn’t plugged into a Desi community or a Muslim community. We had no Joneses to keep up with — yet their presence loomed all the same.

When I was in sixth grade, I went to see a movie with some friends. A couple of them were boys. Upon finding out afterward, my parents cautioned me against being in that kind of situation again, because what if someone saw?

Never mind that there was no one in the area who would complain to my parents if they saw me.

A few months ago, when I was talking to my mom on the phone, she mentioned that living on my own after graduating might look bad in the eyes of prospective in-laws. She didn’t have a problem with it per se, she told me, but she wanted to warn me about what other people might think. But shouldn’t I be trying to filter out people with regressive attitudes, rather than trying to appease them?

Sometimes I’ve felt like my full autonomy was being held hostage by the possible judgment of others.

Again, it was never about what my mom thought – she always framed it as being about what “other people” might think or say. The frustrating thing was that these people didn’t seem to exist. It might even make sense if were living near a lot of relatives who might be nosing around in our business, but how was anyone going to be around to judge us down in Texas?

When a fear of external judgment is so deeply ingrained in your cultural psyche, however, it’s hard to shake.

[bctt tweet=”A few months ago, when I was talking to my mom on the phone, she mentioned that living on my own after graduating might look bad in the eyes of prospective in-laws. ” username=”wearethetempest”]

Since leaving home, I’ve ended up coming right up against some of the invisible boundaries set forth by culture and faith. I’ve still held fast to my moral values – I haven’t crossed the line into anything truly scandalous or dangerous – but some experiences are just questionable enough that I know to keep them to myself.

They might give people a lot to say. Somehow even I still feel the gazes of non-existent aunties on the back of my neck.

Whether in the East or West, worrying about female reputations and what other people might say is simply a means of policing female behavior. Taken to its extreme, a “What will people say?” mentality manifests itself in an obsession with female “honor” – and the violence that comes with it.

[bctt tweet=”Somehow even I still feel the gazes of non-existent aunties on the back of my neck.” username=”wearethetempest”]

Not too long ago, a mural went up in Lahore, Pakistan, created by a progressive arts organization called the Fearless Collective.

Its message, written in Urdu, translates to: “What would people say? We are the people. What will we say?”

via Tumblr

We should honor the right of people to live their lives to the fullest, and on their own terms.  We have the choice not to punish others, especially girls and women, for not lining up perfectly with cultural norms frozen in time.

We have the choice not to be those people that we’re so worried about offending.

Love + Sex Love

I’m trying to find love, not marry a man I’m supposed to mother

“There’s this boy looking for a nice girl to get married, and I thought of you,” said the aunty.

The first time I was told this, I was flattered. It was also the first time I was approached about marriage from an aunty: My unofficial entrance into the world of aunty matchmaking.

I was still in school completing my undergraduate degree, so marriage wasn’t something on my to-do list. The conversation caught me completely off-guard.

Then the really surprising comment came: “His mother wants someone religious, so he’ll get more serious about the religion.”

I couldn’t believe it.

I wear hijab, which is why I’m guessing she thought of me when the aunty heard this from the mother. But why do you think I would want someone less religious? As though I can fix him into what his mother wants? Was he some sort of child that I was now being expected to mother?

I totally believe that marriage should be a ‘better and be bettered by your spouse’ relationship, and it’s something that I want for my relationship. But there’s a slight re-framing for who wants you to be better: it can’t be your mother.

It needs to be you.

If you don’t want to better yourself, and you just do what your mother wants you to do, then your intentions in this game aren’t pure and you’re definitely not sincere. It also means you can’t voice your opinions because your mother can’t seem to be able to step aside and let you live your life. I want someone who wants to be better and is making efforts to do so.

There can’t be three people in a marriage before it even starts. Hell no.

In the Indian community, there’s a prevalent cultural belief that a daughter will live in two houses: her parents and her husband’s. There’s also this belief that a man must be taken care of because he’s basically an overgrown child.

I’m here to tell you no. I’m not here for that.

Not this Indian girl.

And let’s not forget the pervasive belief in popular culture, that women want to fix men. Is this something propagated by their mothers that makes it so common?

I need to know because it’s absolutely ridiculous.

Furthermore, why is the process so one-sided?

Why is it that when those matchmaking conversations do happen, it’s always meant to flatter the girl with, “you’re the first person I thought of ” – but nothing about the boy in question. Why is it that when romantic interest is shown in women, they must reciprocate or even marry, regardless of how messed up the boy is. And can we please talk about how nice girls can’t possibly want nice boys, or that women shouldn’t have a say in their partner’s characteristics?

But ya know. Aunties know best.

It’s very rare that the question of “well, what’s he like?” is asked or information other than what he does for a living is given. There are other important things to consider besides being financially ready. Is he emotionally ready? What about spiritually?

Is he even into me?

I don’t owe anything to anyone, especially if you don’t have your life together when the marriage talk comes up.

And I’m not your mother.

Gender & Identity Life

Dear aunties, stop using my body for your gossip

Under the dimmed lights of the wedding hall, bhangra music played loudly in sync to the rhythm of the dhol drums. My Muslim friends shook their hips on the center dance floor in the midst of a crowd of men, huddling their heads together in laughter and clapping along to the music.

I sat by myself at one of the empty tables bopping my high heels to the music, pretending that sitting alone for the second night in a row during a week of aunty-approved wedding festivities, didn’t bother me. I was dressed in a blue and magenta shalwar kameez. Neatly tied around my face, in sharp contrast to my friends, was a matching navy hijab.

That evening, my smile was my best accessory. It hid the dawning realization of my outsider-status as a hijabi in my Muslim community. 

I was holding back tears.

I grew up in a small suburban town in upstate New York with a modest-size population of Muslims, the majority of whom were of Pakistani descent like me. This community was an isolated bubble, sheltered from people’s lived realities, on-going politics, and rampant Islamophobia. Having attended Islamic school from a young age, I was taught a black-and-white vision of Islam: boys are haram, hijab is obligatory, and meat must be zabihah or kosher.

The conservativeness of our community was only enhanced by my parents, who began every conversation on womanhood with the word “haram,” or “forbidden.” The word was pervasive in their vocabulary and – although God-forbid anyone says it aloud – subtly associated with sexuality.

 Women singing in public was haram because of its so-called sexual allure. Women were forbidden from dancing in front of men because it was deemed sexually enticing. And for every strand of hair, a woman failed to hide behind a cloth was another day of punishment waiting in hellfire. 

My entire existence was perceived and understood in relation to men.

While most would rebel under these stringent rules and ridiculous principles, I embraced it. My strong belief in God’s goodness was enough for me to see the beauty in what I believed was God’s command. We were taught that God wanted to protect women from the uncontrollable gaze of the opposite sex, who make up 50 percent of the population. 

These rules were not oppressive, but liberating and cautionary.

During Ramadan in sixth grade, I walked through the front doors of school with a hijab covering my hair for the first time. Other than a few comments about my “do-rag,” my change in appearance went largely unrecognized by the student body. Ironically, the most ruthless comments came from outside school, from aunties in my Muslim community, the majority of whom did not wear the hijab at the time.

One aunty laughed, “She even wears the hijab in front of my son!” As if I thought I was a sexual muse for her son, rather than carrying out a religious mandate.

This was my first introduction to what I have since dubbed aunty culture: the innate need of aunties to voice unwarranted opinions and attempt to control the lives of everyone else in our mosque community.

The first time our community was exposed to the controversial idea was by Brother G, a trusted Islamic school teacher. Aunties and uncles came at him with knives and pitchforks ready to drive him out. There were threats of banning him from teaching (though he generously taught Quranic Arabic for free to high school students), letters of nasty words were exchanged (“third-world country” took on a whole new level of meaning) and board members demanded he explain his “extremist” textual methodology at an emergency town hall meeting.

The topic in question? Hijab.

Brother G concluded the hijab was never an obligation, but a remnant of a culture that gave birth to Islam. This kind of talk was unacceptable and it became the community’s sole mission to cast out all deviant voices.

Watching the unfolding drama revealed an entirely different facet of Islam to me just as I went off to college—one where people disagreed on the interpretation of the Quran. And so as I moved to Boston for school, I began to explore the multiple Islams through my Anthropology and journalism studies. Over a span of four years, my views changed and crumbled and my faith wavered in highs and lows.

Exiting the confines of my small town, I became frustrated with the hypersexualization of women’s body and hair. I detested the limitation of my mobility when men were present. I resented the discomfort of the cloth on my head, which never rested comfortably on my shoulders. I judged Muslim men who dared to utter the word hijab in my presence. I questioned the positioning of hijab in a continuum of gender and sexuality notions. 

And I hated the constant feeling of being “other,” both inside and outside my Muslim community.

Aunties – my role models, my mothers, my friends – became the cultural agents by which contradictory depictions of femininity were enforced. One day dancing was classified as erotica, the next day it was a measure of my religious progressiveness or lack thereof. Flexibility was not an aunty-sanctioned option.

The mosque had become a space of hostility and othering. Here, it was impossible for me to not question gender-sexuality norms and the role of the hijab in my own marginalization.

None of my female Muslim friends wore this simple cloth that is now a contentious battleground for political, religious and economic ideologies. 

They will never understand the burden of wearing your religious identity publicly, facing discrimination during countless job interviews, to overcome preconceived assumptions while conversing with a professor, or the fear of walking down a sidewalk after the Boston Marathon bombing.

Worse, they will never understand how it feels to be made invisible and under-prioritized by the women of their very own Muslim community.

I spent my youth desperately looking for someone to rise up and define a new normal among Muslim women—one that empowers relationships, emancipates the female body from a field of controversy, and embraces a spectrum of differences. 

All these years later, I’m still looking.

So as I watched my Muslim friends dancing at the wedding from afar while I sat, decked out and alone, I never felt so distant from my faith, my Muslim community, and the larger American society.

It is a paralyzing realization.