22 Nov

I was wearing a long, gypsy-style skirt when I took my daughter to school one morning. The teacher was standing near the entrance and as she greeted me, her eyes wandered down the length of my skirt. With a wistful sigh she said, “I wish I could wear things like that! It looks so pretty.”

I was a little surprised by her remark, because it seemed a very personal expression of dissatisfaction, and it made a strong impression on me. This is a married woman who has a job, but who still feels that wearing anything but a traditional shalwar kameez is not an option for her, despite her independence. I am not talking about a burka or even a headscarf here, as I don’t personally know anyone who wears one, but I’ve heard people make little snide comments about girls who wear jeans and sleeveless or cap sleeve shirts, and I’ve seen how parents and in-laws here can exert pressure over women in matters great and small.

I am sure wearing something that doesn’t meet with general approval can sometimes result in misery for the daring, and while clothes are certainly important in this context, what I’ve really been thinking about is how women’s choices are shaped and sometimes suppressed by society, by the people in our life, and by ourselves. It’s not only what we wear, but almost every decision that we make, from the jobs we pursue and accept, or not, to the places we live in, and the lifestyle we follow. This happens to men too, of course, who share the responsibility for a family, but I feel that women must make a more fundamental renunciation of self for the sake of their family and their mate.

This happens everywhere, all over the world. I feel sad to think that it is perhaps part of human nature, and the world humans have built has been built by men and for men, where women play a supporting, secondary role and the motivators, the instigators of action are men. I guess what I mean to say is that it is out of the ordinary for the woman in a family to be the principal earner, the ultimate decision-maker, the pace-setter and the arbiter of family life, around whose job and nature the other members revolve.

I am not grumbling about my own circumstances, and I am, on the whole, a fulfilled human being and happy with the choices I have made in my life, both as a woman and as wife, and my husband is a loving, supportive man; but I do see how other people can feel thwarted at every turn, their personality squashed under the weight of personal relationships and social norms.

I have taken to reading an advice column that appears regularly in an English-language newspaper here in Pakistan. Requests for advice range from love matters to school trouble, but invariably the response is to conform to expectations. If anyone writes about making a decision that would contravene convention, face opposition, or defy familial authority, the advice is always to abandon the idea, to be happy with what you’ve got and to think about your family and the hardships that following your inclination would entail. I guess society has all kinds of checks against change, as even a little ripple can turn into a tidal wave.

In Honduras, where I grew up, I know a girl whose parents didn’t allow her to study Hotel Management because of the travel that it required, and a woman who refused a dream job because her husband could not, or would not, quit his.

By chance, while searching for a sewing-related topic, I wandered into a website called “Ladies against Feminism”, run by a group of women who follow the rules of something called Biblical Patriarchy, which in essence means that they believe that women and men are “different and complementary”. What a clever way of saying that women are not equal as humans. I read quite a bit of the site, and left with the feeling that I had stumbled onto a nightmare. It seems they are quite happy to live that way, though, so it must feel right for them.

I cannot agree with them, but the principle that makes me believe that any woman may live her life as she wants, applies to people whose choices are different from mine, whose beliefs clash with my own.

Is it possible to be fulfilled as a person and be a wife and mother? Yes, but fulfilling those roles need not prevent satisfaction on a personal, human level, nor crush the spirit out of us.


2 Responses to “Choices”

  1. charlotteotter November 23, 2007 at 11:58 am #

    Very interesting post, Lizzy. I imagine that in Pakistan it’s clearer that the world is built by men for men, whereas in the West – since women have more options – we can pretend it’s not. I don’t think any of us Western women will be truly free, emancipated and absolutely equal until every single woman everywhere is free to make her own decisions and not be burdened by the demands of patriarchy.

  2. lvmg (Lizzy) November 23, 2007 at 8:55 pm #

    Yes, I think it is more evident here, but it’s everywhere.

    I think that it is harder for women to follow their own path of discovery because there is always someone else to consider.

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