Breaking through the stigma of what ‘femininity’ means in the twenty-first century.
By Maryam Piracha
When I started this essay, I was in the middle of writing a short story titled ‘Through the Crucible’, though it took me a few days to understand just what the crucible was, and who (or what) was passing through it. The story, like most stories worth pursuing, unspooled a series of questions I’d been internally battling for years and this piece felt like the result, the kettle screaming its fucking lid off. Each of them tied into the nature of marriage and its accouterments versus choosing to remain single and successfully ridding oneself of the stigma. It’s important to add that culture plays no part in this – the argument against singlehood is uniquely universal.
The pressures of marriage run high in Pakistan and if you’re in the country, within the easy reach of both society and your parents, choosing to remain single and not getting thrust into the path of a traffic of oncoming prospective mothers-in-law of so-called “eligible bachelors”, is difficult. Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie in an interview with the Guardian essentially said the same thing when she said “as a single woman, London is a nicer place to live than Karachi”.
Why is marriage advocated so strongly as being the key to one’s happiness as a woman? The major reason, of course, is procreation so if you risk opting to marry in your late twenties or (God forbid) in your thirties, you are battling the biological clocks that are drying up your eggs within your aging, decrepit, soon to be hostile uterus. Wait too long, in other words, and you might never be a mother. Marriage, distilled into its basest and most distinct strain across all cultures and religions boils down to this almost pathological need to have children, never mind if it isn’t what the woman wants – and not all women want to be mothers – she (and her husband) must take one for the team and feed the Beast of Social Whim.
Now, I’m not saying that I don’t believe in marriage. As a practicing Muslim, I do believe in its sanctity and that it forms one half of my faith, but the marital age in urban Pakistan is anywhere from 18 to 24. So if you’re 25 and single, you’ve got something to worry about, but there’s “still time” to “rectify” the situation. If you are 30 or thereabouts, it’s “jaldi shadi karo takay bachay paida karsako”, so closely entwined are the concepts of marriage and childrearing in the country. I’m not saying that there aren’t hundreds of women out there who have been waiting to get married, but a vast majority of us “have gotten picky”, opting for singlehood and the accomplishment of individual goals that threaten to be consumed by a conscious coupling, especially one designed to facilitate children we’re not sure we even want.
I’ve been thinking about the chipping away of souls; the gradual understanding in a marriage where you sacrifice a little of yourself everyday to fulfill the part of you that the “we” requires you to be. Life changes you; circumstances change you, but the things that change you most are the people you love. They claim a part of you not easily parted with and with that love, ask a tremendous lot of you, a fact they cannot deny. So, layered within my admittedly not desperate desire to get married is a loss of personal self, of a self-respect that is dear to me. And that’s important: the creation of one’s own space in a relationship, the understanding by both partners that the other is an individual in their own right with their own needs, desires and dreams not necessarily entwined with a “we”. Of course, that isn’t to say that their shared goals as a couple aren’t important, or shouldn’t factor into the equation, but space to develop one’s own individual identity away from coupledom plays a significant role in both one’s own sense of self and the health of a relationship.
To be sure, there are women out there who have chosen to remain single but must face such judgments as being thought of as “crones” or “spinsters”, or one of those “cat ladies” who lives alone, spinning yarn for her kitties or, perhaps more “disturbingly”, choosing not to marry because of “lesbian tendencies”. And there isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t ask myself whether, apart from not being a mother, I’m cut out for being anyone’s wife, or partner, or even an “other”. Because here’s the thing: I could never be anyone other than who I am and anyone who asks me to compromise my sense of self-worth for the unnecessary cause of being a couple, an “us”, does not seem worth it to me. I’m beginning to believe that that’s all there is out there, and I’ll be damned if I sacrifice my sense of satisfaction in a life I have taken pains to carve out, for someone’s ideal of what a marriage ought to look like.
In the same essay, Ms. Shamsie goes on to attest to the fact that women face pressure irrespective of where they might be, “wherever in the world you go, you’re living in the world’s oldest and most pervasive empire, which is the empire of patriarchy. I don’t know a place […] where it doesn’t exist.” Why are we so consumed in imprinting ourselves on other humans in a systemic desire to ensure our existence? As though by reproducing we are laying claim to our physical presence in the world. Isn’t it enough that we’re here, in this world, doing what we do best without asking others to conform to our way of thought? Aren’t we tired of serving as the sacrificial lambs being led to the slaughter by a pervasive groupthink that evaluates a woman’s femininity based on how well she rears her children, stuck as we all are in the Middle Ages?
The conflicted situation is worsened in light of an acute absence of sex-ed in the country. Many young women go into a marriage with absolutely no idea of birth control, ovulation periods, or anything remotely involving family planning. So if you’re not pregnant within the first couple of months, it is possible that “there could be something wrong”. Because of course, sex in marriage (or to put it bluntly, “legal sex”) is hardly seen as a pleasurable act between two willing and consenting participants, but as a means to a desired conclusion. Compound this with how often women are married into a “joint family system”, where the husband lives with his parents and the bride is enfolded into an abiding culture, and one can understand the pressure cooker situation a woman finds herself in.
Because let’s talk about the reality of the situation after marriage: there are the in-laws and their whims to cater to and the natural “order of things” they pass down to their sons, who then become the forefathers of the generations that succeed them. Every generation possesses the hubris of believing it will do things differently, but there’s a reason why “history repeats itself” is such a cliché. It’s terribly true. There are few people in Pakistan, and considerably fewer in my social circle, who believe having children is a choice, a decision settled upon by the principal parties in the transaction: the couple at the center of it. Even more disturbingly, women seem to think having kids is the only way to secure their husbands. Clearly, something is deeply deranged about this arrangement.
In a wonderful essay in Salon titled ‘How IVF Made Us Happily Child-Free’, the author (Brian Frazer) speaks about how he and his wife followed the marital “script”, and there it is again! This concept that having kids will somehow cement you as a human being, or at least, as a human married couple. The author goes on to ask his brother and father whether they would mind terribly if the couple opted out of kids, but why ask? Isn’t it enough that their minds were made up? Of course, I’m not saying don’t have kids if you want them, but I am saying it’s okay to not want them and to please, please not have kids if you (or your husband) don’t want them. Because there’s no return policy on the little persons; once they’re out, they’re out. There’s no chute for shoving them back in, so don’t we owe it to ourselves to ask whether we want the little buggers? If you’re going to back out, back out early and own the decision as being yours, unfettered by the ghost of social whimsy.
The crucible in my story was social opinion and the judgment it confers on anything considered divergent from mainstream thought, from sexual preference to procreation. Our lives are built upon passing through our own unique crucibles; the trick is whether you allow the experience to shape you or choose to shape your own experience, thereby changing the direction of the tide for those that follow.
Maryam Piracha is the Editor-in-Chief of the magazine.
 From ‘In Praise of Messy Lives: Essays’, Roiphe, Katie; The Dial Press, 2012
 Loosely translated from the Urdu into “hurry up and get married so you can have children”.