by Adenah Furquan
When I was 9, I had my first heartbreak.
It was a seemingly ordinary Karachi morning, the aroma of halwa puri wafting through the alley, the waves of Seaview crashing in the distance, the surfeit of motorcycles roaring past civilians to yet another 9-5. June enveloped the city in its sweltering embrace, but I had never felt colder in my life.
Apprehension makes its arrival loud and clear, swallowing you whole with an adamant urgency of sorts. You sense the pervasiveness of dread in every bone in your body—a feeling you’d grow to recognize all too well—but you push it down into the deepest trenches of your gossamer guts. We don’t talk about our feelings in this house. We blame it on an upset stomach. The trepidation was as ubiquitous as the dark gray clouds of summer monsoon—but then Mama told me to get ready, and so I did. I adorned myself with a dupatta (scarf) far too big for my little body and the overpriced jhumkay I begged her to get for me. Mama never ever said no.
She was an exceptional woman, my mother—a vibrant coalescence of courage and strength, of wisdom and humor, and a laugh that could revitalize all of Karachi. But I saw her silently weeping at night when she thought no one was looking. I suppose I was a bit too observant for my own good. And I didn’t quite understand it back then—nor would I until the naivety of my adolescence departed years later—but I still implanted the image in the crevices of my brain. I see you, Mama. You’re not alone.
She grabbed my hand and quickly whisked me away. We’re running late for the dawat, she had said—so I hurried down the stairs, my tiny feet rumbling and tumbling as fast as they could. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror as I cascaded and smiled at the sight before me. I felt pretty. And with a 2000s Atif Aslam song playing faintly in the background, we were well on our way, whizzing past the browns and grays of Karachi in a blur.
Upon arriving, I instantly felt that overwhelming sense of doom looming over me again. Dawats were never my forté. It was a strange feeling—to not belong in a room full of people you supposedly shared blood with. I was always a quiet kid, asked to talk more—but I never seemed to have the right words to say. And so I focused on my plate of samosay, counting the tiles on the marble floor to keep my insides intact.
It all happened very quickly. From the corner of my eye, I saw Aunty make her way toward me. She had just heard Mama and Nana deliver a monologue about my achievements, the likes of which included straight As, spelling bee trophies, and whatnot. Always my biggest supporters, these two. I knew I was a bright kid—and I took pride in that.
So as Aunty’s brown eyes gazed into mine, I expected her to congratulate me like the rest of them. What I did not expect was this:“Gori hoti tou zyada acha hota. Baad mein jaa ke shaadi hi karni hai.” (“It’d be better if you had fair skin. You’re going to have to get married later.”)
In retrospect, I’ve imagined myself interrogating her—questioning the blatant nerve to share uninvited totkay for fair skin and claim I am not “marriage material” on simply the basis of my melanin, to rid me of all that I was and strip me to flesh and bone. I’ve pictured myself yelling at her for fueling the self-loathing, the feelings of inadequacy that would haunt me for years to come. It stung more coming from a woman. You were supposed to be on my side.
But shareef nine-year-old girls didn’t dare talk back. It was their principal duty to stay quiet. And I was always a good girl—the embodiment of respect, the most compliant and law-abiding of them all. I had to be. I was told to be. So though my appetite had long since faded into oblivion, I quietly stuffed the remnants of samosay down my throat and shot Aunty a meek smile. Then I stumbled out of the room, catching a glimpse of Mama’s furious expression as I left.
I never once looked back. But I carried her words with me for the entirety of my youth.
They entangled themselves in the fragile wiring of my brain—in the habits and actions and thoughts and feelings that eventually merged to define my very identity. My existence was not an entity of my own creation then but rather a wretched devotion to someone else’s opinion of me. It was pitiful, really. And I was so very ashamed—but I was also so very sad.
The words then accompanied me to school where I glanced at my classmates and felt inferior in my own skin and to department stores where my hands itched toward the shelf with whitening creams.
No accolade, no recognition, no accomplishment was able to rid me of the weight of them. I became too small for my own body—a bottomless chasm of insufficiency, a perpetual amalgam of what-ifs and if-onlys. Never pleased, never satisfied. Always too much, just never enough. (Is that why Daddy never made it to the awards ceremonies?) Resentment twisted and turned like a beast inside my belly.
I was nine, and I had already had my first taste of what it was like to be a woman in Pakistan—to be met at every turn with unfeasible, incessant demands; to be patronized and reduced to a marriage prospect above all else; to be told that no matter how smart or successful I was, no matter how otherworldly, those qualities would always be irrelevant in the grander scheme of things. I was a future wife before I was a woman. I was everything before I could ever be myself.
It was at the cusp of a rebirth. And I resented every bit of it.
At 17, heartbreak came knocking on my door again. But this time, it was louder, demanding even. And it embedded itself in my brittle bones with the sort of unwavering ferociousness that left me struggling to breathe. Four years later, I still find myself gasping for air.
When I arrived in Karachi, I didn’t consider it home. I still don’t. But as a gust of muggy air caressed my face at the arrival gates of Jinnah International, I found my home in the warmest arms and the kindest eyes I’d ever seen.
Nana was an old man, but time had not dimmed his bright light. A successful lawyer and a consummate family man, he was my best friend—the epitome of exuberance, of love and tenderness, and an absolute force to be reckoned with. My first night in Karachi, Nana didn’t ask why Mama and I flew halfway across the globe all of a sudden. He understood. He always did. So he simply brought a Ludo board and my favorite paratha rolls from Crescent Roll Corner, and then we stayed up all night, playing, talking and laughing. It was one of those moments I wished I could’ve preserved in a bottle and kept on my nightstand, especially after what followed.
Cancer was a merciless, bloodthirsty behemoth. It was remorseless in its attack, sapping his vitality and transmuting it into something entirely unrecognizable. November 26th was supposed to be just another monotonous day. But it wasn’t. It was a late-night trip to the hospital, a straight line on the heart monitor, and a cacophony of wails and screams. And it was a jarring blend of wires and medicines that gave up on the life I loved more than my own.
I don’t remember much of what happened next, but as I dragged my feet to a house that would never quite feel like home again, I knew I had left a chunk of myself in that suffocating hospital room. And to this day, it remains.
He was the reason the sun shone. He was everywhere. And then he wasn’t. And the sun hasn’t risen since.
Time is a rather cruel force, paying no heed to the depths of my desolation. It goes on with or without you. And so the next day, it was time to say goodbye. An influx of guests came rushing in at the funeral, offering pitiful glances and words of consolation that did little to ameliorate the ache in my bones. What do you say to somebody whose life collapsed before their very own eyes overnight? What can you say? I didn’t want to hear about how strong I was. I just wanted Nana back. Pure, unadulterated rage of this magnitude was a feeling foreign to me until that day. I was furious at the world for having the audacity to go on without you. How dare it? How could it?
At the funeral, I looked at the untouched biryani on my plate and then at the hungry guests devouring the food on theirs.
“Beta, aur aloo mil sakta hai?” (“Child, can we have more potatoes?”)
I nodded. I walked over to them numbly with a bowl in my hands—only to hear a sound that would go on to resound through my core for an eternity.
It was the ugliest laugh I’d heard in my life, ugly in its impertinence, in its utter insensitivity. I found myself curling my lips in disgust as I listened to the latest gossip about whose son was getting married and whose daughter just got divorced. It was bewildering to me how you could be light years away from those within just a few feet of you. It was a perplexing juxtaposition, the sheer contrast between the casual conversations and the tear-stricken faces of Nani and Mama.
Even as they are engulfed in the vast and bleak pits of sorrow, women are to prioritize their izzat and the delicacy of the khandaani ties over the vacancy and wrath in their own selves—to remain quiet against their will when someone complains about the lack of aloo in their biryani, about the chai being too cold. Women are to accommodate at all times, to wholly and fully sacrifice themselves, to serve others even when their own world has crumbled in the palm of their hands. Like all aspects of womanhood, mourning, too, is conditional.
I heard the heavy thud of the bowl hitting the ground. As I turned away, I waited for the sickening feeling to leave my body. It never did. It never does.
At 21, I find my heart breaking a little every day.
I am nothing and everything all at once. I am a woman—a profound synthesis of ambition and bravery, of empathy and kindness and warmth. But I am also nothing but an outsider in my own skin, belonging to everyone but myself. It is a brutal awakening, a realization that follows me relentlessly. It follows me as I am chastised for staying out in my own neighborhood past 10 pm, for wearing a sleeveless kameez that reveals the bare brown skin of my shoulders. I was asking for it like the beghairat insaan that I am.
I am a woman—berated just for existing, for sitting and dressing and talking and breathing a certain way. You realize in those moments that mera jism was never meri marzi to begin with but rather the marzi of all those around you—of the state, the society, even the strangers on the street.
How could mera jism be meri marzi when unknown, entitled men in markets groped with their clammy hands as I walked by? How can it be meri marzi when I must hunch my shoulders and lower my gaze and pray to God up above to let me reach home safe and sound, when I must clench my fists and remain silent to avoid getting killed?
In Pakistan, womanhood is synonymous with the resilience you demonstrate when life throws its greatest catastrophes your way, the patience you display when you are tested beyond your limits. Good women never complain—and if they do, they lack the quintessence of womanhood itself. And good women never question the occurrence of these incidents either. They simply accept it as the harsh reality of their qismat instead. To be a woman is to surrender to the prototype of a woman—and only then is it ever considered acceptable.
Unity is a powerful phenomenon, but why must we, as women, be brought together by agony and by hardship? Why is it that womanhood has metamorphosed into the universal experience of pain and forbearance rather than the celebration of our excellence and joy? Why is it that suffering is seen as an inevitable certitude of life instead of a byproduct of the patriarchy? Why is it that boys will always be boys—but women never get to be people? Why is it that change is hesitantly proposed but eventually always dismissed?
In Pakistan, womanhood is synonymous with the mutual understanding of anguish, the compassion toward each other’s adversities. You know that her pain was yours because you felt it in your veins. She didn’t deserve that. None of us do.
Your heart goes out to your own Mama, the superhero combating the stigma of divorce whilst raising a child all on her own. Sometimes, it is a subtle nuance—the curl of the lip or the raising of the brow. Other times, it is the shameless pointing of fingers, the callous plethora of criticism: you could’ve done better, you should’ve done better. It is the erasure of decades of glory, of diligence, of sacrificed dreams. And for what? The decision to choose yourself for once in your life? You deserve to be happy, too, Mama. I love you.
And your heart goes out to the victims of every honor killing, every acid attack, every sexual assault case on the news. You recoil at the never-ending discourse on the behaya aurat, the transparent shifting of blame from the perpetrator to the victim, the repulsive discrimination in the judicial system. Justice, essentially, is a distant reverie in nations that run on patriarchal fuel.
In Pakistan, to live as a woman is never to live and only to exist. It is a painful epiphany—a paradox in itself. It is death within life. And I die every day.