Speaking Up About Sexism in My Family

I have to clean the house while my brothers play.

by Mariam S.

Names have been changed.

After 28 days of fasting, Muslim families like mine mark the end of Ramadan with a holiday called Eid al-Fitr. My family invites our friends over for a dawat, which means feast in Urdu, the main language in Pakistan, where my parents are from.

But last year I had no interest in celebrating. I was exhausted by fasting and studying for my finals, but I was also exhausted by the very traditional way my family observed Eid, with a strict division of labor based on gender.

Ever since I can remember, my mother has worked tirelessly to make sure everything runs smoothly. For her, Eid is a day of stress and anxiety spent worrying about what her husband and children will wear and what should be cooked. But instead of all the kids pitching in, my older brother Farhan and younger brother Zaid typically lie in a nice slumber in their chilled room, while my sisters and I cut fruits or wash the dishes and my mother fries food in the humid basement.

No Chores for Boys

Eid also involves cleaning the whole house. Once my two sisters and I were old enough, my mother put some of the responsibility on our shoulders. Our most dreaded chores were sweeping the floors and ironing everyone’s elegant clothes. Sadly, sweeping has been my job every Eid since I was in elementary school. To this day, I think my mother was secretly plotting to make me master sweeper of our home.

Last year my older sister, Zara, who was 18, was assigned to do the ironing. My brothers Zaid and Farhan, who were 7 and 19, played video games. They had no chores.

The boys were treated differently all year round. They never did anything to keep the house tidy. If they got in a pillow fight, my mother, my sisters, or I would have to clean up the feathers. It was my sisters’ and my job to fix the sheets in every bedroom just for the boys to come back and mess them up. On a hot summer day, Zaid could eat as many ice pops as the number of hours we had sunlight. He’d leave the wrappers on the counters, which were sticky and colored every shade of the rainbow from the melted flavored liquid, and my mom would clean up. To Zaid, this was OK because in our family, girls did the housework.

Moldy Muffins

This year I was enraged that I had to clean up for Eid. My sisters had managed to sneak out of their responsibilities, and my brothers were off the hook as usual, so I was the only one of my siblings doing chores. Then, to make matters worse, my mom nominated me to clean the kitchen as punishment for my temper.

I swept angrily, whispering to myself how much I resented every person in the house. I walked into the kitchen with the giant broom and dustpan. I began placing the turmeric, salt, and cookies in their respective cabinets. As I opened the creaky pantry door, I noticed the muffins my older sister had brought home a few days before. They were now moldy. I was so angry about being the only one forced to clean that even having to throw away some moldy muffins put me over the edge. I needed an outlet for my rage.

I snatched the box of muffins from the pantry and stomped into Zara’s room where she and my mom were sitting. I slammed the muffins on her bed.

“Ma, look at this!” I said. “Moldy muffins, who’s gonna eat them now? Disgusting!”

I had just blitzkrieged us into World War Three. Boom! Zara angrily threw the whole box and the muffins cannoned to my feet.

My mother was on the phone with her family in Pakistan. She looked up and said: “Mariam, you’re cleaning that up. Hurry up and go.”

I was ready to begin a sit-in. “Ma, it’s Zara’s responsibility! She is wasting food and now I have to clean this up! NO.”

As Zara and I continued arguing, my mom ordered us to iron our clothes for the next day as punishment.

“Ma, this is unfair. Me ne nahi karna (I don’t want to do it),” I said angrily in Urdu, my brown skin flushing red. “Why can’t Farhan iron his own clothes? He’s 19, he isn’t a baby anymore.”

“Yeah Ma, why do we always have to do everything? It’s your stupid culture making us girls do everything while the boys sit around doing nothing,” Zara added.

My sister and I yelled at my mom for 15 minutes. All our pent-up frustration with the gender roles enforced in our household came tumbling out.

“You never let us do anything! If I ask to go out with my friends you always say no!” Zara protested.

“I always clean while everyone else is being lazy, especially Farhan and Zaid!” I yelled. “I think you want to lock me up in this house and never let me out!”

Fierce Feminists

Outside of the house Zara and I were regular teenagers busy surviving school, but at home we were fierce feminists ready to do battle.

My mom started crying. At first I didn’t feel bad because I was still bitter about the moldy muffins. But as her tears continued for nearly half an hour, I finally understood that my sister and I had directed our fire at the wrong person. Why were we yelling at her for something she couldn’t control?

“Ma, stop crying. They’re just not smart,” my 14-year-old sister Meera said, trying to console her.

I was embarrassed. I couldn’t face my mother as she continued to cry. My eyes began to water.

“Ma, we’re sorry,” I finally said, choking back tears. “We didn’t mean to hurt you. We’re just angry that we always have to do everything, Ma. Please stop crying.”

My mother kept her arm over her face to hide her tears. I thought of how bad a daughter I was for making her feel such agony.

“You guys don’t understand,” my mom finally said. I sat on the bed next to her and listened quietly. “Your eldest brother is a man now. I can’t stop him from what he does. And your younger brother is just mimicking your dad and older brother.”

“I am always being attacked or criticized,” my mother said. Tears traveled down to her chin. Her voice was weak but serious. “Everyone just releases their anger at me.”

What Will People Say?

“If I let you girls act like your brothers, if I let you go out and play openly wearing shorts like you want to, log kya kahenge (what will people say)? Then your parents will look bad, not you. No one will understand. They’ll see you as shameless people who have no respect or modesty.”

I wanted to get up and walk out of the house forever. I no longer wanted to be a fierce fighter, because my mom wasn’t the one I was supposed to box with. It wasn’t her fault; my parents were just products of a male-dominated society.

I’d always believed that when my parents did not allow me to go to a friend’s Sweet Sixteen it was because they didn’t trust me. Now I realized it was just the norms of their culture. I finally understood my mom’s point of view: Listen to the rules. We must care about what others will think of us. But though I understood, I still disagreed.

Still, after this intense conversation with my mom, things went back to normal. My sisters and I knew not to bring up these issues again because it would just make our mom miserable.

That discussion will always be engraved in my heart, but to this day my brothers and my dad don’t even know it happened. Zaid and Farhan are aware of how women are perceived and treated differently in our house, but they are too comfortable to do anything to change it. If my dad believes the girls must cook and clean, there is no objection. If he asks any of us to do something, we must do it.

My father was never taught anything different, so this is what he sees as correct. But I believe in treating girls and boys equally. In fact, in Islam, women weren’t specifically assigned to cook or clean, nor were men assigned to specifically go earn money. Islam teaches that women and men are held shoulder to shoulder. In the Quran, it states: “They are like a garment to you and you are like a garment to them,” which means men must treat women as they would like to be treated. It’s culture, not our religion, that dictates these gender norms.

Living a Double Life

Navigating between two sets of cultural standards has been confusing, because I don’t fully understand who’s right or wrong. Sometimes I feel like I’m living a double life. Growing up, I thought of myself as American. I was not even aware Pakistan was a country until I was 6. American culture appealed to me much more than my parents’ culture, mostly because of the ways women are segregated from men in Pakistani society.

I am slowly trying to come to terms with the complexities of my Pakistani heritage. Hearing about discrimination and violence against women in Pakistan turns me off to the culture. But as I’ve learned more about the world, I’ve come to understand that unfortunately women are persecuted in many cultures. This doesn’t make it OK, but it means Pakistan is not that different from many other countries.

Still, by some standards my sisters and I are becoming our brothers’ equals. Zara and I are learning to drive. Our parents helped us open saving accounts, and they are encouraging us to go to college and pursue not just bachelor’s degrees, but also master’s degrees. My mother wasn’t able to do these things during her teenage and early adult years. Today women in Pakistan are encouraged to gain an education and get jobs, which shows improvements are being made. Women hold high positions in the armed forces, police, and government in Pakistan.

However, there is still a lot more work to do before men and women are fully equal in Pakistan, the United States, and elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, the idea that only females do the chores and cooking still rules my house. I am a feminist and will forever be annoyed by this, but fighting it is hard. So I’ve decided to celebrate the freedoms I currently have, like the bank account I control. As I get older, I hope to achieve more independence and help other girls and women understand our full worth. and potential.

Outside of the house Zara and I were regular teenagers busy surviving school, but at home we were fierce feminists ready to do battle.
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