Pakistan American journalist, attorney, and DAWN staff columnist Rafia Zakaria often has the answers for me when I’m unsettled by the questions floating around in my head.
At 24, I’m watching the women in my peer group make incredible decisions in their lives and careers – choices of graduate school, artistic fellowships abroad, philanthropy projects, and more. But there’s one area of life that contributes both joy and absurd frustration – settling down.
Maybe not settling down itself, but everyone’s opinion about it. In our community, or perhaps some segments of it, our personal choices aren’t made in a vacuum, but within the context of larger social, religious and even economic dynamics and expectations.
As we navigate our professional and personal lives, the care and concern we put into our choices is not always individualist in nature, but collectivist. I’ve seen this manifest within my own community and social circles extensively. Whether we admit it or not, there is a keen sense of awareness that the choices we make professionally and personally will have ripple effects on our parents, siblings, extended families, and communities.
And for that reason, we often deny our convictions on an individual level and let some choices go for the sake of the collective.
Recently, I heard of a family preparing for their daughter’s wedding to a non-Muslim man. Their extended family agonized extensively (and publicly) over the impact that this marriage would have on the larger social and religious dynamics in their family.
What would people in the community say? Would they truly be able to integrate seamlessly into our family and keep things normal? Is this a mistake that will harm future generations in our family? What will things be like now? Why couldn’t she find a nice Muslim boy?
In a tornado of inquiry, they lamented of shame, sorrow, and an apparent loss of innocence.
Their choice of words was important here. Note that in this family particularly, numerous men had married “outside” of the community, yet it was this young woman’s decision to do so that caused exceptional frustration and concern. It was especially upsetting to see that it was women who were often the most critical and dismissive of this particular relationship and not of other interracial or inter-religious marriages that men in their family had initiated. To me, this pointed to internalized misogyny and a double standard that many folks have yet to resolve in our families and communities.
The dismay over the young woman in this situation selecting a non-Muslim partner instead of a Muslim one was not even a matter of religious incompatibility. This family wasn’t apprehensive because an individual with a different belief system was joining their family, their primary concerns were rather the social and cultural consequences of a young Muslim woman bringing her non-Muslim spouse to family gatherings, events and most importantly, into the family’s economy where social and cultural capital is accrued.
Anticipation about awkward social situations and a desperate desire to preserve existing social and cultural norms was of the utmost concern, whereas the question of Islam and its actual principles were on the backburner. “What will things be like?” was really a question of “How will this young person’s actions significantly alter the social and cultural dynamics of this family?” This family feared judgment, isolation, and the impact of this relationship on the bride’s sibling who may not find a “suitable” partner as a result of the older sister’s choice. Had this daughter found a “nice Muslim boy,” the desired dynamics would have been preserved and upheld and the fate of the family’s social capital and status in the community guaranteed safe.
It is often presumed that the family economy will suffer when daughters make decisions that contradict social norms or color outside the lines of what hegemony has drawn for them.
Shortly after, an LGBTQ+ Muslim friend of mine ditched her family altogether in fear of destroying her younger sibling’s chance of finding a suitable rishta. This choice was different. Rather than attempt to integrate her identity into her family, she made a personal sacrifice because she anticipated a complex situation and unspeakable rejection from her family and community. The choice to leave the family and avoid disrupting the status quo was both an act of resignation from the family economy and preservation of it. The social and economic consequences of staying were far more drastic than leaving.
A few months ago, I attended a screening and Q&A of A Girl In the River: The Price of Forgiveness with the film’s Academy Award-winning director, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy. I felt unsettled by the content and unsure of the prospects for change. As an aspiring attorney, I think extensively about what radical reform in the U.S.’s criminal justice system might look like. But as a Pakistani American, I don’t know much about the nuances to Pakistan’s frustrating legal system. The Q&A with Chinoy centered mostly around Saba Qaiser’s case, broader hopes for legal reform, and the state of affairs for women’s rights in Pakistan. As many have said before me, the issue of police brutality targeting the Black community isn’t a matter of police reform and body cameras, but a matter of recognizing the longstanding dehumanization of Black people and their bodies in the U.S. and the deeply rooted connection this history of dehumanization has to the American police force. Couldn’t the same be said for Pakistan? Will legal reform bring justice to women who are oppressed or are we in need of a grassroots lesson in dehumanization of marginalized bodies and the marginalization of dehumanized bodies?
I came home and still felt unsure about where the problems in our community begin and end, and if they truly are limited to unspeakable actions of honor killings and acid attacks or if there are underlying behaviors and mindsets among families in Western society that are rooted in roughly the same problematic beliefs and ideologies that motivate horrific actions against women in Pakistan.
So I started looking for thinkpieces.
I came across Rafia Zakaria’s February 2016 piece on Chinoy’s film featured in DAWN and was struck by her thoughtful argument and how broadly it could be applied:
“The root of the problem is that women (and men) are considered social capital in a family,” Zakaria writes. As I continued reading her piece, I realized that perhaps we would arrive at the same conclusion — we did. Legislative initiatives have “no teeth” and fail to address the root cause of honor killings against women in Pakistan. In her piece, Zakaria identifies a crucial role that women and men play in their families from a sociological and economic standpoint. She argues that they are considered “social capital in a family” and that “marrying them is a form of adding sociological assets, creating relationships that families, increasingly torn by migration and demographic change, require.”
Could Zakaria’s sociological theory behind honor killings be applied to the experiences of Pakistani American Muslim women, who often feel pressure to abide by and uphold hegemony in their professional and personal lives?
Zakaria speaks extensively about consequences. When a woman disturbs the process of adding sociological assets, the fate of the entire family economy destabilizes. And thus, the ultimate consequence follows. She writes that “when a woman rebels against this mechanism, not only does the family lose the possibility of capital accrued from arranging her marriage, her decision jeopardizes the futures of remaining brothers and sisters, their possibilities of making good matches that sustain them in a web of relationships where individual choice defeats collective security.”
Culturally and sociologically, the family is a sort of social insurance against “catastrophe, the death of a breadwinner, illness and job losses,” and therefore, “collective control over the individual is the glue that holds everything together.”
When we place the burden of upholding hegemony and quietly living life within the social and cultural power dynamics that exist around us on our daughters, this action can have disheartening consequences. For the agitated family acquaintance or my LGBTQ+ friend, their respective choices had cultural and sociological impacts on their families’ structures and systems, with the former rebelling against hegemonic expectations and practices and thereby risking her family’s social capital and the latter retreating from the system and her family altogether.
Of course there can be a balance of individuality and collectivism as we navigate our professional and personal lives. However, recognizing the unspoken burden placed on young women and being aware of how it manifests in our communities is crucial.
Defining the worth and value of this enormous segment of our community by how their choices impact the family economy and largely, societal ecosystems, is a disservice. I hope that there can be grassroots movements in our homes to recognize the harm of resting the burden of a family’s social, cultural, economic, and political security solely on the shoulders of young women and foreshadowing the consequences of rejecting that burden through shame, despair, pressure, and isolation.