The vocabulary box given to young girls born in the late 1980s in Pakistan had many words to play with – dolls, sleep, cry, eat, pink, white, Ami, Baba, hello, bye.
And as they would grow, more words would be plopped into the box or sometimes slipped into it when they were sleepy or too busy to notice – work, kitchen, care, compromise, weak, patience, strength, clean, sacrifice.
Why - a word that I only realized is essential to grow and develop and learn and understand was really discovered in university, and I am forever thankful to LUMS for teaching it to me. The skill and art of questioning.
We aren’t encouraged to question, generally, and the more check boxes ticked against your name, the further they put the word away from you – female? Two rungs up the ladder; Pakistani – three rungs higher; young? Two rungs up. Wait, did you say female? Let’s just put it up where you can’t even see it so it’s more comfortable for all of us.
We were taught it is rude, almost unacceptable, to question your parents (no, you can’t go to your friend’s house, don’t keep your door locked, no, you cannot wear that, you have to pray, work hard in school, Math is important, don’t watch dirty movies, you can’t read a love story with such pictures on its cover…) – they know better and even more obvious, you just are not supposed to. There were seldom any explanations offered with requests and orders and prohibitions, and the thought that we might ask for any was never an option because we didn’t see or hear about it – it was the era before social media, before the internet and cable TV and before cell phones became our natural born right. So there is only one way and the way is to never ask why.
You can’t question religion or any of the religious teachings because that indicates weak faith, and you cannot ever admit to weak faith even if it is common and prevalent and natural. You should not even ask too many questions in school, especially ones that have difficult answers, especially ones that invite confusion over ideologies and beliefs, customs and rituals. You can’t argue over why older siblings deserve to be respected even if they’re being unreasonable, you can’t wonder if there is more to a woman’s life than being married and having children, you can definitely not think that brothers and fathers and husbands and sons have to make the same amount of effort in taking care of the house or your feelings or their children, or perhaps sometimes venture into the kitchen to fetch a glass of water, if not for their sisters or wives or children, then at least for themselves. Just because we weren’t allowed to, just because the word ‘why’ wasn’t granted to us. Just because “because I said so” was supposed to be all the reason anyone needed.
And then slowly, times started changing.
One of my Freshman year classes runs like a 15-second snippet from a black-and-white film (slightly faded, like on an old film reel in a shabby cinema) in my mind. “You must always question things – you must do it for everything. It doesn’t matter who is giving you the information. You must even question me – where did you get this information from, Professor? What is the reason for your statements? The most important question of all – why?”
I remember thinking that’s pretty cool, if a little tedious because it would mean a lot of research and reading and thinking. But back then, I didn’t realize the full meaning of that lecture, or the countless other Social Sciences courses I took which always focused on providing more than one point of view, more than one school of thought, there was discourse and debate and conflict, and evidence and research and reason behind all the diverse perspectives and it could be confusing, but usually, one school of thought would make more sense than the other, it would, so to say, speak to my common sense and my heart. Question, seek answers, and then perhaps choose the one that strikes a balance between your heart and mind.
It was much later, post-college, when I looked at other young men and women around me and the lives they led, that I realized what was different for me. While my Social Sciences degree taught me to question and think and understand and think some more, my Master’s in Social Work taught me to empathize and learn to hold your judgments and beliefs to no one else but yourself (and perhaps, to a lesser level, your immediate family – well actually that’s not my degree but my own rule...). You would think these are all skills readily available in society but actually, not really. It can be very hard work learning to empathize and you need to be very careful if you want to practice tolerance, and you need to be self-aware and that requires mindfulness, and mindfulness can be tiring.
And when you question things and ways of life, it can lead to realization and understanding but too often it makes you uncomfortable, sad, angry, anxious and dissatisfied – because you may decide that you do not agree with the current status quo and that there might be better, more balanced, more egalitarian ways of life, but you cannot wave a magic wand and create equality and diversity. It is one thing to realize your lack of privilege – it is another thing for the one with the privilege to let go. They don’t want to let go, and they have less reason to fight their years of socialization and conditioning only to step down from their comfy pedestals. We all play a part in it – so the women of today might want to divide household chores equally or even in a 60-40 proportion in favor of men, but it doesn’t generally happen so smoothly. Men have grown up in a society where women around them have been more than happy (or if not happy then definitely eager) to serve them the biggest piece of chicken, or pour the first glass of water, boys are seldom asked to wipe down the dinner table or serve the guests some juice. They have seen their fathers, their brothers, their cousins and friends the same way and it is difficult to unlearn – so the claims might become egalitarian a lot more easily than actions do. And you can either accept things as they are and just swallow it, or you can grumble and argue and fight, and generally create an air of unhappiness and negativity. Or you can agree on a slower course of action and celebrate small achievements while at the same time still wriggling your foot slowly and steadily to continue making further inroads.
It is definitely a thin tightrope to walk.
Times are continuing to change, though.
I think the young women born in the late 1980s were placed precariously at the edge – and if they were lucky and brave enough, they rolled into a field with more than just two colors – and as they sat up to look, they saw more options slowly unfurling like tiny brightly colored flowers around them.
Slowly, higher education and career options are being plucked and arranged in vibrant bouquets for women (to be more accurate, a very small percentage of women in Pakistan but it is a start), the word ‘why’ is being brought down from the high ladder as women start wielding their axes to chuck away at the rungs. Even the decision of why, who and when to marry is being slid closer to some women, almost within their grasp if they are unruly enough to reach out and grab it, some taking it a step further and questioning the whys and whens of giving birth (one of the more interesting generation gaps is around this question – or rather, the perception that it is actually a question – a decision – rather than as undeniable as the growth of nails or hair, or Ryan Gosling’s good looks).
I think the ability to ask questions – and seek answers – makes you a better person. It definitely does not make you a happier person, but it gives you something that you never want to give up. It made me realize that perhaps the purpose of life isn’t just happiness. That perhaps the purpose of life is more varied, diverse. Like a jigsaw puzzle, with different sized pieces sort of coming together to make a picture – a picture just for me. Peace, happiness, reasoning, thought, wonder, awe, adventure, love, sacrifice.
And if I’m brave enough, I can arrange them in any way I want.