The Freedom To Be

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Published in the Express Tribune Blog, October 4th 2011

Brooklyn Bridge Park

A friend from Lahore recently asked me, “What would you miss most about New York if you were to move back to Pakistan right now?”

I thought about it for a few minutes. Unlike many Pakistanis living in the U.S. I knew, I wasn’t particularly attached to this country, or to New York.

To me,  it was just another city – a hard city, a cacophonous city, where bright lights and gleaming skyscrapers belied the darkness, the sadness, the grime and the poverty in the corners; where glamour, spectacle, a veneer of ethnic diversity thinly concealed the underlying greed and racism.

I had no great love for New York; my heart still belonged to Lahore, and it was Lahore that I forever looked for, in every street sign, in every face, in every smell and neighbourhood.

But there was one thing.

“Freedom”, I replied to my friend. “That’s what I would miss.”

It wasn’t the freedom to wear a tank top or mini-skirt in public, to dance at a nightclub or get a tattoo; it wasn’t the freedom to hop on a train or bus at any hour of the day and go where you wanted, come home when you pleased; the freedom to attend any kind of rally, concert or film screening that suited your fancy, to make friends with any colour or class of people you chose,  to walk out on the street at 2.a.m. for some ice-cream from the 24-hour deli, to nap under a tree in Washington Square Park.

No, these were superficial freedoms. It was something deeper than that.

It was the freedom to be. 

Growing up in Lahore, I didn’t ever ask myself – Why are all the women I know teachers and doctors, the other half housewives? Why don’t I know any women engineers, scientists, actresses, novelists, athletes, dancers, photographers, lawyers?

I never asked myself – Why do I have to wait for the driver or one of my parents to drop me to school or to a friend’s house? Why can’t I take the bus, a taxi or rickshaw?

Why must I send the cook to fetch that tub of ice-cream from the shop across the street for my slumber party? Why can’t I go myself?

Why can’t I say my prayers at the beautiful neighborhood mosque? Why must I pray in the musty, uninspiring ante-chamber, or in the confines of my house?

Why can’t I play cricket in the park? Why can’t I wear jeans to Liberty Market? Why do I need a male friend to accompany me on my field visits to the shehr?

Why must I get married by the age of 24 and have at least one child by 26?

Why? Because that’s how things were.

I never questioned it, or if I did have questions, they were momentary. The main explanation, of course, was that I was a girl.

That was good enough. It was reasonable, it was appropriate. You never asked why your brother could do things you couldn’t, why there was one set of rules for the boys and another for the girls. To question that would seem presumptuous, daftly unrealistic, “Amreekan” – this is was Pakistan, this was how society functioned, and women were completely A-OK with it.

There were exceptions to the rule, of course, a handful of courageous women who dared to break into non-traditional roles and spaces – but these women, although publicly lauded, were implicitly looked down upon by middle- and upper-class morality. They were arrogant, promiscuous, “unfeminine”, or, they were supremely-gifted rarities that happened once in a generation, and while you admired them, you couldn’t possibly aspire to be like them.

And while life did go on, and the women of my class “progressed” day by day, from classrooms to TV screens to charity fundraisers – the socially acceptable, the superficially liberal – the greatest inhibitions remained.

What if I wanted to be a political activist, campaigning door-to-door and chanting slogans at rallies shoulder-to-shoulder with men? What if I wanted to be a social worker, visiting slums and prisons and acid-burn victims in teeming public hospitals? What if I wanted to be a professional musician, performing at cafés, parks, theaters, outside the protective walls of my school or college? What if I wanted to go for a stroll at midnight, sit at a roadside khokha chewing paan, live in a 3rd story flat in Anarkali, ride my bike to work?

What if I wanted to marry for love to a man “below” my class, to a foreigner, to a gora?

What if I wanted to do all of this, not to make any statements, not to be provocative, not be seen or talked about, but just because that’s who I was, who I wanted to be, and doing something contrary would be oppressive, inhibiting.

In New York, all the inhibitions inculcuated in you since childhood slowly chipped away. You could see yourself for who you were, and you could actually be that person. Nobody judged, nobody cared. People treated you as a human being, without the gender labels and cultural baggage. No one stared at you, no one harassed you. No one noticed you for being a woman, for being different. You were anonymous – and while that could sometimes feel lonely, it was also very liberating.

What it comes down to is choice. You coud choose to pursue your passion, and, married, divorced or single, childbearing or childless, rich or poor, be the happiest woman in the world for having done so – or you could be be like the neighbouring mother-of-4, whom society praises for raising such well-behaved children, for keeping such a tidy, efficient household, for having such an amicable relationship with her in-laws, for being so equable with the servants, and yet be lifeless inside, burdened with regret.

For no matter how noble the mission of wifehood and motherhood, no matter how sacred our notions of femininity, I do not believe that any woman can enjoy seeing her ambitions crushed. I do not believe that every aunty I know did not nurture a secret wish in her heart that she was not able to fulfill. And that was a loss not just for herself, but for everybody around her, for society, for the country – because one woman who lives life to her potential, who is brave and follows her heart, is far more inspiring than any number of daughters, wives and mothers imprisoned to their homes and kitchens and children and a job or husband they do not love.

So, yes, what would I miss about New York if I were to move back? The freedom to be. The choice to be. No double-standards. The same rules for men and for women. The same benchmarks for your daughters and your sons.  And though I miss Lahore with all my heart, I do not miss its self-righteous upper-class morality.

Obviously, there will never be a day when you wake up in the morning and the men of Lahore cease to ogle, the aunties cease to matchmake, the uncles cease to lecture, and society ceases to preach one thing or other. It’s up to us to make that happen. It’ll  take courage, but that’s the only way to live, the only way to free yourself  from the invisible cages your mothers were trapped in, the only way to ensure that your children aren’t trapped the same way.

I’ll leave you with a request to read Ismat Chughtai, the brilliant grande dame of 20th-century Urdu literature, whose work inspired me to write this post. She wasn’t just a gifted writer  – she was a keen social commentator, whose stories revealed the deepest of deep-rooted hypocrisies in middle-class Indo-Muslim society. She saw things for what they were, she saw herself for who she was, and she was not afraid to be that person, no matter how much people gasped and censured. Though times have changed and women are “freer” than they were in the 1960s, when Chughtai wrote “The Heart Breaks Free”, one of my all-time favourite stories, her observations are just as pertinent today, and we can learn much from them. I couldn’t find the story online, so I’d encourage you to go to a store, buy it and read it, in Urdu or in English. Enjoy!

16 thoughts on “The Freedom To Be

    […] If you’re wealthy in Pakistan, there’s no better place to be. The perks rich people have here out-rival those of most other countries, unless you’re really kinda’ a big deal. But there’s a hierarchy system in place which is based on money, connections and gender which determines how many perks you will have living here, or how many handicaps you’ll have to learn to live with. Being a girl is a handicap more often than not, for a large fraction of the population, whether they realize it or not. […]

    Munira said:
    November 10, 2011 at 4:02 am

    Heartfelt, and beautifully expressed. And so true. I mirror your feelings, though I live in Karachi, yet the intangible feeling of an overall oppressiveness persists….
    Was glued from beginning to end.

    Naveed said:
    October 16, 2011 at 7:02 am

    Girls glad the awakening has come of age…about time too!!

    Naveed Henderson

    Linda Khan said:
    October 9, 2011 at 9:27 am

    Well, what an amazing story, and I am so proud that you grew up in Lahore when I was living there, and that you and your wonderful family were part of our lives. I have watched you grow into an incredible young lady; talented beyond words, and a passionate women who is going to make a difference in this world. I too have found that passion/force to help the women of the world that you write about, I can’t help but see a little of me in some of the words that you express in this article. I was the opposite though, the educated Westerner who came to Pakistan, but I learned first hand how the differences in our societies alienated women and this was painful for me, as well as you. It takes time to break centuries of traditions that suppress groups of people, so this too will take some time. For sure you will be a beacon of light for many women in Pakistan, don’t give up your passion; it will be catching.

    Best regards and appreciation,

    Linda Khan

    childfreefeminist said:
    October 5, 2011 at 12:29 pm

    It’s wonderful you’ve made a disctinction between archaic old ways of life, and being critical of the way things are for women. You’re very right. Us women need to the choice to be—whatever that encompasses—and the possibilities you’ve listed are amazing, and there’s more. We don’t need to be confined to the drudgeries of housework and childminding anymore because of our gender.
    I hope a lot of women read this :) Your words can make a difference.

    businessbrainsindia said:
    October 5, 2011 at 11:43 am

    Kudos to you ! Amazing Article! Need to learn a lot from you! Freedon To Be ….. I am new to blogging but seems like ..I have been missing a lot . nevertheless, now that I am into it…would love to read your lines,everytime you write !

    Ummati said:
    October 5, 2011 at 10:13 am

    Maybe Im missing the point of the article. Maybe all you wanted was to say be free and be yourself.

    I just dont think its fair how deliberately your painting liberation as not being answerable to anybody. And the only woman you see as being liberated is one out on the streets, shoulder to shoulder with men.

    Ummati said:
    October 5, 2011 at 10:09 am

    Hmm. I dont know. Being in your home, caring for your family, away from the judgments and craziness of the outside world- that doesnt seem like ‘being imprisoned’ to me. I see home as a protective haven, a refuge. Family as something we should cherish, love and respect.
    Being independent is one thing, but looking down on everyone who for some reason isn’t out there and doing something huge and exciting- is not quite fair. Just because they’re at home and not singing on stage at a concert, or standing up for elections- doesn’t mean they’re oppressed, or forced, or in ANY WAY not liberated.
    Liberation can take many colors. Putting yourself ‘out there’ might be your idea of liberation, but its not the only one.
    At the end of the day, everybody who’s seen you has already judged you. Its deciding whose judgment matters.
    Maybe the match making aunties and the lecturing uncles can get annoying, but they do that because thats what they see as important to them. Aunties feel they have to look out for the girls, and the uncles feel responsible for the moral upbringing of the kids. Everyone shows their sense of caring in different ways.
    Maybe its a good thing that Lahore and that ‘so backward’ society- is not allowing you to go out on the streets and do what you want. Maybe there IS a reason why boys are allowed more freedom- they’re the ones who have to make a living. It doesnt have to be that way. Im not saying girls dont need to learn to be street-smart too. But girls need to be cared for as well. More so than the guys. Perhaps, those gazillion phone calls from Daddy asking where you are, and Mom asking why you’re so upset can impinge on our ideas of freedom and independance- but perhaps we should consider those who never had loving, caring parents to constantly look after them. People who actually wanted to KNOW why you’re not your usual self, people who would acually know what your usual self would be.
    And as for societies ‘preaching to each other’- that’ll be the day when no body cares about the other person so as to- at THE LEAST counsel them.
    Growing up close at home and then moving abroad, without people who knew you- ‘feels liberating’- because you feel as if you can do anything and everything u want, but really- What is it you want? What is it that you want to do that your family wouldn’t really appreciate?

    Liberation comes with knowing what your purpose in life is. Liberation comes with knowing what you’re supposed to do, and why. Liberation comes with the oh-so-blissful surrender to your Master. Liberation comes with not having to care about temporary obstacles, and just raising your hands in supplication to your Lord.

    Thats Liberation.

    Mohsin Ata Mir said:
    October 5, 2011 at 5:03 am

    A heart touching article ,nicely expressed.I always wonder how many issues and problems are there in our society and most of them are mentioned by people who come from middle to upper class. I have never seen an article written by a person who belongs to a lesser fortunate class their issues are the basic necessities of life they work as hard as possible to earn enough to feed their families hence most of them are unable to make both ends meet. I hope i am not giving the wrong impressions all i am trying to say here is i respect all the issues raised but priorities should be given to the problems those occur at a larger scale and involving more population of the society and in my humble opinion poverty is the biggest crime of our society for more than 80% of our population die before they can think.

    Taimur said:
    October 4, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    Well written, and you know, everybody relates to your article, or feel what you mean, but in the end of day you know a bit more can be done. Let me know if there is any group that is actively working towards reducing sexism and its heavily embedded views in our society, i’ll be glad to help them out.

    Naheed Rafi said:
    October 4, 2011 at 5:54 pm

    Wonderfully written! you have expressed so eloquently what a lot of people have felt at some point or the other in their lives. It is so important to be true to ones self….lucky are those who are able to do just that!

    The hardest battle you’re ever going to fight is the battle to be just you.
    — Leo Buscaglia

    Wishing you victory in all the ‘battles’ you may have to face in the future! Bless you!

    shayma said:
    October 4, 2011 at 5:45 pm

    Manal- that is a really beautiful piece you have written- i can relate to a lot of it- but may i just say that i think the more years you spend abroad, the more love you will begin to feel for the city you live in- i also see Lahore everywhere like you, but i also love that coffee shop which was stone’s throw from my flat in Rome, the way i love the samosa-wallah in Mini Market; i came to love my local Chinese restaurant near my Ami’s house in DC, the way i love the Tai Wah hear our home in Lahore. Lahore is always in us- we are Lahoris- but the love for the new places in your life- esp the place you call home with your husband in your life with him- will become lovable, too. may you always have and find that freedom you speak of. much love, shayma

    Jacqueline said:
    October 4, 2011 at 4:48 pm

    Wow! I couldn’t help but get teary reading this. I didn’t realize until I got older, but one of the things I am deeply grateful to my parents for is raising me as Jackie, not a girl or a boy. I climbed trees, played with Barbies, rode my bike down hills, loved pink, played with matchbox cars, watched “boy” cartoons, etc. I did what fit me.

    It only occurred to me that there might be different standards for men and women when I went to a catholic high school. I didn’t understand why many of the girls weren’t speaking their minds in front of the boys or why we weren’t allowed to wear pants like the boys unless it was below 40 degrees (with the help of some teachers and other students, we changed that rule).

    I wrote a post about this a while back, but I think the bravest thing any of us an do is to simply be ourselves–to shine our light, our unique gifts, and to be who we were born to be. That is surprisingly not always easy, and in many cases extremely difficult, especially when our loved ones or our communities so strongly oppose what makes us each unique. It can feel like a personal attack because that’s who we ARE, but ultimately, it’s not. I’ve learned that those that are the most threatened by my freedom are the ones that have so tightly tucked it away from themselves.

    Thank you so much for this post and for your beautiful writing! Most of all, thank you for being you, for being free, and for showing others it’s possible!

    Saad said:
    October 4, 2011 at 3:07 am

    Though I am strictly of the ‘conventional’ ‘narrow-minded’ mind set, and i feel strongly about it, the way you have put your case forward is solid. I so can’t deny what you are saying and have to admit that I agree to what you are saying about the freedom that you talk about. I so agree with you.

    Zuhaib said:
    October 1, 2011 at 11:41 am

    U r a gifted thinker n writer Manal! Everytime u write something……its thought provoking……sensitive in nature……remind me that m not the only person to think that way which contradicts our taboos, tradition n society norms…….n make me realize y i always anxiously wait for your articles. God bless u…..n with your due permission m sharing it on my FB wall.

    Urvashi said:
    October 1, 2011 at 3:35 am


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