Growing up in a traditional Muslim, Indian home, I was taught many things. One of the first lessons was that men (fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles) are in charge. He is the ruler of the house. I learned this while living in India, when my grandmother threatened my misbehavior with her telling my grandfather. I continued to learn it when I came to live with my parents in the U.S. and then the threat became my dad. I learned it again and again as I observed the relationships around me. My mom stopped working because my dad told her to do so. One of my aunts agreed to an arranged marriage because her older brother told her she had to.
I learned it when I heard stories about any woman in the community who “wore the pants” in her family as if it was a negative and degrading thing. I learned it when any abused woman in the community stayed with her abuser and the community members supported the action as her being compliant. I learned it when families were “shamed” by daughters who did not adhere to their fathers’ rules and lived their lives as they wanted. I learned it when I heard about the reality of honor killings (a woman is killed for bringing shame onto her family by disobeying her father or brother) in some parts of the world.
My question to my mom and to whomever I thought could answer the question was “Why?”. As in “Why do I have to listen to dad when it doesn’t make sense?” Or, “Why can’t you work if you want to?” Or “Why does the wife always have to be compliant to her husband?” Or “Why doesn’t the husband do what the wife says?” Or “Why does he get to make the rules?” The answers were never satisfactory. “Because he’s the dad.” “Because he said so.” “Because it’s just the way it is.” The last infuriated me more than anything. “But why is it that way?” I never found a satisfactory answer to that question either.
Sometimes when I could tolerate it no more, I rebelled in little ways. Most of it was teenage angst and looking back, somewhat amusing. Some of it was not teenage angst…I got a pixie cut and when my dad told me I looked like a boy, I smiled proudly. Once at an Indian Muslim wedding, I defied an emcee to stand in the dinner buffet line with men. I moved out of my parents’ home to live on my own, single, unmarried, and without a man to watch over me.
When I was younger, I thought these patriarchal rules were only in my Indian-Muslim community. But as I got older, I realized it was all around me. Looking at my childhood in the 80s, many of my friends’ homes had similar set-ups with dads having the final say in any given matter. In the 1990s, while I was in college, I was exposed to more working women in my friends’ moms and aspired to my own dreams of working. But I also saw these same working moms come home and frantically put dinner on the table for their families while the men relaxed after a hard day’s work. I wondered why the men were not expected to help with preparing dinner. My questioning of gender roles led me to a minor in women’s studies and a course that focused on finding the religion with the most equal gender rules. No monotheistic religion made the cut and in most of the world’s major religions, women maintain a second-tier status. In some religions, they are barred from praying alongside men, in others they cannot hold an ordained position, and often their attire is restricted.
Throughout history, women have not stopped fighting for their rights and have made incredible progress in issues such as equal pay, shifting gender norms, raising awareness and pushing for laws against domestic violence, sexual harassment and rape. For some time, we gained the right to manage our own bodies. But this is now at risk.
As you may have heard, Texas has passed a law which essentially makes an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy illegal. Admittedly, I don’t have a full picture of the law and exactly how it will be enforced. Based on what I have read (NPR, Washington Post), here is my understanding of the law:
- Any pregnancy in which a heartbeat can be detected (about 6 weeks) cannot be aborted
- There are no exception for cases of rape or incest
- Private citizens can sue abortion providers or anyone else who helps a woman obtain an abortion (ride providers, financial supporters). However, they cannot actually sue the pregnant woman
- Anyone can bring the lawsuit against the provider and they do not have to show a connection to the person they are suing
- Anyone who successfully sues an abortion provider could be awarded $10,000
Even though the woman getting the abortion cannot be sued, it basically makes it impossible for her to get an abortion in the state by putting the burden on the provider to not provide abortion.
Once again, I am left with my original question of why. Why are men making laws about what women can and cannot do with their bodies? Why are women allowing such laws to be passed? Why, in some countries, is female cutting/mutilation allowed? Why, in some countries, are women not allowed to hold passports or own property? Why are men allowed to make such laws that dictate women’s lives? Why do women have to fight for these human rights?
I am also asking one new question that seems to matter more than asking why. What can (you and) I do to change this reality?