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“To be a strong woman, you must know how to juggle multiple balls in the air,” says Dr Sabyn Javeri in this hard-hitting satire on expectations from women who won’t bow to an all-pervading patriarchy around them.
To be a strong independent modern woman, you must be a high achiever in a high powered career putting in longer hours than your male colleagues, but at the same time you must also somehow split yourself in two and be there for your kids, husband and inlaws. Sometimes neighbours too and, if you have any left, friends.
You must be able to help your child with homework and heat up food for your poor tired old husband when he comes back from work and also somehow have the energy to be a sex goddess in the bedroom after all this.
You must be a fearless leader in the boardroom that makes your male colleagues tremble yet be a demure damsel in distress in the bedroom to pander the ego of your husband who must never be allowed to feel inferior to his high achiever wife.
You must be a caregiver to ageing parents or inlaws devoting your only non-working day to visits where you sit nodding to tales of grim family gossip and were no one bothers to ask you what you do, much less what you think.
In the evening on weekends, you must dress up in fineries with net dupattas and necklaces that make your neck itch and either help in an airless kitchen sending out snacks to the men in the air-conditioned drawing room or sit in a segregated section/room discussing recipes and dramas and yet more family gossip while the men discuss politics and current affairs, subjects that you know more about. But no one will ask you what you think of the brewing war between India and Pakistan or Trump’s presidency because despite being a successful professional you are after all a woman and it is given that you would rather talk fashion than fascism.
You must never complain that you are more intelligent then you are given credit for, or you would be upsetting the precarious structure of patriarchy around you who have been generous enough to let you study and work, and therefore be a strong woman, in the first place.
To pay the price of being a strong woman, you must appear alert and top of your game at office meetings while simultaneously dashing out instructions to cooks and maids and drivers and your children’s tuition teachers, discreetly. For if a man was to call home to check on his kids, he would appear cute and progressive, while if a working woman does that she appears distracted.
Similarly, you must suffer through family weddings, keeping up appearances while secretly answering emails on your smartphone. You must make it look effortless and also be discreet with neither party suspecting that you are concentrating on the other.
If in the midst of this juggling act, if you are rudely interrupted by your child who needs to go potty, it is given that this task must be performed by you and not your husband. Even at weddings when you are dressed in your finest and already teetering on impossibly high heels with yards of fabric wrapped around you and a ton of gold weighing down your neck not to mention the thousands of hair pins piercing your skull, you must be the one accompanying the child and navigating the complex world of tiny cubicles as you try to wipe the bottoms of your little ones.
A strong woman does not depend on the help of nannies and ayahs outside of her work hours for else she will risk being labeled as the mother who has left her kids to ayahs ‘completely’. You must also be the first one to rush to break up any fights or arguments your children get into for, being a working mother, all credit for misbehavior must automatically be borne by you. While all credit for achievements must automatically be credited to the father. As a strong independent woman you must never challenge that status quo lest the patriarchy may question how a working mother can instill any discipline in her child at all given the fact that she is away for half the day.
Despite the disproportionate amount of work a strong working woman takes on, you must never play victim and publicly admit the unfairness of it all. You must soldier on with extreme resilience in the face of any adversity, for admitting that you have taken on too much would be giving in to the patriarchal structures who would be the first to point out, ‘who asked you to go out and work anyway?’
You must grin and bear, as you pay the price for your strength, when there is a conflict between work and home. You must either stay with your child and not worry about someone taking credit for your hard work or miss out on your child’s big day while you go to work and finish your daily work like it is just another day. You must appear normal even if inside you are breaking down because you feel torn between missing your child’s school play or attending the board meeting to present your hard work, both choices beating down equally hard on you.
To be a strong woman, you must know how to juggle multiple balls in the air. You must appease your family as well as your co-workers, trying to find the right balance between work and home life even if the constant juggling completely disturbs your own mental balance.
Most importantly you must never complain that I, too, have come home from work- to more work.
A strong independent woman must never let on that she is mentally and physically exhausted on the inside. She must face all the challenges in her life with a quiet resilience- or risk being deemed a ‘victim’ instead of a survivor. She must put up the façade of being a ‘superwoman’ taking on more and more; instead of admitting that this is unnatural. She mustn’t let on that to have it all is an unreal expectation from women.
A strong woman must be ready to pay this price for appearing so strong, as most patriarchal power structures only want to see the distress in her life and our waiting for her to shout, ‘I can’t do it all by myself’ and publicly perform that ‘victimhood’, for it appeals to their feudal sense of superiority.
Most men in power will only want to help and enable women if they come to them as victims. And so in order to stay strong, you must pay a heavy price for taking on all the roles yourself. you must come back from work and don the apron strings while your husband comes back from work and watches TV. Instead of demanding that your husband also helps- to which a strong woman is often told that it is her own life choices which have got her into a state where she ‘cannot manage’- you must decide to stay silent. You must pay a very heavy price indeed for slogans like, ‘Apna Khana Khud Garam Karo’ or for participating in the Aurat march whether it is to reclaim public space or to make others aware of gender stereotypes.
So remember, if you want to be a strong independent working woman, you must be willing to pay the price. You must delude yourself into thinking you can ‘have it all’ by spending your hard earned money on glossy magazines which amidst telling you how to have an orgasm that will outlive the last bacteria on earth will tell you that as a modern woman you must have a high powered career, the latest designer accessory and of course a baby or two to complement the latest handbag on your arm. It doesn’t matter if you kill yourself trying to outdo every expectation people never had from you. As long as you look good while you do it. In heels with your hair blow dried to perfection while being a size zero. Remember, you’re worth it!
Author’s note: Although satirical, the above is a tribute to all the strong independent working women out there who manage to balance work and home, making it look effortless by never displaying their exhaustion or their mental stress for fear of being called victims of their own success. This is a shout out to all those Sheroes who carry the burden of being a super woman because if they try to challenge the patriarchal structures they find themselves trapped in, they get called self-centred and selfish. Patriarchal structures, which patronisingly let the woman take on more but refuse to let the man’s role evolve. So it is that as we women fight for our rights for equal opportunities in the workplace, we often forget that the man’s role within the domestic sphere too needs to change. Very often if a man helps around the house we see it as a privilege and not a duty. We automatically assume that home is a woman’s domain and if she chooses to work she must somehow strike that balance without asking her other half to chip in. So much that many of us have internalised that patriarchy and continue to suffer in silence. We pay a huge price for being ‘a strong woman’ and we need to acknowledge that.
Editor’s note: Feminism has exploded over Indian screens and minds in the last few years, bringing what was considered an ‘uncomfortable’ topic into everyday speech, with all its hues and forms, warts and all. Wonder of wonders, it is even becoming an accepted way of life!
In this series, we invite women of note who’ve made a mark in their respective fields to share their Feminism – how they have experienced it, and how their view of it has evolved over the years.
Dr Sabyn Javeri is the author of the political novel Nobody Killed Her (Harper Collins, 2017) and Hijabistan (Harper Collins, 2019) which is a collection of politically provocative short stories based on the metaphorical interpretation of the veil in the lives of Muslim women. Sabyn’s short fiction has been published widely and she recently edited two volumes of the Arzu Anthology of Student Voices (HUP, 2018, 2019). She is a graduate of University of Oxford and has a PhD from Leicester University. She teaches World Literature and Creative Writing at Habib University, Karachi.
This is the third article in the series.
Want to know what our other feminists say? Read the thoughts of Dr Akkai Padmashali here.
Image source: Dr Sabyn Javeri
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