The cursor blinks expectantly. You wonder, shall I begin with I ‘returned’ home or I’ve been ‘away’ from home?
At the airport, we try muting our pain through feeble consolations.
You will be back next summer, it’s just a year.
No. I have holidays in January.
I’ll be back before you know it.
Settling into a new school will always feel like this. Like being hit by a bus. On repeat. Add that to settling into a foreign country, an equally alien education system, and the longest school term of your life, and it’s no wonder you can’t wait to go home. For me, 2017 can’t come quick enough. I can’t wait to see family and friends, to revisit places that were – still are – my own, and I definitely can’t wait to eat my weight’s worth of Subway cheese toasties.
Kind of like returning from a vacation, I anticipate a gushing sense of comfort to overcome me. But it doesn’t. Faced with a typically English abundance of grey, red, and brown, I begin to miss the golden hues of Qatar. I am lulled into a state numbness wondering if something inside me is broken. Time and place are frozen, not in a comforting nostalgic way like discovering old photographs but a stifling suffocation that I can’t seem to shift. Every passing moment, every story, is a reminder that life went on without me yet it feels like nothing has changed. I wonder: if life is fluid then why do I feel trapped in the same old so and so?
My dissertation arrived whilst I was away. The words are familiar but I feel like I am looking at it for the first time. Amazed and confused and in awe- all at the same time. I produced this. The examiners describe it as: impressive; sophisticated; fascinating; admirable; full of local strengths and ethically rigorous; smart and sensitive; uncompromisingly complex…
My eyes skim the pages. I want to read it again from cover to cover. I want to see my work from the examiners’ perspectives but I can’t bring myself to read. The price I have paid is too painful.
It begins with a simple question from my newly-wedded friend: How do you cope with expectations from the in-laws?
Everyone in the staff room is, one by one, prised away from the work they hoped to complete before the bell. There’s so much to say and such little time. We share our stories, unknowingly engaging in a cross comparison of our respective cultures: Pakistani, British Kashmiri, Somali, Egyptian, Catholic Irish, and Indian Muslim. I feel a newfound respect for them all but I’m also saddened to see these women – amazing in their own ways – all experiencing and agreeing on one thing: in the end, none of us are ever going to be good enough.
A colleague ends the discussion with: Khalaas, it’s the same wherever you are. Trust me, mothers are no better than mother in laws. This has and will always be the case for Muslim women…when does it get easier? It doesn’t.
I go home and unpack my dissertation. I re-read the opening lines:
‘(British) Pakistanis belong in a taken-for-granted way not to a single diaspora but to several different diasporas – Asian, Muslim, nationalist Pakistani, Punjabi – a hybrid diaspora.’ [Pnina Werbner, 2003.]
It sounds beautiful, doesn’t it? This rich, eclectic mix of cultures that allows us to pick and choose, shape, and reshape our lives as we wish. In my academic work, I contend time and time again that we daughters of this hybrid diaspora suffer the most. Each time I feel like I have said enough or I have nothing new to add, a new event uncovers another layer of suffering. There’s a huge price Muslim women pay for belonging to cultures which claim to derive from Islam but also hold dear tribal practices originating from paganism, and borrow elements of western or ‘modern’ culture too. As cultural hybrids, we are so confused about our identities, we can’t even begin to theorise or protest an oppression that continues to thrive generations after migration.
I tell myself to push back the pain, to engage in history once again.
I am five and every night my mother makes me pray for a veer. I ask why I’m praying for something I don’t want in the first place. I want someone to play with and talk to. I want a sister. She’s relentless with her reasons which range from: a brother will look after you to one girl is enough and besides daughters are not your own.
I am ten. I have grown up hearing this saying: the walls of a home rejoice when a daughter is born, but if a son arrives the walls cry in fear.
I think the walls of the home have more sense than the people in it who gift sweets and presents when a son is born, and mourn unapologetically when a burden – sorry – a daughter is born. I express this one day and my interpretation stands corrected: the walls rejoice at the thought of a daughter because the house knows only a daughter will keep it clean. The walls don’t cry in fear of the man’s tyranny (how ridiculous of me to think this could be the reason) but because a man can’t make a house a home. It isn’t a comment to promote the status of the female child; it’s just another subliminal tool to produce good girls.
The first time my mother fell pregnant, children in the family were similarly coerced to pray for a boy. Unfortunately, she had me: the stain that’ll never wash out. My grandmother used to reprimand my father for picking his newborn daughter up too much, warning him with, ‘Allah will give you many more girls.’ Then there’s the well-wishing aunties that comment in passing: ‘May Allah give you a firstborn son.’ Do you notice a recurring factor in these stories? The gender of those upholding male privilege is, funnily enough, female.
Can you imagine being told from the moment you comprehend it that these four walls you call home, this shelter above your head, this comfort you look forward to each time you return from school or mosque, is not yours?
Can you imagine being labelled paraya maal (foreign goods) as though you are cattle, or a product that can be bartered off to strangers and their sons (most likely living overseas), and sent to your real owners (your in-laws) to continue suffering in silence? Both subtle and overt, the enculturalization process works in stealth to deliver a very final message:
Your home isn’t here, it’s elsewhere. Your presence here is undesired; you were never asked for. You are not ours; you belong to your in-laws where your worth as a wife will be determined by your ability to produce sons. But in the end, what does any of this matter because now that you are here – in our home and in our lives – we are sure you’ll find some way to bring us dishonour.
When does it get easier? It doesn’t.
The end to my two weeks in the UK came too suddenly as did the affirmation that yes, something is definitely broken. The concept of ‘home’ broke long ago or maybe it fizzled out before it had the chance to fully flourish. Either way, it took a journey of 27 years and 5,000km to confirm the following.
My home is not a set of cold, brick walls where every part of daily life is a reminder of my worth as not ‘good enough’.
Home is waking up to find my nieces crawled into bed with me. Home is in the light of their eyes, it is in their little joyful jumps when I collect them from school, it is in their constant hugs and declarations of affection. Home is the secrets they whisper to me as we dozed off together, it is in watching Trolls together for the eighth time in a week. Home is with daughters and sisters and nieces – the women that make life worth living.
My home is with my beautiful siblings (both male and female) who, like me, survived difficult childhoods and have grown up into beautiful, kindhearted individuals. They have all suffered at some point thanks to the wide ranging spectrum that is our hybrid culture. So, home is the one thing fiercely binding us all together: our desire to break the cycle. I already see it in our resistance, in the way we plan to lead our families, in how we want to bring up our children – sons and daughters, and in how we treat each other. The cycle will either break or die with us.
One day you will leave and start a family of your own but don’t be scared. It’ll be amazing. You will be the head of your own house and you will have a great life, In sha Allah. While you’re here with us, you are our daughter second but first, our guest. Always. Even if you eventually live thousands of miles away, there will always be a space here for you…