Sexism plays such a big role in my society that I wanted to write about it by comparing my experience with the experience of a man from the same region. So I interviewed a friend from India, whom I’ve named Dude. India was Afghanistan’s neighbor until 1947 when Partition was declared at the time of the dissolution of the British Raj.
Dude has experienced sexism throughout his married life and has felt oppressed, which is not considered common in his culture. On the other hand, I have learned so many positive things from my life partner that our relationship might be seen as odd in Afghanistan. (My partner is my husband, but I prefer the term “partner” because I agree with Martha Ackelsberg, a professor of Government and Women and Gender Studies at Smith College, who argues that the institution of heterosexual marriage often discriminates against those who do not identify as themselves as “normal” heterosexuals.)
My interview with Dude was informal and we laughed at the ways our experiences were both different and similar. We realized that we are both victims of sexism and that sexism has played a major role in our lives. We are both convinced that generalization about gender roles in our society can be a trap.
Dude first recognized gender differences in his family as a young boy when he noticed only girls could grow their hair long and that clothing signified gender. In my family, I always saw boys as privileged even when I was a child. This probably started when I was four or five years old and saw that my brother, who was two years older, stood while peeing. Although I tried this many times, I would always end up ruining my dress. My mother went to great lengths to convince me that it was okay not to stand, but I continued to try. She then reasoned with me, explaining that my brother was different because he had not yet been circumcised. I waited with anticipation for him to become like me, but this, of course, did not happen.
When I was about ten, and we were refugees in Pakistan, we would carry water from a well a mile away from our house. My younger brother was thinner and weaker than me, but my grandmother insisted he should carry the water. Later, my family made sure that my brother came with me to protect me, even though I was the stronger one. I became fully convinced of formal gender roles when my mother said: “When they grow up, Lima is going to be a nurse and Fareed (my older brother) is going to be a pilot.”
Although my family was less conservative than many, my parents did not expect me to become a breadwinner for the family or push me to work hard at my education. Most Afghans believe that it’s a privilege for women to not have to earn a living. But I did not see it as a privilege; I felt useless. I knew I could contribute to our family and to society in many ways.
Our interview became very interesting when we exchanged experiences about our partners, examining instances where we felt gender discrimination. Dude explained that to protect women from abuse, certain laws were created in his country, but he said the laws are subject to misuse, especially by women who made gender issues more of a problem than they really are. He feels this happened to him. He was married for only two months, but the laws have allowed his ex-spouse to take great financial advantage of him and therefore he feels highly oppressed. It is a classic example of reverse discrimination.
I felt honored when he shared this story with me because I think few men in our cultures want to share feelings of oppression. In turn, I shared an experience where I was discriminated against by Afghan law. Religion is the main driver behind Afghan law. There is an inherent bias, however, because most religious laws are interpreted by men but apply to women. In general, I do not feel oppressed in my family life, but because I live in a society where everyone is expected to conform to stereotypical gender roles, I often allow myself to be oppressed by my partner for the convenience of society. As a result, I feel oppressed by the system.
For example, when I went to civil court with my partner to get our marriage certificate, the court required a passport-sized photo. In the tiny picture, my head was not covered with a veil. The judge insulted me in front of all the men in the civil court, saying that I broke the law by not covering my head. The judge started shouting when I pointed out that it was a personal document: Why should it matter if my head is covered? Yet he refused to make our certificate with the photo and shouted louder, even though shouting at a woman or insulting her in public is prohibited in religious law. He could break the law because he was a man, but I couldn’t.
Dude then said that in his society, a woman must leave her own family after marriage and live with her husband’s family. Dude said that a boy doesn’t have to learn to cook. Until recently, if a woman had a job, she still had to do the cooking and house chores, though this is now changing as young professionals start to live independently from their parents, and some choices are made based on finances rather than custom. The situation is similar in my society. I was, and still am, expected to move to my in-laws’ home after marriage.
I asked Dude if he has ever wished to be the opposite sex. He said yes, he has wondered if it would be more fun to be a girl, to be the one who is always wooed. I have also thought many times that I’d rather be a man. I figure that if I have to live in a man’s structured world, I’d be better off as a man. I don’t enjoy having to prove myself equal. Physiologically I am different, yet in order to compete in a world designed by men, I can’t appear physically weaker. Why?
Our conversation allowed me to rethink aspects of life that I see through the lens of society’s normative values. We both experienced sexism and discriminatory gender roles, but as a woman and a man we experienced them differently. We both have felt oppressed because of our gender yet in our societies we are both considered “privileged.” In Dude’s culture, the man does not have to clean or cook, but during his short marriage he was burdened by the responsibility of earning a living as well as household chores because his spouse wouldn’t help. I am considered privileged for not having to be the breadwinner. Life should be great for me. Instead I feel useless and resent that, unlike my brother, my potential has not been acknowledged.
As a result of my interview with Dude, I found the biggest irony may be that men are very satisfied with their gender role. I have learned a lot from living a less conservative life than other women in my society. Having open discussions with my partner has helped me to understand how society perpetuates gender roles, and I can conclude that gender discrimination and oppression are not only a woman’s problems, but affect society as a whole.
Photo: Jalil Rezayee / EPA