‘Dear Girl, Don’t Let Them Fool You, You Can’t Do It All’
In the 1990s, a few years after Benazir Bhutto was sworn in as the first female prime minister of Pakistan, my Taijaan was waking up in the small hours of the morning to cook food for the day before her two boys got up.
Every morning she rose from her bed to perform the same tasks: get the meals ready and send the children off to school. She then tended to her husband’s demands: on good days, giving him breakfast, and on the bad ones, finding his misplaced socks, belt or wallet.
She then went to work herself, fighting the traffic from Rawalpindi to Islamabad.
In the afternoon, she would leave her work earlier than her colleagues just to be home before the arrival of her children. Tired and worn, she’d nap a few minutes with her children safely home, preparing to duel out the third shift of her workday: dinner, bedtime routine and house cleaning.
She quietly went about her tasks, not once betraying dissatisfaction or dislike for the drudgery her life had become.
She was the perfect wife and the perfect mother, not so much because she carried the double burden of working both inside and outside the home. Instead, she won her impeccable credentials because she would never say a word about any of it. She had sabr.
And so today, like my Taijaan had been once, the young girls are being fooled again.
I am part of the generation who grew up under the popular slogans: “Education means empowerment” and “To educate a girl means to save the future.” Our parents sheltered us from performing housework, allowing us to concentrate on getting an education. Heck, we even delayed our marriage to the “undesirable” age of 30 in order to earn our degrees.
We were told that economic independence is our one-way ticket to greater decision-making power in the household, specifically allowing us to enjoy serious bargaining-leverage with our spouse. We took these words for their face value. We believed that if we earned our own money, we would not face the same challenges that the generation before us faced in their married life.
But alas, the feminists’ slogans that inspired our generation have had the effect of a double-edged sword. Yes, education and labour-force participation have allowed us to venture out into the world and earn a living. Yet, it has also significantly increased our burden. We have been fooled into giving away our labour to a market where we are merely treated as a supplementary workforce, are increasingly subjected to sexual harassment and are grossly underpaid in comparison to our male counterparts.
All the while, many of us still perform free work in the household.
On the flip side, men have benefited from women entering the workforce. Not only are their houses kept clean, their children taken care of, but now they no longer bear the burden of being “primary bread earners” of the household. Countless women continue to give their paychecks to their in-laws (either directly or indirectly), no questions asked.
Much of the work women perform is not considered payable. For instance, a mother will take care of her kids because “that is in her nature”. The boundless labour of mothering is so normalised that it is not even considered a real job, the cognitive and physical burden of raising children completely ignored.
I am by no means advocating for women to stop pursuing education and to retreat back from the workforce. Because the kind of horrors that can, and do, lead to are no secret. However, I am putting forward these two propositions for the girls.
Firstly, let us have the courage to reject societal expectations that demand women to “do it all”: to get an education, build a career and then be the obedient and all-sacrificing wife and mother. We have to stand up for ourselves if we are not to be treated with utter disregard for our own needs and ingratitude for our work.
Secondly, let us demand from “feminism” itself what is just. While women have entered the workforce in millions, these changes have not gone hand-in-hand with an egalitarian division of housework. Much of popular feminism has constructed the image of the hard-working, ambitious and entrepreneurial woman without bringing about any meaningful change in her everyday life. It is time we turn down this “partial feminism”, which only benefits patriarchy itself, and gather under the type of feminism which takes account of our whole, complete lives, rather than the parts which only apply to the privileged classes and to those who pull the strings. We have to realise, once and for all, that gender equality absolutely does not mean “doing it all”.
I often used to question my Taijaan about her decision to pursue a job even though she had to take care of her household chores with it. “Why didn’t you leave your work?” I asked her. Her answer caught me by surprise: “I wanted to. I could have. I just didn’t.”
But her decision to not quit was not inspired out of love for her work, as she then went on to reveal. It was all to keep her marriage intact. “You see, I considered leaving my job just before my marriage, but my mother talked me out of it. She said, ‘Maybe the man is marrying you because you can earn money’.”
This “advice” from my Taijaan’s mother stayed with her her whole life. And it was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. My Taijaan worked like a superwoman and handed her money to her husband until the day she retired.
This may just be what the modern girl may be expected to do for her entire life as well.
Don’t let them fool you. You can’t do it all. No one can.
Zahra Khan is a doctoral student of sociology at George Mason University. She is studying the gendered division of housework. Zahra aspires to one day have her own public sociology blog oriented towards highlighting the life of women in Pakistan.