I was forced to live in Peshawar, Pakistan when I was 12 years old. It happened suddenly and without warning. I was taken to live there by force, against my will (a long story for another day with convoluted reasons, some of which I still don't understand). Growing up in Maryland, my extended family had seen pictures of me as an "American" kid - and they didn't like it. There was a particular photograph of me at the age of 11 wearing a denim knee length, form fitting skirt with my hand on my hip. Apparently, this photo freaked many of them out, and they decided to teach me how to be a "real" Muslim girl. So the plan, which they had already been plotting for some time, became real. They decided to bring me back to Pakistan and teach me to be a good Muslim, a real Pakhtun and a proud Pakistani - a docile girl who would get a good arranged marriage in time. What they didn't reckon on was my strong personality and questions about everything. And that's where the trouble began.
There was so much gossip! Communities worldwide gossip, but my family system gossiped more than any other system I had ever been around. In Pakistan, gossip is a way of life; it helps people put each other in check and establish hierarchy. Plus, it's a past-time. As a very dear Pakistani friend once said to me "Well if we don't talk about people... what WILL we talk about?"
The problem with gossip is that it's negative. People said things to me and about me that weren't even true and were so easily misconstrued. And then there was me just trying to be a teenager in a culture that encourages repression, and a family that punishes for the minutest thing. Imagine innocently looking out the window and seeing a cousin's male friend standing there when you are about 14. Imagine not even knowing he was there or who he was. Now imagine very strong insults being hurled at you over and over for purposely "checking him out." It hurts, right? It's more shocking than anything because you didn't even know what you had done, but no one would believe you.
Here is a in exhaustive list of what I was shamed for and abused for: praying at the wrong time, praying the wrong way, my chadar falling off my head on the walk back from the bus stop, calling friends, writing stories, reading books, listening to music, not knowing how to eat with a fork and knife, not knowing how to walk and talk "properly", not talking to aunties and uncles with proper respect, missing America (the biggest sin of all!), having feelings, having dreams - etc. It was a constant source of fascinating discussion in the household - "she doesn't know how to do anything." And they discussed it - all the relatives - from my grandfather down to my 10 year old cousin. So much negativity! There are so many, many more stories like this - both horrific and mundane - about the punishments I endured for six dark years. I will not go into that in this blog. You'll have to buy my best-seller autobiography someday to read more about it.
Fast Forward. I came back to the US at the age of 18. And I gossiped. I wanted to put other people down by mocking them at college. It felt liberating and freeing at first to be able to make someone else the target of conversation. Because it made me feel better about myself for a minute or two. I felt powerful. I had never had power before. I felt good that I could tear someone down, because (for once) I was not on the bottom of the totem pole. But it was negative.
I lost a couple of dear friends.
"I felt good that I could tear someone down because for once, I was not on the bottom of the totem pole."
With the help of mentors and friends, I learned to be positive. How to love myself so I don't have to tear down anyone else. How to not hurt myself or others anymore. How to not lash out, but remain curious. How to listen, really listen to someone, who is struggling, without rolling my eyes or telling someone else. I've had to learn to stop gossiping as much because I realize it hurts people. And I don't want to hurt anyone- especially because I know how it feels.
I am not perfect, and I still feel the shame at times. But it is much better now. I still am shamed by my community. I am in my 30's and unmarried. I did not become a doctor or an engineer. I do not wear designer clothes or keep my hair long, as they wanted. I don't say my prayers every day and I don't go to the halaqa every week. I suppose that is a lot of people, but it makes me ashamed when people who are more traditional than me ask about my lifestyle and choices. I feel like they WILL gossip and judge me. I feel like I SHOULD stay away from them.
But maybe people are kinder and less judgmental that I give them credit for. Not everyone is like the people who I lived with when I was a teen. It takes everything in me to write about this. But if it can help anyone to read this, I want you to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You are not alone. You can have a better life. You will not be punished for being yourself and having normal thoughts and dreams. You deserve to be a normal human being with a normal life. Never forget that. Your light burns brighter than you ever thought it would. You will not only survive - you can - and WILL - thrive.
"You deserve to be a normal human being with a normal life. Never forget that. Your light burns brighter than you ever thought it would."