“Paint your own picture, Enola. Don’t be thrown off course by other people”— Eudoria Holmes, ‘Enola Holmes’
Mother’s mother. And her six siblings. And their children. And mother’s father. And his siblings, and his half-siblings. And their children. And cousins. And cousins’ cousins. Family friends. Oh, and he ended up marrying her. And, let’s not forget dad’s side of the family, either. And his siblings. And his sister-in-law’s nephews and nieces… And all the rest of them.
Too many people to know; to have, at some point, to some extent, known. And too much talk of other people, too. You hear of their names, their accomplishments, their struggles. You get to know… basic projections of them. One day, your family seems to be quite close with them. A few months later, not so much.
I so wonder whom I would have been, if I had ended up being what this ‘society’ I had grown up in the midst of had wanted, expected, of me. Without really knowing me, in the first place, in any case. I was meant to dress a certain way. ‘Respectably’, how they had expected me to. And to be able to talk to all of these women, for hours on end, about cooking, about clothes and makeup, about how to be a good wife in the future. Boys, and other people’s drama.
To learn how to cook and clean. Keep the place spotless. Be excellent with babies, from the age of, say, eleven. A dramatic shift from whom I had become quite used to being. Good with children, yes: but in a way that meant playing with them, connecting with them. Not being a detached and Selwar-Kameez-wearing Bengali woman. Docile, ‘good’, a meek “yes” and “no”-uttering serving tray on legs, let’s face it.
And, being on your phone a lot is fine, to them. But certain other hobbies, passions… not so much. If it, a) will not attract a good future husband, for you, and b) does not provide an adequate springboard for your parents to compete with other parents over… what, really, is the value of it? Oh, and, wearing makeup is not fine. Oh, but it is. And it is also not. Cover every single strand of hair that you can — or there will surely be consequences. And, use some makeup to cover up, too. You look tired. Despicable.
Shame. Wrong behaviour.
But what I have learnt, by now, is that by these standards, ‘wrong’ is ever so volatile, so susceptible to change. And if you root who you are in what they ‘expect’ of you, you will never come to value nor appreciate yourself. You will never quite be… whole.
On the one hand, you had once been too adventurous, too playful. Too ‘colourful’. ‘Grow up’, immediately. The uniform of ‘respectability’, it beckons you. And all that you are is what they say you are. All that matters is what they can bring themselves to say, of you. A simple word, discarded from a mind that evidently does not consider the probable severity of its consequences too often. Or, that simply does not care enough to.
And later, used against you like a dagger.
And be quiet, and do well at school. So that they might say good things about you. Competitions and comparisons. Never quite looking at the things themselves. Images, projections. Reflections, and repercussions. So far away from the hearts; their cores.
And then, they say, they much prefer the ones with personality. Who get messy in the kitchen, making trifles. And, who paint. Who study Qur’an. But then they change their minds yet again. And you come to realise that you will never be enough, not for them. What is it that they want from you?
Will they ever look back at you, and tell you that they like you?
You may come to find yourself always walking on egg-shells. Afraid it has almost broken you, entirely. Like oceans, surrounding you, though this might seem silly for you to admit, now. This is what our daughters are made to go through. And the women whom our uncles marry. And our mothers, and even our grandmothers. But if we are to submissively pander to what they say of us, we will become…
Empty. Only here to have people say good words of us. Good words from, perhaps, muddied hearts. To them, you are, one day, too opinionated, colourful. The next, once they are obeyed, too drab, monochromatic.
There is no pleasing people who are committed to being displeased. They are not opinions of substance, that they hold. Only this fidelity to drama; to belittling others. They would not appear to care very much, about who is made to pay the price. Harmless discourses, they claim. Lies, exaggerations, and with intent to cause injury.
The value of a human being comes directly from our Creator. And Whom is it that we worship: the prying eyes of these middle-aged women, who spend their hours bemoaning the affairs of others, over the phone… or, Allah?
I have learnt that this is what they do: they create terrifying Somethings over mundanities, sweet nothings. This cousin is a whore, and that one is a boring work robot. It is only if you commit to saying and doing and being nothing that they will cease. No, even then: they will find something, I am sure.
I really admire a particular aunt of mine. Strong woman, she. When people comment on her children, she responds sarcastically. Not even so defensively. Accepting the good of her children, from her own perspective, while calmly chiding the bad parts. Loving them, in truth, and not the images that others might construct, of them. Questioning the nature of outsiders’ comments, too. Are they being excessive in praise? Why? Or, excessive in criticism? Why? These things can either come from a place of sincerity and care (or, perhaps, from a genuine desire for justice, in some cases) or from a place of haughtiness, excess, and jealousy. I have learnt that, more often than not, you can really detect the differences between these two lines of thinking, when it comes to malicious gossip. All actions are but by intention…
This particular aunt of mine does not appear to allow hyper-emotionality (for example, allowing the perceived ‘seniority’ of certain individuals to delude her into believing that they must therefore have some sort of monopoly over the truth) cloud her judgements. She takes a balanced approach towards these things, and I for one consider this to be a very respectable trait to have indeed. Certainly, if you overreact, this is simply indicative of your allowing people to have undue amounts of power and influence over you. Like their approval is somehow a key determinant of the amount of value you, and/or your family, have. And then, such people are known to prey upon your vulnerabilities.
Through nothing but mere words dispensed from the mouths of fellow Children of Adam, for the rest of your life, you may become enslaved to their commentaries on you; you slowly become a mere puppet upon their strings.
And so, to my fellow Bengali Muslim girls (or anybody else) who may find themselves struggling with matters of identity, while, and/or as a result of facing opposition from relative outsiders who may claim authority, by such means, over you, I say: cut off those strings. Sans shame, sans apology. The strings from those particular people whom you know do not care about you. And accept that this is actually a happy truth: they do not know you well enough to know nor care about you, i.e. the relative entirety, the reality of you. What they are instead doing is collecting snippets of information about you. Belittling ‘you’ (images that they, in their minds, have chosen to construct) in order to make themselves feel superior, by contrast. Naturally, to achieve such ends, some lies must be generated: that, for example, you are uniquely flawed and problematic. While they, and their own children, are not. Engineering facades. An ordinary shirt on a washing line will look far better by comparison, if its surrounding garments come to be stained with dirt, no?
And if they speak ill of you, based on some (objectively neutral) titbit of information on your life or about you, perhaps [“Oh! She’s married and wears jeans?” “What?! She doesn’t want to live with her mother-in-law?!”] know that they, for you, are not determinants of truth, nor value, and nor are they to be the sources of some ensuing moral compass, for you. When they are speaking poorly of you – and especially if their claims are not at all true – know that they are only harming their own souls, in the process; please do not allow them to harm your soul, too.
“It’s always there. The truth. You just need to look for it.”— Sherlock Holmes, ‘Enola Holmes‘
May our senses of value be firmly grounded in the innate — God-given — merits of we. In the ways in which diversities of experience and personality, for example, oft give rise to such value, such beauty. Why attempt to uproot or crop certain parts of certain flowers, purely on account of their… looking different to the ones you are used to?
“Look [at] what’s there; not for what you want, to be there.”— Sherlock
And may we find that our moral compasses are derived from the One who had created us, too. These are actual truths: clear, timeless, and unobscured by fog. Most else, like… the manifestations of whatever may fester within the fallible, changeable hearts of certain fellow mortals… may the weight that our communities have granted to them, and have allowed to become deeply entrenched, solidified, over time — may they be reduced (insomuch as they hurt our girls in particular) to what they truly ought to be: dust.
To unlearn some things, and to then learn some (other, better) things. To outgrow some things, and to then grow, in better ways. To be exactly whom you, somewhere, already know yourself to be. The game, my friend, is afoot. The adventure. The flowing waters.
“There are two paths you can take, Enola. Yours, or the path others choose for you.”— Eudoria
Sadia Ahmed J., 2020