By: Mina Malik-Hussain
I’ve spent the last week getting my brother married. Coming from a family with many girls, it’s been interesting to have been on other side of the shaadi spectrum for once. When you’re the larka-wallahs, you’re the winner. People treat you like the victor, swooping in to claim your bride and bhangra off into the sunset. It’s amazing and ridiculous. Amazing if you’re the groom, I suppose- you’re feted and fussed over, given presents and big thick garlands of roses and you get to go home with a beautiful new bride who is expected to look after you and be sweet and kind to your family and smile bravely when your nieces and nephews trample her toes. As the eldest sister of the groom I’ve been congratulated to no end. It’s been rather nice, but one can’t help but feel like the bride’s family is the one who should be getting the high fives.
As the mother of daughters (and being a daughter myself) I know first-hand the hopes and dreams one has for one’s girls. Obviously one has them for sons too, but girls in our patriarchal worlds have to struggle twice as much as boys, for whom society has already paved many ways. It’s easier for men to be chefs and hairdressers, those non-masculine things, than for women to do non-feminine things like be police officers or run a business. Or anything at all, really. It is easier in school, where more and more girls are getting top grades and distinctions because the playing field is more even. You work hard, you get the grade. Gender doesn’t matter in the scheme of a math exam, so girls have a fighting chance. They seem to be taking the bull by the horns too, and giving it their best shot. The trouble begins after that. Girls who are bright and do well at school will naturally have aspirations to get another degree, perhaps even go abroad, and to work. But even the proudest parent still seems to see all of this as a stopgap measure, a prelude to marriage. The girls who are doing graduate degrees are only killing time until they are engaged. In my very small, highly competitive M.phil class, there were five women, of which three were already married. The two single ones got married towards the end of the program. No points for guessing who never finished their degree.
We want so much for our children. For our girls. But maybe, ultimately, all we really want is for them to “be settled”. Maybe that’s why culturally, being the larki-wallahs seems to mean you are on the back foot. You throw the most functions. You give the groom’s family presents. Nobody congratulates you with the same fervour because you’re the side that is losing a child. That’s why we weep at rukhsatis instead of being happy and cheering your children off. Nobody cries at Western weddings when it’s time for the bride and groom to leave because it’s a happy occasion, the couple going off together to make a lovely new life. Here it’s a gut-wrenching departure. It doesn’t seem fair, really. You’re sending your beloved daughter into a new life, trusting that her new family will love and look after her. The groom’s family should be bending over backwards in gratitude to you for allowing this most uneven exchange to happen! People should be wringing your hand and garlanding you with the huge heavy roses! You should be lord-like and accepting gifts for everyone in your family down to your old bua! You should be the one being fussed over and offered the hot kebabs straight off the seekh! What more precious and beautiful thing could you ever share with another family than your daughter?
I can hear the chorus of people arguing for the sons. They are special too. Of course they are. But as I keep harping on in this column, it’s easier for boys. It always is. They are the ones who only leave their home when they feel like it. They are the ones who move wherever they like, take jobs they want, travel whenever they like. It is the wives who do the packing, who uproot their lives and move with their men wherever they decide to go. It is the wives who leave their homes, who go away, who are the ones making the lion’s share of compromises. We don’t send our girls into marriages as equals, we tell them to be good and pliant and pleasing. We expect the men to provide and the women to nurture and more often than not, that means women are perpetually dependent on men financially and emotionally. Which takes them back to being on the back foot they started out from.
Maybe if we start letting our girls reach their full potential, the men will have to step up their game too. We won’t have so many MBBS qualified girls who never practice, or M.phils who never work. Instead of quailing at the thought that nobody will marry one’s daughter if she’s too successful at work or too highly educated, we should work harder to make sure our sons can compete, and are worthy. We’ve given the boys far too much leeway. It’s not enough anymore to just be a man with some middling degree and middling little job in a telecom. It shouldn’t be. And then maybe one day, being the larki-wallahs will be something to be proud of, and nobody will cry at a rukhsati because there is no loss, no trade-off- only happiness, and strength.