Something I often struggled with as a teen and then as an adult in an Afghan community was this massive fear of judgement and public scrutiny. As a result, I sensed that most people lived two lives. The first being the one they projected outwardly to the world and the person they wanted to be perceived as and then in a small way the person they actually wanted to be but lived internally or shared with a small group of people. This double life seemed to be more real for women and less so for men, men could get away with so much more and women often had to live up to standards and ideals that were practiced in Afghanistan but were still expected to maintain a certain level of modernity in their lives. It was an expectation that was placed arbitrarily and monitored closely. There was always talk of so and so’s daughter who strayed from the path and “ruined her life.” Public humiliation was the ultimate fear and the biggest deterrent that prevented women from being free agents. They were the ones burdened with the weight of the families honor at the cost of their own freedoms and choices.
Up until the time that I moved away, and began living in other parts of the country and in communities that were not Muslim, I began to see this pattern re-emerge in different ways. Living a life in fear of what others may think replayed itself in both Goose Bay, Labrador and then even surprisingly in St. John’s. As interconnectedness increased and community size decreased, there was a jump in the amount of fear that existed in being judged. The invisible rules reappeared and the gender roles I was exposed to as a child seemed to be alive and thriving in Labrador. Women had to live up to expectations that men seemingly could pass on voluntarily, albeit to a lesser extent than among Afghan/Muslim men who basically have a free pass on almost all things.
I the most intriguing part of this experience was that I began to shape my behavior to suit the social expectations that were again imposed on women. Afraid of being judged for going out too much or being categorized in a negative light. What stopped me from going down another rabbit hole, was seeing mirrors of myself in older women. The fears they had and the judgement they internalized as a result of socially imposed rules that only applied to women. Like my friend who was in her 50’s, who felt the need to hide her bottle of wine when her mother came by. I doubt for a second that any man would have felt similar pressures to hide something as trivial as a bottle of wine. Instead, they men merely laugh off the idiocy of religious restrictions and bend and shape ‘rules’ whenever it suits them.
When I questioned these confinements, I was often told it was just the way things were. Just as I was told when I was at home. I can almost hear members of my family saying, “but you’re a Muslim and Muslims can’t do this or that.. what will people think?” It comes from a place of concern but it also ensures that we maintain a cultural order that is based on control. Gossip and rumors are the checks and balances of our societies and we ensure that we punish those who haven’t followed the moral order that we all somehow signed on to. The worst part about it, is men don’t do it to each other. Women do it to women and then men do it to women. We all have called a girl a bitch, and we all know plenty of guys who’ve called other women bitches.
It requires deliberate effort to recognize that these behaviors are in our control. That they manifest themselves because we have allowed them to and because they speak to insecurities and deeply unsettling belief systems that we forget we don’t have to adhere to. Our daily lives should not simply be a reflection of centuries worth of disturbing gender norms but rather a keen awareness of our troubled existence as a race and an effort to move in a direction of self-love and acceptance of others. I don’t want it to be a distant future that we imagine will be brighter and better, because starting this moment we can all choose not to hate on our fellow female friends.