A Daughter is Love

Noor Sisters - 1999
Before my brother's birth when I was 12 years old, we were three sisters, the three sides of a scalene triangle, none of us equal. Yet somehow we were able to hold each other together and present ourselves hesitantly to the world. The Noor Sisters - different, yes, but miraculously joined in a way that made us a unit, an identifiable shape. 

The middle sister and me - 1988
Growing up in Pakistan, even in the relatively developed, metropolitan city of Lahore, we were often objects of other people's pity. "What? No brother? Oh, you poor dears." And to my parents, "What a waste. No one to carry on the family name. You still have time. Why don't you try again?" I didn't understand these comments when I was younger. Not fully. I felt sorry that we didn't have a brother. I felt ashamed that I was the eldest...daughter...an existence that would have been valued much more if only I had been born with the right sex. The middle sister, as children of that birth order are wont to, suffers from the Middle Child Syndrome (I say that only half in jest). She internalized her grief at being brother-less. She was meek like a house mouse, hiding away from people, apologizing profusely for mistakes she hadn't made, assuming herself to be unloved by her sisters. (She was wrong, obviously.) The sense of being incomplete that we all felt, like a void existed among us, a black hole of bad luck and despair, was embodied in my little sister's insistence that her stuffed Pink Panther was in fact her brother. His name was Littloo Bittloo, and he had to endure everything from diaper changes to bottles to afternoon naps in a "hammock" that she created by tying a dupatta between two adjacent door-knobs.  

My parents discouraged these behaviors as much as they could. I remember my father flying into a rage more than once and booming at his guests that his daughters were ten times better than a son could be. When I was 8 or 9, he mounted a plaque in the drawing room that said "A Daughter is Love." I can vaguely recall a few instances when my mother fumed behind closed doors because she had overheard some elder relatives of my father's asking him to think about marrying again. "She has given you no sons." The best thing I love about my father is that he always put a stop to all such nonsense by saying, "You watch. My daughters will be better than your sons." (Well done, Papa!)

My brother and me - 2009

When our brother was born, we were obviously beside ourselves with joy. He was raised by four mothers instead of one. When we came home from school, we'd fight over who would hold him first. He was and still remains the apple of my eye. In the first few weeks of his life, my father took extra care to spend time with his three daughters. He said over and over, "I love my daughters more." I finally had to stop him one day because I knew what he was doing. "It's OK to love him, too, you know. I know you never thought we weren't enough." We understood each other perfectly in that moment, and there haven't been too many of those in my life. 

When I was pregnant with Jahan, I got calls from well-meaning relatives asking after my health. "I am hoping it's a boy," they'd say. I was horrified by those remarks. I couldn't believe that in 2011, people still cared whether you were about to give birth to a baby that you would have to prepare a dowry for, or one that would bring home the proverbial bacon. On ultrasound day, I was abuzz with all these thoughts, fuming at another recent conversation with a well-wisher. "Baby looks fine, but you will get detailed reports from your doctor," the tech said. "Do you want to know the sex?" 
"Yes," I said. 
A long pause. 
"We can't be 100% sure, but it looks to be a girl."
"Check again," I blurted out. 
WHAT?!?! Sirens, wails, gongs, fire alerts, shrill rings of all kinds of alarm started sounding in my ears. What had I just done? What had I just asked this man to do? I was having a girl. That's good, right? RIGHT? 
"I mean, thank you!" I said and smiled weakly at my husband who was looking at me like I had two horns coming out of my forehead.

"What the hell was that?" He hissed at me as we walked to the car.
"I don't know. All these phone calls are getting to me. I swear I am happy! We can start shopping now!" I said, still a little shell-shocked at what had taken place inadvertently in the small exam room.

When we reached the car, and it seemed like we had both calmed down, it was obvious that my husband could hardly contain his excitement. We both simultaneously dialed our mothers in Pakistan. My mother-in-law answered first. "It's a girl," we told her. Silence. After a few seconds, she said, "I prayed so hard for a boy," before recovering herself and congratulating us joyfully. When we shared the same news with my mother, she said, "Oh, it's alright," consolingly. My (middle) sister, quite out of character, shrieked from the background, "Mama, are you honestly condoling with her because she is having a girl? For God's sake!" At this my mother snapped into action and said all the right things. By this time, bursting with hormones, I had dissolved into tears due to these twin reactions, and Usman was left on his own to say good bye to both mothers and drive us to a nearby restaurant for lunch.

Lesson: We, as a culture, are still hanging on to the notion that girls are bad news. Contrary to popular belief, it is not just men who perpetuate this idea. All the men in our families had immediate reactions of profuse joy, whereas the women had to shake off their depression before expressing their happiness. 

(Both of Jahan's grandmothers love her immeasurably, but they have both expressed interest in suggesting home remedies or totkay to ensure that my next child is a boy.)

My Jahan.
And what do I think as the mother of the gorgeous, curly-haired, mild-mannered, smiling baby girl? I think we have a long way to go. There is much more work to be done for the acceptance and respect of women everywhere - not just in the workforce, but at home, too.  And not just among the men at home, but also the women. I am still shocked at my response to the ultrasound tech when he told me my baby was a girl. There is some kind of identity complex so deep-rooted in women (at least in my neck of the woods, if not globally, and I am inclined to think that at some level this is a pervasive phenomenon) that it elicits a response holding a strong semblance to the one I mentioned above even from someone like me: educated, successful, happy, well-situated in one of the best academic centers in the world…and I am still apologetic for being the eldest girl in my family. I am still, in some hidden crevice of my being, repenting for not being a son. And that is a hard realization to come to terms with, especially if you are proud of the legacy of your family, your situation in life, your personal journey. It is a hard truth to digest indeed.

When I imagine a future for Jahan, I see many things. I see her pursuing her dreams unhindered, a privilege I was given by my parents, something that has made me the person I am today. One is nothing without one’s dreams. Dream big, baby girl. I could never wish for a better child. I also see her telling me one day, if life is on my side, that she is having a girl. And I see myself being viscerally happy – not in my latent reaction, but in my immediate one.

Some day the world will believe that A Daughter is Love, but until then, we just have to keep on saying it, believing it, and showing it. A Daughter is Love.

Happy International Women’s Day!