Defining Principles

noun: principle; plural noun: principles
a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.

It is a hard truth to stomach when you are made to realize that no matter how loudly you toot the horn of “your principles,” you are not in fact living by them. If in fact, you were living by the principles you hold so dear, maybe you wouldn’t be in the house you are in, maybe you wouldn’t be married to the person you’re married to, maybe you wouldn’t even hold dear the possessions you presently prize. No matter how hard I try to reason with other people, vehemently and often quite belligerently, in order to elucidate my principles and beliefs and all the things that are wrong with “the system” in terms of discrimination on the bases of religion, caste, color, wealth, gender, and other such constructs, I am in fact living in “the system,” and haven’t done anything to discourage these discriminatory behaviors around me other than speaking against them, which in itself is a little hypocritical, isn’t it, for I am talking against something, but still living by it. Am I even allowed to call these ideas my principles then, if a significant portion of the above definition is absent, that is, while I use these grand ideas as a belief system, they don’t often translate into my behavior by virtue of the limitations I have in my present situation and my actual origin. 

Let’s state facts. Who am I? I am a 28-year-old woman, born and raised in Pakistan until the age of 18. I moved to America for a college education ten years ago. I left behind my parents, two sisters, and a brother. I am married to a Pakistani man, whom I fell in love with while we were both living in Lahore, Pakistan. He also moved to the United States to go to college and left behind his parents and two sisters. We have a daughter, a child of Pakistani immigrants born in America – by definition, a Pakistani-American. What are my principles? It is hard to define what these are succinctly and comprehensively. I believe in the basics – you know, like all good people, don’t lie, cheat, or steal. Don’t screw someone over for your personal gain, give charity, et cetera, et cetera. 

But let’s face it. I didn’t start this post to go on and on about the basics, did I? Something sparked me into action here and it wasn’t the one white lie I told yesterday, so it couldn’t be the discrepancy between my belief of not lying and the actual practice of doing precisely that. No, it’s something bigger than this. While speaking with someone about how unhappy I become when I have to defend my principles of fairness and gender equality among primarily Pakistanis, the response given to me intimated that if I really wanted to live by my principles, then I shouldn’t even be married to my husband, should I, because in fact we disagree on some fundamental issues. Essentially, my life as I am living it does not show that I am living by the principles I claim to hold so dear. Let me take a step back here. Gender inequality exists everywhere, including America. I was talking about specific things that I have witnessed in the Pakistani culture, like the expectation from a woman to sever all but the most formal and superficial of ties with her family after marriage, because her allegiance now should rightfully be with her married family. I’m sorry, I call bullshit. And this particular act of calling bullshit is under question here. If I am so concerned about a particular expectation that is ever present in my culture, then why am I married to a Pakistani man, who may actually support this very ideology (he doesn’t and neither does his family)? Why am I not living by my principles rather than simply talking very loudly and very ineffectually of possessing them?

Let me tell you why. This has been an uphill climb for me, even to reach a point where I can very openly and without worrying about consequences, voice my opinion about the gender inequality issue – you could perhaps call me an accidental feminist. One fine day, I suddenly started to voice my counter-arguments about this very issue in polite company and I haven’t looked back since. I have faced a few things in my life. I have witnessed injustices that women very close to me withstood only because they were too afraid of the alternative. Loneliness. Divorce. Stigma. “A woman alone has no respect in society,” I have heard reasonable, educated, modern  women utter this. “If a girl is not married, she has no future.” “There is no man that does not push around his wife. It’s completely normal.” We are made to realize that our men do us favors by accommodating us in their lives. “You are so lucky.” No, let me tell you why the vast majority of us are the exact opposite of lucky. In Pakistan, a male-child is a coveted blessing of God. A girl-child is a burden. Yes, even now in the 21st century. I have been so conditioned by this very idea that when the ultrasound technician told me that I was pregnant with a baby girl, I told him to “check again.” This single, almost inadvertent act of ignorance is the most shameful moment of my life. I do not believe that my daughter is lesser in any way than a boy. Yet, I uttered those two words in that small office. If this is not social conditioning, I don’t know what is. It was not a temporary lapse in the practice of my principles. That weak moment in the hospital was a lapse in conscious thinking. 

It’s like scaling a mountain, you see. It’s treacherous and back-breaking. Sometimes I stumble backwards, and I have to reevaluate my approach, but I am working towards a goal to reach the apex. I want to one day be able to say without reservation exactly what I think of the unrealistic expectations society has of women. I want to tell self-important looking Pakistani aunties with their opinionated first-born sons in tow to wait and think about what they are saying. Do they really mean to say that their son is better than someone else’s daughter or even their own daughter? Do they really believe that a woman is successful only if she is able to secure a well-suited groom? Do they really think that a battered woman should continue living with her husband because “he doesn’t mean it” or “she drove him to do it” or “he was just rough-housing?” Are we ever going to be free of the traditional gender roles that require us to cook and clean and keep house and change diapers and raise sons so that they think they are invincible and raise daughters with a sense of submission? I didn’t lie when I said that it is like scaling a mountain. I don’t always vocalize my discontent, and conversely, sometimes I yell and scream about it. I am an amateur at this. I am learning along the way. All I know is that I cannot support these ridiculous notions. I simply cannot – being a woman, being the mother of a girl – I cannot overlook these ideas that have penetrated into the very fabric of society like a systemic infection.

I also know that sometimes I do not live by the principles I claim to have – I stay silent, I give in to something, I overlook or shy away.  There are many ways in which we do not live by our principles. Does that mean we should stop having a belief system? If I am married to a Pakistani man, for instance, am I not allowed to criticize the expectations and ideas surrounding marriage in Pakistan? Do I have to sit down with my husband and parse out every last detail of what we disagree on before I can voice my opinions about subjugation, misogyny, and gender inequality? I don’t think so. I am going to continue to talk about the principles I believe in, the principles I would one day like to live by even if they are not reflected in my current way of life. Or maybe I won’t talk about them and continue to write about them here in this space, because this, at least, virtual as it may be, is my own.