My school was an ‘English Medium’ institution, where there was great importance given to discipline, punctuality, character and behavior. We grew up reading Shakespeare, Dickens, Keats, Wordsworth, Thackerey, Shelley and the like. An elite institution for the high brow. I was no aristocrat. My parents struggled to give us quality education, drilling the reality checks of the middle class every now and then while maintaining a stature as equal to anyone. Unlike the plethora of graduates looking for a job, or working for their family businesses, I started working early- from the age of 16 onward-writing freelance articles and studying full-time. When I graduated, I had bagged 7 years of experience while many of my friends were fresh grads. Supporting my own MBA seemed a little far-fetched for a 22 year old, that too with meager financial means. I sat on the equilibrium where I was neither an extraordinary student who deserved merit scholarships, and too upright to opt for a needs-based position. With a mediocre HR job, I managed to go through the first semester and there was no turning back. With a full load of courses per semester and a full-time job, I was almost always overworked. While my mother was in a hurry to get me married, I was at an equally fast speed to secure a foreign scholarship and settle where there “were no questions asked”.

However, God had his own plans and fate came to play its card. I got married into a household which was not even close to my own. An agreeable boy, a fine house to live in, several cars to ride in, plenty of delicious things to eat, association with the crème de la crème of society, a respectable social standing – tennis courts, club memberships, foreign education, expensive trips, imported clothes, a loving father and mother, fond sisters, a couple or so of dear friends – and a hundred privileges that others might probably envy. I tried to fit in a society where I was an absolute misfit. All of this luxury was overshadowed and seemed nearly detestable, by the one abominable fact, that the house had a squalid, stifling, uncultured atmosphere. The entire idiom of my upbringing had been to work and reap the benefits. Until now. I had lost myself – who I was, what I did, what I said. I did all the dutiful chores required of me in my new household- mechanically. Nothing cerebral was needed.

Until one day, I rose above it all, and rebirthed my writing career, in a world where women didn’t ‘need’ to work. Going against the tide had become my thing. Was I scared? Yes. Was I questioning my abilities, despite how I had been able to work through during the early years? Yes. I often thought of how my kids would feel in this situation? I honestly had no clue whatsoever. I thought I would cross the bridge when it came. An outright leap of faith.

Log kia kahenge? I got an earful of that. From the family, from my own gender – fights, outbursts –  that too after a long day at work with two young kids to feed, clean and read to. You ask me- why are there fewer women in the local workforce? Because they have to struggle doubly. For better or worse, I lived in my mother’s head, where she was the one keeping the house intact, taking decisions, etc. I was trapped in a culture that celebrated the best entrees served to guests, designer clothes, crystal clear windows and which despised working culture, forward-thinking, liberal women. Drenched in Pakistani culture, sacrifice was glamourized, the ethos of compromise was imparted, unkindness was tolerated, women were silenced, all in the hope that against all odds, things would get better; leaving a woman to sheer nothingness, a void. We are fed this narrative since the very beginning of our lives. Funny, how it still prevails while it has been proven wrong in every instance. IT DOESN’T GET BETTER WITH TIME. It was traumatic and abusive. But it taught me to embrace my emotions – even if others invalidated them – to stop judging myself, to draw a line, especially when I began to sacrifice my  inner peace for the sake of someone else’s happiness. It taught me to move in ways that served me, and my life. It gave me deeper insight and clarity about what was lacking in my own life. It was as humbling as it was liberating.

Right now, it feels like there has never been a worse time to be a working woman. I was hired as a publishing editor (because everyone in the world finally found time to read and write, something they never got on to doing before), when the pandemic was at its most ruthless where mental health issues, loneliness, and parenting struggles were at a peak. All the cognitive labor and caretaking was being done by women in their respective households. Working mothers were in a rage- especially when employers just wanted things to quickly get back to normalcy. As much as I love the work that I do, there isn’t a single day where I do not think about quitting it – because either the man wants a fresh paratha at sehri, or my daughter spent the night, crying, complaining of an earache. You ask me, why do I need to go through all this when the man of the household provides for me more than sufficiently. You see, I don’t ‘need’ to. In fact, I hope I am never stuck in a situation of that desperation.

At this juncture I must address the woman who  relied on the silence of her victim-me.  I don’t blame those like her – their concerns are deeply rooted in the patriarchal dictates we are raised with – to ignore, stay silent, dismiss and minimize emotional fallouts, rather than address and acknowledge flagrant abuse.

Dear mother-in-law, 

I was your daughter-in-law for under eight years, and though my struggle with you was for a relatively short period of time, it scarred me for life. The memories of that house are taking a sweet time in fading away – because it had that large and strong impact – but many a time I find myself in a soliloquy on my rides to and from work. I have kept score of the strain, apprehension and panic that you and your family incessantly inflicted. And when I rested my head on the pillow after a long, exhausting day of work, domestic chores, and caring for the children, i thought of how I regret wasting away all the time you stole from me, the thankless chores I did, and how blessed I would be if someone did the same for me. But you weren’t thankful. You weren’t appreciative. You were proud to be a mother of a son, and for you, my free labor was your divine, unquestionable right.

To escape the relentless grind, I started working as an editor for a local, albeit esteemed, publishing house. On my ride home, I would dread what was waiting for me upon entering the house. Living with you was akin to walking on eggshells. I just couldn’t figure out what upset you, and why; when you’d secretly complain to your son, who would conveniently soar into a temper over things that didn’t concern her, over decisions that didn’t involve her. You were losing control of emotions because you were losing “control” over me, now that I was professionally engaged in work that I actually cared for. It seemed chaotic. Every fight was menial on its own. Every verbal skirmish was another manipulative act building on the last, until I resorted to complacency over my mental health, thinking it was normal to disagree, to have disagreements, to live with disagreements, for a peaceful, win-win life. But, it was not peaceful. To the outsider, they were merely domestic fights between and about women. But it was much larger than that. You didn’t believe in equality for all women. Years later, I realized that the values you embraced and championed did not apply to all women. You had set up a household in which you took the seat at the throne, using the power dynamics, the elements of patriarchy to retain absolute control and superiority.

I was raised under the narrative that obedient women were “good”. It’s funny how ‘be the bigger person’ often translates into ‘silently take the abuse’. Silence is the best answer. The culture of silence is a gesture of respect. If you are physically abused, silence keeps the honor – Who put honor in holding the tongues? Who put honor in the hijab? I was always the child who coined the term ‘rebel parenting’. When I became a parent, I decided complacency and ignorance will not make my children noble. I should stop assuring myself that ignorance is innocence. Complicity will not save them, being patriarchal (or matriarchal) will not prevent problems. It will only redirect them until they bud into another issue for another time. For me, being the bigger person meant strapping on the boots and stomping out the fire that you tried to light. Being the bigger person should not involve shrinking, it involves using the big voice to stand up for yourself so others know that they don’t have to live in the shadow of abuse. Having been brought up in a society that was pierced with taboos, I was not valued for my opinions. If I was ‘nice and obedient’, my siblings would have better prospects in marriage. How true this was, was uncanny. My moving out tarnished the rest of the women in my family. We were labeled rebellious, strong-headed, stubborn, uncaring, intolerant, uncompromising. We were unafraid to call things out, and hence we were quarrelsome.

I am still in survival mode. I haven’t yet completely healed. I cannot undo the damage it has caused me and my children. Hell, you and your family were such a difficulty to yourselves, my children and I just seem to have become collateral damage in the whole equation. Of course, there were other players at it, good and bad, but you were the one to light the first match. Part of the abuse was that you blatantly manipulated your son, filling him with stories that never happened. I remember when he and I fought for reasons that we wouldn’t have fought over if it hadn’t been for you – I hadn’t done your son’s laundry, I wanted to burn my own daughter, the food didn’t have enough oil, my parents hadn’t raised me to be respectful – so much so that I sometimes had to unpick the things he was saying. I knew something was wrong when you did not attempt to apologize. Nor were you remorseful. Instead, you carefully wrapped it all around to be my fault. I knew then, I was dealing with a monster, not a person.

I’ll never forget the time when your daughter said that it was not my house to live in. But then whose house was it when you were gone with your dear daughters for pleasure trips, leaving it and its responsibilities to me? I remember thinking that one shouldn’t have to live, dreading every day that my children and I can be unhoused any time of any day. A fragment of the abuse was also that I was so busy fighting for survival, like food, sanity and just keeping my head above water, I couldn’t displace from that level of desperation to a level of fulfilling any other need, because I was so incapacitated. But you ask me, why didn’t I seek my husband’s help? Why didn’t you leave if it was so bad? You see, the damage was irreversible. I wish I had it in me to forgive the things you did and said to me, the coldness of your manner when I was sitting on the plush sofas, in the posh drawing room of a corner DHA plot, against six educated, literate members of the family, seeking, one last time, to reconcile and come to a middle ground. You were all ready to hurl abuse, again, unwilling to step forward and shake hands. Perhaps, I didn’t know how the cycle of abuse works. I was again fooled into thinking that this might be the time to bring change, for all the daughters-in-law of the future. But as I grew into the argument, I realized I could only fight for myself. So, yes, I did leave. But I wonder if you know how hard it was to literally put one foot in front of the other after prolonged narcissistic abuse. It is a hard thing to do. To leave, knowing you gave them everything you had. It is the hardest decision in life, deciding whether to walk away or try harder. It takes great strength, and when you leave, post-separation abuse is sometimes worse. The only thing more unthinkable than leaving was staying; the only thing more impossible than staying was leaving. I didn’t intend to destroy anything or anybody. I just wanted to slip quietly out the back door, without causing fuss, and then not stopping. I felt it was time to move on. But the hardest part is not knowing where to go next. Sometimes, that’s where we need to have courage, to start walking in another direction, and have faith that it will lead you to the place you were always meant to be at. 

I feel sadness and heartache as I pen this down, reliving the wounds and experiences. It will never be okay. I cannot unhear what you said, I cannot unfeel what you did. I cannot undo the damage it left us to live with. I watched people turn away from me because that’s what society, and people like you, made them believe. My children were tarred with the same brush. We will remain traumatized, battle-scarred, bruised. I try to function normally, mentally blocking out that slice of life. Sadly, this is the legacy you left us with. If you still can’t acknowledge the way that you hurt me, and you continue making no effort to change,; you don’t lack understanding, you lack empathy. So now, we have nothing to talk about. When I look back, I don’t know why I ignored and tolerated it all. I don’t know how I became that version of myself. I don’t think I can ever go back to that space and element. That’s the thing about healing. You heal into someone else. A completely new person, not because you want to, but because who you were, you could no longer survive as. You are forced to go deeper. You sink into a part that feels true. You uncover a layer. In a lot of ways, it is about shedding. Shedding what holds you back; shedding societal conditioning; shedding walls and blocks. Healing is not linear. It doesn’t arrive one fine day in perfect form. It is a becoming. An unraveling. An unfolding. 

Celebrating women is not about glorifying those who take more on the plate, placing yourself last in the pecking order. It is about supporting what we choose to live by. If you are climbing the ladder, only to crush those coming behind you, then you don’t see the point. The point is to undo the whole structure that is toppling everyone down . Sometimes, burning bridges isn’t a bad thing. It prevents you from going back to places you should have never been to begin with. I used to rush to defend myself against false accusations, but now I watch to see who believes it, so I know who to cut off first.

I have a son. I remember how afraid you were of losing yours when he chose to see what I had been trying to show him for years. Thank heavens for Covid, when my husband sat back and witnessed all that he was blind to. A day will come when my son will grow into a man and choose a wife. But it does not scare me, because I will raise him to be an ally to women. And I have a daughter, whom I am not going to force to have relationships with emotionally abusive family members. I am not going to teach her “family first”, regardless of how someone treats her. I cannot teach her to love them unconditionally. That is not a good lesson. And my husband? This piece is a reminder that I am whole without him. I am not a fraction. I am a complete masterpiece all by myself. And yet, we are better together. At times I feel we don’t have to become better. Just truer versions of ourselves. More us. More free.

I dream of you often, trying to reach out to me. I wonder if your struggle to remain in control is worth it. Having known women who support each other, who help keep each other’s ambitions alive at the worst times, I think it isn’t worth it after all. And by the time your ego trip is over, my soul will be light years away from your regret.


Photography by: David Pennington