24 Mar

Chapter 8: Influence of societal norms on crushing dreams (part 2)

Earlier, I posted Chapter 1-7 of my new series of blogs, which will collectively form an online book. Below, I have attached Chapter 8.


Chapter 8: Influence of societal norms on crushing dreams (part 2)

Disclaimer: Disclaimer: Since this is primarily a fictional story, please do not take everything I write too seriously.

… There was this Bollywood flick I caught back in 2017 that really hit home for me, especially with all the confusion I had growing up around different religions and so many different people. It was called “PK,” and it was an absolute riot!’’

I stopped and followed, “This movie still gave me stitches because it hilariously summed up all the chaos I experienced trying to make sense of it all. So ‘PK,’ featuring Aamir Khan as the titular character, was an alien who found himself stranded on Earth after his remote control device was stolen. The poor guy’s spaceship remote got nicked, leaving him in a hilarious predicament. So after this, PK, being the resourceful guy he was and clueless about earthly norms, started wandering around, scratching his head, and asking folks for directions to the stars. He got the advice to seek God’s help to retrieve his remote. Here began the comical journey and the real hilarity when PK started eagerly seeking out the divine! At every turn, he encountered people claiming to hold the exclusive pass to God. There was a Hindu guru who was convinced he could dial up God on an old-school telephone, Muslims who swore by splashing water on their faces to get through to Allah, a Christian priest all about spilling the beans in confession, and even Sikhs who said their turbans were the cosmic ticket.

And let me tell you, everywhere PK turned, it was the same story: ‘Our way is the only way to God,’ PK heard each time from everyone. Everywhere he turned, PK was bombarded with conflicting claims about the one true path to God. Feeling utterly confused but desperate to find his remote, PK decided to try out each religion, which, of course, landed him in even more trouble!

In one very funny moment, PK thought the traffic officer was a god because of his ornate outfit, but what he got instead was a traffic ticket! Another wild incident followed when PK unintentionally triggered a church fire alarm while trying to replicate the ritual he saw, causing a chaotic evacuation.

Seriously, if you haven’t seen this movie, you missed out! It was a hilarious ride that perfectly captured the absurdity of how many lives their lives on earth.

“Count me in for a watch!” Elara said joyfully. “Sounds like a very good movie and enjoyable to watch!”

“Absolutely!” I replied with a laugh. “It’s not just funny; it’s a spot-on reflection of the whirlwind I’ve felt my whole life.”

To return to the main point, as a child, I noticed a significant disparity in how Muslim girls and boys were treated regarding travel. Boys were allowed to travel independently, while girls were not granted the same privilege. Even traveling with female relatives or friends was restricted for girls unless accompanied by a man. This puzzled me deeply. Why were these rules in place? Whenever I dared to ask Muslims about this, I was met with staunch opposition. Questioning this norm seemed taboo; it was simply accepted as a fact that girls shouldn’t travel alone. There was no room for further discussion; questioning often elicited strong negative reactions, with some even suggesting I’d end up in hell for asking such questions.

I had a hard time as a young girl understanding why there were differences between the sexes.

My childhood was different; my family and parents were liberal and open-minded. Most of the women in my family were highly educated and held respectable positions before the war in Afghanistan. I couldn’t help but wonder why women in Afghanistan, for example, were suddenly expected to sacrifice their dreams, ambitions, and life goals to become stay-at-home mothers. Why were so many pushing for women to conform to societal expectations of how they should behave?

As I grew older, my questions multiplied. Why were women expected to sacrifice their aspirations so that men could pursue theirs? Why were women conditioned to accept their fate, as if being a woman meant they were destined for certain roles and limitations? Why did society insist that God created women to adhere to traditional gender roles? Why were women expected to suppress their emotions and needs, while their voices, particularly in countries like Afghanistan, often went unheard? Why couldn’t women be mothers, scientists, and leaders, contributing significantly to society while also being partners and team members in both personal and professional spheres? Why couldn’t women have it all without being forced to choose between different aspects of their lives? Why was it that only men seemed to have the privilege of pursuing careers as renowned scientists and enjoying numerous opportunities, while girls were expected to conform to traditional roles and not aspire to greatness?

There were more things I couldn’t understand as a child. The Islamic expectation that women should cover themselves was one of these things. When I questioned it, I was often told that women were expected to reveal their beauty only to their father, brothers, and their husband. For other men, it was forbidden to see her beauty, even if it’s a single hair, because they were considered too attractive. But what about women’s desires, I wondered? Did women not have feelings when exposed to handsome men? Even in Mecca, I observed that women were expected to be fully covered while men stood half-naked with only a white towel. Yet, many were convinced that only men had desires, and women weren’t as strongly attracted to men. It was even forbidden for single women from displaying emotions, making it seem as though society expected them to be emotionless, like stones. This double standard allowed men to walk freely without covering themselves in public and travel alone.

Growing up, I heard from many people that a woman’s primary duty was to care for her husband, considering it her greatest responsibility on earth. Many suggested to me that women couldn’t truly leave a significant impact on the world – that was what men were meant for. People around me often highlighted the absence of female messengers in Islam and the scarcity of well-known female scientists in history as evidence. Their response was always the same: “It’s all part of God’s plan, so don’t dare to question why!”.

It all seemed even more bizarre when I learned that many Muslims believed men would receive many virgins in paradise, while women would only have their husband. How was this fair?

One of the main things that puzzled me greatly was the constant emphasis on fearing God’s power. Everywhere around me, I observed people acting solely out of fear of divine retribution, rather than genuine love and devotion. I often heard people say, “I don’t do this and don’t do that because God will punish me,” rather than making decisions based on love, rational thinking, or ethical considerations, for example. This stark contrast perplexed me deeply. I grappled with the idea: why should our relationship with our creator be based on fear? Shouldn’t it be rooted in love, compassion, and decisions based on logical reasons?

My childhood mind was filled with many questions. I had so many inquiries and so few answers. Whenever I dared to ask questions from strongly religious people, I was told that I should not ask such things, and it was even forbidden to question God’s will.

Later, when I visited many other nations and interacted with individuals from different religions, I realized that many religions—not only Islam—had similar expectations for women to cover their heads and wear modest clothing. This made me realize it wasn’t unique to Islam. I learned that many religions shared also a lot of similar core teachings. However, I still couldn’t understand why there was such a disparity in rules for men and women regarding what to wear and how to behave.

And also, as I grew older, I realized that within Islam, there are many scholars with different viewpoints. Much of what I learned as a child turned out to be untrue. But back then, when I was a little girl, we didn’t have the advanced internet we have today to fact-check things online. The religious figures and people I knew were mostly associated with certain scholars who didn’t have a complete understanding of Islam themselves. As an adult, I came to realize that some mullahs couldn’t even read Arabic yet were still preaching to others about how to behave according to God’s will.  As I matured, I came to understand that many practices were more about culture than religion. Also, as I matured beyond my twenties and began to read more historical books, I came to understand that throughout history, many religious beliefs have been manipulated for power or control. This underscores the intricate relationship between faith and politics, emphasizing the need for critical analysis.

But you do understand that during my childhood, all these influences from people and society around me deeply affected my self-perception, leading me to underestimate my worth and abandon my aspirations. Just because I was a girl, I started to believe that I should not dream too big.

Unfortunately, my school grades, which had once been among the best in the class, dropped as well. This was especially because, as I grew older, there was an expectation for me to only associate with women and girls. From them, I heard nothing about technology, science, or having big plans for humanity. The only messages I received were about being a good woman and becoming a traditional wife later on. I often heard, especially from Muslim women around me, that it was customary for a girl to be married by the age of 15; otherwise, she would risk losing her sense of identity and not be considered a respectable woman. This cultural expectation weighed heavily on young girls, not just in specific regions, but all around the world.

I distinctly remember observing girls as young as 14 already engaged to be married. Curious about their futures, I engaged them in conversation, only to discover that education and personal aspirations were not part of their plans. They didn’t want to study at all, believing it to be pointless since they wouldn’t be allowed to work anyway. Many were also convinced that they should have children by the age of 20 at the latest, and that being a stay-at-home mom and taking care of the family was their sole task. It saddened me to realize that these girls were being deprived of the opportunity to pursue their dreams and make meaningful contributions to society.

Even though my own parents and family didn’t echo the sentiments I described, they consistently encouraged me to pursue my aspirations and become the best version of myself. Despite their support, the overwhelming voices of society seemed to drown out their reassurances. I found myself questioning whether I was mistaken in my desires and whether conforming to societal expectations was the right path.

Reflecting on it now, I deeply regret not listening more attentively to the wisdom of my parents and certain close family members. Their guidance was rooted in love and understanding, yet I allowed the external pressures of society to hold greater sway over my decisions.

Sadly, the pressure on girls to conform to societal norms persists even today. Many young women are coerced into diminishing themselves and relinquishing their dreams in order to fit into the narrow confines of the ideal “picture of a good woman.” It’s disheartening to witness how these expectations continue to limit the potential of countless individuals.’’

“It’s disheartening to witness how girls are often pressured to relinquish their childhood dreams,” Elara sighed, her expression reflecting deep concern. “Many fail to recognize the immense potential that lies within these young girls. By stifling their ambitions, not only do they limit their own growth, but they also hinder the future prospects of their children, especially daughters,” she explained, her voice tinged with sadness.

Elara leaned forward, her eyes reflecting a mix of empathy and frustration. “Parents need to understand that by encouraging their daughters to pursue their passions and aspirations, they’re not only empowering them but also shaping a brighter future for generations to come,” she emphasized. “It’s crucial to create an environment where girls feel supported and encouraged to explore their interests, break barriers, and make meaningful contributions to society,” she concluded, her words resonating with a call for positive change.

“Additionally, society needs to understand that maybe it’s time to let go of outdated beliefs and work towards a better world for all of us,” Elara added, her tone hopeful yet determined. “By encouraging both girls and boys to embrace equality and pursue their dreams, we can all contribute to creating a new, more inclusive world,” she continued, her conviction evident. “Girls are an integral part of shaping this world, and it’s time we empower them to realize their full potential,” she asserted, her words carrying a message of empowerment and equality.

“That’s true, Elara,” I confirmed, nodding in agreement. “Society needs to understand that by clinging to old beliefs and pressuring their daughters and other children around them to give up their bigger dreams, we will never be able to create a better world where girls can celebrate their achievements, foster more women in science, and instill in girls the belief that they can do anything.”

“Indeed,” said Elara.’’ It’s disheartening that many adults, even today, fail to recognize the profound impact they have on their children, particularly girls. By perpetuating restrictive norms and stifling their ambitions, society hinders girls from pursuing their dreams, even discouraging further education beyond a certain age. This societal pressure often outweighs familial support, shaping young girls’ perceptions and compelling them to conform rather than strive for greatness’’.

“Yep,” I said. I continued, “As mentioned before, the social norms and societal influences led to a point where I began to lose interest in technology and science. My grades declined, and I no longer felt the same passion for spending hours in the library exploring the mysteries of the universe and how the world was made. I began to mold myself into the image of the girl society expected me to be. I experienced firsthand how societal pressures could crush a young girl’s dreams, even with a supportive family. Despite coming from a liberal family, societal pressures pushed me to conform to traditional gender roles. It seemed like sacrificing my ambitions was the price I had to pay to fit in. Interactions with religious individuals often led to my questions and opinions being dismissed, pushing me to suppress my voice and conform even further.

My aspirations of becoming a mother, scientist, and leader simultaneously began to fade later on. I started to believe that those around me were right, and started to believe the narrative that greatness was reserved only for boys and men. This led me to resent being a girl even more, lamenting that I was born in the wrong body and gender. Eventually, the constant ridicule and dismissal of my dreams caused me to withdraw further from others, including the boys who once inspired me. To be honest, I am still wondering how many dreams and ambitions, how many female scientists, how many great minds, and changemakers all those old beliefs and cultural influences have stifled over the past 50 years’’.

Click here for Chapter 9

 

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