I was born in 1958 and came of age being enamored of all things “Western,” even though I was a Muslim living in a Muslim-majority country. I went to a Catholic convent school where we spoke English, and I dreamed of going to America.
For me, America was the land of the free. I believed that Americans were given the opportunity to accomplish anything they wanted. What I wanted was to follow my dreams, but to do so I had to get away from my mother, who was domineering. In Pakistan, I had learned to sing, but no matter how good I was, in her eyes, I couldn’t be a singer. I thought to myself, “I’m getting out of here!” When I could, I left for the United States to get my PhD in English Literature and to teach at a University.
When I arrived in the United States, I discovered that American women are just as “boxed in” as the women in Pakistan. Women here are given contradictory messages. We can wear high heels and lipstick, but can we do that and still consider ourselves intelligent feminists? There is always a tension for US women between taking care of themselves and being smart. I know that we don’t have to choose. I knew that in Pakistan and I know it here. I remember when women of my generation in Pakistan were letting their armpit hair grow and not shaving their legs, as a kind of protest. That was not my thing. I never felt I had to break out of certain boxes to be a high achiever. I didn’t worry about being defined by my looks. I know that paying attention to my looks does not take away from my activism or from my intelligence. And I cannot imagine my life without being a wife and mother as well as an intelligent person who cares about women’s rights.