Believe it or not, the mind of a desi girl is wired from the day she is born. I cannot speak for every other desi girl, but what I can speak to is always knowing that I had to accept certain roles as “different”, rather than “unequal”. For me, gender went beyond just girls are expected to wear pink and boys are expected to wear blue. The vision my parents had for my success was much different than my brother’s. The girl they saw would eventually become a woman who would accept her role the way other women in my family did.
Of course, as a baby I was a delicate flower. My brother was expected to protect me always since he was the older one, and to some degree, I was happy to have this protection. Again, I emphasize SOME degree. I enjoyed the watching out for me, but not the prideful overprotection. However, I do not blame my brother. He believed through his socialization with other Pakistani boys (the sons of other Pakistani families my parents were friends with) that he had to have that prideful overprotection over me. And those boys were mandated such protection rights by their parents. The ridiculous kind. Here are some examples:
If I talked to a boy, my brother would have the responsibility to stop such behavior.
If I wanted to do something that my mom would not allow, he would make sure my mother would know first rather than helping me out.
If I argued against having to clean for both my brother and I, I was being like “those white girls”.
If I did not want to learn to cook and then ask why my brother not taking interest is okay, I was out of line and my brother told me I just needed to stop fighting.
If I wanted to go somewhere without my brother and stay out late, my curfew was as soon as it was dark. His was past midnight.
If I wanted to go away for college, I just wanted too much freedom. If he did, it was ambition.
Through my teenage years and up till the first few years of college it was a constant battle. My parents felt that I wanted to do things only to be like my brother or just because he got to do them. Maybe that was so, or maybe it was that I just wanted to show my parents that what my brother could do, a girl could do it too.
Yet, I could not help but ask myself why I had to carry that burden? Why did I have to carry burdens of modesty? Of maintaining culture? Why was it that when I went to a wedding my brother and all of his friends could dance, while I had to sit and watch? How was that even any modesty or culture? How am I supposed to “maintain culture” if I am not allowed to embrace something as simple as the music of it? Why was it that we were told to act certain ways just to make sure men did not get tempted simply for the fact that we were born female?
I just could not ever understand it or blatantly accept it. I was not out to rebel or develop self-destructive behavior. I just wanted to make sense of it.
I did not realize that my brother was more on my side than I believed. He was not some chauvinist by design, but he was one of the very few “Brown Brothers” who soon began to protect his sister in a different way: from double standards. After he left for college and fell in love with the woman he later married, he was the best ally a desi girl could have. My parents and my family in general listened to him not only because he was a man, but because he was a doctor. And for the sake of keeping from any tangents, I will not delve too deep into the desi career options (or lack thereof).
Anyway, if it was not for my brother risking his own sanity just to argue with my parents to let me go to a homecoming dance and then later off to college on my own, I do not know how successful I would have been on my own when battling double standards. I was lucky that my brother was able to look within himself and see the biases inculcated into him as a boy, and realize that he needed to change them. I knew many other of my fellow desi girlfriends who could never achieve such a relationship with their older brothers because their brothers simply accepted the status quo that their parents wanted.
I can go on forever, but I end this post with a conversation that my brother had after I had finished college. HE apologized to me for all of the double standards that I had to face with my parents, whether those double standards pertained to career or gender (the main ones in my life, at least).
He said, “Saba, I can only imagine what it was like for you. I never had to lead an annoying double life, and I am sorry that it took me till adulthood to see how hard it was for you. I am here for you not to shield you not from the world’s evils and injustices because I know you have the strength to deal with those. I am here to shield you from ever feeling like you do not have that strength.”
As he discussed it more, I stopped him. I told him that there was nothing to apologize for. He was struggling just as I was because he could not have known how stand up for me as a child. He was trying to make sense of all of this as much as I was, but perhaps it took more time for him to see from a “privileged” (if I may) position how different it was for me just because I was a female.
In the end, I venture to say that my brother paved the way for other “brown brothers” to help their sisters. The alliance between the desi brother and sister is a powerful one, as the internal and external struggles we face as desi girls cannot only be something that we alone should or have to deal with.
My evolved relationship with my brother is living proof of that.