You Have One New Notification

They say you shouldn’t use the word hate, because it’s very strong. It makes you look nasty, and mean-spirited. Well guess what? Sometimes, I hate this interconnected online world. I hate the way my Gmail is linked to my Facebook and my cell contacts are synced with everyone I know on Twitter, and Pinterest and every other account I’ve ever had. I hate the way Skype is now a Microsoft account thing, and the way my contacts are duplicated because there’s Facebook friends, and Outlook contacts (whatever happened to Hotmail anyway?) and something called a Yahoo Friend.

Want to know why I hate it? Want to know why it sucks? Because you won’t go away, even after I’ve cut you so painfully from my life.

Even after I’ve hacked at my heart to get rid of you, torn you like a mass of entangled nerves, woven into me, from my spirit, you just won’t go away. It’s been three months, and I’m idly whizzing through my contacts, stuck in a doctor’s office, and whoops. There you are, with that picture I picked out for you, that you insisted you hated. There is momentary alarm. Didn’t I delete you?

Oh, I realize: My phone auto-synced my contacts with my Facebook. Delete.

It’s been six months. I’ve gone through three crazy anxiety cycles, willing myself not to think about you. We haven’t spoken once, but a thousand conversations have played out in my mind. My friends keep telling me to chill, sympathy in their eyes, but I wish there was an actual pill for that, because I can’t seem to handle this on my own. I wake up telling myself I’m good, this is a better day, I haven’t thought about you in thirteen hours and 47 minutes and 3 seconds. I’m having Cheerios at the dining table, streaming some Vampire Diaries, and a little Skype blurb pops up.

You’re online. The spoon tumbles from my lips.

Why are you on my Skype? Why is there an option to call you? To video call you? Oh, God. My Outlook contacts are integrated with my Skype now, and it’s asking me if I’d like to add 417 other friends. I wish I had never sent you an email from my Outlook. Delete.

It’s been a year. My online presence has been cleansed of you. You are not my Facebook friend, LinkedIn connection, fellow Pinner, Twitter follower, or Insta-buddy. I’ve even gone on a paranoid social-media purging bender and kicked you out of my Google + circles. Your favorite songs have been kicked off my iTunes playlists, and the <3 list on my Soundcloud. It’s done. I’m clean. And then, like a thief in the night, you’re where I never expected you to be.

I’m digging through the caverns of my Dropbox (100 GB) and it turns out it’s been syncing every photo I’ve ever taken – including dozens of you. You, you, you, that I hadn’t even remembered. That quick smile from the driver’s seat as you realized I had my camera app open, a blurry close up of your hand as you try to knock it away from me, a couple of crazy laughing ones, water streaming down our happy faces – preserving memories that I loved.

That I need to get rid of.

Now.

It’s been 14 months. You’re gone, and more importantly, the  reminders of you are gone. I can move on with my life, and I hope you have already done so. Maybe I don’t hate the interconnected world quite as much as I thought I did. Maybe hate is too strong a word. Maybe I’ve forgotten something, and one day you’ll pop up in a notification somewhere; if you do, I’ll be okay.

I’ll be okay.

PS: This post was written to support everyone out there struggling with letting go, because it’s only natural. Hang in there, friends.

Oh, You Don’t Like My Body?

Guess what. Most days, neither do I. The way my thighs jiggle when I run, and the “wholesome” curve of my fat arms. You don’t like my body. I don’t like myself.

Just another fat girl. The chubby friend. The girl who is fun, and interesting and creative, but c’mon, you’d never date her. I mean, have you looked at her?

Yeah, plus-sized models are sexy. I mean, OMG look at Kim K and Ashley Graham – I’ll take some of that please. But Fat Amy over there? C’mon. I mean, I don’t want to be rude, but you know we’re both thinking the same thing. Right? Right?

You don’t like my body. You don’t like my body. You don’t like my body.

I don’t like myself.

My skin is too dark. My hands are too masculine. Wearing sandals in the summer gives my feet tan lines. My chest isn’t big enough, but my shoulders make me look like a Viking.

I’ve forgotten, you see, that my body has changed over the years. I forgot the year in high school when I lost so much weight I went down a whole size in my favorite jeans. I forgot the times my mother wasn’t home and I had to come up with something to eat. I forgot that when I was 15, all the girls were my size, and then when I was 17, they suddenly weren’t. I forgot the time I had my heart broken and no one to talk to. I forgot all the boys who said they liked my curves, and all the girls who wished they didn’t look anorexic. I forgot that this body is more than my failure.

The wide hips and strong legs admired in the past are heritage – passed down to me from my grandmother’s blood. This body is family, along with the big eyes, and full lips that you love so much.

The way I’ve bulked up in the last year? I survived having my heart blown to smithereens, and I am still here. This body is proof. This weight is a remnant of being at war with my nerves. This body is strength. The thick hair I have pulled out – of my eyebrows, of my arms, of my chin and my legs – that’s not easy. You don’t like my body, and I pluck and pull and rip and rub. You don’t like my body.

I’m not at risk for heart disease, and yes, they do still carry my size at every clothing store I go to (albeit sometimes it’s shoved in the back). This body is a size 12, a size 14, a size 16. But this body is more than a number printed onto my denim. The acne scarring from the face wax to get rid of my mustache is covered up by my favorite foundation, and now you say you can’t trust women wearing makeup, and makeup shaming has actually become a thing. Are you kidding me? And still, you don’t like my body.

When you sideways glance at my tugging my shirt down over my stomach, or make a sexy big booty remark and wink at me across the room, I forget that I am more. I forget that I would rather have played my video games instead of picking out black heads, and putting eggs in my hair. I forget.

I forget that while I suck at dieting, I am a better cook than most others. I forget that while I can’t find the motivation to get up for a 6 AM run, I’ve circled the world through great literature. You think I don’t exercise, but I am not afraid of washing my own dishes, mopping my own floors, and doing my own laundry. You think I don’t care, but I have a full length mirror that replays all the things you assume I didn’t hear you say.

I wear makeup because I love it. My foundation is marketed as Better Skin, my chapstick is “your lips but better”, and my concealer gives me a “natural” highlighted “glow from within”. You say I am too fake. That I should look more natural. But in a flurry of activity, like a mad woman, if I unzip, untuck, unhook, and wipe off everything you call fake, you don’t like my body.

I forget that this isn’t a war I should be fighting. I forget that this isn’t a war anyone is ever going to win. I forget that you aren’t the enemy. I forget that I don’t need your validation.

You don’t like my body, but sometimes, I really love it.

I love it when I go to the doctor and he says that I am perfectly healthy. I love it when I order my double-patty burger and I love it when you’re not talking about how I need to lose weight.

You don’t like my body. I’m focusing on loving the world, one day at a time.

Disclaimer: This post was written to support a friend who struggles with body image issues. 

Young Woman, You ARE Marriage Material

I’m at that point in my life (by which I mean my early twenties) where everyone around me (literally everyone) is either getting married or about to. Whether it’s engagements or at-home Nikah (Muslim marriage contract) signing ceremonies, I’m losing single friends faster than I imagined. I’ve got two weddings to attend this week, and three more coming up in the next six months. 

Now, at this point in my culture, most girls have probably gotten one or two rishtas. These are families who approach the girl’s parents asking for her hand in marriage on behalf of (if he knows her) their son, or for (if he doesn’t know her but the family thinks they’d be a good match) their son. If you’re 25 and single, ladies, we all know there’s a few common reasons this is so:

1. You are focusing on your career and your parents are (almost/maybe/hopefully) supportive of your decision to wait to get married. 

2. You have older sisters who aren’t married yet and you have to wait your turn. 

3. Your boyfriend doesn’t have a job yet and so can’t respectfully ask for your hand in marriage (because what could he possibly offer you if he doesn’t have any money? *gasp*). Darling beti, focus on the doctors and the engineers. 

4. There is some sort of ideological divide. He is from a different caste, or Allah maaf karay religion, or is a communist, or is from a family that for some reason or the other, your family is not happy with. 

4. Nobody wants to marry you because you suck. 

Unfortunately, it’s the last reason that tends to take up residence in our hearts and even if the whole world is cheering us on, it’s not uncommon for young women to become overly critical of themselves. We begin evaluating ourselves on a host of factors. Can I cook? Would I prioritise raising children full-time over my career? Do I know how to host a dinner party and keep a clean house? And most pressing in our minds: Do I look good enough? 

Is my nose too big? Why isn’t my skin fairer? 

A lifestyle of perpetual dieting and stomach-sucked-in selfies, body-shaming larger women (yes, it counts when you’re openly feeling sorry for her), and eyeliner-mastery is adopted. Hair is straightened for everyday, and curled for formal events, and every pushed-up, tucked-in, brightened, whitened, and mattified part of your body is dressed to the nines at weddings because beta log kya kahen ge? (Child, what will people say about you/us?)

Let’s get a few things straight ladies. Maybe dressing up makes you feel good about yourself, maybe it’s just fun, and all of that’s great, but under no circumstances should you ever feel that it’s necessary for people to like or approve of you. I know it’s so easy for me to write these things down and so hard for them to be true. It took time for them to be true for me. It took time for me to allow myself to be comfortable in my own skin. I am so many great things, and so are you. 

Skills like cooking and being a great hostess can be learned, should you wish to learn them. Children may or may not be part of your future, and that’s something you can deal with when the time comes. They say motherhood gives you a different perspective (as do most major experiences) and who knows what you’ll feel like then? We are all constantly changing and evolving as people. And in any case, those possible future children could really benefit from a mom who knows how to follow her dreams. 

Im not saying these are the only issues – spending your life with someone is a big decision, and comes with a myriad of variables – but these are certainly prevalent for a lot of young women (on the verge of spinster-hood (haha, I joke). 

Know this: strive to be the best you can be. Cliche as that is, let yourself be open to different definitions of what’s good and what your best is. Allow yourself to do things you wouldn’t normally do simply to expose yourself to different people and ways of thinking and embracing the world. Something as life changing as marriage takes teamwork, emotional and mental  maturity, strength and positivity. Be sincere. Be kind – especially to yourself. 

Most importantly, cut yourself some slack. You are kind. You are important. You are talented. And you deserve to be valued. The protruding stomach and the limp hair – those are obstacles you have the power to move past. 

And your knight in shining armour? He’ll show up when it’s time. 

The Veiled #Muslim Bogeygirl

Zainab Khawaja:

Phenomenal insight into what it means to choose to be a veiled Muslim woman. This article says everything and more that I was trying to say in this Tribune article.

Originally posted on Building a Common Future:

By: Ethar El-Katatney

Photo Credit: Time Magazine

There are around 800 people attending this forum. Let’s assume half are women. Out of those 400 women, less than half a dozen are veiled.

I understand that “we’re” very much a novelty here. And I understand that our presence here is extremely important to break the stereotypes, misconceptions, prejudices, etc etc And I am extremely grateful to the Anna Lindh Foundation for granting me the amazing opportunity of speaking at the inauguration ceremony, and again on a panel today.

View original 1,179 more words

It’s Okay to be That Girl

The girl that wears a full face of makeup one day and nothing the next. The girl who will only dress well if she’s not tired, or too lazy, or doesn’t have to iron her outfit. The girl who watches TV shows that are so girly, so hipster, so lame. The girl who can curse like a sailor, and isn’t afraid to say what everyone else in the room is thinking – in fact, she doesn’t see the point in not saying it; things would be so much clearer if we could all just dispense with these mind games. It’s okay.

The girl who is so far from elegant and graceful that it’s a laugh out loud situation. The girl who always has more guy friends than girl friends. The girl who is well over the over-weight barrier and gleefully goes on existing (the horror!). The girl who can’t be bothered matching her socks, and the girl who painstakingly puts outfits together when she wants to impress. The girl who is neurotic-neurotic-neurotic – are you sure you double checked that the stove was off?! – and is really intense about things like worrying and seriousness and the very real Worst Possible Scenario That Has Every Chance of Coming True. It’s okay.

The girl that feels like she’s playing pretend when she laughs at his jokes that aren’t funny, when she smiles at the older women asking but not really asking about her dreams, when she says sorry when she’s not sorry. The girl that fights for feminism and women’s empowerment when she can’t figure out in her head how women would ever be able to be equal in this messed up world. The girl that un-apologetically demands that she be loved, that she be loved, that she be… at least treated well, at least not degraded, at the very least smiled at after a long day. It’s okay.

1b

The girl that says no, sorry, to the guy she knows she will never love, could never love, because she values honesty. The girl that feels bad about it after. The girl who feels like she has the worst luck because the hot guys never like her, just the social rejects that she isn’t into. The girl who doesn’t care about feminism or socially-constructed gender roles because she just wants a goddamn knight in shining armor and is that so freaking impossible to wish for? The girl that feels selfish but thinks why the hell shouldn’t she? This world is a hard place and she needs to look out for herself. This girl that vows every night to try to be better, as a person, as a sister, as a woman, as a wife. This girl that doesn’t think she can, but knows that she will try. It’s okay.

That girl who loves pink, and glitter and getting her nails done and her hair done and is tired of being thought of as a looker, not a thinker. The girl who smoked a joint when she felt pressured by the cool kids in high school. The girl who fell down the stairs in front of everyone and pretended to laugh with them, because she hoped they were laughing with her. The girl who wanted to be a boy because it was so much easier and no one ever asked her brothers to do the laundry. The girl who always came second in her class, and wasn’t very pretty either, so what use was she? The girl who was only ever good at one thing but couldn’t even manage to be the best in it. It’s okay.

The girl who was always insecure. The girl who wasn’t afraid to take risks. The girl who experimented with her personality. The girl who ate lunch alone because of her pink hair. The girl who skipped class because she couldn’t bare to face them. The girl they called Tootsie because of the rolls on her stomach. The girl they called Goddess, because of the curves of her body. It’s okay.

The girl who wrote because her heart was breaking. Who ugly-cried her guts out without caring who was watching. The girl who sat with her legs politely crossed making small talk because she couldn’t let the facade crack. The girl who worked two jobs to support her family and came home early, pretending she had plans so she wouldn’t have to go out with coworkers for coffee she couldn’t afford. The girl who never drank alcohol because she just didn’t want to, and why was that so hard for everyone to understand? The girl who prayed to a God she believed in even though she could never justify his existence. It’s okay.

That girl. Every girl.

It’s okay.

Who is Prince Charming?

We’ve all talked about it, whether it’s in hushed tones when our mothers aren’t listening, or maybe when you’ve just broken up with the last guy – we want Prince Charming. Whether or not we admit it, and even if we hide behind the whole “Of course you always have to compromise – especially as a woman. You’ll never find someone who is 100% perfect, and that’s not even what you need”, we all still want Prince Charming. 

Now, after we’ve politely made the socially-needed (as in, society demands it) admission that no one is perfect, we are willing to adjust with the man we have to spend our lives with, and that our parents know best when picking someone out for us for the long haul, can we get into the real conversation?

Who is Prince Charming? 

Disney says he is someone who will make your heart want to positively explode with the goodness and happiness that he brings, and have dashing good looks, a rippled-to-perfection abdomen (Disney never overtly brings this up, but all our resident Princes are suspiciously well-built.) and last but not least, a never-ending devotion to your happiness, (never mind his own) which may or may not demand intense sacrifice on his part.

Now who do I think Mr. Charming is? (Note: Everything stated below is the result of painstaking research on the matter, undertaken by myself, qualified as I am – being a woman and all – over the last 10-15 years [assuming the effects of Disney movies began to take their toll around the time I was 8] and based on interactions with numerous teenage girls [classfellows, friends – giggles] and super-serious coworkers from my adult life. The point of this note is for you to realize that all parts of the following laundry list are very, very accurate and you need to take them seriously.)

  1. Prince Charming respects me & views my mind as equal – that means whenever there’s a major decision to be made, he will involve me, and we will make it together. This does NOT mean that my preference will always be the final decision. It means we will both share our views, debate their virtues and faults (warning: this might get a bit messy) and then decide on a final course of action.
  2. Prince Charming knows there are certain things I hate doing, that I will do if absolutely necessary, but would much rather prefer that I don’t do them, and helps me achieve this. He knows I am willing to compromise, that I am not unreasonable, but Prince Charming does not demand unnecessary compromise from me.
  3. Prince Charming is ambitious – knows what he wants in life and works towards the goal, regardless of if it’s career advancement or to build a lake house.
  4. Prince Charming is kind. Kind when I’ve failed. Kind when I suck. Kind when I’m not. Kind when I’m irrational and stupid and mean. Because I will be. Because I am human.
  5. Prince Charming accepts his mistakes. This does NOT mean he accepts everything I think is his mistake. I can be wrong. He should argue his point. I should be a good enough person and partner to be able to accept that I am not in the right. But when he knows he is wrong, he should apologize, because sometimes I will need to hear that he’s sorry.
  6. Prince Charming knows what’s important to me – whether it’s my career as a fancy-smanshy business exec, or an active involvement in my community, or whether I’m blood-sweat-and-tears-ing my way to launching a successful start-up, or even if I’m at home, pursuing personal projects such as writing a book or painting – and respects those as worthy pursuits, not belittling or chiding me for pursuing them.
  7. Prince Charming doesn’t lord his job over me, if I don’t work. Especially if I stay home and take care of the kids (a choice which is entirely mine).
  8. Prince Charming may not remember a million anniversaries or birthdays or the first time we ate a samosa together, but he is there when I need him. I don’t mean this in the I’m having an emotional breakdown and WHY AREN’T YOU TEXTING ME BACK RIGHT NOW kind of way, but I mean in life. Real life. Not dramatic, immature, the world is a hell-hole and you’re my salvation life. He helps me pick up the dishes after we’ve had guests over, and will run to the market to get milk when we’re out because I am too tired to go. He will voice his opinion when he thinks I am making a mistake, and he will be there to help me through the aftermath of the bad decisions (leather sofas when you have a cat) I am bound to make at some point or the other. He will celebrate my successes (when I manage to exercise for more than 3 days in a row).
  9. Prince Charming tells me the truth. A lot of girls like flowery romance. And there’s nothing wrong with a healthy dose of cheesy goodness. But what really takes your Prince to the next level? When he tells it like it is. So that you know you have an honest opinion whenever you need it. So that you know you have a no-judgement helping hand whenever you need it. So you know that this is a partnership.
  10. Prince Charming has a compassionate face – a beautiful for me face. A face that I can grow to appreciate. A face that makes all the girls I don’t like really jealous because he’s gorgeous. (Don’t pretend you’ve never wished that.) A face that makes me think ooh la la, I got lucky. (Yes, I said it. Go ahead and be nasty and judgmental if you want.)

That’s all we really want, Disney, popular media, rishta aunties, and whoever else is out there.

(Disclaimer: This in no way is meant to be an exhaustive list or represent exclusively my views. This also in no way means that there can’t or shouldn’t be a Who is Princess Charming list. Maybe that’ll be my next blog post.)

Feel free to add anything to the list. The best thing about fairy tales is that sometimes, they come true. :)

So When Are You Getting Married?

rishta-pic-funny

It’s been a while since I’ve brought the topic of marriage onto this blog. Some of you might remember my post about rishta aunties. I wrote that post three years ago, easily quipping about how twenty-somethings in Pakistan are always fretting about the all-seeing potential mothers-in-law hunting them down. Well, guess who’s a twenty-something know? (I think this is what they call karma.)

So what better way to deal with this than take it head on? Let’s talk marriage, ladies and gentlemen, specifically marriage for young women in the middle to upper middle class in urban Pakistan. First thing’s first – just about everyone has had a boyfriend. Oh, I’m sorry, do you not like to call him that? Even though you text non-stop from your secret phone? Even though you’re “best friends” who make eyes at each other across the quad? Let’s get real. Every girl who has gone to university has bound to have had one or two (mis)adventures of the heart. (And if she hasn’t, she’s a gem, aunties, snap her up for young Javaid now!)

tumblr_mhax9anL7h1ro6ivvo1_500

We’re all familiar with the horrors of formalized arranged marriages, where the girl often feels like a show pony, and the boy is presented as an investment portfolio more than a human. We know about the dreaded serving tea on a trolley ritual, and keeping your legs crossed and your eyes down. We know of how the term semi-arranged (we like each other but we got our parents’ approval) has become a thing now, and how parents have become more open to the idea of their children having love marriages. (I wonder how they would react to I’m in love but I don’t want to marry him.)

So what is it like? The actual marriage part? Supposing you find a fellow that puts up with you (bonus points if he actually appreciates you, ladies!) and start looking to shack up (ahem, I mean, begin your lives together) there’s several other obstacles you find yourself facing. These are some stories I’ve heard over the last three years.

Best Behavior – for how long?

Mom and Dad found a nice/decent/friendly/kind guy, I got to know him, and we are married/engaged/baat-pakki’ed now. He’s great, but we’re still learning our way around each other. Do I tell him about my ex-boyfriends? I am committed to him, but they were a central part of shaping my personality, and many of my views about the world. How long do I keep pretending they never existed?

His Parents Don’t Like Me

We’re perfect for each other. We’ve been happy together for such a long time, and have overcome difficulties together. We want to marry each other, but his parents don’t approve of me. Words that felt like praise my entire life are now reasons for my rejection – working woman, strong, capable, ambitious, good grades, career-oriented. I knew I had to marry his family, but what if they don’t want to marry me?

I Know I Have to Stop Working – for my Family

I have a career and I love it. I am from a wealthy family, and have no need to work. I am well educated and I want to use all those hard-earned degrees, but I know that when I get married, I have to balance my personal obligations with my professional ones. And I know I will have to give up my career – it’s the right thing to do.

13386-womenmarriageandjobs-1346071543-633-640x480

Women Can’t Have It All – “Having It All” Just Means Being a Bad Mother

Because I don’t cook for my kids, I’m a bad mom. Because I don’t make it to “pot luck luncheons”, I am a bad mother. I’m killing it in the boardroom, and providing for them just as much as my husband is, but because I am not doing my “womanly” duties, I am a bad mother. It doesn’t matter that I pay the cook and that I buy their school supplies. What matters is that I don’t attend the kitty parties the other mothers throw, and I carry a briefcase. My kids and happy, living fulfilled lives, and they know that their mother loves them and is always there for them – but society doesn’t.

I Make More Money Than He Does & This Is A Problem

I don’t care about him enough. I am not attentive enough. I am always busy with my work. That’s what I hear. The clothes aren’t freshly laundered and the tables are dusty – I am a bad wife. The funny thing is, I am also paying the rent.

This post has one simple purpose: to get us to think about the imposed social structure and societal norms we’ve built. Each of these stories has multiple perspectives. I’ve kept them short and simple, because I invite you to explore them in your minds. Think about your experiences, your friends, and your ideas. And if we can all accept one new idea today, I think that’s a smashing success.

Praying for Louboutins, Boyfriends & Inner Peace – A Journey

My life’s been full of awkward moments, and my journey with my faith has been a rollercoaster ride. I grew up a practicing young Muslimah, the apple of my parents’ eye, with all the adults nodding and smiling with approval at my headscarved young head. As I grew older, the restrictions that came with my religion started to feel like a burden, especially as I reached my teenage years. Don’t be friends with boys, and don’t stay out late. Don’t forget to pray five times a day no matter what else you’re doing, and don’t ever be disrespectful to your parents. (On that last bit, c’mon, what teenager isn’t disrespectful to their parents at some point or the other?) It started to just seem stifling, and like many in similar situations, I started to drift from the path of obedience I had followed till that point. Religion became something associated with my parents. They wanted me to follow it, and I didn’t want to follow what they were saying, because when you’re 15, let’s be frank: parents are just uncool. They are annoying and somehow always around when you don’t want them to be, and they think they can just run your life. (Fun fact: a few years later, I realized that they totally just could, and I was actually glad that they had strong-armed their way into everything I ever did – I’m looking at you, Mom.)

So from practicing young Muslimah, I entered Stage 2: ‘Reluctant Muslim’. This was the part where I secretly read Teen Vogue, and pretended not to have any friends that were boys, and constantly whined about how tortured I was because my parents just didn’t understand. At the same time, Mom dragged me to religious lectures, and I would make a big show of every time I prayed, to get them off my back.

Stage 3: ‘Self-Important Sinner’ kicked in towards the end of high school. Reluctant Muslim has a tendency to fade into: “Hi, I am Muslim, and you know it and I know it, but prayer and other things like that are my business and you have no right to judge me.” It became that thing that no one talked about – the elephant that everyone just refused to see. It wasn’t taboo to say you weren’t religious, and it was very easily sidestepped by “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” (I never really knew what people meant by that, to be honest.) It was okay to brazenly eat lunch during Ramadan when everyone else was fasting, and to openly date the love of your life (and subsequent loves of your life). Everyone understood why a girl might have a secret cellphone, and of course friends had to help each other sneak out and meet their boyfriends.

At one point, it even became very cool to declare yourself an atheist. It was just so easy to say that you didn’t believe in the God your entire society so openly recognized, the one your parents and relatives and literally everyone in this 99% Muslim population you were raised in acknowledged. Because if you don’t believe in God, you don’t have to deal with any real questions. Purpose of existence? Bah. Hell if you don’t pray? Bah. You’re a bad person if you treat others like crap? Not even relevant. The world is a scientific explosion thingy away from not existing and all of us are useless flecks of skin and muscle. Go with the flow, bro – and pass the weed, please.

Let me please clarify here that I respect everyone’s religious beliefs – if you identify with being a Muslim, an Athiest, or anything else that you choose to believe, I respect the decision as yours and have no intention of mocking it or implying anything negative towards your life choice. What I am describing is the way I saw things when I was younger, with a group of friends, colleagues, and students who hadn’t done their research, hadn’t deep-dived into their religious fad of choice for more than a few hours and were still in transition – not yet clear on who they were and who they wanted to be.

For those a little more faint of heart, agnosticism served as a popular option as well. This way you could believe in God, or some higher power like him (this proved very convenient), but not any formal structure of worshiping him/it/her.

I didn’t know what either word truly meant; beyond superficial definitions and a chance at relinquishing the bonds that held me back, I wasn’t really interested in what they meant, and years later, when speaking with a group of old friends, I learned that they hadn’t been either.

Then college happened, and like many undergrads, I seemed to have found my calling. I discovered what I felt passionate about, people I felt passionately about, and like every life-enthused young person, went through great emotional ups and downs. College was all about finding out who I was. Mom and dad loosened the reigns just enough to let me breathe, and I was all positivity and potential. So it seemed only natural when I found myself looking around for God when I hit a low point. Hello God, it’s me, Zainab. Remember? And I found him.

And then I lost him.

And then I needed him.

And then I wanted him.

And then I couldn’t find him.

And then I realized he had always been there.

In between all of this, I did my research. I went to classes. I interacted with people who believed and people who didn’t believe. And I learned the most important thing: believing is my choice. I can or I can choose not to, and no one else has anything to do with that. That in itself was incredibly freeing. I can pretend to be a believer so I don’t get judged and persecuted. I can pretend to be “liberal” and not believe, so I don’t get judged and persecuted. But the world will always be around, and some people somewhere will always judge and persecute. And the world will see what you want to show it. What you show and whether or not you truly believe – very separate things. This may seem like common sense, but it took me a fair bit of time to work it out.

And I realized that I do believe. I’m not a great Muslim by many standards. I still break a bunch of rules even when I am trying not to. I am not nearly as educated in religious knowledge as I wish I was and if we started a debate on philosophy and individualism and feminism and equality, chances are I would not be able to defend my religion. I’d probably find myself agreeing with you on some bits and feeling confused. But one thing I’ve never stopped feeling is that God’s around, just chilling while I figure my stuff out, and always ready to pitch in when I need him. My faith is by no means strong – it is a fragile, simple thing. I try to protect it, strengthen it, and let’s be honest  – sometimes I completely ignore it because I am focusing on my career. But it’s there. I am proud of it. I am happy about it. I would like my guardian angels to please stick around.

It gives me strength. It gives me hope. That’s what it is to me, at the end of the day. Because whether you’re praying to Allah, or Jesus, or another deity that you choose to worship, your faith is hope. Your faith is you willing to take a chance on something magical. It’s you willing to see what other people won’t. To work towards a goals other can’t or won’t envision. And all great people have faith in something or the other – themselves, science, the fact that their goals are possible. Nobody can definitively prove without a doubt that God exists. No one can prove that he doesn’t. I choose to believe in him. I choose to see faith. I choose to pray.

Call me brainwashed. Call me delusional. Call me inspired. Whatever. It’s my choice. I will always try to be good and kind to people around me and to never create any negative situations for anyone, or harm anyone. So this is my choice. And maybe this is just a random bout of religiosity and two months or two years or two weeks from now I will be a pretty substandard Muslim or I will have lost all faith or something else of that sort. But that will be part of my journey, part of my life and part of my personal development. I hope in the future I am happy with who I have become, and that I keep growing and seeking to be as awesome a person as I ever can be.

I choose to believe.

In myself.

In God.

In happiness.

In love.

In goodness.

In human potential.

Paki Yuppie: What It Means to be a Young Urban Professional in Pakistan

It means you wake up warm on cold winter mornings, and whine about how cold the bathroom tiles feel beneath your feet. It means your cook probably makes you breakfast, while you strategically shower at the time when you know hot water will be available. It means you dress to impress, whether that means twirling a scarf around your turtleneck, or flicking on some eyeliner. It means you probably own a pair of loafers. It means you spend your mornings in the office trying to wake yourself up, your days running around trying to complete your projects, your evenings breathing in relief through your cigarette, and your nights in bed with Downton Abbey, or Game of Thrones, or Star Plus dramas.

It means you vaguely discuss politics – broad terms, quick generalizations, general acceptance of failure – while you calculate sales figures, or browse Khaadi online. It means you are quick to joke about how Pakistan is a failure, and have no real concrete idea of how to fix it. It means you know you are privileged – everyone’s been telling you that your whole life. It means you are kind to those who aren’t whenever they knock at your car window at a red light. It means you love traditional clothing and food, speak of them fondly, but always as “traditional”.

10801676_10205939559036650_8533733428337385976_n

It means that you live with your parents, usually even if you’re married, and don’t pay rent. It means that you worry about how you didn’t buy any new clothes this season. It means you crib about rishta auntie culture, but you probably had an arranged marriage. It means you’re ambitious about something – you need to make something of yourself, otherwise what’s the point of you being so privileged, so educated, so well-groomed? It means maybe you went abroad to study and are now back in your home country, wishing you could have just stayed in London. If you’re lucky, it means when someone compliments you on your clothing you can reference some loving aunt from abroad who sends you Zara, or H&M, or Forever 21.

For many of us, it means we have a father or an uncle in the army, and someone or the other in the police, customs, foreign ministry. It means, of course they would never be corrupt, but they can help you out if you’re in some kind of big fix. It means we make promises that we don’t keep and then joke our way around them. It means we have “first world problems” that we joke about openly. It means the girls are always worried about gaining weight and the guys are always worried about their egos. It means we enjoy things like book launches, art exhibitions, qawwali nights and hand embroidery. It means we plan weddings months in advance, and often shy away from vibrant colors, favoring pale pinks, whites, reds for an “elegant look”.

It means we hesitate to take chances. It means we use words like dynamic and innovation. It means we casually reference the work trip to Thailand, and the summer our parents took us to Europe. It means we are upset over Shia killings, and attacks on schools, and donate money to cancer research, and participate in candlelight vigils, and talk of freedom of right and freedom of expression and freedom of belief and just a lot about freedom – all the time. And then we say, ‘but our culture…’, ‘but our religion…’, ‘but our families…’. It means we are fond of the disclaimer. Fond of not feeling too much, not saying too much, not meaning too much – or rather, not saying, feeling or meaning the wrong thing. It means sometimes we stand up for our values, but mostly, we’ve got other things to do. It means we’re not heartless, we’ve just got a lot on our plates.

It means we probably would leave the country if we could, but we’d probably come back in 10-15 years. It means we say we know “hardship” but we don’t know hunger. It means we are grateful, but we have probably never begged. It means we know of faith, but we struggle to feel it. It means we yearn with all our hearts for our country to get back on its feet, but we also yearn for 3G internet services. It means we spend money to go watch movies in cinemas and eat nachos, but nothing makes us happier than a bowl of well-cooked biryani in our dining rooms.

It means we have two sitting rooms – one for the guests and one for ourselves. It means we have multiple sets of china – some for the guests and some for ourselves. It means we have servants – staff, if you will – to wash our cars and cook our food and clean our houses, sometimes even to raise our children. It means we are kind to these servants, but get upset if they disrespect us.

It means we have egos. It means we are Pakistani. It means we are young. It means we are flawed and perfect in our own ways. It means we can evolve, we will evolve, we have evolved. It means we are you, you are us, we will always be the same and yet different. It means nothing, and it means everything. We are different, and we are the same. We are a colorful mosaic of insecurities and talent.

It means we are human.

[This post was written after a conversation with a Kazakh friend of mine, where we decided to write and tell each other what daily life was like in our respective countries, sharing things that aren’t traditionally on the news or in books.]

How I Learned the Gratitude Game in 2014

What’s wrong with my life?

Let’s see. I’m overweight – not enough to threaten my health, or so that I can’t find clothes my size at the department store, but enough to make me pull at the stomach of my shirt before I sit down, enough so that I would rather perch on the arm of a sofa than try to squeeze in with my friend, enough so that I spiral back and forth between self-doubt and self-confidence.

There’s also that pesky problem that concerns my parents – the way they just won’t let go. The fact that I’m an adult now barely seems to register with them, unless of course I need to do something I’d rather not. Then, all of a sudden, it’s a lesson and mandatory because I need to act my age.

If we’re really starting to make a list, then how could I forgot the best friend that suddenly pulled a Ephialtes (the guy who betrayed the Spartans) in my last year of university? And the guy that said he loved me but then also somehow loved that beautiful girl with a name more delicate and flowery than anything you can ring up at a Cath Kidston counter?

What’s my point here? Don’t we all have stories like this? True sorrows we save up in our hearts and only share when we feel a real connection with someone, small wounds we tend to while secretly “hearting” the emotional quotes with stars for backgrounds on Tumblr.

dd2f07e805bb4ded0f062c7dc4b1fba6

Almost 18 months ago, I ran into a group of people on Facebook (I got lucky, because the group only temporarily became open to all those winning – no that’s not a typo – to join.) and started reading their stories. I was surprised how open they were about their lives, sharing their own stories and those of their families. And why did they do this? To find gratitude, and share what they could of it. The group had a single mandate – be as grateful as possible, for as many things as possible, as often as possible. I was surprised as I read through stories of children struggling in school, husbands helping with the yard work, office politics and more – these men and women of all ages struggled with real lives, real problems – nothing dramatized and difficult to relate to. These were lives just like mine. These were men and women who had chosen strength in the face of difficulty and gratefulness during times of ease.

I was skeptical at first, of how this could really help me. Would it make any difference for me to start posting in this group? Would this improve my life in any way?

Eighteen months of irregular posting (sometimes every day for a month, and sometimes not for 2 months) and I stand here a stronger woman. It wasn’t so much the act of logging into Facebook and posting on a daily basis. It was the effort to come up with something to be grateful for. Some days it was easy – thank you for my new job. Grateful for the sale at Mango – 50% off on sunnies – YAY!  And some days it sucked – what the hell was I supposed to be grateful for when it felt (insert dramatic music here) like God was taking everything from me? Whatever harsh lesson I was supposed to learn, I would think, I’ve learned it. Now can you just stop, God? 

But that effort – to claw out of the negativity – helped me rebuild myself after suffering heavy blows. The community responded beautifully. I made friends with women three times my age, and women from different cultures, races, lifestyles. Mothers, wives, daughters – the friends I made, I hold close to my heart now. I know their children’s names, and wish them luck during their trials. They’ve done the same for me. I hope to continue doing the same for them.

I guess it’s true what they say – you control how you feel about the world. You control how you react to things and how much something can hurt you. Developing a realistic but positive outlook is one of the healthiest changes I’ve made in 2014, a year that proved to be more of a roller coaster ride than I had originally bargained for. Through the highs, stating my gratitude helped me ground myself and realize the value of what I had, whether it was feeling pretty with my new makeup, making a new friend, or graduating with a great GPA. Through the lows, forcing gratitude taught me that there is always light at the end of the tunnel, even if the light is from a crappy 60-watt bulb that’s flickering madly.

Through these incredible women I’ve had the chance to connect with, I realized how it doesn’t matter where you’re from or what you do – what matters is that we’re all human, and we all go through highs and lows. Conquering our lows? That’s where the game’s at.

612568feb65a375c2c0de254dafd8363