A couple of weeks ago, I watched a short clip of Mrs Khan’s interview on the internet and finding the content and tone of her tirade unpleasant and provocative, I saved myself unnecessary angst and moved on to something else. Peace was short lived as in the days that followed, Facebook was inundated with public opinion on Mrs Khan and her patriarchal views and antiquated thinking. I could no longer play ostrich.
Mrs Khan is an elderly lady who runs a marriage bureau service in Pakistan – a very lucrative business, given our collective interest in marriage – be it our own or someone else’s. Finding a young girl or boy a spouse is still considered to be a communal task, where everyone joins in, regardless of whether their help is sought or not. When your social network of khalas, phuppis and parosan ki bahu fails you, then you have no choice but to avail the paid services of established matchmakers, such as Mrs Khan, who are human databases with running search engines on all single people on the hunt for marital bliss. As a concept, it is brilliant. These marriage bureaus have brought together many kindred spirits, generated business for wedding halls and boosted the general economy of the country by ensuring that single people pair up and multiply. However, as cogs in the mechanism of social construct and gender equality, these marriage bureaus have been abhorrent for they continue to perpetuate stereotypes and fuel gender disparity.
Mrs Khan is a regular guest on morning shows, but it was only recently that her comments landed her in hot water and put her on the receiving end of social media vitriol. What made this particular episode so incendiary was that she blamed women for the rise in divorce rates in Pakistan, claiming that their sharp tongues and proclivity to answer back were the main factors that contributed to the breakup of their homes. She even went as far as to say that to be a ‘proper’ woman, one must learn to make rotis and be able to take care of children, and women who are not capable of either should not consider marriage. She absolved men of any responsibility and said that if God hasn’t given women equal rights then who are we to try and fight for them.
Needless to say, there was digital uproar and many women (and some men) lost their minds over these statements. The backlash was understandable, and I felt annoyed too. However, as despicable as her comments may have been, the Mrs Khan debacle has opened the floor for a much larger debate that we, as a society, should be having about our own expectations from the young men and women amongst us.
Mrs Khan belongs to a generation where tradition reigned supreme and women could not afford to slack off in their domestic duties when chasing their dreams of self-actualisation. Girls were expected to be adept at multitasking and mastering every day domestic chores. Mrs Khan’s tone, when she speaks of her domestic accomplishments as a young woman, is speckled with pride but also bitterness.
Today, women are living in different times and it’s the generation of Shan Masala, Food Panda and prêt clothing. Yet, when it comes to finding a girl for marriage, society still falls back on this kind of outdated thinking. Larki ko roti banani aati hai? Shadi ke baad nokri ka to irada nahin hai? Mrs Khan’s opinions on gender roles are unacceptable to many of us, but they stem from a place of experience that comes from bearing witness to odd zaroorat-e-rishta requests on a daily basis as part of her business. And the blame for that rests with our society, not just with Mrs Khan.
In Pakistan, there are thousands upon thousands of households where girls are expected to do all the things Mrs Khan listed when they get married. Spend a few hours on the Facebook group Soul Sisters Pakistan and you will read your fair share of stories.
I think it is time we ask ourselves – how much are we a part of this problem? How many times have the most educated among us trapesed their way through tea trolleys brought forward by young women, making unreasonable demands of them? How many times do we hold our daughters-in-law and sisters-in-law to a different standard? We judge the woman who keeps a maid for her children. We judge the woman who doesn’t cook food at home. We judge the woman who works and we judge the woman who doesn’t. We make excuses for the bad behaviour of our son or our brother. We send our girls in the kitchen but think it’s too feminine a place for our boys. At some point, we have all displayed a little bit of Mrs Khan behaviour. So, as we call out Mrs Khan for her outdated opinions, we should also try and erase some of that thinking within ourselves.
Lastly, and consider this a public service message, regardless of how much one disagrees with the opinion of another, there needs to be some decorum in how we express our anger. Using inappropriate language, hurling abuses and sending death threats to someone for their opinions is not the kind of society we want to be fostering. Respect is part of the same value system that tells us that women should be treated equally in the house, so let’s not lose our values.