How Meryl Streep could be every brown girl’s mother-in-law!

As I watched Meryl Streep yelling at Anne Hathaway for not getting basic orders right, when I heard her saying that she gave the “fat girl” a chance, as I watched Hathaway devise new methods to make her boss happy, as I saw morality slowly slipping off of Hathaway’s persona, I was transported to a time when I was a new, young bride to a Pakistani man and had the responsibility to impress his family of two parents and eight siblings. That movie was literally my life for the first few years of my married life, particularly each time one of my in-laws were in the room.

And I wasn’t the only one. Most of my friends got married when I did and we had similar experiences. That strengthened our bond. The sisterhood deepened. From carefree medical students most of us had graduated the summer prior to young house officers. Then the summer after we had become wives and fiancés. We had, quite literally, traveled through time and had no idea where we were in terms of space.

I talked to my friends about my awkwardness around my in-laws not because I was a generally shy and awkward person but because I always felt scrutinized. There were expectations of me in terms of decorum and etiquette. I was expected to be subservient and quiet. But I was also expected to not look like a victim and be gregarious on occasion. I ended up being confused and oddly moronic. My friends shared the same experience.

Meryl Streep is a great actor. She has really embodied the role of a strict boss amazingly well. While some women might aspire to be like her, I was actually afraid of her. Her character, Miranda Priestly, brought back memories that were painful and raw. It reminded me of a group of women who unleashed their misogyny on me. Patriarchy harmed me, yes, but the thing that harmed me and my friends the most was misogyny, particularly internalized misogyny. She reminded me of a person who didn’t forgive. She reminded me of a woman who was always considered better than me by virtue of being older than me, being married for longer than me and for being in charge of a family for more years than me. I could change none of those variables even if I had tried.

Pakistanis are generally a loving people. We have a great affinity for humanity and social work. We like to extend a helping hand to most people in most situations. We have a great social structure of camaraderie and fraternity. But we don’t extend our grace to our women. Particularly women who marry in our families. That never happens. We make sure we don’t accommodate our women.

Subservience is what’s expected. People making fun of us as the new girl in the family is par for the course. There is an open animosity that’s displayed but the new girl can’t reciprocate it because the consequences can range from an early divorce to marital discord to domestic violence. Yes! You really need to pick your battles.

I have been married for a decade now. I have been through some major ups and downs and have ended up not really having a deeply emotional relationship with my in-laws. I’m partly to blame for that because I should’ve sucked up and complied. That I couldn’t do. Many of my friends couldn’t either. They’re all alienated from their in-laws today. Millennials have had some tough stuff to master and compliance has been one of them. Our generation didn’t get the memo on it even though our mothers learned it at patriarchy’s feet.

But this is what bothers me when I see women, particularly Pakistani women, still facing the same problems that I did and my friends did. Regardless of socioeconomic strata and regardless of education, we are all still dealt the same cards that have the King of Patriarchy and the Queen of Misogyny in every deck. The same deck is making its rounds still. I wonder why! Why isn’t there a shift in how we treat our women? Why isn’t our Generation Y having an easier time than the millennials? Why is the new girl still hazed? Why is her husband married to her, sleeps with her but is in love with other women, none of whom is his technical significant other?

Watch The Devil Wears Prada and tell me that you don’t identify with the deer-in-headlights look in Andy’s face each time she is faced with Miranda. That you don’t identify with the constant anticipation of what’s next. What’s next on the roster of emotional and verbal abuse. How best to prepare for the next moment, the next day, the next year. How to steer clear of criticism by being more efficient, more productive and more slave-like. The struggles of a Pakistani bride aren’t very different from a young girl trying to hold on to a job that is popularly considered the first step towards a life of success. The struggles of a Pakistani woman everyday while she is with in-laws who practice a deep dislike for her are very similar to the girl who was trying to please the devil.

3 Comments

  1. Agreed. You have made a valid point. I tend to think that anyone in a position of weakness is usually a victim of exploitation, be it a woman or man. Therefore, anyone who understands this must do something according to one’s circumstances to make things better for our suffering fellow beings.

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  2. Unfortunately this isn’t just about women in developing countries. They’re probably facing it more but this is true for women everywhere. Misogyny is everywhere. I can’t comment on any other society as liberally as I can on the Pakistani society because I just feel my claim to Pakistan is way more than my claim to some other societies that I’m a part of. Agree with it being a vicious circle.

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  3. Thank you for writing on this topic, a very painful one, left me very very sad, but this is the reality for a huge majority of women in developing countries and Pakistan is no exception. Let me say this that by not complying with the society’s norms, you have not committed any sin or error, because unless you stand up for your basic inalienable human rights how would the situation change for women change. Of course, it must be done in the most decent manner but there is absolutely no room for any compromises. I think any society which does not treat its womenfolk as human beings, is a sub-human society. I would say Pakistan is not yet a human society. How can you exploit womenfolk day and night endlessly and then claim to be the followers of God etc. etc. I say such people are not even humans, let alone followers of God.
    I think there is only one solution, that is, women, in particular professional and literate women, must face such situations with courage, boldness, and determination, and must not even entertain the idea of any compromise. Let me repeat again, this has to be done in a very decent manner, without provoking people but at the same time not compromising in any manner. My fear or real concern is that if this generation does not do it, then they would be doing the worst disfavor to their own children, who would continue to suffer. I do not think there is any room for that in 21st century.
    Sadly, what really hurts me is that when husband’s family treats their daughter in law in such a condescending manner, they are actually treating their own real daughter (by blood) in this manner, because she is also being treated like this by some other family when they are busy in exploiting someone else’s daughter. That leads to me say, how cruel are the parents of girls in general, who are mistreating and abusing their own daughters. Can you call such parents normal human beings? I do not think so. That is the reason, I call such societies as sub-human societies. It is very painful to watch this. In closing, I would say, please keep going strong and keep building the strength of those who you interact with. This is the least we can do for our fellow beings.

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