I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A TRAGEDY.
I am the last born of four daughters in an Indian family, which obviously means my birth was a tragedy. Well, at least for those who congratulated my mother with, ‘I’m so sorry,’ or, ‘Better luck next time,’ or who said things amongst themselves like it was a shame that it was a girl, again. Now, I don’t have kids so I’m not sure what it’s like, but can you imagine carrying a human being inside you for the better part of a year and going through blood, sweat and tears to get it out only to hear, ‘Better luck next time!’
It should have been my first clue that people in this world I had just come into could be totally bonkers. I mean if it had been me I would have probably karatechopped them in the throat before they even got to ‘next time’, but perhaps this is why it’s better I don’t have kids. Boys, as we know, are the pride and joy of a family; they’re supposed to be the protectors and providers and symbolise wealth and strength. They can do no wrong.
If I sound bitter it’s because I am. Because we all know daughters are the ones who will file your toenails, bake you a birthday cake, make your doctor’s appointment, pull out your ear hair and look after you when you’re old. They’re the ones who will do the things that matter. It’s those spoilt boys who won’t pick up a single dish, who play video games all day and abandon you when they get a wife, who are the real disappointment. Yet somehow daughters always get the worse rap. They are the ‘burden to bear’, ‘the carriers of shame’, ‘the consolation prize’ in our communities.
I mean, baby girls have always had a bad deal: we were literally being buried, abandoned and aborted from Arabia across to China for the last few hundred years. In 1990 it was estimated that Asia had 100 MILLION FEWER women due to female infanticide. In my community today it’s been toned down to snarky remarks and disappointed glances, despite the fact that our beloved Prophet (Peace be upon him) promised heaven to those who have daughters and show them support and kindness. This should have also been my second clue that in my new world not all Muslims understood what Islam was about.
My parents, thankfully, never seemed fazed by another daughter. My father is the most positive person in the world and my mother is a cool cat so although they came from a community that prides boys over girls, my father said all he did was count my fingers and toes, then raise his hands to thank God for a healthy baby. So I grew up with parents who loved their daughters in a house full of sisters and I have to say it was pretty special. My mother, who had grown up with seven sisters, was pleased to be surrounded by girls again and she enjoyed dressing us up, teaching us how to be proper ladies and chatting with us over cups of tea. My father, an architect who was always more in touch with his creative and softer side, delighted in daughters and had candid chats to us about womanly issues including our period, which I didn’t realise until much later was very open-minded for a man from his reserved generation and community.
Having so many sisters meant you never really felt alone; there was always someone to tell a secret to, someone to borrow clothes from, someone to split a meal with, someone to blame and someone to fight with. Most importantly, there was someone else in the house who understood what it was like to be a girl in the world.
We were each different; my eldest sister, Zahida was always studying or reading or telling us to be quiet so she could study or read. She knew everything there was to know about space, geography and history and she sometimes could be found studying in the empty bathtub. My second eldest sister, Saadiya, was the cool one, she had a leather jacket and wore lipstick even though we weren’t allowed to, she always had the latest music on her cassette player and she caught taxis to town by herself to work at Cardies (Cardies was so cool and how my sister managed to get a parttime job there with my father’s permission I will never know). My third eldest sister, Zakkiya, was quiet and clever and was often considered my mother’s favourite, mostly because at the time she was suffering from asthma attacks (she will deny this and say I’m the weak one but really, she’s the weak one and anyway, I can beat her in arm-wrestling). I was the sister who had a reputation for dreaming, sulking and spying on my other sisters; I don’t know why but spying gave me a big thrill, the more they told me not to tell my parents, the moreI had to. Like when Zahida accidentally got a tape stuck in the VCR machine and told me not to tell my father or that time Saadiya blew up a pot of wax on the stove and my sisters spent hours helping her scrape it off the roof and I told my mother (my sisters say they don’t remember this story but I believe this just shows how deep the coverup goes). It’s no wonder they started calling me ‘Spy 13’ after the comic book character who was a secret agent during the Second World War (he specialised in infiltrating the enemy, then sabotaging them).
Our fights were few but memorable, like the one time Zahida and Saadiya tied up Zakkiya and locked her in a cupboard or the time Saadiya and I had a big fight and she held me up against a wall by my neck and I spat in her eye. We didn’t physically fight as much as we complained a lot. We complained about how another sibling was taking too long in the shower, how she was coming onto our side of the bed at night, how she had taken something from our cupboard, how she hadn’t returned our clothes or how she was sitting on top of us in the car and not giving us space. In fact, the majority of our complaints were about our lack of space. When we did our annual road trip to my mother’s home town six hours away, I would somehow end up sleeping on top of everyone in the car and my sisters would sing, ‘Uncomfortable, that’s what you are,’ their version of Nat King Cole’s ‘Unforgettable’, as we bumped over potholes squashed in the back of my father’s white Cressida.
Mostly, though, we laughed a lot and died of embarrassment about everything. When my eldest sister got her learner’s licence and drove past the corner shop where schoolboys hung out, she accidentally hit the windscreen wipers instead of the indicator so we all ducked down in the car and left her visible because it was so embarrassing. When my father had crumbs in his beard and we had guests over, we would simply die of embarrassment. In fact, for some reason he always seemed to have food in his beard so we invented a code to tell him when it happened and we decided to say, ‘Did you feed BonBons today?’ BonBons was a kitten we had that had died and I don’t know why we came up with the idea that the best way to inform him he had food in his beard was to interrupt his conversation and ask if he had fed the dead kitten .Mostof the time, my absent-minded father would just pause and say, no, he hadn’t. This would lead to my sisters and I running for the fridge in the kitchen which partly shielded us from visitors in the sitting room and we would throw open the door and laugh inside it because he hadn’t understood and the whole thing was so embarrassing. When my eldest sister had a suitor over for dinner for the first time, we giggled the whole night with our heads inside the fridge because it was so weird to have aboy in our house. We weren’t allowed to talk to boys or even acknowledge their existence and now there was one sitting in our house interested in marrying our sister. And when more suitors arrived for us over the years, one sister only had to catch the eye of the others and we would break out in mad laughter. Honestly, I don’t know how they got married at all with the way we carried on. All it took was one small hint of a smirk and everything would unravel; our cheeks would twitch, our lips would quiver and pretty soon all of us would excuse ourselves as we fled for the kitchen with our hands over our mouths trying to hold the laughter bubbling inside. My father never seemed to notice and my mother just sighed exasperatedly.
Growing up in a house full of girls was the best thing that could have happened to me; it made me stronger and more confident and made me feel less alone. The thing you come to realise about having sisters is that you can never lose when you have more women in your corner. But more about that later. Right now, all you need to know is that I was supposed to be a tragedy but I was not.