Chasing life

My fairy tale seems to be less Cinderella and more Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I am not the princess dreaming in her tower of love and a Prince who’ll sweep her off her feet, but the girl who wandered off in search of comfort and exploration and who views the world with an inherent practicality. I receive (unsolicited) advice these days on all the things I need to change so that I’m not too hot or too cold, too hard or too soft, too big or too small. Things that will apparently make me just right.
“You need to dress sexier,” a friend in New York says, “Show some skin, go on more dates, and feign a bit of ignorance.”

“You need to be more modest, not so quick with expressing your opinions,” says my mother, “and above all, play hard to get.”

“You’ve got too much intellectual energy,” says another friend in California. “It scares men off.”

“You need a professional degree – law or medicine or something,” says the matchmaking aunty.

“Be yourself,” they all say.

“Be anyone BUT yourself,” is what I hear.

I’m one of the most independent women you’ll ever meet. I’m intelligent and ambitious, work in a field that I love, find joy in my family and fun with my friends, and am comfortable with my level of spirituality and religiosity. I am content and fulfilled, and by any measure, successful. I’ve never felt that marriage or relationships are about finding your other half, but about two whole people coming together on equal terms. But inadvertently, I’ve found myself succumbing to the marital rat race. I’ve been living my life in wait without even knowing it, postponing things for later: I’ll write more when I’m married. I’ll travel more with my husband. I’ll finally pursue that journalism career once I’ve settled down.

When success is measured not by the things you accomplish in life, but by being “settled” into marriage, with a husband, a home, and a family, the attributes which I value mean nothing. They are a means to piquing the interests of men and their families, and are only stones on the path to a rishtaa, a wedding, and a lifetime of marital bliss. For more reasons than one, that mindset needs to shift.

I’ve heard countless complaints from highly-successful single Muslim women, well into their 30?s, who love their careers and are content with their lives, but are viewed as something less because they’ve opted out of the traditional path. From those who are marriage-minded but still looking, there are complaints that we let guys ask for too much and get away with too much – that Muslim women are scrambling to fit themselves into the profiles and demands of the men. Too many times, I’ve met kickass, intelligent, beautiful, witty women who feel like failures because they’ve let marriage become the supreme definition of success, the ultimate endgame.

There needs to be a mindset and a space that allows women to come to relationships naturally and organically, in ways that are healthy. It’s high time we began defining success for ourselves, on our own terms. What if marriage isn’t something in our future? What if we don’t feel we have what it takes to be wives and mothers? What if we dedicate our lives to changing the world instead of just living in it? It’s time to recognize that there is nothing wrong with these alternatives, that we find our own measure of success.

This year, my 30th, has been one of contemplation. The numbers change and suddenly you’re wiser. There are things formerly imperceptible that become clearer. I’ve slowly begun to remove the idea that my life is on hold until I am married, and once the barriers of expectations and years are out of the way, so many possibilities present themselves – I am unrestricted by timelines and untethered to a plan. I’ve traveled abroad twice in the past year. I’ve started a blog. I’ve put myself out there for writing gigs. I’ve chopped off all my hair. Apparently, I’ve got all the time in the world.

I’ve been chasing a goal for too long, one in which there is fierce competition and where the ratio of Muslim men to Muslim women makes allowances for behavior that we would never accept otherwise. I find that I am not soft and yielding and uncomplicated, nor am I willing to sacrifice my intelligence, drive and ambition to make a man feel less threatened to the point where I can coax him into marrying me (and once he’s trapped, turn back into the Gorgon that I actually am). I’m not willing to dress sexier, be more modest, hide my brain or pursue a degree.

I don’t want for the sake of someone else. For too long now, I’ve been chasing other people’s elusive measure of my happiness. To change myself fundamentally is not something I’m willing to do.

The race to find a man and get married denies the journey, the best part of the story, the most thrilling, the most enjoyable. So excuse me as I step off the path and wander for a bit in a different direction. I want to chase life for a while.
Zainab Chaudary works in politics by day and is a writer by night. Her blog, The Memorist, ruminates upon travel, religion, science, relationships, and the past, present, and future experiences that make up a life. She tweets at @TheMemorist. This piece was originally published at Love, InshaAllah.

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