How many dreams, hopes, and relationships have been shattered because of this phrase, “What would people say?” Aspirations are useless in a world where for people around you the sole purpose of your existence is to fit in one specific box, even if that comes at immense costs. And women and girls, more than any other group, are taught to live always keeping in mind what people will say about them.
In fact, I know Afghan women who have shaped their entire lives- who they marry, what they study, where they work- around what people will think about them. Many women and girls learn and are forced to prioritize society’s expectations over their own lives, health, and wellbeing, regardless of their socio-economic and educational background.
Here are the stories of two women whose lives were shaped by this common phrase, “What would people say”.
“I didn’t want to get married to him. I didn’t like him. I didn’t even know him!” says Hakima.
“Why did you agree to it then?” asks Najia.
“I couldn’t say no. My family, my sisters, my relatives… I didn’t want to bring shame to my father. You know, he had promised that I would be married to Abdul. It happened before he died. I couldn’t reject him after I lost my dad. I had no man standing up for me. I felt so alone.”
“Did you tell your mother?”
“I protested once in front of my mother. She was already heartbroken from becoming a widow at such a young age and having to raise three girls on her own. My mother just stared at me and said, ‘If you don’t go ahead with this marriage, your sisters won’t have a chance of finding good husbands. And what would people say?’”
Hakima was already married to a man she never met and barely knew. She was paying the ultimate price for not being allowed to raise her voice. She didn’t reject the marriage proposal out of fear of her community’s response. Her entire life was shaped by what people might say.
Yasamin had a very different life. She had a chance to go to university. She wanted to become a psychologist. She was always fascinated by people’s behaviors and how much our childhoods impact us as adults.
“I knew my childhood affected me in ways that I would have never realized if I didn’t get away from my home for university,” She says. “When I was on my own, I had time and space to understand myself. And it was these years and my childhood that was pushing me towards my career goals. But I barely finished college.”
Yasamin’s father feared that she would never return home after having experienced freedom in a city far from home. He began to plan her marriage and he pushed her to meet suitor after suitor. When she didn’t consent to any of the arrangements, he became emotionally abusive. He warned her that if she doesn’t follow through, he will never to speak to her or forgive her.
“I don’t want to get married- at least not right away- and I want to choose my husband. I want to work and to have experience in the real world before getting married.”
Her mother’s life and the impact of early marriage on her served as a warning for Yasamin. She didn’t want to walk in her mother’s footsteps. She had seen how her mother was financially dependent on her father and rarely had a voice in making family decisions. This caused resentment between her parents.
“They’ve always hated each other. It was evident and yet they didn’t get a divorce. I had asked them why they didn’t get separated instead of raising children in such a toxic environment and they would say, ‘What would people say?’” Yasamin says.
Yasamin is now in despair, because she knows that she will be unhappy and resentful if she follows her dad’s decisions. If she doesn’t, she will have to be on her own and face resentment, disrespect, and maybe even violence for “bringing shame” to the family.
“What would people say if I didn’t follow my dad’s decision?”
Even one forced marriage is too many. Perhaps it is time we honor, respect and value our daughters more than what people might say.
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