Somewhere In The Margins
by HAFSA ARAIN
It was not as though I was never told I would accomplish anything, though I was often told to be modest about the things I did well. Don’t sound too smart: a bit of advice that no one said but everyone meant to imply. You are such a know-it-all: a common refrain said about me in high school. My cousins called me a “dictionary”in a loving but also hurtful way. I think it meant that I used larger words than I was supposed to. I think it also meant that I made other people feel stupid.
I have learned that women are supposed to be intelligent in silence. We can know things, but we should never say we know the things we know. Particularly if what we know would hurt someone else, or would advance ourselves at the expense of aman.
Before my younger brother was born, my sister and I were taught the ideals of womanhood. My mother, grandmother, and aunts were all our role models in this: they stayed silent even when they had things to say to their husbands and fathers. They would say those things to each other over the phone, when their husbands were at work. My mother used to stand in the front of the stove stirring the evening’s dinner while chatting animatedly to her sisters in Pakistan. We would pretend we had not heard them having these conversations, but we knew from then that the only people who can keep your secrets are those who know what is at stake if you let those secrets out.
After my brother was born, my mother coddled him and kept him safe. It is possible he saw what it was like for us, but I think even our treatment was kept from him. Like my mother taught us, my sister and I shared our quietness with each other. Only we could understand truly what it was like to be a girl, be an immigrant, and be in this family.
The books I read when I was a young adult were full of young white people who were “special” in some way. There was Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik, who was described as thin with angles instead of curves, or Perks’ Charlie, who was gifted despite being horribly depressed. Both of those characters possessed unnatural intelligence for teenagers; both were voracious readers. It was because of Anastasia that I read Gone With The Wind, and because of Charlie that I read The Great Gatsby. I assumed that special people read books all the time, and so I read books all the time.
Special meant that people didn’t notice you until they did notice you; special meant that you had a certain je ne sais quoi that your peers never realized about you. And because I was a person who was rarely given attention in middle school, I longed for nothing more than to be one of these gifted individuals.
I think I knew then in some deeper part of my brain that I was actually not special at all, that perhaps there was no such thing as being special. It was not until I was in college that I realized the entire concept was actually for young white children. And because we were Pakistani, we never heard about our own exceptionality from our parents.
The biggest thing I learned from these books is that special people are quiet. They do not often say what they are thinking; they write the thought in a journal instead. And so I kept many journals. Some were girly with flowers on the front, but my favorites were the ones that looked indistinguishable from my school supplies. They were filled with my deepest thoughts and desires: the ones that I could not even share with my sister.
Now that I am a graduate student, I have realized my silence is a trap. It is not a trap for me, for I use it with extreme care. It is almost a manipulation. Instead of silence being a symbol of my servitude, it has become a symbol of my mystery. Instead of saying something out loud in class, I reserve the thought for myself. I write it into my notebook, somewhere in the margins where it is easy for me to find again. I will return to the thought later, I tell myself, and I will write about it in a research paper and not speak of it. And though I may want to convince myself otherwise, I have realized I am silent in the ways that my mother was silent.
I take the Myers-Briggs personality test every year. Though I say I do not believe in the test at all, I revel in the fact that I am an INTJ. It means that I am not Elizabeth Bennet as many women wish to be, but Darcy instead. It means that I share a personality type with Michelle Obama, C.S. Lewis, and five U.S. Presidents. It means in some twisted way that I have confirmed what I wanted to be true so many years ago: that I am one of those people who used to be invisible and is now worthy of something. It means that my silence was worth it, and that by staying silent I accomplished something.
In graduate school, I often wonder if the people who are the loudest are the people who have the least to say. I sometimes scan the room in my larger classes and look at the faces deep in thought. It is very clear that we all want to be here, that some of us may have even been “called” to be here. We are all training to be religious leaders.
In this setting, my reticence has reached a new high. Sometimes I will fully form a paragraph in my head about my thoughts on Islam, women, and religious scholarship. At times, I have even started to open my mouth, my lips separating and my brow furrowed with a question that will not be asked. Sometimes, another person in the room cuts me off from sharing my thoughts. This person is usually a man. Many times, though, I close my mouth again and tell myself to stop resembling a fish.
When the class is over, I go back to my apartment and begin to realize how much I have lost by not saying anything at all. I think about all the times when I was young, and how often I was told to stay quiet. I wanted so desperately to believe that I could overcome it, that I could be outspoken. I have begun to realize my own limitations – that perhaps what is keeping me from the being the person I want to be is the very same quality that would make me exceptional at being that person.
I am quiet in more ways than one. I am quiet, because I also keep parts of myself hidden from everyone else. I keep my flaws very, very secret. It is as though I would prefer others to think of me as having no flaws at all. It is possible that we are all this way.
I sometimes tell my sister my true thoughts, for she is the only person who would never judge me for having them. After I hang up the phone I realize how narcissistic I am and how unbelievably judgmental I can be. In truth, my own conceit separates me very little from my peers. I am no more or less judgmental than they are, though I rarely share this part of myself with them.
All of those things remain in my head where they belong. I silence them, as I am accustomed to doing. I am not allowed to have flaws; I am not allowed to show fault. If I do, it will all be unraveled in an instant. Everyone will know I am a fake; I am nothing more than a sinner. It will show that I do not belong here at all.
Hafsa Arain is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Claremont. She last wrote in these pages about reading Harry Potter. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here.
"Opus 54" - Dustin O'Halloran (mp3)
"Prelude 2" - Dustin O'Halloran (mp3)