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« In Which We Responded With Broken Sentences »

image by Erik Madigan Heck

On My Own


In Pakistan, they don’t let girls make mistakes. We are kept from any type of wrongdoing – for if we do wrong, then we shall never be married. It is almost a sin to be an unmarried female adult. In many ways, my insistence on being alone has been a reaction to that injustice. I am alone in order to prove my independence to the world. I had those thoughts on many occasions: signing apartment leases or job offers, completing college admission packets and receiving fellowships. Girls like me didn’t use to do these things! I thought with a sort of desperation. I am a trailblazer! I had those thoughts when I moved out of my parents' home at 18, when I traveled the world at 19, at 21, at 22, at 23. I am a trailblazer.

Somewhere along the line, it came to be that this was not enough. Being alone was not enough. Even for just one gloriously short time in your life, you need someone who has loved you and who you have loved. They try to tell you this in movies, and you scoff at it. And then it hits you: they say this in movies, because it is true.

I have been alone always. I have never been attached to someone; I have never been part of a couple. A boy in high school once asked me out, and I refused, citing my religion as an impetus for singlehood. Boys in high school never asked me out, for they never noticed me. And beyond this being a point of pain for me, it was a type of twisted success. I attempted to be as invisible a teenager as I could be – standing out was asking for trouble. Being single was part of blending into the grey, blank walls. I stood by my locker when he asked me. He was nervous and jittery. I responded with broken sentences. Getting asked almost felt like a series of increasing pressures. I would not have known what to wear, what to say, how to act around him. Saying no was a relief. But for some reason, I cried on the way home on the bus.

by Erik Madigan Heck

In college, I asked a boy out once, though I was never fully sure why I did it. I knew he wouldn’t like me as I liked him. He was nice to me, so we went out for tea one time. But he had no intention of carrying on. It was as though I asked him out as a dare to myself, something with which I could test my own courage. It was an experiment in how American I could be: how much I could resemble the other girls in my classes. They had all had pasts; they had all had baggage. (“I just have all this baggage,” they would say, “you know, from past relationships.” Or, “I just find it so hard to trust someone again after what he did while I was studying abroad.”)

It was easier for them, I used to think. Their parents didn’t mind that they dated people, with some parents even encouraging it. My parents were afraid of dating, they were afraid of the whole concept of “the opposite sex." My parents were not American – they were and are the opposite of American. They were afraid of us being American, because if we were American then they wouldn’t understand us anymore. If we were American, then we were lost to them.

I disregarded the pain of having lost love (a common story among women my age), because I have never been in the position to fall in love in the first place. I had crushes on boys, a solidly unpleasant state when the feelings are unrequited. Though however unnatural the crush feels in the moment, it is probably the most natural feeling in the world.

I chose not to think of the question: who would I have to be for them to like me back? The image of the American woman is so different from the image I project. I am not white; I am not thin. I do not drink alcohol, and I cannot pull off a pencil skirt. I have never been able to relate to any women I have seen on television, in magazines, or even read about in books. Absolutely none of those women were Muslim women, and very, very few were South Asian. Women like me were never part of anyone’s consciousness – it is almost as though no one had ever even considered us.

by Erik Madigan Heck

That, and the fact that I am a woman’s woman. For as long as I can remember, women have found me to be a wonderful and completely non-threatening friend. In junior high, a girl named Sarah told me I had been a “girl crush” of hers for a long time. Everyone wanted to be my friend: for me to read them my lousy poetry in high school, to nod along with my radical thoughts in college, to hear me gripe about my life in my early twenties. Being a side character in someone else’s story became my comfort zone. When we hung out, I was the friend with whom they could always share the cab ride home. Women almost counted on me never having a boyfriend, never wearing a sexier outfit than them when going out, never being flirtatious with their beaux.

So many women, and thusly, men, have reduced me to being completely non-sexual; I am good for homo-social relationships only. I find it so hard to blame them for that assumption. Muslim women are seldom seen as anything other than oppressed. My friendships have become strained on the issue of my singleness: women will sympathetically extoll my virtues in an effort to prove me wrong. “You’ll see,” they’ll say, “There’s someone out there for everyone.” To me, that only sounds naïve.

I have to face the truth: I might never be with someone. I might never have a boyfriend, and I might never get married. I have never met a man who wanted to be with me. I am alone. I have to learn to be okay with being alone – no, with being single. Loneliness is okay once in a while, but being single is never okay. Because being single is not a value you have, but the net worth you own. And my net worth is only myself. No one has ever seen me as sexy: only as a capable, good-humored and worthwhile friend. In the end, I will add it onto my list of failures: I did not get into that Ivy League school I applied to, I did not write that book I meant to write, and I did not find someone to love me back. Not even for just a little while.

Hafsa Arain is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living outside of Chicago. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about her childhood.

Images by Erik Madigan Heck.

by Erik Madigan Heck"Dancing On My Own" - Robyn (mp3)

"True Love Will Find You In The End" - Spiritualized (mp3)

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Reader Comments (5)

I think we (we being women who do not quite fit into the box of 'woman') all feel this way at some point in our lives. I certainly have. But this is not a sign of failure.
July 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMel
I can't help but feel that one does lose a part of oneself when "in a relationship." There are struggles that come with it that challenge a person in a way similar to that of being alone. I was alone all through high school too. I have friends who are still alone, in their twenties, and have never been with someone. But I wonder what it really means, "to be with someone." You have all these expectations when you're young, like that it will solve your problems. But it doesn't solve anything. Anything you're unhappy with alone will still be there when you're not. I wish you self actualization, contentment and love. I think it is all that we have.
July 10, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterar
I totally relate to this and appreciate the courage it took to say it out loud but I wonder why we only equate the love between a man and a woman as a measure of success. Why does love of a different kind (between family and friends) not equate to something meaningful as well? And why is single so harsh a connotation when we can and are often surrounded by others who love us too, perhaps in a different way? Even if we buy in to the social more that two is better than one, why should we devalue ourselves based on the existence or lack thereof of someone else? I do not deny that everyone wants companionship, but I hope I will never resignedly say I have failed because of a lack of it. It is precisely that social construct that pervades and allows women to sell themselves short just to abide by tradition. In the end, I hope we can come to a moderate acceptance of the cards we have been dealt, and continue to improve upon the lives we lead no matter who is in them.
July 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterS
Thank you for articulating all that have been rattling around inside my head. I feel that our experience are mirrored, though I am on the other side of the world, living in a predominantly Muslim country.

A lot of my friends are surprised that I've never had a broken heart. I had to tell them that men never see me as a girlfriend or wife material. I am a good friend, a fun friend, someone they can spend hours chatting with but not marry.

I console myself that a little transient enjoyment like this is better than none at all. At lease I live in a society where I can enjoy male companionship (chaste though they may be) without undue censor. Nonetheless there is a part of me that wonders why am I not good enough to have someone share his life with me. Unlike Siti Khadijah, I am unable to be the one to offer myself up for marriage; I don't have her strength, beauty or courage.

I can only rely on Allah's great plan for me and while I wait, I will enjoy all His blessings on me, for they are plenty and hope that one day, I will have a taste of what many women take for granted.
July 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSnuze
You need a little bit more confidence! (this is coming from a fellow south asian muslim girl.) Control your own destiny! Being single should be a choice, not something you feel you are relegated to because you "aren't hot enough" or something. If you don't actually want to be single, then have the confidence to put yourself out there! It doesn't matter if you're not the typical white american girl they envisioned ... I'm not either, but it didn't matter to the person I married!
August 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous

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