Childrearing in desi households is always a group activity. Everyone has an opinion, and feels free to air it. Someone will always give the child a biscuit before lunchtime and obviously at tea-time don’t even try to stop the someone who will be giving the child a sip from their cup. It’s going to happen. Sometimes you mind, sometimes you don’t. But across many boards people tend to prefer that children be raised without too many restrictions. Don’t nag. Don’t limit them. Don’t forever be correcting. You’ll crush their spirit. Let children be children. Personally I think that is utter bunk, and that all children need to be taught manners and not to touch the little fridge with all the chocolate in it. My children are well and truly nagged because one is hoping to raise civilised humans who will not go to parks and shove other kids off swings or steal lunch from their peers at school or not say thank you when required. But most of all, I’m trying to teach them that no means no, and to respect another person’s no.

This strikes to the heart of how we operate as people, particularly in our kind of South Asian patriarchy, which is almost inextricably muddled with selective religious interpretation and anciently misogynistic cultural practice. Good Desi Women are ones who compromise (“women run a marriage” because men are mere figureheads), keep to the home (if you discover the world, you will obviously realise the limitations of home) and don’t talk back (“just listen, then do what you like” because underhand is the only option available). The privilege of No extends only to men, and it goes far beyond just one simple word. No means not just the ability to say no, but also the power to deal with the consequences of it. No implies agency: if you don’t like something, you don’t have to put up with it. You don’t have to “do sabar”, that convenient method of escapism suggested to all women who are trapped in horrible lives, marriages or relationships. “Sabar” is a woman’s preserve—you’ll find precious little men who are advised to be patient. Men are expected to be takers of action, and women are supposed to meekly accept whatever hand is dealt to them.

Essentially, “no” is seen is defiance, and Good Women are pliable. Good Women are expected to help maintain the fragile construct of the masculine ego by never saying no to men, who in turn start believing everything they say and do is always correct, always desirable and always right. When we indulge children all the time, they become spoilt. We all agree that spoiled children are annoying to have around, for adults and other children alike. Children who are never told to stop, to share and to listen are universally and secretly loathed and feared—now imagine those children as grown adults, and you’ll have a pretty clear picture of how most desi men operate. Respect for no is a long, long shot, here we can’t even bear to hear one. Take, for example, Shah Hussain. He stabbed Khadija Siddiqi twenty-three times for refusing his “friendship”—she said no, and he was so horrified that he tried his best to kill her. Or consider the man who was recently filmed in a viral video beating the hell out of his daughter, because she told him to stop molesting her sister-in-law. He was sent to jail in chains, led off by policewomen. Consider any slap you have ever seen in a desi film or television drama—it’s most likely the result of a woman saying no to a man. Malala Yousafzai took a bullet to her head for saying no to the Taliban, and going to school anyway.

What is it about “no” that is so terrifying? Badly-raised, spoiled men treat the word like their personal kryptonite. If you want to nuke an ego, just say “no”. It’s so foolishly easy, you’d think men would have wised up to this by now and yet here we are, telling all the girls and women to hush up for fear of their lives—because men don’t need to wise up. They have fists. Men have, and continue to, inflict violence on women for refusing them because they genuinely and deeply believe that their needs, opinions and desires are above all else. This is what entitlement is. This is how we have come to exist in societies where female victims are blamed for inviting the violence done to them, instead of holding the male aggressor accountable. When children fight, who gets punished? The one who hit, or the one who got hit? It’s always the first. The aggressor is the one who gets sent to the corner and the victim is given a hug and a sweetie. Do we tell children “it’s your fault that kid punched you”? Do we say “well, why were you on the slide when that kid was on it too”? We don’t, because morality is somehow easier when it’s not about you. Morality is easier to teach than to embody. It’s also really easy to raise spoiled kids, because “nagging” means you are vigilant, you are present and you are willing to be the bad guy if it means your child will be a decent human in the long run. You learn to say no, because a no now means someday nobody’s daughter will be in tears, damaged or dead because of your son. You be a temporary bad guy so that your child is not a permanent one. This is our duty as parents—not the fancy schools, not the gadgets and not the summer vacations. Our duty is to say no and respect no, equally for boys and for girls. There can no longer be two sets of rules.


The writer is a feminist based in Lahore.