Six years ago, I embarked on a journey that marked the end of my age of ignorance and blindness. This transformation did not occur overnight, nor did it take a matter of days, weeks, or even months. It took years for me to evolve into the person I am today.

Up until early 2018, I was a staunch believer in Islam, accepting everything that was imposed on me without question. However, my journey towards enlightenment began when I enrolled in a BS English Literature program for my higher studies. I assumed that studying English would be the same as learning a foreign language, just as I had been taught since my first day of school. But I was wrong.

The term ‘literature’ was foreign to me until I attended my first class. Growing up in a society where human emotions, feelings, and thoughts are not considered worthy of being written about, I was puzzled by the very concept of literature. I started pondering what it meant, apart from its numerous official definitions.

Despite my incompetency in reading English books, I started reading English novels, a practice that is not common in my society. It is not taught or encouraged by parents or teachers to read beyond the course books. But I was determined to discover the meaning of the word ‘literature’.

After finishing my first two novels, Animal Farm by George Orwell and The Broken Wings by Khalil Gibran, in my first semester, I faced extreme difficulty in understanding their meanings. English is an adopted language in the place where I live, and I hardly understood what I had read, but I was able to sketch the storylines.

I did not give up, however, and I kept reading, but it became a challenge for me, especially as a woman in a society where women are expected to do little more than handle household chores. Even just holding an English novel in my hands was considered questionable, and I was met with disapproving looks from my family. Whenever the family was sleeping, whether in the afternoon or evening, I read. I used to take my book to college and read outside whenever possible.

After consistently reading English novels, stories, prose, and poetry for two years, my mind started questioning. I was trying to find answers to my questions but I could not find them anywhere. So, I started writing poetry in English, which seemed like an outlet for my burning emotions. It was a blurry period where I was stuck between my beliefs and my questions.

It took me more than a year to write out all my thoughts, feelings, and emotions. I wrote like crazy, but it did not satisfy me. I was seeking something that could extinguish the fire burning inside me.

The more I read, the more my mind asked questions. After reading English literature from different periods, I saw the changes undergone by English, British, and global society. I saw the lives of women in literature and compared them to the lives of women around me. Reading novels like Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy, The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, which depict the struggles of women’s lives to realise their individuality in a stifling and patriarchal world, broadened my perspective. I started seeing the hypocrisy of my society, where patriarchal cultural norms are imposed behind the shield of religion. This made me seek the reasons behind the huge differences I had become aware of.

In the penultimate year of my bachelor’s, I came to know about theories like feminism, psychoanalysis, structuralism, de-structuralism, colonialism, and absurdism. Before knowing about these, I was just reading the lines, but these theories made me read between and beyond the lines. I started applying theories to the texts I read, which opened another world to me. Now, I could see the realities behind everything that was structured around me. My excitement for reading became, more and more, a craze. Reading changed me from a submissive girl into a furious one who was ready to debate and discuss.

But this was not welcomed. I started questioning my teachers, my fellows, my relatives, and my family. Apart from a few people, I was met with negativity.

In the last year of my BS, I was supposed to conduct research for my thesis. Everyone advised me to go for novels and drama, not poetry; arguments about poetry were supposed to be more difficult to defend in a thesis. But being a lover of poetry and a poetess, I decided to choose the difficult path that most people avoided. I ended up analysing Sylvia Plath’s poems through the lens of absurdism. It was difficult, but I wanted to challenge myself, to discover new things.

After four years of struggle, I came out of university as another being who was aware of her rights, one who knew how and when to say ‘no’, and one who was familiar with the realities of life and the system I lived in. Studying English literature changed my life forever. Now, when people tell me I need to be a woman in a particular way, I just laugh at their foolishness. It is like telling a blind man who has recovered his sight to go back to the darkness.

Now that I am equipped to see the realities behind the curtains of social, cultural, and religious phenomena, I am trying to make other women aware of their basic freedom. They are free beings apart from their religion, society, and culture but they are still deprived of their freedom and rights in the name of these things. Sadly, women around me are caged and they are happy with it. I understand how they feel: as the old saying goes, ignorance is bliss. They accept this slavery imposed on them by society as something natural and unquestionable. I wish that I could see them become aware and empowered. And I also wish that women in my society could get more access to higher education. That way, perhaps, they will be able to share my experience of emancipation.

  1. Loved it. Remarkable piece! I am not really aware of the society you live in but what I have observed around me is almost the same. People impose. Girls are never favoured but the boys. Their dreams are worthless never valaued and they aren’t considered the part of family as she is thrown out with dowry to others’ home.
    The norms set, the patterns we are fallen into is a complete mess. Through education, one can save oneself. May Allah help and nourish people like you! You deserve the best.

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