Self esteem story about sexism, issues with parents and society’s expectations
I am a fourth year female medical student in Pakistan. Growing up, my parents never actually said that I was lesser than anyone else. They just never let me forget that I was a girl and that I was expected to dress, talk, behave a certain way; the way society expected me to. And if I didn’t, well, what would people say?
I never understood it and found it annoying. Why the emphasis on other people’s opinions? It was my life, wasn’t it?
“Its just the way it is,” I was told. “This is your community. You’re expected to behave a certain way.”
As I grew older, I learned that society expected me to be quiet. They expected me to be subdued, polite, helpful but not assertive. In short, they expected me to behave the way a traditional Pakistani woman should. Everything, I realized, was about my gender. It didn’t matter what kind of a person I was, it didn’t matter that I’d been accepted into medical college; my gender was the first thing people considered, and treated me accordingly. An aunt pointed out that I didn’t have to worry about my grades, as my husband would eventually support me. My teachers kept pointing out that I was ’just a girl,’ ‘too emotional’ and ‘I should pick a job that I could handle with my housework’. It was infuriating, because no matter how well I did something, it was assumed that a man would be better at it. I was always seen as inferior, second-rate to a man. My annoyance grew into frustration; my frustration into anger. Each time I heard their words, I wanted to lash out, point out that I was more than just my gender. But other girls told me not to make a big deal out of it. “They’re joking”, they explained. “Just smile and change the subject, that’s what you’re supposed to do.” So that’s what I did. I hid my anger behind fake smiles and clenched fists, walked away and told myself it didn’t effect me. But I was only lying to myself.
When I started my third year of medical school, I was partnered on a project with a guy named Rashid. I’d seen him, but had never spoken to him before. A friend assured me he was one of the smartest med-students in our year.
When we first ‘met’, he didn’t even look at me to start with, fiddling with his phone instead. He finally glanced at me and said, “I’ve never seen you in class before.”
I stared at him. ‘We’ve been studying together for two years,’ I thought, ‘how could you not have seen me?’
But I didn’t want to get off on the wrong foot or cause trouble. So I meekly said, “I’m pretty quiet. Most people don’t notice me.”
He smiled and nodded. “Well, you should learn to talk more,” he said. “Maybe smile a little too. You’re too serious; it can creep a guy out.” He laughed. ‘He’s just joking,’ I told myself and smiled weakly.
Rashid was definitely not serious, or quiet. When we worked, he talked, laughed, made jokes, and persistently disregarded all of my suggestions. I tried to get him to take me seriously, but he brushed me off, telling me: “You don’t get it, but I know what I’m doing. Don’t worry.”
His dismissive behavior was irritating; it made me feel menial. I felt confused. I didn’t want to work in such an unequal partnership; even if there were flaws in his ideas, Rashid still wouldn’t listen to me. These weren’t just words I could ignore; I was actively being suppressed by someone. But no one seemed to understand that. My friends told me I was being ridiculous—“he’s doing all the work,” “You don’t have anything to worry about,” and “give his ideas a chance.” My mother told me I should try being nicer to him. Again and again I was reminded: ‘He’s a guy, he knows best. You should be thankful.’
I felt trapped, confused, with no one to help me. I knew I was a good student; I wasn’t an idiot, and we were supposed to be working as equals. So why, I asked myself, shouldn’t I have an equal voice? Yet, I took their advice; I shut up, and followed Rashid, because I didn’t know what else to do. It was relieving, in a way, because as long as I listened to him we didn’t argue. But internally, I grew more frustrated, wanting to speak up, but held back by my own self-doubt. I became depressed with my inability to assert myself, and as time passed my inner turmoil grew.
Then one day, a few weeks before the project ended, we hit a snag. Rashid couldn’t think of a solution to a particular problem, so I offered some suggestions.
“Be quiet,” he told me, “I’m trying to think here.”
And suddenly I was furious. I’d been quiet for too long. He was out of options and he still wouldn’t listen to me. I was tired and so angry that all of a sudden that I didn’t care anymore. I didn’t shut up. Instead I told him that for once, he needed to listen to me. He didn’t take it well. We started arguing again, and it got heated to the point where we were sitting across a table, yelling, both equally frustrated with each other.
“You don’t trust me!” he accused, jabbing a finger in my face. “You’ve had a problem with me every step of the way!”
“What does this have to do with trust?” I pointed out. “I’m not questioning your judgment; I have a
right to state my opinion.”
“You’re never happy with anything,” he fumed. “Your problem is that you don’t respect me and what I’m doing here!”
This was too much to take; I laughed disbelievingly. “And what the hell should I respect you for anyway?” I demanded.
We both went home angry, our problem unresolved.
When I arrived at college the next day, I found myself summoned to the professor’s office. Rashid had complained about me. After a discussion which lasted for an hour, I was deemed to be the problem and was officially taken off the project.
It was a shock. I was angry and upset at everyone and at myself. But at the same time, I felt relieved. I wouldn’t have anyone bossing me around.
My friends were horrified; they wanted me to talk to Rashid and ask him to take me back, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t want to be subjugated anymore; didn’t want to stand at his side in silent frustration. And for the first time I realized that that was enough. My anger had given me a sort of clarity, making me see that by listening to the others, I had been suppressing myself. They had made me feel inferior, made me doubt my own instincts, and I’d let them. Listening to myself had made me happy, released me from something that had only caused me grief. I realized that I didn’t have to listen to others; my own instincts were good enough. I recognized I am enough. It was a liberating and oddly comforting thought; just thinking it made me feel better about myself.
Now, when people try to put me down, I don’t let them. I look them in the eye and talk back. Because I know my worth; I’m not lesser than anyone.