Reclaiming “Auntie”

You must be thinking, my God, two posts on Waxes Poetic in the same month! What a treat! What a Christmas miracle! Or, if you know me really well and/or have followed this blog for a long time, you may more accurately be thinking, two posts in the same month? Neiha must be in the middle of some existential crisis, huh? To which I say, that was really uncalled for; I don’t appreciate having my soul peered into so deeply, and could you back off a little?

Regardless of what you must have been thinking, and my own slightly wounded response notwithstanding, yes, it is true, I am in the middle of a gentle existential crisis. I am two applications away from being done with applying to grad school (maybe). 2018 is nearly ending, and boy howdy am I excited for that, but it’s also making me reflect. “Reflection,” as we know, is a mass ritual all bloggers like to undertake when a Gregorian year comes to an end. And I am no exception. What may set me apart from other bloggers engaging in this “Reflection” (aside from 1. not having a monetized blog; 2. not really having blogged very much at all; and, 3. I don’t think I actually am a blogger, now that I think about it) is that 2018 was a year of culmination for me. I graduated college, and for five years, my whole life was college. When I reflect on 2018, it’s hard for me to stop my reflection at January 1 2018. I find myself going farther and farther back, and while I don’t think I have a concrete start-date, May 2013 seems like a reasonable bookend to pair with December 31 2018.

I don’t want to summarize the past 5 and a half years, by any means. I’m more interested in looking at the ways I’ve grown and how I’ve responded to unfamiliar terrain – and how my responses to unfamiliar terrains have developed. But even that is an intense endeavor, and I don’t want to harp on the same talking points that I have discussed in some way, shape, or form on this very blog. So, instead, I want to measure my response to a terrain that started off being familiar only at a distance but has very much become a part of me.

This is a terrain I have been actively avoiding most of my life. This is a terrain that, when I see other people on it, I speed away from as fast as humanly possible. This is a terrain that I have long considered toxic, detrimental on a structural level, and have been actively attacked by in my own life. This terrain is that of the Auntie.

[a lightning effect flashes across the screen. the camera cuts to a doorway, but all you see are two heavily mehendi’d, ornately chappal’d and anklet’d feet stepping towards you. in the distance, you hear a baby cry. the camera cuts to a number of faces, each more horrified than the last. you see me, inexplicably wearing a maatha-pati, heavy kajal, my grandmother’s sari from the old country, and a full beat – even though I’m actually writing this blog post with wet hair, in ripped jeans, and my most comfortable sweater – almost in tears. for some reason, the editor of this scene decided to engorge the frame and then squish it back down. interesting editorial decision, but okay. then, finally, the camera cuts back to the two feet, slowly panning up, and up, and up, until you finally see the face of the exact person you picture when you think of the word “Auntie”.]

[the camera pans back quickly to me. yeah, I know, you weren’t expecting that, were you? neiha lasharie back in form, in her melodramatic element? yeah, it feels good.]

When I was younger, the word “Auntie” didn’t carry as much power or fear as it does for me now. It used to just mean any older woman – my familiarity with said woman was irrelevant. “Uncle” and “Auntie” used to be apolitical terms. Now that I’m older and wiser, I do have a mental picture of an Uncle, but it seems to be the Auntie who wields actual, chaotic neutral power. The internet has revitalized the Auntie with an additional, memetic urgency; the Auntie is no longer a private entity, but a publicly acknowledged and discussed one. The Auntie has become the subject of numerous articles, satirical or otherwise. She has shed her abstraction in favor of shared meaning. The Auntie is a common experience, within and without diaspora, bridging divides, bridging even cultures – us South Asians have realized that some approximation of the Auntie is ubiquitous across many Global South cultures, down to the term Auntie itself! This demystification of the Auntie is important. Identifying her power, her evils, her hold on our society is the first step towards disempowering her.

But who is the Auntie? For people who might not be familiar with the concept, an Auntie is any woman – blood relation or not – who seems to think your life is her personal soap opera. She is a tea-drinking, biscuit-munching, diet-contemplating, occasionally Star Plus-drama-espousing, real-life drama-stirring, wet-kissing, cheek-pinching, body-shaming, back-stabbing, gossip-mongering, aggressive match-making, maybe even match-fixing entity, with a claim to every grapevine on God’s green earth. Just thinking about and writing down her many self-imposed duties is exhausting, but actually interacting with her is the kind of life-sucking experience I would not wish on anyone. An Auntie could be your mother, your grandmother, your cousin, your younger sister, your actual aunt – it could be you, unmarried as you are. And this isn’t to say all aunties are like that – of course not! There are plenty of wonderful lower-case-A aunties who truly want the best for you. And maybe even a handful of upper-case-A Aunties who truly want the best for you. But what sets Aunties apart from aunties is that Aunties feel they have a personal stake in your life – and only imposing themselves into said life – again, your life – can assure their own happiness.

Here’s where the Neiha part of this comes in: I have met my fair share of Aunties, and I revile them all, but more recently I have been called an Auntie by my peers. That’s right. Your girl, at the ripe old age of 23, seems to be rapidly ascending to Auntie status. I am a tea-drinking, biscuit-munching, wet-kissing, match-making, match-fixing- okay, maybe not match-fixing, but Auntie nonetheless! And here’s the thing: I’m not upset about it!

In my heart of hearts, I have always been maternal. I am really rather traditionally feminine, in addition to being myself an outspoken feminist. This makes me an obvious contender for the title of mom-friend, a title I have proudly held for years, but Auntie was a title I never thought I would grow to inherit. I thought I was too progressive, too careful to ever become an Auntie. But here I am, and I have a bone to pick.

When I was listing off the criteria that qualified me as an Auntie, I conspicuously left off some of the most damning qualities traditionally possessed by an Auntie. You might be thinking, but aren’t those the qualities most often associated with being an Auntie? Wouldn’t the absence of those qualities disqualify you from Auntiedom?

No. And here’s my radical thesis: we need to reclaim and liberate the Auntie.

Hear me out.

I am tired of hating on Aunties. More broadly speaking, I am tired of pinning the blame for the worst parts of a culture onto women, who already have an extremely difficult time of it in our culture. A culture that, it needs to be mentioned, is the result of deeply-rooted patriarchal practices complicated by – and in many cases, reinforced by – colonization. In the same way that saying all teenage girls are catty and mean is sexist, isn’t the very idea of an Auntie also kind of terrible? Isn’t our hatred for Auntie culture a kind of internalized misogyny? Why do capital-U-Uncles escape this vitriol? The Auntie is so involved as to be reviled, but capital-U-Uncles are so distant as to be negligent! And then when they do get involved, they do it with the same entitlement of the Auntie – it was just lying dormant within them! Behind many unhappy Aunties is an emotionally withholding Uncle – why don’t we discuss the toxicity of that?

Aunties – like so many traditionally maternal roles in society – are easy targets. Progressives and conservatives alike can find common ground in what they hate about Aunties. And when your common ground hinges on hate, well, that’s probably not a very good thing, especially in a culture and society as divided and divisive as South Asian culture(s) and societ(ies).

I’m exhausted. I want to see past memetic reduction and into the conditions that create Aunties to begin with. But if the antidote to despair is action, then dammit, I’m acting.

These past five years I have been growing into my own in so many ways, and one of the ways I have grown is into being an Auntie, and I am willing to embrace that. I won’t excuse the actions of the Aunties before me, who have hurt me just as they have hurt so many. Instead, I will be the Auntie I wish to see in the world: tea-drinking, biscuit-munching, book-reading, advice-giving, consensual match-making, straight-shooting, always-loving, bear-hugging, forward-thinking, gaali-galoching Auntie. And I will look at the Aunties I have encountered holistically, kindly, patiently. I will look inward into the misogyny I have grown accustomed to and dismantle it.

In 2019, I vow to hold Uncles accountable for once in their lives, and do in my part in ushering in a new generation of Aunties. I hope you’ll join me.

“I promise there’s a reason I’m flushing my hair!” and other superstitious concerns

“I can’t help but feel that this is my fault.”

My best friends, my mother, and my therapist have all heard me say some variation of the above sentence. This tends to be in response to some kind of bad news, and no matter how much physical distance is between the epicenter of the bad news and myself, I always find some way take responsibility for the ensuing tremors. Lip-biting, hand-wringing, that sentence is both an admission of guilt and a desperate need for reassurance. Usually, the response is “Oh my god Neiha, stop!” or “Shut up. Stupid chit. (angry cat emoji)” or “Now what could make you think that?” from my best friends, mother, and therapist respectively.

The former two usually nip it in the bud. Can’t blame them. But my therapist’s open-ended question gives me – stammering, probably shaking – pause.

What could make me think that?


I’ve alluded, previously, to my superstitious inclinations, but I have never fully explored how my superstitions came to be and what role they play in my life. As with most things, I can attribute a lot of my beliefs to my Pakistani upbringing. My parents never reinforced this, being scientists, but it’s hard not to internalize what society tells you.

South Asians, in general, are an unfathomably superstitious lot. To ghair folk, that may seem absurd and yes, it totally is, but it is also as much a part of our culture as our food or clothing. Our superstitions seem to inform societal hierarchies, biases, behaviors, upbringing, schooling, even where we live. Our superstitions serve as the lens through which we perceive the world. We are morbidly fascinated with what we are, in theory, supposed to be afraid of. A lot of our superstitions stem from religion – such as reciting verses from the Quran to protect oneself, though Islam is most certainly not the only religion that guides superstition – but largely, our superstitions stem from time immemorial and have been distorted depending on the family that the superstition has circulated in and throughout generations. Even the most highly-educated members of the gentry are wont to follow some neighborhood spiritual healer. However, it is difficult to properly research the roots of South Asian – let alone Pakistani superstition – due to said distortion and lack of academic research into the topic. So for the purposes of this exploration, I will be relying largely on my memory and the iteration of superstitions that I was exposed to.

I grew up with a taweez around my little neck. Fairly innocuous, a taweez is a small leather pouch worn like a locket, with the pouch containing a verse from the Quran that is said to protect you against the evil eye. Almost every kid my age had a taweez, sometimes even older kids – but while the taweez soon disappeared from around my neck, the phenomenon it was trying to keep at bay was a ubiquitous power in my life and in that of so many others. The evil eye – nazar, in Urdu, which literally just means sight but as a noun and duly capitalized in English transliteration takes on a much more sinister meaning – has become a well-known concept by now in mainstream culture, having been attributed to a variety of cultures even outside Islamic countries. (As a quick aside, I found it funny as a kid that whenever people used to go to Turkey, they would bring back the eerie blue variations on our taweez. If nothing else, I was impressed at the utility of the evil eye: a souvenir, a protective totem, and very on-trend for the time. Besides, a literal evil eye to ward off the evil eye in addition to our own cultural attempts at warding it off? Beyond extra). For a lot of people, wearing the evil eye or hand of Fatima/hamsa as an accessory might be nothing more than cute, exotic jewelry, but it garners both an eye-roll and genuine approval from me. Hey, intentional or not, you’re protecting yourself I guess.

The evil eye is simply, intentional or otherwise, the result of someone casting a jealous or malevolent gaze on someone. This in turn means something bad happens to you; you get hurt, your finances take a hit, etc. At worst, the evil eye can be attributed to black magic (kala jadoo, a most Pakistani fear). The reason children especially are kitted out with a taweez is that younger children are quick to trust, and don’t necessarily know how to protect themselves from the evil eye; as such, adults must pick up the slack. In fact, pretty much whenever I get hurt, there’s always someone around to say, “Nazar lag gayi Neiha ko” (lit. Neiha got hit by nazar. Also, I’m 22 and this still happens). The process of avoiding the evil eye is a lesson in humility; you ascribe any talent, beauty, accomplishment, etc, to God’s will – “Mashallah, you look beautiful.” God wills it, and thus, can apparently shoulder the burden of malevolence.

Now that I think about it, the lesson is less about humility and more about displacement of responsibility. Lack of humility only attracts malevolent intent, so you make God deal with it? That doesn’t seem completely fair.

There were other superstitions: not stepping on a pillow or you’d give your mother a headache, not stepping over someone who was reclining on the ground or they wouldn’t grow taller, making sure shoes weren’t strewn around with the soles pointing heavenward, getting rid of fallen hair and nails in a way that they couldn’t be collected by evil sorcerers (for real)…in addition to more paranormal fears, for example, that isolated, mountainous – generally veeraan – places are usually breeding grounds for jinn-bhoot (a pretty general term for any big evil phantasmal types), that resting under a tree during the night was a sure-fire way to get yourself possessed by a jinn and subsequently exorcised, or that any number of houses were haunted and that houseguests of the spirit variety could be kept away with a huge, wrought-iron “Mashallah” affixed to the facade of your house.

These are just the ones I remember off the top of my head. I remember thinking that I wasn’t completely convinced by these superstitions. I used to pride myself on that. Sure, I was afraid of jinn stories, but what Muslim kid/adult/old person in their right mind isn’t? I had no fears regarding giving my mother a headache by stepping on a pillow, or of stunting someone’s height. Besides, most people my age were tall enough and should have been grateful for what they already had that I didn’t.

It’s only really in retrospect that I realize how many superstitions I actually did internalize. I avoid lingering for too long under trees at night. I think part of my gung-ho desire to live in a city stems from avoiding the aforementioned veeraangi. But I didn’t realize just how much of the more ridiculous stuff I had internalized until, last year, a friend caught me flushing some hair I had pulled out of my hairbrush down the toilet…

That was a very strange cultural quirk to explain.

But apart from the more concrete superstitions, there is a general spirit behind superstitions that is just straight up part of being desi: this greater sense of culpability, that everyone is capable of causing harm even if they don’t necessarily intend to. It is as victim-blaming as it sounds, that people can also just put themselves up for spiritual harm – that’s a pretty toxic mentality, but it’s one that I observed in myself a lot following my burgeoning anxiety. Humility is one thing, but to be actively deserving of malevolence is kind of an alarming concept to internalize.

But as it turns out, superstition is an easy vehicle to transition into when you already have anxiety. So what could make me think that something horrible that happened so far away and is, by all accounts, unrelated to me, is actually my fault?

I expect something bad to happen after things have been going well for some time. Living in a country where people don’t necessarily say “Mashallah” a lot doesn’t help that fear; but even so, if I receive bad news following a spate of good luck, I immediately blame myself for not being humble enough. I caught someone’s nazar, but it’s ultimately my own fault, surely. Something bad happens at home? Well, that’s my fault for not being an upstanding Muslim, or for staying out too late, or for becoming too self-confident.

Okay, but what does this have to do with anxiety?

According to Kierkegaardian philosophy, “anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Rather than feeling as if you can do whatever you want, anxiety feels much like the way standing at the edge of a particularly long drop does – except near-constantly. The dizziness of freedom also means it’s difficult to ascribe responsibility to anything. Life just is. But life can’t simply just be; life has to have a rhyme or reason. Surely, that’s what religion is too, a desire to make sense of the dizziness of freedom, to organize yourself around something rather than constantly face off against a precipitous drop. But if existentialism is to embrace the drop, then superstition is the exact opposite. To be superstitious is to analyze every drop within an inch of its life and to assess where you stand in relation to it and – well – how that drop could actively make you and everyone around you suffer. Superstition isn’t absolution or relief or even order the way religion can be. Superstition is, as the wonderful Mashed Radish describes, all about excesses, too muches, over-s, supers – so it is excessive, too much, over-, super-absolution. In short, it is a solid crutch for anxiety to lean on and reinforce its grip on your gut and your brain. It is self-imposed punishment, it is responsibility where no responsibility needs to be taken, it is guilt in the guiltness. If anxiety’s evolutionary role is to heighten ones fight-or-flight reflex, superstition’s evolutionary role becomes what makes you stand there, pointing and screaming as something starts gnawing at your leg.

It’s hard enough balancing your identity if you moved from a more communal society to a thoroughly individualistic one. You feel guilty about something at any given point. But to be superstitious on top of that, and to have anxiety on top of that? Might as well have a flip-flop dangling around your neck that you can self-flagellate with. It’d be a quicker job.

For me, superstition reinforces my self-loathing. If nothing is immediately around to be responsible for x terrible thing that has just happened, well, then it’s my fault. If I bear a cross on my back, it is one carved out of a heinous wood comprised of both anxiety and superstition. Add to that cross various socio-cultural expectations (both communal and individualistic), burdens, pressures, etc, and it’s no wonder that I had to go the ER for back problems this past June (for real).

Does this answer my therapist’s question? At least in part, yes it does. And, well, you don’t have to but if you wouldn’t mind, throw in a Mashallah at me every now and then, yeah?

The peculiar chivalry of Pakistani men

Before I begin: I don’t want to seem as if I’m singling Pakistan out as a means to condescend the country that reared me. Pakistan as a “case study” is the terrain I’m most familiar with and, therefore, most comfortable with discussing. Anything else would be irresponsible. Moreover, this is a legitimate problem in Pakistan that is important to highlight in light of recent…regressions…regarding the status of women in Pakistan’s upper decision-making echelons. My own experiences and the stories I’ve heard from friends further underscore why I’m writing this in specific reference to Pakistan.

I’ve noted before (a generalization that I am absolutely willing to make) that Pakistanis are, on the whole, a hot-blooded people. My city in general is known for having the kind of people who put up their fists first, then think to argue, and then think to think. It is easy to romanticize and even exalt this sort of “passionate” behavior. I should know, I always did.

In dramas, you always have the emotional male lead who is protective and possessive, with little attention paid to the fine-line between. Any backlash he receives for being abusive or being smothering gets quickly fixed with a sloppy redemption arc, and his previous actions are never mentioned again (if they are corrected to begin with). More often than not his possessiveness is billed as desirable. Who wouldn’t want a man that would go to jail for them? Who wouldn’t want a husband that would kill for them? Who wouldn’t want a man who takes their wife/significant other’s honor so seriously?

“But those are dramas and steeped in fantasy” – if only. Real life isn’t much different, even if men don’t have quite the same nicely groomed eyebrows. Any young relationship between a Pakistani woman and a Pakistani man is laced with this almost paranoid consideration of your girlfriend’s honor. “Who are you going out with? Kaun hai? Pehlay kyun nahin bataya? How long have you known him? If he tries anything…”

This behavior is expected. When you’re a teenager, it’s cute. And then it stops being cute when the motions become rote and internalized. That’s how you get entitlement.

Women and children often hold their feelings and experiences close to their chest for fear of provoking an emotional outburst from the males in their life. The infamous socio-historical construct of “honor” comes into play here. Offense towards a woman or a child is no longer their offense; it is an offense that must be taken up by the men in her/their life.

An all too common example: a young girl is sexually assaulted. She weighs her options, and opts for silence because if she tells the male members of her family, they would take matters into their own hands and honor codes would suggest a violent beating is in order, at the very least. Not wanting blood on her conscience, the young girl considers telling the female members of her family. That particular honor code would lead to either complete silence, stories of “This happens to every little girl” normalizing what should never be normalized, shaming (depending on the age of the young girl and the nature of the act) or a pained admission of what the young girl already knew: “You know what your (male family member) would do if they found out.”

At best, accommodations may be made to spare the young girl the anxiety of seeing the perpetrator again. Some accommodations may be more stifling than others depending on the proximity of the perpetrator and the frequency of their interactions.

The young girl makes her decision. Her own silence is better than the silence of others, and vastly preferable to the grating of broken bones.

Autonomy is an incredibly underrated possession. Sexual assault is an act of violence on ones bodily autonomy. Consent is the ultimate act of autonomy, and the younger you are, the more volatile your grip on autonomy is. For a child coming into adolescence, autonomy is especially important – and for a girl in a (conservative) cross-section of Pakistani society, autonomy is a precious commodity. Reacting to what was told to you in confidence and trust with a declaration of violence and vigilante justice is never helpful. The problem with this usurpation of justice is that it takes the autonomy that was already stolen from the survivor and adds a deeper disconnect. It is incredibly important to support survivors and honor their wishes after they have their agency taken from them and to – despite all your instincts and protective urges – understand where they are coming from. Your violent justice is a retraumatization at best, and a heavy burden the survivor will carry for the rest of their life at worst. Your chivalry and honor have no place in the healing of a sexual assault survivor. Besides, are you really going to practice vigilante justice and then complain about mob mentality in the same breath?

Sexual assault is not the only realm where outdated practices of chivalry must end, but it is the most urgent territory. Parents express horror that their survivor child kept their experience from them for so long, but when your first instinct is towards punitive violence rather than truly nurturing and understanding, somewhere along the way you did something wrong. The message you are telling your child/friend/sibling/significant other/etc is that you are just another person who doesn’t care about their wishes.

Survivors suffer in silence for far too long. Take the first step towards their security: tone down your self-righteous outrage long enough to actually listen.

Chivalry ought to be dead.