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.

Two and a half thoughts from Thanksgiving eve

  1. I always get a little bit emotional whenever I watch Hook. It reminds me far too much of my own childhood, where I could spend endless hours with my own imagination. I’d make a laptop out of my heavy blue notebook, following my mother around and pulling out it out whenever we had even a few minutes to sit down; I would daydream for ages, thinking of all my favorite characters from TV shows, books and cartoons, creating scenarios where I would save the day and be the heroine to end all heroines. I would frolic – like, literally frolic – in my garden in Lahore and pluck flowers, grass, seeds and berries, mashing them into elixirs that I would then taste-test. I determined that elixirs are naturally bad-tasting things, and that simply the act of making them was enough. Actually imbibing in my potions was optional. But here’s the part in Hook that really got to me: when Maggie sings, and sings with all her heart out at the moon. Goosebumps. I always tell people that I used to sing a lot as a kid, that I used to be a really good singer. Truth is, I was just less inhibited as a child, because I didn’t hold myself to standards that either I had set for me or that I had cultivated for myself based on the world around me. I could sing my heart out, forget about whether it was good or bad, and the confidence was all I needed. Now, even when I’m alone, I police my own singing. How ridiculous is that? I police my singing, my drawing, my writing, and in doing so, I run the risk of taking the fun out of my own hobbies. Refining your skills is extremely important, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not as important as remembering how to enjoy the things you love doing. I nearly ruined drawing for myself; I still love singing in a group and aggressively screaming the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody or Vienna during karaoke nights; and writing is still my one of my greatest joys in life. Keep what you love close to your heart, and improve on it every day, but never compromise love for expertise.
  2. This is a slightly darker thought. In a way, I feel like I’m exposing certain people by writing this but the hope is that we are far too old to remember minute details of our childhood at this point. Pakistan’s demographics lean heavily towards the Muslim majority side. Only 1.8% of our population is Christian, but then, that’s a nice, solid 2,700,000 people. Pakistan’s a pretty big country. Anyway, I must have been 11 years old. I had a pretty good awareness of the world around me, being the budding future political science major that I was. I was also a voracious reader and pretty damn observant. So, I observed that a classmate of mine (who incidentally had the same name as me) wore the same necklace everyday to class. I had a feeling. One day, as we were playing during our recess, I noticed that it had slipped out from underneath the kameez of her uniform: a green, beautiful cross. I absolutely loved it. I wanted to know more. I had been reading a lot about Christianity and was fascinated by the religion. I’m not sure exactly what I said, it was either a really excited and sincere “Is that a cross?” or a nonchalant, feigning-at-tacit “What is that?” Immediately, her hand went to the cross, and her body language changed to a defensive one. Her voice didn’t change, but I knew the stream of conversation wasn’t going to put her at ease and make her feel as open as I was hoping it would. “It’s a medal,” she said, hurriedly. “…a medal?” “Yes.” I knew not to pry any further. Eventually, I think she became more open with me about her religion as we got to know each other better, but that was the day I realized what being marginalized meant. You could approach someone with the most sincere of intentions, but that doesn’t matter if you’ve been raised being told to be careful about your words and to keep your identity on the down-low. I understand that a lot better now, because it’s something I’ve been forced to experience. But back in Pakistan, I was supremely privileged – a Sunni-raised Muslim girl (albeit with strange Sufi family traditions) who fit the right demographics and had a family name that didn’t make people raise their eyebrows.
    1. I don’t think I have to explain what has happened recently to make me think along these lines, but I have just one thing to contribute: since coming to America, every time I see a police officer, my heart beats a little bit faster. I put on my most gracious smile, chirp a friendly “Thank you, officer! Have a good day, officer!” and put my head down to keep walking. I’m obviously brown, and that already puts me in a neat box to be scrutinized in. But I have the distinction of not being black. And that’s where my right to chip into the conversation ends.

That is all. Have a good day, everyone. Be careful, be kind.