Today, March 8th, is International Women’s Day.
It is also our wedding anniversary. That day, 33 years ago, as a young bride in Karachi, Pakistan, I don’t remember ever having heard of International Women's Day, let alone having celebrated it.
That day seems like yesterday, really. So close. The heady perfume of rose garlands around my neck, their weight heavy on my thin shoulders. The salt taste of tears rolling down my cheeks as I gave my father a farewell hug. Athar’s strong hand as it encircled mine in a warm, reassuring squeeze. I was leaving behind all that was familiar, and putting my trust in someone I barely knew. I had no idea how much my life would change. How much I would change.
So much has happened since. Much has changed. And much has not.
Much still remains to be done.
Athar and I have moved across countries and continents. I’ve journeyed from starting a new life in a new land to starting a family and founding a company. Three decades ago, I could never have imagined this beautiful life we have built together, full of blessings and opportunity. My heart skips a beat as I gaze at the three beautiful daughters I have raised, all young women now. Alhamdulillah, a thousand times. Alhamdulillah.
33 years may seem like a long time to some. But really, those years just flew by. It is in the fleeting quality of time, unstoppable, like a river that flows beneath your feet transporting you to an unknown destination, that I’ve discovered a truth I would have told my younger self that March day:
Love many, trust few, and always row your own canoe.
Now, as it was three decades ago, women are expected to be loving, trusting, caring, nurturing, giving beings. A newborn baby’s first interaction with another human is with its mother, on whom it is completely and utterly dependent. A helpless, tiny being, expectant of love.
Perhaps from this most selfless and noble of roles, the Mother, the carer of humanity, and the stories of great, towering mother figures from the pages of history, like Mary, mother of Jesus, emerges our collective persona of an ideal woman. A woman is expected to put others first. To give without return, to dedicate herself to the care, comfort, and well-being of others. To please, and to also be pleasing to the eye. In many cultures, it goes as far as the expectation that she erase her individuality, her sense of self, and be known solely in relation to others. Someone’s daughter, someone’s wife, someone's mother.
To this day, regardless of time, place, and culture, our world is still unkind to women who do not conform to this ideal persona. Now, as it was three decades ago, it remains difficult for a woman to balance a rich and happy family life with a fulfilling occupation, a career, or (dare I say) a calling. Somewhat easier maybe, but still difficult.
Really, it all boils down to this beautiful, fickle, and transient thing we call ‘time’. Unquestionably, women have made great strides towards gender equity in the last few decades. Most careers are now wide open to women. Colleges and universities are full of women. “Dream big, the sky's the limit”, we are told, from the moment we are born.
But it is also true that on average, every single day, women around the world spend more than twice as many hours as men doing unpaid work. In India, women spend 6 hours a day doing unpaid work while men spend less than 1. In the US women average more than 4 hours of unpaid work every day while men average 2.5. Unequal unpaid work is a major roadblock on a woman’s path to fulfilling her full potential. The harsh reality is that “for women who spend all their hours doing unpaid work, the chores of the day kill the dreams of a lifetime” ( Melinda Gates from her book, The Moment of Lift).
In the world’s expectation that we give, and in our own eagerness to please, it is easy to focus first on meeting the needs of all those around us and last, on the things that help us grow and achieve our dreams. A woman is usually the family’s parachute. The catch-all first responder for crises, big and small. The meal maker. The picker upper (both of your mood and of your things off the floor). The organizer of celebrations. The maintainer of the social calendar. The cultivator of relationships. The best supporting actress for the entire cast and crew. On call, any time, all the time. And all this requires a whole lots of...yes, you guessed it, time.
What this means is that it is twice, no four times as hard, and takes four times as long, for women to get where we want to go. As women founders, most of us don’t have the ability to sleep on our office couch and eat nothing but ramen for a year (or two, or three) until our startup takes off. So what happens? Some of us give up before we even start. Others give up with sheer exhaustion, along the way.
From writing a blog post to building a company, we women have to embark on every journey knowing that it will be more like a marathon, than a sprint.
I have experienced this firsthand.
(On a lighter note) this blog post was supposed to be a 1-2 hour deal, max. I was going to make a nice cup of tea, sit on the sofa on a Saturday afternoon, and just crank it out. I had an outline mulling around in my head for days, the piece was practically half-written. Easy, right?
I did make that cup of tea, and sat down to write, with the best of intentions. Then came the handyman with the urgent repair, the tech support queries from my husband, and the unexpected guests who dropped in to say hello. Six hours later, after I’d let my thoughts flow in fits and starts as best I could, I thought I was almost done. Almost, done!
But then...the cat peed on my bed. (He’s a boy)
No, really, I’m not making this up.
So, instead of writing a beautiful finale to my blog post, I found myself washing our bedding….sigh. The life of a woman.
As for building a company - Wasn’t it Eddie Cantor who famously said,“ It took me twenty years to become an overnight sensation”? It’s been a beautiful journey. Sometimes tough, sometimes wild, always interesting, and full of lessons. My dream of building a global Islamic heritage-inspired lifestyle brand still shines bright.
Time can also be a gift. The gift of time has meant that our three beautiful daughters are now all old enough to work in the business part-time. During the COVID-19 pandemic, they became the face of Artizara for the first time in a photoshoot. And what a blast it was! So much fun in fact, that a hummingbird decided she wanted to model too!
This International Women’s Day, my heart is one with all my sisters around the world who are caring, nurturing, serving, loving, toiling, all day, every day. Largely unseen and unsung. I see you sister, and want you to know that you are the bedrock on which the world is built.
So, if I could whisper something in the ear of that young bride as she walked down the aisle, on International Women’s Day 33 years ago, I would say this: You are stronger than you know and will go farther than you can imagine. But pace yourself, and prepare for a marathon. Make the work of raising a family, the whole family’s work. Teamwork. Treasure your time, guard it like a hawk, and spend it on only those people and activities that you truly value.
For your time is your life. And sister, you have only one life to live.