My Favourite Book


By Zarina Patel

Two books changed my life radically, for now let me talk of one. As I moved into my teenage years and beyond I increasingly felt I was leading two lives; an outward one in which I was doing almost all the right things and achieving the stated goals; and then an inward, very private one, where I was deeply dissatisfied and perplexed.

My parents sent me abroad to the UK for further education at a time when further education for girls, leave alone going abroad, was considered ‘unnecessary’ in my community. So I was very fortunate – yet I was dissatisfied! I was discouraged from pursuing medicine (my father was a doctor) as it was a lengthy course and I would be getting married. So I settled for physiotherapy.

I came back to Kenya and started a private practice but seemingly inconsequential incidents kept cropping up. It wasn’t done for me to go to the movies alone, it wasn’t appropriate for me to wear shorts while beating the men at squash, to act on stage at the Little Theatre Club in Mombasa was an absolute no-no and so on.

To escape from what then seemed to me ‘religious and communal’ confines, I married outside both. Only to find that I had moved from the frying pan into the fire! Don’t get me wrong, my husband was neither possessive nor abusive. I could do anything I liked provided I did not expect him to join me. I of course, as the dutiful missus, was expected to be by his side at all times and everywhere. That is what all South Asian wives did. Yet to me it just didn’t feel right. ‘What was wrong with me?’ I agonised.

And then at one of those utterly boring middle class parties I met a friend who would on and off discuss ideological matters with me and pass me relevant literature. On this particular evening he handed me a book. It was The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. I took it home and read it through the night and the next day. It changed my life forever!

Friedan, a suburban US homemaker herself became a reporter to collect evidence of how and why young women felt so stifled. She delved into ‘the problem that has no name,’ and wrote about the depression, frustration, emptiness, guilt and dishonesty that women went through in their lives. The book lays bare the way religious heads, psychiatrists, women’s magazines, marketers, educators and social scientists routinely lie to women about their   God ordained duties and their inborn inferiorities, and their need for feminine glamour. Friedan in her book repeatedly talks about the arrested development of young wives, often referring to them as lost souls. Indeed, she equates the helpless homemaker to the concentration camp inmate. She shattered many more myths.

How do you describe ‘liberation’? Joy, a sense of freedom, enlightenment, end of all troubles, deliverance from oppression, emancipation, an inner calm ….. ? For me it was the realisation that the problem was not ME. It was society and centuries of history. I was a WOMAN and therefore a threat to all MANkind. I had the power to be free and equal but just didn’t know it. I was not made from any man’s rib. Imagine what that realisation meant for my growth, creativity, and my very existence? I realised I was a human being with an identity and self-esteem and could stand up and begin to take control of my life.

Wow! I now had a story to tell, especially to my sisters. But way back then who was listening?! So I started my own campaign of ‘CALL ME MS’ and all that went with it. I argued furiously with bank managers and passport officials for a correction of my title. I suspect they thought I was bit ‘unhinged’. And if you think it was just chauvinist Africa, think again. In the early seventies I wrote to the distributors of my monthly Physiotherapy Journal published in the UK to change my title to ‘Ms’ from ‘Mrs’. They wrote back saying they did not recognise that title! Needless to say, I upset some close relations who could neither understand nor tolerate this newfound independence. Many have been the ups and downs as I forged ahead; but never once have I looked back.

Today ‘MS’ is widely accepted in Kenya but I sometimes wonder if all those who use it fully comprehend the baggage that came with the title ‘MRS’, and the whys and wherefores of discarding it. I believe we still have a long way to go but at least we are marching.

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