Something most of my friends don’t know about me is that when I was growing up, I had a wonky face. Well not that wonky. I had an overbite, so my lower jaw protruded and until I realised I couldn’t bite an apple with my front teeth like my sister, I hadn’t really noticed. I only started feeling bad about it when I’d walk into the endless discussions my parents had in the kitchen about being burdened with daughters. These were not quiet chats to protect our feelings, but rather animated ones which voiced their frustration and impatience at having three daughters. I wasn’t the only worry they had as my older sister would have problems being married off too because according to them she was the wrong shade of brown and not very clever.
There was a set formula to life for a Bangladeshi girl. Girls had to be pretty, light-skinned, obedient and educated. My parents were worried because my older sister didn’t look like she would succeed academically, and was what Bengali people described literally as ‘dirty’ as she was dark-skinned. She was self conscious of being dark all her life as relatives loved to point it out in case my parents had missed it, but she concentrated on the being obedient to perfection.
I only realised education was important for reasons other than learning when my sister’s marriage was arranged when she was 19 years old. She had struggled through school and was resitting her ‘A’ levels because she had failed the first time and hadn’t gained a place at university. Dad was so sharp – he ensured that her wedding date was set before any university course started, giving the illusion she had applied and simply opted to get married rather than start her degree course. She was then shipped off to an Arab state to start a life with a husband she only knew through letter writing. The sad thing was she really wanted to go to university, but the lack of support (and I don’t mean financial, because those were the days of student grants and no tuition fees) meant that was a dream never to be fulfilled.
I on the other hand was light-skinned, fairly academic, disobedient, but had a much more pressing problem which couldn’t be fixed by beating. By all accounts I was positively deformed. My dad would tell me how people called me ‘Monkeyface’ behind my back because of my jaw. It felt terrible, I was only 9 years old and of course I believed him. I felt that I had let him down somehow, because my sisters were ‘normal’. He would proudly boast to relatives how my sisters looked like him and then pause and say I didn’t look like either of my parents really. That made me really sad, like I didn’t belong, and that compounded the feeling of not belonging as I had different ideas of what I wanted to do which made me feel different already. He used to joke he found me at the hospital, apparently a nurse had sold me for a few pence because my mother had left me. Hilarious. Of course now I wish it was true, I’d be out there looking for her.
I was 10 years old when my dentist said there was a new brace being developed at Guy’s Hospital which would negate the need for surgery on my jaw, and my parents were thrilled. At last a cure to fix their ugly monkey-faced daughter. I accepted it pretty easily as I had no idea I was going to have an operation in the first place. Although I was about to start secondary school with a mouthful of plastic and wires, the friends I made never mentioned my brace, and probably for the first time I experienced real compassion. I was accepted for who I was, not what I looked like or what they could gain from me. They were just happy to be friends and to know me.
When you grow up thinking you’re ugly (and with a mother who never told me once that I was pretty when I was growing up) you really don’t expect to ever change. Luckily for me my brace worked, and after five long years, I was left with a somewhat dazzling smile, if I say so myself 🙂
Unfortunately this success was clouded with the news that the man who came to visit recently was the bridegroom my parents had chosen for my sister. He was an engineer, a graduate from Imperial, and had a job abroad – he was literally gold dust, especially as he wanted to get married soon and a completed degree didn’t matter to him. Hmmm, I wonder why – could it have been that a young, obedient daughter would make an equally young, obedient wife in a new country where she had no friends or family?
I was devastated because at the time I shared a room with my sister, and I knew all her hopes and dreams. He was in no way someone she would think was attractive, because to me all I could see was a short, fat man with a balding head and a ‘Magnum-style moustache’. I was stunned, and I knew my sister was deeply unhappy that my parents had been talking of marrying her off since she was 16 years old, when all she wanted was a chance to study. She wasn’t ready for marriage. And now this bombshell. An arranged marriage in my own home, not Loughborough. The reasonable security I had felt growing up suddenly fell apart, and I realised with dread that it was going to happen to me one day.
I was afraid to talk to my mother, but for my sister’s sake I cautiously went to her bedroom, and mustering all the courage I had, confronted her for the first time, ‘You cant do this, he’s so old, and unattractive. He lives abroad and I’ll never see her again.’ My mum looked at me coldly, and said something I’ll never forget. ‘This is none of your business. Don’t you ever talk about things that don’t concern you.’
None of my business? My sister was my best friend and confidante. We spent hours together every day. Suddenly she wasn’t my business. Panic took over my heart. My exams were coming up and I felt betrayed. What was the point of studying if the result was a future that you had virtually no say in? Suddenly all my years of working hard at school seemed ridiculous. It was as if we were being groomed to be sold to the man with the best credentials. It didn’t matter what sort of person he was. It didn’t matter what he looked like – it seemed a cruel irony that the women I knew in my family were all so beautiful, and their husbands were very much the complete opposite. Arranged marriages really worked in favour of the men, because none of them would have been able to attract such beautiful women if they had had to find a wife themselves. So of course men, particularly those with no charm or wit or good looks, support a system that guarantees a beautiful girl to have sex with without even having to try to win her over.
When her ‘A’ level results arrived, two weeks before the set wedding date, she sighed sadly, ‘I wouldn’t have got in to university, Dad was right. I am okay with this you know.’ I looked at her and she had tears in her eyes, and I said, ‘If you’re so okay with it then how come you haven’t told any of your friends, not a single one, that you’re getting married?’
Two weeks later, sure enough, aged 20, dressed in a red sari and wearing more make up then either of us had ever seen, she had a wedding in a community centre and then disappeared three weeks later like she never mattered in the first place.
To my lovely readers: If this is painful to read I recommend looking at short Chapter 4. Dodging bullets to put a smile on your face again.