Don’t wear revealing clothes, don’t go out at night, cross your legs, don’t talk back, be obedient, learn to cook, don’t smoke, drink, have premarital sex or get tattoos; the list of do’s and don’t’s prescribed by society for ‘good’ girls are endless. We live in an age of rapid growth and modernisation, yet for so many people the traditional norms and standards they hold for girls remain unchanged. Sexism continues to prevail in traditional Indian society and it cannot be denied as women continue to fall prey to different forms of discrimination various avenues of life and things aren’t any easier for a girl in her formative teenage years. In truth, however, the discrimination starts at home for most, with most women bound to expected duties and a certain (invisible, yet powerful) code of conduct. In this truth, the phrase that haunts most girls throughout their lives is born - “Acchi ladkiyan aise nahin karti (good girls don’t do this)” - as is Ayesha Tariq’s compelling graphic novel.
‘Sarah: The Suppressed Anger of the Pakistani Obedient Daughter’ is a brilliant account of the daily struggles of a ‘good’ teenage girl and the emotional roller-coaster ride that comes along with societal pressures and family expectations. The illustrated novel was originally her thesis for when she was a student at The Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture. It was created through interviews and discussions with many girls her age and the result was an amalgamation of stories and experiences that transcend international boundaries and became relatable for many young women who grew up in similar circumstances, and would bottle-up their emotions the same way that the books 17-year-old protagonist Sarah does. Belonging to a middle class urban family in Pakistan, Sarah has wishes and dreams like anyone her age but is quickly brought back down to Earth with constant reminders of her duty to serve to the whims and demands of her family and be the ‘perfect’ daughter she is expected to be. Sarah talks directly to the audience as Tariq takes you through her daily struggles and frustrations that she continues to suppress, fearing her parents reaction to her voicing her opinion, but there is only so much that the bottle can hold before it bursts.
Sarah juggles household chores and duties along with her studies, and she has to take permission before leaving the house which is denied on many instances. While on the other hand, her smug-faced brother gets to stay out, and comes home late at night even waking her up from her sleep to prepare him a snack. We see visits from the extended family, the match-making aunty who constantly tries to set her up with a husband, despite her young age, and an ‘over-friendly and handsy’ uncle who Sarah tries her best to stay clear of.
Humour runs through Tariq’s telling of Sarah’s story but there are several underlying subtexts that make it a tough pill to swallow. Through vibrant colours and funny expressions, Tariq’s tale comments on prevailing sexism in a highly patriarchal society and the existing double-standards--Sarah’s brother has a massive bedroom while she lives in perhaps the smallest in the house. There are so many realities in her story that people prefer to ignore; Sarah complains about khaloo’s (uncle) unwanted touching and inappropriate gestures which her mother prefers to deny, instead insisting that it’s a ‘bad’ thing to say and brushing it off as being his manner of self-expression. Tariq sheds light on the existence of sexual abuse which becomes much harder to address and deal with especially when it’s within a family, but the fact is that it does happen more than we’d like to believe. “I wanted the book to be relatable. I wanted the readers to know that I know these issues exist in their lives,” said Tariq to DNA. “Exploring these deeply embedded issues would have involved people getting uncomfortable. Some people tend to completely close themselves about these. The book is meant for people to start talking... it’s a first step. I’m not here to start a movement. But people have to be comfortable talking about things that they know exist and are unfair.”
As the novel progresses Sarah’s bottle of emotions fills up more and more, and ultimately bursts spilling a bright red of rage across two pages as Sarah’s unable to hold it in any longer. But this isn’t a story that ends in a cathartic release, the bottle empties only to be filled again, a vicious cycle that Tariq chose to depict realistically as young obedient girls will continue to pent up their emotions out of ‘respect’ for their parents, only to have it explode repeatedly. “All struggles seem like a vicious cycle till they are resolved,” said Tariq in an interview. “Pakistan has many layers–of social classes, of culture, of religion of geographic. Every household is different, and it would be unfair for one me to speak for ALL of Pakistan. I do believe that people who have these contradictions in their homes especially that toxic love triangle between culture, religion and society, will be stuck in a vicious cycle.” Tariq’s book chronicles the frustrations and trials of all young girls in the throws of patriarchal suppression, be it in Pakistan or India, and is a much-needed call to the necessity of changing mindsets regarding gender discrimination and not just publicly, but in the very place that it begins, within homes as well.