When I listened to Sonita Alizadeh's rapper video Daughters for sale on the BBC about how her father wanted to sell her for $9,000 so that her brother could buy himself a wife, I wondered about her mother. I wonder how she felt about her daughter being sold into marriage. Did she believe that it was her husband's right to sell their daughter? Was she herself sold by her father when she was young? And if so, how did she feel about it? How did it affect her relationship with her mother? Did anyone ask her what she wanted? Did anyone listen to her when she cried about not being allowed to choose her husband? What gender beliefs and role expectations has Sonita's mother learned to tolerate? Is she hoping that her daughter follows the same path she had to walk or can she support Sonita's right to walk her own path?
I wonder how Sonita's mother feels about her daughter's bid for freedom. Is she able to support her daughter or does she feel ashamed of her behavior? How does she feel about her daughter finding her voice as a rapper? Does her daughter's strength to speak her truth in public scare her? Does it make her afraid for Sonita's future? And how is her husband treating her? Does he blame her for Sonita's 'so-called' misbehavior? Does he accuse her of being a failure as a mother because Sonita isn't conforming to his rules?
These questions are important because they reveal the story of how every daughter who is sold into marriage has a mom. Every daughter that is killed for not complying with her family's patriarchal rules has a mom. And these mothers deserve to be heard! We need to listen to their stories alongside their daughters' stories, because it is through listening to what mothers and daughters feel, and by asking probing questions that we learn the full truth about what it means to be female.
When we listen to mother-daughter relationship stories we learn about the emotional reality of women's lives. We can step into a mother's shoes and learn how patriarchal beliefs and practices harm women's bodies, emotional wellbeing, human rights, as well as their mother-daughter relationships. We learn how mothers have been threatened and guilt-tripped into internalizing harmful norms and after years of this kind of pressure, mothers often stop knowing that another way is not only possible, but necessary.
We learn how deeply the mother-daughter relationship is affected by the way women are treated by their family and culture, whether in Afghanistan, or the U.S., or any other country. We can see how mothers and daughters are set up for conflict and misunderstanding when women are not heard and their needs are not inquired after or recognized by the family. This emotional silencing, or emotional starvation, as I call it, causes mothers and daughters to fight over their respective silencing. They turn to each other for the emotional feeding they are not receiving, without knowing how to feed themselves or each other. And when women's lives are restricted by limiting gender roles and beliefs, daughters are set up to blame their mother for handing them a limited life, rather than the socio-cultural environment that limits both their lives.
And finally the telling of mother-daughter relationship stories reveals the power this key female relationship has to change women's lives. The mother-daughter relationship is at the heart of women's emotional empowerment and fight for equality, as the movie "Suffragette" shows.
When a mother starts questioning what she has learned to believe about herself and she dares to imagine something different for herself and her daughter, women's lives are changed. Mothers who do the hard work of changing harmful generational patterns and rejecting sexist cultural norms change both their own and their daughters' lives. They pass on a new norm that from now on a daughter will no longer be bought and sold like a chattel, a girl's genitals will no longer be cut, women will no longer be abused, and women will no longer be silenced or ignored. When mothers and daughters unite for change, they become a formidable force.