I Was Supposed to Be A Tragedy But I Wasn't: The Joy Of Growing Up With Sisters

I am the last born of four daughters in an Indian family, which means my birth was a tragedy, writes Shubnum Khan.

5 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Author Shubnum Khan.</p></div>

(This excerpt has been taken with permission from How I Accidentally Became a Global Stock Photo and Other Strange and Wonderful Stories by Shubnum Khan, published by Pan Macmillan. Khan is a South African author and artist.)

I am the last born of four daughters in an Indian family, which obviously means my birth was a tragedy.

Well, at least for those who congratulated my mother with, ‘I’m so sorry,’ or, ‘Better luck next time,’ or who said things amongst themselves like it was a shame that it was a girl, again.

Now I don’t have kids so I’m not sure what it’s like but can you imagine carrying a human being inside you for the better part of a year and going through blood, sweat and tears to get it out only to hear, ‘Better luck next time!’


'If I Sound Bitter, It Is Because I Am'

It should have been my first clue that people in this world I had just come into could be totally bonkers. I mean if it had been me I would have probably karate-chopped them in the throat before they even got to ‘next time’, but perhaps this is why it’s better I don’t have kids.

Boys, as we know, are the pride and joy of a family; they’re supposed to be the protectors and providers and symbolise wealth and strength. They can do no wrong.

If I sound bitter it’s because I am. Because we all know daughters are the ones who will file your toenails, bake you a birthday cake, make your doctor’s appointment, pull out your ear hair and look after you when you’re old.

They’re the ones who will do the things that matter. It’s those spoilt boys who won’t pick up a single dish, who play video games all day and abandon you when they get a wife, who are the real disappointment

Yet somehow daughters always get the worse rap. They are the ‘burden to bear’, ‘the carriers of shame’, ‘the consolation prize’ in our communities.

I mean, baby girls have always had a bad deal: we were literally being buried, abandoned and aborted from Arabia across to China for the last few hundred years. In 1990 it was estimated that Asia was missing 100 MILLION FEWER women due to female infanticide.

In my community today it’s been toned down to snarky remarks and disappointed glances, despite the fact that our beloved Prophet (Peace be upon him) promised heaven to those who have daughters and show them support and kindness.

This should have also been my second clue that in my new world not all Muslims understood what Islam was about.


'Grew Up With Parents Who Loved Daughters'

My parents, thankfully, never seemed fazed by another daughter. My father is the most positive person in the world and my mother is a cool cat. So although they came from a community that prides boys over girls, my father said all he did was count my fingers and toes, then raise his hands to thank God for a healthy baby.

So I grew up with parents who loved their daughters in a house full of sisters and I have to say it was pretty special.

My mother, who had grown up with seven sisters, was pleased to be surrounded by girls again and she enjoyed dressing us up, teaching us how to be proper ladies and chatting with us over cups of tea.

My father, an architect, who was always more in touch with his creative and softer side delighted in daughters and had candid chats to us about womanly issues including our period, which I didn’t realise until much later was very open-minded for a man from his reserved generation and community.

'Never Really Felt Alone'

Having so many sisters meant you never really felt alone; there was always someone to tell a secret to, someone to borrow clothes from, someone to split a meal with, someone to blame and someone to fight with.

Most importantly, there was someone else in the house who understood what it was like to be a girl in the world.

We each were different; my eldest sister, Zahida, was always studying or reading or telling us to be quiet so she could study or read.

She knew everything there was to know about space, geography and history and she sometimes could be found studying in the empty bathtub.


My second eldest sister, Saadiya, was the cool one, she had a leather jacket and wore lipstick even though we weren’t allowed to, she always had the latest music on her cassette player and she caught taxis to town by herself to work at Cardies (Cardies was so cool and how my sister managed to get a parttime job there with my father’s permission I will never know).

My third eldest sister, Zakkiya, was quiet and clever and was often considered my mother’s favourite, mostly because at the time she was suffering from asthma attacks (she will deny this and say I’m the weak one but really, she’s the weak one and anyway, I can beat her at arm-wrestling).

I was the sister who had a reputation for dreaming, sulking and spying on my other sisters;

I don’t know why but spying gave me a big thrill, the more they told me not to tell my parents, the more I had to.

Like when Zahida accidentally got a tape stuck in the VCR machine and told me not to tell my father or that time Saadiya blew up a pot of wax on the stove and my sisters spent hours helping her scrape it off the roof and I told my mother (my sisters say they don’t remember this story but I believe this just shows how deep the cover-up goes).

We didn’t physically fight as much as we complained a lot.

We complained about how another sibling was taking too long in the shower, how she was coming onto our side of the bed at night, how she had taken something from our cupboard, how she hadn’t returned our clothes or how she was sitting on top of us in the car and not giving us space.

In fact, the majority of our complaints were about our lack of space.


My Sisters – The Best Thing That Happened to Me

When my eldest sister had a suitor over for dinner for the first time, we giggled the whole night with our heads inside the fridge because it was so weird to have a boy in our house.

We weren’t allowed to talk to boys or even acknowledge their existence and now there was one sitting in our house interested in marrying our sister. And when more suitors arrived for us over the years, one sister only had to catch the eye of the others and we would break out in mad laughter.

Honestly, I don’t know how they got married at all with the way we carried on.

All it took was one small hint of a smirk and everything would unravel; our cheeks would twitch, our lips would quiver and pretty soon all of us would excuse ourselves as we fled for the kitchen with our hands over our mouths trying to hold the laughter bubbling inside.

My father never seemed to notice and my mother just sighed exasperatingly.

Growing up in a house full of girls was the best thing that could have happened to me; it made me stronger and more confident and made me feel less alone.

The thing you come to realise about having sisters is that you can never lose when you have more women in your corner. But more about that later. Right now, all you need to know is that I was supposed to be a tragedy but I was not.

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