What does it mean, to be born a girl in this world? 

My grandmother was born in 1927 in Hyderabad, India, the sixth child in a family of seven sisters and one brother. She lived purposefully and contentedly into her 10th decade of life until last week, when she succumbed to a coronavirus infection. She was the last of her siblings to pass, the final thread to a golden generation. 

Before my grandmother lay in a hospital bed in India, struggling to breathe, Breonna Taylor’s name lay upon my chest, making it hard for me to breathe. Before my grandmother drew her last breath, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg drew her last breath, and suddenly the fates of so many girls and women in this country were catapulted into uncertainty. Before my grandmother’s illness left her breathless, she would spend every Friday after traditional Muslim prayers looking at the pictures of her faraway children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, reciting prayers and carrying those fervent wishes over her breath as she blew those supplications onto each of our photos. She lived a small and private life, one where her name will only be remembered by those in her family, and by those whose lives she touched.   

My grandmother had one son and four daughters, all of them highly capable and independent, and all of them intensely devoted and ready to capitulate to her every need. She loved them all the same, which is not an easy task. She had 14 grandchildren, 10 of whom lived oceans away from her. She loved us all the same, which is an even harder task. 

Growing up, we would travel to India to see her every few years, and, in the in-between years, we would call frequently and listen to her voice crackling through from the other end, knowing that she held a cupped hand by the receiver to amplify her voice. Her question to me was always the same, wherever I was in the world: “Sabreen-amma, are you living close to your mother?”   

When I was younger, I always felt a tinge of offense at this, like her questions poked at the soft center of a wound that I kept hidden. Her questions unroofed the guilt I felt for not living closer to my mother, and yet, I wanted to reject that feeling as illegitimate. To breezily say that my mother didn’t need me to be close, and that I was free to pursue the career and life goals I wanted, wherever they may be. But of course, I never said this. 

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Last summer, when I saw my grandmother for the last time, she held my Arab-American husband’s hand, speaking to him in her darling Indian-English accent in a common language that he could understand. She asked him to take care of me. Not because I, as a physician, as a mother of two of my own children, as an adept and perfectly capable adult human, needed him to take care of me. But because she understood, as a person born into her circumstances, as a person who married and bore children young, as a person who said goodbye to her own daughters over and over again as each of them lived their lives around the world apart from her, and as a person who ultimately passed away during a pandemic when none of her daughters could be by her side — she understood that I was born a girl. And, because of that truth, I needed the loving arms of my husband, of my family, of my communities around me to survive and thrive in this world. She understood that about my mother, about my daughter, about my sisters and about me. And she tried, in myriad compassionate and gentle ways, to help me to understand that. 

“Because,” she said while softly gripping my husband’s hand. “Because she is our daughter. And we love her.”  

What does it mean, to be born a girl in this world? 

To be born a girl is to be cherished, and then desired, and then thrown around in the rough swell of this world and its whims — to be flattened against its craggy bluffs again and again, figuring out early when to make yourself small. To be a girl is to squint through the salt and spray and look wildly about to find who else is out there with you, and then to reach bravely toward their fingertips. To be a girl is to love viciously and heedlessly and without reason. To pour all of yourself into your people, and to do that again and again while you are yet depleted, because you know that your effort, your prayer of protection, is what’s keeping everyone afloat.   

To be a girl is not an easy task. It’s an impossible one, and one that is worth every effort. 

My grandmother was the sister to six girls, the mother to four girls, the grandmother to 11 girls, and the great-grandmother to nine girls. Her name was Rasheedunissa Begum Kabir.