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When 'Moti' And Unmarriageable Is All That You Are In South Asian Culture

When ‘Moti’ And Unmarriageable Is All That You Are In South Asian Culture

The importance that South Asian culture places on marriage as an “achievement” for women convinced me that being Moti meant I was unworthy of being loved and desired.

By Zahra Haider

CW: Fatphobia, weight, misogyny, self-harm, disordered eating

Shaadi and Moti are two words commonly heard throughout South Asia. The former means “marriage” and the latter translates to “fat.” Both words, while sometimes used separately, often tend to intersect and are used as tools to oppress. The word Moti (Mota being its masculine counterpart) means more than just “fat” when referring to a fat body understood as female; it becomes an identifier for who that person is. As a South Asian woman, your shaadi is one of, if not the most important “achievement(s)” of your life, and to be deemed Moti by the societal gaze means that your body becomes all that you are. 

Growing up in Pakistan, I was referred to as Moti fairly often. As a teenager, I gained weight when I began binge eating as a coping mechanism for a traumatic childhood. The men in my family would make disparaging comments about my body. My paternal grandfather once went so far as to tell me, “You would be much prettier if you lost fifteen pounds.” I would overhear women—often aunties who were unrelated to me—maliciously gossip about me for being “unattractive” at sixteen and pitifully asking, “What will she do when she’s older? Who will marry her?” In response to this portrait of their attachment to the wedding industrial complex and deeply ingrained patriarchal ideology, I became aggressive. I directed my rage towards those who attempted to convince me I was “unfit” and “unattractive” simply because of the size of my body. 

I channeled this anger into a desire to become athletic and strong. The patriarchal notion that women are not meant to be as physically strong as men fueled my rage even more, and it began spilling over as I developed a deep desire for physical competitiveness against men, wanting to prove I was both smart and strong. I started horse-riding, swimming, playing tennis, video games, and chess.

Image is everything for many Pakistani women, particularly those from affluent and well-connected families; this affluence exacerbates the importance of “maintaining one’s image.” After growing up between Pakistan and the UAE, I moved to Toronto at eighteen, where (note: my intention is not to glorify the West) a newfound, unfettered freedom of movement through physical spaces challenged me to grow in a multitude of ways. Unable to maintain the image desired of me going into my twenties as I felt it was a farce, I was disowned by my patriarchal paternal family because I did not fit into their mold of how a “woman” is supposed to act or look like. As the self-loathing grew along with abandonment issues, I began to hate being in my body. But this distraught concoction of anger and sadness motivated me to at least try to look the way they wanted me to—”even if I don’t have their support, I’ll show them” is what I told myself. 

I never lost a significant amount of weight. I never reflected the image of thinness that we are told is the most valuable way to look. My body became stronger and more muscular, but did not shrink. I was still Moti. When I would go for massages for sports-related injuries, my massage therapist would tell me I was “too fat.” Playing team sports was something I avoided because of how large I felt in my body, particularly my breasts. Wearing two bras was needed, a method that would cause pain and compromise my circulation. It’s difficult to find sustainable ways to stay active outdoors in the Canadian winter, so I settled for the gym (a fitness space I dislike and continue to resist). 

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A few years ago, I decided to purchase a membership package at a spin studio in Forest Hill—one of Toronto’s most affluent, cishet, white neighborhoods—and I felt the weight of the thin, white, privileged women around me and the instructor’s invisibilization of me. I dropped out after only a few months. Frustrated, I gave up on maintaining my strong body and began smoking weed more frequently to cope with mental health struggles, and to help me eat more. I wanted to eat until I was too full to breathe, move, or feel. I believed the people around me when they told me my body was defective, worthless, and undeserving of attention. 

After this, I was diagnosed with PCOS—a common hormonal disorder that may cause weight gain in some bodies—and it was then that I became softer with myself. I stopped aggressively trying to deny my body love. I developed a love for cycling around the city without the intention of losing weight. I began to eat consciously so as to not rely on food to provide me comfort when I wanted it from other people. I no longer wanted to attain thinness or succumb to patriarchal beauty standards. I simply desired to be healthy and achieve body neutrality while responding to the angry, hurt parts of me that feel inherently unlovable with unconditional love and acceptance. 

“Too tall, too big, too wide, too brown, too fat,” writes Sonia Meerai in her essay, Taking Up Space in the Doctor’s Office, published in the academic journal Thickening Fat. This sentiment, I am certain, rings true and echoes through the ears of many South Asian women. The nation-states of India and Pakistan—where thin, lighter-skinned folk are associated with class and caste privilege—remain enmeshed with patriarchal colonial ideology. Being told one is unacceptable the way they are (within the home and outside of it) is not an anomalous experience. 

Meerai also discusses her experience with the wedding industrial complex, a hyper-present phenomenon throughout South Asian societies. Weddings tend to be a major cultural and financial endeavor for South Asian families, which Meerai refers to as a “capitalist driven entity that dictates how my wedding should look and feel for my partner and me. Reinforced by heteronormative values instilled in every word and action by both of our parents, this process is not as enjoyable as it seemed in all the reality TV shows and magazines.” 

Heteronormativity was enforced during British colonial rule, and the desire to “fit” into heteropatriarchal nuclear family models had been normalized. In many contexts, a person is deemed incomplete or unworthy if they aren’t in a heteronormative marriage by the time they are thirty, irrespective of their gender identity; but women feel it so much more. And while marriages can be a heavy financial burden for many (especially for those required to pay a dowry), this fanatical importance placed on marriage has also resulted in forced marriages and child marriages within the South Asian subcontinent and beyond.

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Failure is what my fatness reflects to the patriarchal, familial, and societal gaze. Not only was I deemed unattractive to the gaze of cishet Pakistani men for being both fat and darker-skinned than the “norm” when I was younger, but I had somehow become a symbol of dishonor to my family. Not only was it my father, grandfather, and the occasional uncle who remarked on the size of my body or how the color of my skin made me resemble Mowgli, but it was also my mother and other female supporters of patriarchal violence (inadvertently or not). I was convinced that being Moti meant I was unworthy of being loved, perhaps even desired by the people whose desire I craved. And living in the West, being fetishized, exoticized, and discriminated against based on the size of my body and the color of my skin has, unfortunately, also been a common occurrence.

My family, and the social class that they are a part of in Pakistan, is a very privileged, bureaucratic, and westernized class referred to as the “elite” class. However, many of its members function under the guise of liberalism—often a mask worn at dinner parties, and other social events—yet, their patriarchal conditioning is heightened behind closed doors and within their own families. Even now, with an understanding of my politics, my family will still make subtle albeit inappropriate fatphobic remarks about my physical appearance. I am exhausted from having to assert my boundaries, requesting that they refrain from commenting on my body. 

Because of this “liberal” stance, many families (mine included, pre and post-disownment) do not regulate arranged marriages. But because I am 26, the pressure to “find” someone before age 30 has intensified. And if I’m unable to, then I may be blamed for it. Perhaps it’s my leftist politics, my mental health issues, or my inability to be led by constructs of what a “good” or “disciplined” woman is like—or according to the societal gaze—because I don’t “take care” of myself. I’m fat, and not only is fat unmarriageable, but undesirable. 

Unlearning and replacing old ideologies with new ones is a constant process. While I have begun the process of unlearning dominant discourse around women’s bodies, I still harbour shame when I am the only fat body in a space dominated by thin, more able-bodied women. When I am the only brown body in a space dominated by white bodies. When I am the only femme person in a room dominated by cishet men. When I start to feel I can overcome my shame imposed by white supremacy and the patriarchy, it attacks me from unexpected angles. 

Once again, I will start hiding my arms, growing out my hair, wearing scarves to conceal my breasts, and essentially, shaming myself into being small. This shame, this need to “hide” is internalized and spatialized. As fat women, we may feel less inclined to take up space. As Meerai writes, “This framing, which is internalized and embodied, manifests in how we present our bodies in the everyday: do I wear loose clothing, should I hide my arms?” but the struggle is not simply with our bodies as fat racialized women, but with racist micro and macro aggressions as well.

As both fat gendered bodies and racialized gendered bodies oscillate between being invisibilized and sexualized, therein lies a discrepancy between wanting to feel desirable and wanting to be invisible. What this has created, for myself, is a state of ambivalence between fear, desire, and repulsion. My body has learned to embody shame, to attack itself rather than those who attack it. 

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Gendered, racialized, fat bodies are subject to violence through the spaces they attempt to occupy. Colonial ideology and the rise of heteropatriarchal white supremacy has historically accelerated the policing of bodies. We have been shamed into allowing the white settler colonial state to lay claim, dominance, control, and violence over both our land and our bodies. But I believe rage and resistance to be powerful tools against colonial ideology, for and within my queer, fat, brown body—a body that deserves to be reclaimed, to take up space, and have the space made for it.

Zahra Haider is a Pakistani-Canadian multi-disciplinary artist based in Toronto. She works primarily as a writer, activist, and occasionally a stand-up comedian. Her work explores the intersections and issues of race, class, sexuality, gendered violence, and women’s trauma in South Asia, with a focus on Pakistan. She has written for and appeared on VICE, BBC World, Dawn News, Times of India, rabble.ca, and others.

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