Growing Up as Firstborn Muslim Daughters; The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
The Issue

Growing Up as Firstborn Muslim Daughters; The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

As a firstborn Muslim daughter, I was given the responsibilities of taking care of and managing the household from as early as the age of ten. I would change my brothers’ nappy, give him a bath, sort out my siblings’ uniforms for school and what have you. I felt I had to be mature way before ever being a child.

– Salma Begum

We’ve all heard about the firstborn daughter trope; bossy, know-it-all and keen to be the ‘good girl’ all the time. They are super-ambitious, Independent and nurturing. And they seem to carry these traits with grace. This is no coincidence. The influence of birth order has been proven to have a profound effect on people’s personalities. Firstborn daughters are usually the focus of the family’s attention. They are elevated to the position of leaders from a very early age and are often involved in decision-making processes. But while we envy the privileges given to firstborn daughters, do we really know what it must feel like for them? Is the position of a firstborn daughter an enviable position? Or do we need to pay more attention and care to these women and girls? TMWT had a chat with three firstborn Muslim women, and here’s what each of them had to say:

Shakira Shareef, (Sri Lankan)

TMWT: What was your experience growing up as a firstborn daughter?

Shakira Shareef: My childhood was excellent, but when adulthood hit, things got worse. It was not because of my parents, but ours was an extended family, and we were middle-income earners. So mom had to patch up a lot of things to keep our lives smooth. But the Sri Lankan Muslim community forces and demands the first daughter to get married before she’s 23, at most. My parents were understanding, but relatives were down on my parents’ throat. They had a hard time. My mental health was ruined, and while I was still schooling, I got many marriage proposals. Thinking about it, I feel disgusted even now. At a point, one of my cousins tried to set me up with her brother, whom I treated like my own blood. That experience agitated me, and I still think about how she had the mindset to bring such a topic to the table. She convinced my mom as well, and I was mentally drowned.

I vividly remember how I cried to my friends, hugging them and relating how insane my family members were to bring up the topic of marriage when I was only 16. Some memories stay even if the people involved in the memory change and understand their mistakes. The expectations my extended family placed on me were too much, I couldn’t handle them. I cared less about what other people said or thought, and this put me in a better position than my mom, who was upset and worried, seeing that my mental health was at stake.

In terms of finances, I always had the mindset that I needed to make my own money because I believed it would bring me freedom. I thought people wouldn’t pressure me to get married because they told my dad that I was a burden. So I figured that finance was the main reason why I was seen as a burden, and I decided to take control of it. I did. Alhamdulillah! As a first-born Muslim daughter, I was neither sad nor happy. There were challenging situations, but there were beautiful memories too. I kind of feel like it has moulded me into a stronger person. I can handle a lot of things because of what I went through. Once again, my parents and siblings are blessings. It wasn’t their fault. Had we given up on societies’ expectations and stereotypical thoughts, things would have been better.

TMWT: How do you think this experience has impacted your life presently?

Shakira Shareef: Though I won’t like to say that a toxic environment helped shape me into the independent individual I am right now, but it’s what is. I am able to make my own decisions, make my own money, and look after my family, including those who questioned my personal life. My father is so proud of me, and he says I’ve set an excellent example for my sisters and brother. I feel like I am someone that they can look up to. Of course, there are things like my short-temper and hard-to-please characteristics that I like to change in me. I also feel like my experience made me the person who doesn’t like to ask for help and who isn’t open to letting others help me. I turn down gifts because they make me awkward. It could be because of the way I grew up, satisfying my own needs, and handling challenging situations. I really don’t know, but what I know is that there are some things that I like to change. One of them is allowing others to help me. Accepting the fact that I don’t have to play the -“I’m strong enough to handle my own problems”- card always. So, in conclusion, the experience has shaped me into a stronger version of myself. I assume there are mental traumas and emotional setbacks that might creep into my life when I’m married. I have to wait and watch while making dua. Allah knows best!

I vividly remember how I cried to my friends, hugging them and relating how insane my family members were to bring up the topic of marriage when I was only 16. Some memories stay even if the people involved in the memory change and understand their mistakes.

– Shakira Shareef

TMWT: As someone who knows what it’s like to be a firstborn daughter, what are some of the things you would change if you happen to be a parent?

Shakira Shareef: There are a few things I would change. I would give my daughter freedom over anything but also make sure to explain the Islamic framework. I wouldn’t put pressure on her to get married. I would tell her to get married only when she truly feels ready. I would also enforce equality in my home, letting my children know that a son is never better than a daughter. They deserve equal attention, love, and respect. Being a friend before being a mom to my daughter is really important to me. Lastly, I would pay attention to her mental health, help her nurture a healthy sense of self-worth.


Hajer Al-Awsi, (Iraqi-Australian)

TMWT: What was your experience growing up as a firstborn daughter?

Hajer Al-Awsi: My experience was a mixed bag, I grew up being really obedient and feared the rules my mum and community told me I had to follow. There wasn’t a lot of room for alternate interpretations of scripture. I was always assumed to be the good girl and had so much trust reposed in me. I also received a lot of mixed messaging; my mum thought I didn’t need to wear a hijab until I was ‘a woman’ but every time we visited extended family and friends, I was asked to start wearing the hijab. This ended up with me deciding to wear it at the age of 12 and having a lot of body dysmorphia until I finally took it off at 17.

TMWT: How do you think this experience has impacted your life presently?

Hajer Al-Awsi: I am no longer a religious Muslim and I consider myself more culturally Muslim than anything else. I feel suffocated by restrictions in my life and specifically in my day-to-day activities like how I dress or what I eat. The lack of sex-positivity in my upbringing has severely affected my sex life and relationship to sex.

TMWT: As someone who knows what it’s like to be a firstborn daughter, what are some of the things you would change if you happen to be a parent?

Hajer Al-Awsi: I would allow my kids to make their own choices over my own beliefs. I would make sure that I give my kids space to become their own person but also build a good relationship with them, so they always feel comfortable to come to me when they need to.


Salma Begum (British)

TMWT: What was your experience growing up as a firstborn daughter?

Salma Begum: Being the first child and daughter was a rollercoaster. I had all these ambitions and dreams placed on me. It was great to be the first child and the one to be trusted by my parents. It was great to be familiar with the relatives, the culture and the language. I did feel a sense of belonging and an identity within my culture. However the ugly was very ugly. There was and there still is a lot of expectations placed on me to live out my parents’ dreams, to live the life my mother never had and to be an example and set a standard for my younger siblings. Growing up in the west and not having an older sibling to guide you or feeling like you don’t have the tools to navigate the troubling waters of teenage life, I often felt very alone and lonely. Sometimes I was given the responsibilities of taking care of and managing the household from as early as the age of ten. I would change my brothers’ nappy, give him a bath, sort out my siblings’ uniforms for school and what have you. I felt I had to be mature way before ever being a child. I felt I never got to be a child which is why I’m now learning how to connect with my inner child. Being the eldest, you get to see the family politics and difficulties and understand them, you grow up seeing the cracks in your family and feeling like it’s your responsibility to fill them up, by shrinking, by making less noise or by taking care of everyone else around you, but never really understanding your own emotions and what they mean.

TMWT: How do you think this experience has impacted your life presently?

Salma Begum: Presently, my life is a culmination of my environment, my childhood and my experience growing up as the eldest daughter and child. This is an identity that never changes. I can change my style, my career, my relationships but when it comes to family, my identity is always the same; the eldest child, the eldest daughter. It’s used both as an encouragement and a threat of downfall. As the eldest daughter, for example, you have to get married first and give your parents the wedding they always dreamed of for you. You have to marry the kind of man they always dreamed you’d end up with. You have to be the one to come to everyone’s rescue even though it could have gone to others more capable. You take over the role of the mother in the house.

Eldest daughters feel like they are wives and mothers before they ever get married and have children of their own. There’s always more to prove because when people think of the family, they think of you. You’re the first, so they remember seeing you grow up and attach the family image to yours. I feel a lot of guilt every time I make the choice to do something different to what’s expected of me when it comes to career choices, my interests and even my future family plans. I feel like I’m responsible for every difficulty my parents are in and it’s my role to be involved and come up with a solution. I feel like I’m my siblings’ parents. I have three and I’m the eldest of them all. My family have made me feel responsible for their future, and I have to also pave the way for them. But we are all different and unique in our ways and what we want for ourselves. I’ve struggled a lot because I’ve been the one to go against the grain to get small privileges which I get to see my younger siblings enjoy as it’s something natural that they’ve been born into.

Eldest daughters need time for play, to be carefree without responsibilities. Eldest daughters need to connect with other girls from a young age, maybe through play dates or relatives where they can feel a sense of identity and belonging, and get to understand each other.

– Salma Begum

TMWT: As someone who knows what it’s like to be a firstborn daughter, what are some of the things you would change if you happen to be a parent?

Salma Begum: I’m not yet a parent. But when I have a daughter, I would do things very differently. I’d open up communication. I suppressed a lot of thoughts and emotions growing up and it’s something I’m trying to overcome as an adult. I never had a safe space to communicate. I would make clear what everyone’s role is, what my responsibilities are as a parent and what responsibilities are for children. There was a lot of enmeshment growing up, so understanding who is the parent and what’s expected and who is the child and what’s expected of them is key. This would Involve boundaries from me as a parent, to handle my own responsibilities as an adult and not place them on my daughter when they haven’t yet developed their emotions or understandings of what’s happening in their environment.

I would spend time with my daughter and encourage her to be curious and take an interest in everything she loves and not solely the ones I approve of. I would be a better planner and organiser of the family life so there can be structure and a sense of safety and security and my daughter wouldn’t feel the need to step up and take over as a parent. Eldest daughters need a safe environment where they feel appreciated and assured that they belong as daughters and not as substitute parents or caretakers for their siblings. Eldest daughters need time for play, to be carefree without responsibilities. Eldest daughters need to connect with other girls from a young age, maybe through play dates or relatives where they can feel a sense of identity and belonging, and get to understand each other. Eldest daughters need mentorship when they’re older; maybe as teenagers because that’s when they get the most pressure of having their own life and struggling against what’s expected of them with regards to their future.

Lack of resources, lack of support, lack of emotional development and support and mentoring is why we struggle in the ways we do. And more can be done by the community to understand and provide support. Because everyone benefits from the success of the eldest daughter anyway, it’s in everyone’s interest to nurture her and build her up. They have the most love for their families and siblings and would do anything to show their love and care. So it’s in everyone’s interest to take care of her as she would naturally give back to everyone else.


TMWT

TMWT is an online media platform spotlighting the stories of Muslim women of the past and present. We aim to be one of the most authoritative and informative guides to what is happening in the world of Muslim women. We hope to cover key issues, spark debates, progressive ideas and provocative topics to get the Muslim world talking. We want to set agendas and explore ideas to improve the lives and wellbeing of Muslim Women.

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