She also faced unfaithfulness, crappy in-laws, exclusion
Netflix’s drama serial The Crown has won best drama at the 73rd Emmy Awards in Los Angeles and oceans away, in Pakistan, many women privately felt a twinge of satisfaction as the characters of this royal story are so close to home.
Consider the story of The Crown’s fourth season.
A new bride of twenty, wide-eyed and full of hope, an icy mother-in-law, and a cheating husband. This may sound like the prologue of any South Asian woman’s recap of her marriage, but this was also the story of Lady Diana, the former Princess of Wales. No wonder our mothers, aunts, grandmothers or any woman who was married in the nineties in Pakistan feels like she relates to Diana on a very personal level.
“We may not be married into royalty but my in-laws behaved no less than royalty,” Amna* a stay-at-home mother of three from Lahore told us. “Their traditions, their customs, and their rules made me feel as if I was living in Buckingham Palace, my husband was a prince in the eyes of his parents and I was just someone there to serve him.” And then, she adds, a little wistfully, “How can I not understand what she went through?”
The Crown’s season with Diana deftly captures her isolation and exclusion, a paradox Pakistani women face when they join a family that invited them of their own arrangement. It is eternally mystifying why a mother-in-law who chose the bride then actively relegates her to margins. In The Crown the message was clear to Diana, she had to adjust to their way, come to terms with the knowledge that she was always an outsider, and place the Queen above all else. The Queen’s husband Prince Philip tried to teach Diana this lesson based on his own pitiful experience, and indeed the scenes with him are some of the most poignant and hope-filled. But Diana does not understand, and many Pakistani women who watch her unravel, only bitterly knew the feeling so well.
To make matters worse is the existence of Camilla Parker Bowles. The Crown, many Pakistani women would have demurred, proves that marriage in arranged setups doesn’t always guarantee loyalty even though one would assume adherence to high moral standards from a royal family. “If your wife is Diana and you’re still looking around..” said Naila. She trailed off as if the rest of that sentence is too painful to complete. The admission that her marriage wasn’t not perfect but far from it took the pressure off many women navigating the choppy waters of their own marriages, Naila added. “I mean, she was vocal about it [the cheating]. She made it a very human thing, not a royal thing.” If this could happen to Diana, thought Pakistani women who adored her and avidly watched The Crown, then it could happen to anyone, especially us.
The truth is that if you ask the right questions, you will get the real reason why desi women relate so strongly to the figure of Diana and her failed marriage. They have all at one point been in the position of the Princess. The oppression, the deceit, the expectation to perform and serve despite being gaslit… In reality, the marriage between Charles and Diana was arranged by the Queen herself. She handpicked her, like many marriages that take place in Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.
“Back then [when Diana was killed in Paris], when all of us cousins and my aunts used to sit, we used to say it’s probably the Queen who killed her, they [the government] didn’t give her protection, back then the sentiment was that the government wasn’t fair to her, and I still do believe this.”
These days in particular, this sentiment of vulnerability runs high. Women who feel unsafe in Pakistan and watched what happened to Diana feel that it is the same story that is playing out. She was supposed to have received protection, but did not from the institutions that were supposed to safeguard her. And it was not just her physical protection but her mental wellbeing that was at stake. Again, the same diktat prevailed: do what you’re told and shut up.
Many women who love Diana see their own identity struggle in hers. Diana met all the requirements of becoming a princess and yet she wasn’t loved. Her beauty, love, and intelligence were not valued. “Her in-laws were dysfunctional just like many in our Pakistani houses,” says Shazia, a maths teacher for grade four who lives in Karachi with her husband and teenage children. “So I was like, oh my God, this is my story, my sisters-in-law spent years brainwashing me that I was not good enough. But I used to read about Diana and think, it is not always the woman, look at your brother, I could be Diana and he still will not be interested.”
The world watched Diana keenly when she left Charles. And here too they saw the same story told. Women bear the burden of failed marriages. They are repeatedly told in our society especially that if they had just worked a little harder, lost a little more weight, or learnt to stay silent, they could have “saved” their marriage”. Divorce is seen as a failure of the woman, not the man. “When Diana got divorced and started to live her life the way she wanted to, I used to wish that I could do that too,” said Shazia. “She was very brave.” Shazia has been married for 20 years but hasn’t shared a bedroom with her husband for the past thirteen.
Diana may have been thrown into a marriage she wasn’t ready for, but she had a choice. The Queen may have chosen her but she chose to accept Charles’s proposal. This is also the truth. This is the point where Diana’s story stops being ours. The tragedy of the lives of mothers and grandmothers in Pakistan is that they were forced into their marriages. A castle, a prince, or fairy-tale wedding wasn’t part of the promise.