Behenchara

Fashion As Queer Expression By Ghausia Rashid Salam

Artwork by Hiba Asfaque

2010:

“Oho, fashion ke maar!” Papa says when I step outside my room, ready for Eid dinner. Ammi said it was okay to wear the gorgeous plum coat with a tunic she got made for a cousin’s wedding. For once, I can wear red lipstick and not get scolded that it’s bright. A YouTube tutorial helped me do what I think is a smoky eye effect, and my hair is straightened just right- frizz calmed with toxic chemicals and intense heat, and the bottom curling with my natural waves. 

I beam at Papa as he kisses me, and chirp, “Eid Mubarak again Papa!”

“My most beautiful guriya, let me do a nazar ki dua for you,” Papa says, and I tilt my head up, trying not to roll his eyes. Nobody up there exists to listen to anyone, but I put a lot of effort in putting this face on, so it’s nice to receive some validation. 

My sister has already arrived, and I trot my way to the living room, where she’s talking to Ammi. I wait a couple of minutes before she pauses and looks at me. “What? Why are you looking at me expectantly?” she asks, her eyebrows rising in annoyance. 

“Is my face okay?” I ask her, and the eyebrows come down, her nose scrunching as she starts to laugh. 

“Yes, you look very pretty, good job baby,” she praises, and I smile. She’s wearing white as always, a long white kurta with pearls and silver embroidery. I can tell she doesn’t have foundation on, unlike me. She didn’t even bother with eyeshadow, and her lipstick is some strange nude pink. She’s straightened her thick black Rapunzel hair and left it open, although I know that in a half hour, she’ll tie it in a ponytail when we’re getting dinner ready for our guests. 

Of course, Appi doesn’t need to do anything with her appearance, because she’s the most beautiful person I know. She makes zero effort, and still looks like a supermodel. 

Unlike me.

2016:

“Khala, let’s go, Nana says we’re leaving for Dolmen in five minutes!” My niece barges into the room, closing the door behind her. “Do you need help?”

Guriya is 11, and already the best friend I never knew I needed. I’m trying to tame my hair in the mirror; my waves are tighter with short hair, and my bangs are curving across my forehead, which would be cute if the ends weren’t sticking out in a U shape.

My problem isn’t that it looks unattractive. My problem is the way it softens my face more than my quadruple chins already do, feminising it in spite of the lumberjack red plaid button down I’m wearing. Feminising me into the perfect beti, the perfect woman, the perfect lie.

“I just need to figure out what to do about this guriya, and then I’m good to go,” I mutter, and I feel her surveying my appearance. It’s uncanny how much I rely on her to help me match colours and coordinate outfits; are all little girls socially conditioned into fashion and style this young, or does this one just have a good eye for it?

“Wait just a minute,” she says, and reaches out. I pause fidgeting with my hair, watching as she carefully, slowly rolls up each of my sleeves till my elbows, making sure the roll is thick enough not to loosen and slip open again. When she’s satisfied that both sleeves are tucked tightly into the roll of fat on my arms, she nods and smiles, pleased with herself. “There. Now you look like a proper boy.”

I’m a bad khala for telling children I don’t identify as female. I’m the worst khala for violating my siblings boundaries and speaking to their children about something they don’t approve of. 

I stroke her cheek before kissing her, and she gives me a big hug. “Should I get your bag for you?” she asks, looking up at me with her sweet smile. I shake my head, unable to form words and pick up my bag as we both head outside.

2021:

I twist open the lid of my Lush Dirty styling cream. There is quite a bit left, which is great because when it finishes, I can’t buy more; not since Lush’s charity funded a TERFy women’s organisation. I rub a dab of cream on my fingers, running it through my short crop once, twice; my cowlick, like me, can never be tamed, but I focus on my growing bangs, sweeping them back so that my forehead is left unframed. I check my kajal once more in the mirror, and wear my favourite black choker; a dull silver bead on a black cord, with two pom poms at the ends that tie at the back. I smooth down my favourite t-shirt, a blue short-sleeved round neck that I bought on our 2018 Sister Trip to Dubai, and tuck it into my jeans. My jeans are sagging, so I go back to my closet to put on my belt, and pause to check my reflection in the mirror.

I can’t help smirking at what I see. My outfit highlights my beautiful body, the dull colours and lack of grace blending with my curves into confusing androgyny. Is it a girl? Is it a boy?

Nah bro, it’s Ghausia, and they’re smokin’ today. 

“Ammi, I’m leaving,” I pop my head into my parents room to quickly say bye, and both my parents look me up and down. 

“Baal lambay horahe hein,” Papa says, smiling. “Pher mat katwana bhai, abhi thora barhnay dou!”

“Eske sabse khubsoorat baal thay, esne apne hulyay ka barbada laga diya,” Ammi comments, and I feel the smile at Papa’s teasing fading from my face. I know she doesn’t mean it because she’s the one who gets all my Cotton & Silk copycat kurtas made. I know she doesn’t mean it because of how she’ll smile when I dress up for family dinners. 

 “Please Ammi, I am the Fairy Princess of this house,” I declare, and go into the room to twirl into a pirouette. I stumble, and bump into their TV console, and both of them are torn between amusement and concern. “Okay, maybe an Elephant Princess, but still a princess Ammi!” 

“Es mein koi shak?” Ammi says, smiling even as she taps at her iPad on her latest level of Pet Rescue Saga. I go to kiss her bye, and in a rare moment of affection, Ammi turns away from her screen to kiss my cheek back. “I love you darling.”

“I love you too Mummy,” I say, nuzzling her soft cheek before she pushes me off. Balance restored.

***

I gave away most of my clothes, and a lot of jewellery, when I came back from my MA. Having to live on a student budget wasn’t a problem when I grew up in a home where we were always taught to question whether we need something or not, before we buy it. Still, I felt like I had a lot of clothes when I packed my suitcases for the final trip home. Then I came back home, and realised I had two closets filled with clothes, some of which I had only worn once.

I’m wary of debates on fashion, because while slow fashion is necessary, I find it difficult to focus on those strands of fashion which are truly transformative or artistic. It’s harder to consider fashion as a serious entity in an increasingly capitalist world, where a socialist politician who goes to a party, feels the need to scrawl neoliberal slogans on her dress simply to justify her presence at said party. Fashion isn’t changing the world. Fashion is built on the backs of the working class, profiting off the exploitation and labour of the poor and oppressed. I’m not interested in hyperlinking to articles about how fashion promotes consumerism, contributes to environmental degradation, or perpetuates the commodification and hypersexualisation of women’s bodies, while also reinforcing heteronormative, Westernised ideals of beauty and bodies. It’s 2021, and none of this new to feminist discourse. But why must we consider fashion through a feminist lens if we are to see the futility of it?

Even as a kid, I never understood why we had to follow trends and fashion. Why can’t people just wear whatever they want, irrespective of gender or cultural norms? I don’t own a single jumpsuit because I pee too much to put up with it, and why was everyone putting chains on their jeans in the early 2000s? God, I’m so glad my parents policed my body and didn’t allow me to wear jeans at that point, because unlike other people my age, I have no regrets of falling for that trap.

I thought fashion was irrelevant long before finding my way to feminism. And yet… What do I do, every time I style my appearance? What do I do, when I occasionally Google ideas for non-binary outfits for bodies like mine which don’t look like Ruby Rose? Why do I dress in an ordinary men’s kurta, but grin as I pair it with earrings or kajal? 

For the longest time, I denied myself the right to self-expression, believing that a socialist feminist who claims to live by their principles, must reject the trappings of consumerism and fashion. I was also uninterested in trying to fit where my body and preferences simply did not belong. But it wasn’t until I started embracing my own non-binary identity, that I began to understand how blending gendered fashion was not only a way for me to express my non-binary identity; it was a means of resistance against heteronormativity and respectability politics which demand that I perform femininity. A demand I met, over and over, throughout my life, never understanding that the dissonance within me was not only because I felt insecure and ugly; but because I truly was, as I always felt when I dolled myself up, pretending to be something- someone– that I’m not. 

I’m not the first person to hit upon queer fashion; we all know mainstream fashion and even pop culture borrows heavily from queer fashion and culture. I’m late to the party when it comes to discovering fashion as gender self-expression, and I’m dropping hyperlinks now, because I know this is still not as mainstream. Queer fashion isn’t just an expression of identity; it’s a political statement that speaks against respectability politics which dictate that we look, act, talk like the cis and the str8s in order to gain their allyship. I was a very good girl for most of my life, until I decided good girls never lived their dreams, or got to be ambitious, so nothing about me has ever been respectable. As someone who doesn’t identify with the gender assigned to them at birth, who is pan, spiritual, socialist feminist, I’m the last person who’d represent sanitised queerness for the cishet gaze. Why should I pretend to be like them, when I am not?

When I was living the dream and doing my MA in Brighton, UK, I got to live a queer life for the first time in my life. But like Christian in Moulin Rouge who had never been in love, I had never lived openly queer, and had no idea what it entailed. The most exhilarating part of living queer, was realising that for the first time, I saw other people who looked like me, and they saw me too. When I returned from winter break with my hair shaved on one side, other queer folks at university told me that they always got a queer vibe from me, and the hair only confirmed it. Coming from Karachi, where everyone coded me as cis female no matter what I wore simply because I have large breasts, I was stunned because I was finally being seen for who I was. I had gaslit myself for so long, believing I didn’t know what it meant to be queer; but all I had to do, was just be myself.

And it’s important to be seen. Our lives and safety depend on someone seeing us in the crowd, and knowing we are a safe person to approach in case of trouble. Queer folks are in danger every time they step outside, because our true face transgresses against cishet normative and violent cultures. So when I see someone in Karachi or Lahore or Islamabad, who looks just a little bit like me… we smile, and hold community in that moment of knowing we are among kin. 

Bio:

Ghausia Rashid Salam is a feminist researcher and activist, who in 2021, is using a devastating covid economy to pursue their childhood dreams of writing, since that’s much better than moping about joblessness and other life crises. They are more fun and interesting in person, and outside of small bios.

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