The Bare Breasts of My Ancestors By Nimra Ishfaq

Cover Art by Alina Tosif

In “Pakeezah”, Meena Kumari wears an orange chiffon frock that drapes like a waterfall, covering her from her decollete down to almost her ankles, giving a slight peak into her white churidar pyjamas. The silhouette and shade of the dress almost mimic the lehengas brides wear on their weddings, a day similarly coloured with conflicting messages about the spotlighted woman’s ‘purity’ and sexual readiness. And yet, the courtesan Meena plays is seen as a dirty woman who should exist at the margins. It is an interesting example of how modest dressing, rooted in Mughal history, without an inch of Western ‘otherness’, is still demonized by Pakistanis. And these confusions about what is acceptable for a Pakistani woman motivate women like me to wear the exact shades of scarlet in figure-hugging silks, see-through nets and lace, and still the other me, to donne a black ‘boyish’ band t-shirt, with cropped pixie hair and plaid pantaloons – an outfit I totally stole from Beomgyu from TXT – and to go to public spaces in the clothes I woke up in. At least, that’s the ego ideal I aspire to be, but fall short of most of the time, only being able to exact my will inside the privacy of my bedroom under heavy surveillance – as my favorite pieces remain locked in my personal Narnia.

The Patriarch’s childlike perception of the two types of women that exist in society – the Madonna and the Whore, Sita and Kali, Athena and Medusa- are so pervasive that we have all had to unlearn it at some point. In Heera Mandi (the name makes me vomit), the more ‘expensive’ prostitutes often wear burkas. It is understood that the shoddier and more closed the street, the ‘cheaper’ the service – with prostitutes, who are considered immoral by their burka-clad counterparts, practising purdah to increasingly lesser degrees, eventually with the dupatta disappearing entirely. The sexworkers and the pimps who abuse them are also overtly religious, and clothing is a means of establishing some semblance of a hierarchy.

Somewhat of a pious slut myself, I stopped wearing bras three years ago, because  I think that my boobs (regardless of their size) are nothing but hanging sacks of flesh.There is nothing inherently sexual about them; I don’t need arbitrary fashion to confine them (and the fact that my mother always bought me smaller sizes than I need may have something to do with this). It is true that ancient Indian women publicly flaunted their torsos. With sculptures of goddesses from the period wearing nothing but heavy gold jewelry on their breasts, a fundamental belief about Being becomes clear: the body is a blessing to be flaunted and adorned with jewels, instead of covered for its inherent ‘sinfulness’. This isn’t to say that ancient India was the ultimate haven for body positivity, for the tradition of saris ( a costume Fatima Jinnah and I love and Pakistani Muslim piety abhors) sprouted from the belief that stitching makes the garment impure, again making women’s bodies the battleground for social morality. 

In the shift from saris to purdah and the straight silhouette of the stiff cotton/lawn shalwar kameez lies our society’s simultaneous hatred of and a fetish for fat women. As someone who grew up with early 2000s fashion, aside from straight and long kameezes, I grew up watching women being squeezed into Victorian corsets ( an image sexualized by male Victorian authors, who disregarded the fact that ordinary corsets worn by most women didn’t involve violent cinching) and ultra skinny models, literally dubbed as the ‘heroin chic’ in a marketing campaign by Calvin Klein. The fact that people were being sold the emaciated body of a drug addict as the fashion ideal spells exactly what the patriarchy wants for women – disease, hunger, instability and the social isolation that would accompany them. The images of white women – starved, with completely flat stomachs and low hanging jeans – did a number on my mental health, and I developed an eating disorder, which at one point involved eating two bowls of watery K Special and a roti in a day.

 I will be the first to admit that even though today I love my body (which weighs more than it did in my mid-teens), there is still a part of me that wants to fit the curvy, but without the double chin archetype, and that is a dangerous game. When I lost more than twenty pounds from depression this year, I actually was told how ‘hot and mesmerizing’ I was by a woman, who stared at me with envy and admiration for realizing my ‘potential’. Nevermind that she threw me down the ED spiral, while making me confident in a very sinister manner – a story for another day.

For now, it is important to understand that there have been periods – however lengthy or brief- in our history where fashion options were not as limited, despite the absence of the sweat-shop  driven, fast fashion of today. When the colonizers arrived in the Subcontinent, some women, notably Bengalis, still only covered the lower half of their bodies. Simultaneously, the Mughal court paraded bright jewel tones, golds and silvers, with intricate and ornamental detailing, as both men and women wore ‘frocks’ – trends that were hammered out of us, especially men, who adopted the ‘manlier’ waistcoat and boring pale/black hues. At the time of Partition, Begum Rana Liaqat Ali was still leading trends with ghararas in public spaces, as was Fatima Jinnah with saris. In the late 60s and early 70s, hippie fashion, which was transported to us when gora sahib started visiting our bars and clubs for ‘spiritual enlightenment’, constituted a significant moment in Pakistani fashion history. With gender-bending trends of women wearing bell bottoms and men sporting long hair, these people were certainly some of the most experimental youth of their time. I also want you to remember Rehana Jafarey and Mahmuda Jafarey, who wore short skirts during tennis matches broadcast under the Zia regime. At one instance, she and her sister went out in white panties with red lining, which showed from underneath their skirts, and were considered especially ‘fahash’ by their aunt who was reminded of menstruation. But the girls ignored her and her jest and went to tennis practice in the scandalous fit.

My mother has always told me that my name means ‘pakeezah’, a word I could barely pronounce till I was 12. I am supposed to share this meaning with my nano, who was benevolently titled Tahira. Funnily enough, that’s not what it means: Google tells me that it translates to either ‘soft’ or ‘lion’ in Arabic, and I think that contradiction captures my essence perfectly – something that goes beyond any ideal or trend, as with all living beings. It is absurd that Pakistanis expect women to comb out the kinks and frizz they were born with naturally – to adorn an aesthetic that didn’t even exist in ancient Arab. Trust me; no rational woman was going around in black gloves, covered head-to-toe with full- sleeved burkas in the fucking desert of all places.

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