Cover art by Fartashia
There’s nothing I can wear that will make it better. I’ve tried everything. Jeans. Pants. Salwar. Lehengas. Chadars. Dupattas that are little decorative scraps of fabric. Dupattas so heavy they could drown me. And still.
It’s not what I wear. It’s the way I carry myself – how obscene, how vulgar, speaking out of turn, expressing her ideas, how dare she- Like I dare.
Like I don’t care if all the men in this room want me to stop and bend my back and crawl on home, sipping their medicine, unaware of my own power.
I used to love to dress up. I would match sparkly purple earrings to dresses adorned with butterflies; I would wear beaded bracelets with my glittery shaadi clothes. I would sit for hours at my dresser, dreaming up new outfits, experimenting, always wanting my fashion to say something about myself.
But not anymore. I can’t get it right. So I’ve given up.
I don’t like being told what to do. I don’t like being treated like a little girl. I don’t like being stared at like a piece of meat until even I forget that I’m human. Here, in Lahore, I get all three in full force.
When you try to adjust in a society like ours, where the ideal woman is both beautiful and invisible, there’s a limit to which you can compromise your personality and your body. These are the small choices and small decisions, so commonplace as to be mundane, that dominate women’s lives. We don’t wear the new dress to dinner because Ahmed Uncle will feel uncomfortable around short sleeves. We don’t go all out on the farewell sari because the hostel boys will be watching. We stop wearing jeans to school because the chemistry professor holds grudges. We show up to exams clean of all makeup, dressed like a nun, just to make sure no one fails us for wearing lipstick. Conversely, we do our full makeup to meet the neighbors even if we don’t feel like it because otherwise what will people think? We decide to stop talking about our ambitions and dreams in polite company. We drop out of school because the stories about girls being murdered raise our father’s blood pressure . We don’t leave the house too much because the in-laws don’t seem to like that.
It’s elementary; it’s the rules of the road. Yet these little compromises break us, and divide us from essential parts of ourselves.
I resented all the messages, religious values, and political diatribes being beamed on my clothing so much, I could scream. I didn’t want to be the harbinger of doom for society just because my shirt was tight. I didn’t want to be seen as a bad woman if I wasn’t done up to the nines and waxed within an inch of my life for every outing. I didn’t want to spend all my free time in the rat race of buying increasingly expensive designer salwar kameez just to be judged for looking indecent in them when I forewent the dupatta. There was an intense pressure for women to look good, be poised and well-dressed and perform beauty, at the same time that we were told to be hidden and modest. It all made me furious. But there was no outlet for anger, and no fairer game in sight. So I called game over on my body.
I wore whatever. I stopped buying clothes. I stopped doing my hair. I didn’t pay attention. I probably dressed like a total slob. On several occasions a class fellow pointed out that my shirt was inside out. I was so detached from my body, from the rituals of female beauty that I felt were enforced on me, that it was like I didn’t even see myself. It made sense; I had gotten used to being watched, surveilled, learning to police my own clothing and movements before someone did it for me. The actual image in my mirror was refracted between so many mirrors that it was blurry.
I don’t know what the Pakistani patriarchy wants from me. What kind of ephemeral, obedient woman it imagines. All I know is that I can’t deliver. And I can’t spend all my life and energy fighting, either. That first winter was long ago; now, I want to feel spring. I am no longer trying to cloak myself in reaction to the patriarchy around me. Sometimes I dress up; sometimes I do my makeup; sometimes I don’t. I am trying to claim my body and my fashion as something that belongs to me, instead of something that exists for and is interpreted by others. I am trying to silence the little voice in my head that wants to keep talking, the distillation of a thousand aunties and uncles and creepy bosses, telling me to be self conscious and afraid. I’m not trying to cover up, and not trying to blare fuck off signals either. How lovely, to be allowed to exist with my own body without anyone watching – not even my anger, not even my hardened bitterness.
by Emaan M