Just yesterday I had to go to Islamabad’s largest private hospital to get a vaccination for a tropical country I’ll be travelling to. I went straight from office in my dress pants and an airy orange blouse that flowed below my waist.
When I walked in through the emergency gate of the hospital trying to look for information and simultaneously battle the onslaught of stares, I started becoming smaller. This shrinking of my emotional size almost felt physical. There was disapproval. There was disgust. Even hate. I took it all in. That is what you do to an attack – unless, of course you have nerves of steel, which I don’t.
So I asked around about where I should go, carefully avoiding the stares and the direction of stares. Also while trying to battle the panic I would have if a toothy lioness devoured me. I knew it was going to get worse when I had to pass by a mosque area to search for an ATM to pay for the vaccine.
For the 4 minutes I walked, I was asked to cover my head, I was asked if I ran out of cloth, I was told I was a great masterpiece of God’s creation and I was whistled at and winked at. Then, I had to walk 4 minutes back. By the end of it all, I felt like a creepy crawly creature at the floor of the hospital’s large expanse.
For most women, these experiences vary. They range from gropes to violent rapes. They are all assaults and they are the aggressor’s entire fault.
The day I was groped at age 17 in a Karachi market while I was draped so much cloth I felt like an Bedouin tent in Arabia, was the day I realized it is not me. The same day an old man clonked me on the head with his walking stick because my dupatta was on my shoulders and not my head. That was also the day I realized it’s them.
There two kinds of people, those who are doing the best they can, then there are those who are doing the best they can to make other’s feel uncomfortable and pained.
A woman from the second category was found recently harassing a young woman in Karachi outside the famous Agha’s super store just this week. The older woman from the Al-Huda fame, chastised this young woman for dressing up a way that she found unacceptable. She questioned the young woman’s Muslim faith and harassed her until the cops had to be involved. Classic teaching of the Al Huda brand of Islam is that you gain ground by making young women feel inferior and unworthy. Ultimately, to make them invisible.
Women take up the role to gate-keep chastity from men by doing the equivalent of catcalling. They shame women for their choice of clothes, their appearance in public spaces and their choice of company. Mostly they are horrified that women can loiter in all the glory of their good hair days alone without male supervision.
These older women, often post menopausal, come to the conclusion after years of gruesome care-giving that they have no real status, and the closest thing they have to being taken seriously is toe the line that men do.
I refused to fault religion. In its absence people would make up some other conservative ideology. The issue is control and its oppressive pressure on mostly young (Read: fertile) women who want, for all practical purposes, to have a life that is better than a glorified rug-mat. So when women loiter, as I was, looking from ward to ward, an ATM or a nurse to vaccinate me, we crash into the mighty monstrosity of conservatism and control. Even getting groceries becomes an act of war.
We loiter because we want to claim public spaces just as men do. We know that’s where the juju is. That is where the opportunity is. That is where the freedom is. We want that.
So here we are as a civilization. The women want space and the men and the women who are essentially men, want to stop us. It’s a battle that is perhaps more crucial than the arms race we jump right into, or the politics of supremacy or the need to join a trade treaty. Women are key in the economic development in the country and that will never happen if there is an aversion to seeing us publically.
By seeing us I mean seeing us at our terms – burka or not, veiled or unveiled, camisole or kameez shalwar – we want our clothes to reflect our lived identity not yours, or yours.
At the end we loiter because we are sure this is the one way we can vaccinate this country against the disease of silencing women. The antidote to misogyny is our presence in the arena. Right where the fight it.