Women’s Day 2021: Blend in, they said.

Shaheen Rajan in Hala, Sindh

I pick up my dupatta and am about to step out of the house. I have to send out a package and I have decided to walk to the post office. It’s not very far. About 15 minutes on foot. 10 if I walk really fast. There is a TCS on a commercial street near my house, and that is to be my destination.

I am about to close the door behind me when a thought stops me from taking another step. I retrace my steps, go back in, swap my chiffon dupatta with a black chaddar, wrap it around my shoulders, and walk out of the house, one more time. This time, I feel a little more protected. A piece of cloth is my shield. In my head, I am now deemed worthy of respect. I will successfully ward off catcallers and men who stare.

I didn’t sit much with my thought process and actions at that time. It was just something I did. I went to the post office, sent out the package, and walked back home. I also picked up jalebis on the way back.

Later on, when everyone had slept and the house was eerily quiet, it came crawling back. The thoughts. They wanted an explanation for my actions. These thoughts, rather pesky, looked straight at me and asked three simple questions:

1. Why did you take a chaddar?

2. Does a woman deserve respect only when she’s wearing a chaddar?

3. Did it work?

I felt cornered and targeted. I didn’t want to have this conversation. I am here for 8 weeks and I would rather not fight anymore. It’s exhausting. And nothing ever changes. With every passing year, I find catcallers and men who stare even more overbearing and cocky than the year before. Especially when I am on foot, and the roads aren’t busy. I hate to admit it but the situation now also includes fear. I haven’t forgotten the highway rape case. I can’t. 

I get a glass on water, and sit on the couch with a pen and paper. A deep breath, a sip of water, and a sigh. Fine. I will talk.

  1. I took a chaddar because I have been told that my arse draws attention. I didn’t want any. And I can’t fight 100 men in a 10 minute walk. Also, it helps my parents worry less. They can give me pretty much everything I desire but not guarantee security should I decide to take a 10 minute walk within a kilometre radius of my own home.
  2. No. I know that a person deserves respect. Period. Attire, race, colour, gender have no say in it. But a major part of the society doesn’t. The chaddar is more for them than me.
  3. This makes me laugh a mirthless laugh. It did not. I had to stare back at 6 men until they looked away. One of them was a boy of no more than 15. Catcalling was down significantly. 

The bottom line is that it did work. To an extent. I chose to forgo my right to individuality and freedom of expression, right to choose and right to be. I traded them for the flimsy idea of safety while walking the streets of Karachi, alone.

I was ashamed that evening. I was mortified that night. And I was furious the day after. How dare they…but more importantly, how dare I?! How dare I choose complacency? How dare I conform with societal practices that have made lives of so many women a nightmare? How dare I not fight the inappropriate gaze?

I made a mental note that day to filter everything that comes my way about women and the way for them to be safe. Take every advice with a grain of salt. Check for internalised misogyny and victim blaming inclinations. And use my own judgement. At 32, I should be able to fight the good fight. Stare a man down when his eyes are fixated on my chest.

This women’s day, I want to remind myself and you that the entire burden of izzat and ehteraam (dignity and respect) doesn’t fall on women. Abuse should reflect on abuser and not on the length of victim’s kameez. Every person has a right to safety and freedom to choose for themselves, and until that is ensured, we shall march. We shall push for conversations in lounges and senates, ask for understanding and reforms, demand safety  for all.

It is so easy to hide, look away, do whatever society demands to avoid conflict. It is easy. I  should know. I just did it, and tried my best to sweep it under the rug. But I also understand that if I don’t actively push for change, nothing with change, and another generation of women will suffer like many of us have. They will also be groped and catcalled. They will also be told ‘shaadi ke baad’ and ‘loog kya kahenge’. They will also be asked to submit their individuality and aspirations for conformity with dated, repressive concepts.

Often, when I talk to older women in my family, and ask about why did they accept things that were clearly unfair, and how I just would never, they reply mostly with the same answer – we didn’t have a choice. People didn’t think like they do now. People didn’t accept the kind of choices younger lot has the freedom to make now. 

Who are these people? Today, they are you and me. Today, people can choose better for themselves and speak against injustice because people like you and I support them. We believe in their right to choose. And every time we don’t, every time we shy away from the good fight, someone bears the brunt of it, in the form of abuse, harassment, inequality and injustice. So let’s not. For our present and that of future generations. Let’s not be in a position when our young ones ask us as to why did we not speak up, we have to resort to the same reply.

Note: by no means am I asking women to let go of their chaddars. All I am saying that it should be a choice for yourself and not conform to societal prejudices or because it offers you some semblance of security against transgressive behaviour.

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