In Pakistan, feeling free to leave the burqa behind
As soon as I stepped out of my house in Karachi and started to walk toward the bus stop, I felt something weird. People seemed to be taking notice of me more than usual, staring at me as if I were a new person in town. "Something is definitely wrong," I thought.
When I boarded the bus - in the women's compartment - my burqa-clad sisters began to look at me in an offensive way, making me feel more uncomfortable. Finally, a middle-aged woman whose patience had clearly run out, asked me sarcastically, "My child, are you a Muslim?"
I said, "Yes, I am. Why?"
She pointed at my skintight jeans and above-the-knee tunic, and at the thin scarf I had wrapped around my neck. "Look at all the girls and women in the bus," she said. "All of them are wearing hijab or long veils . . . their heads are covered."
Of course. My Western attire was the reason everyone was staring at me.
I was stunned, as well as annoyed. "Who is she to comment on what I should wear?" I thought. That first day when I changed the way I dressed was tough for me. That woman wasn't the only one who commented. I heard such remarks from many people while traveling on public transport, walking through town, or shopping in local markets. After a few days, I even became accustomed to those critical eyes and annoying comments.
It's difficult for a woman to go against the norms in an Islamic country like Pakistan. Wearing Western clothes in public is one way to raise people's ire, but there are many other things for which a woman faces criticism, discrimination, and, in some cases, physical abuse.
Honor killings and domestic violence are some of the most horrific and shameful examples of physical abuse. Men beat the women in their families in the name of sharia law and justify it by saying that they must learn to obey. However, Islam never favors such inhuman behavior from its followers. Yet it continues. From January 2012 to September 2013, according to a recent report to parliament by the Ministry of Law, Justice, and Human Rights, there were 860 honor killings (mostly of women), 481 incidents of domestic violence, 90 cases of acid burning, 344 cases of rape/gang rape, and 268 incidents of sexual assault/harassment.
Two years ago I wore traditional Pakistani clothes (shalwar-qameez and dupatta), not because I was a typical Muslim, but because I was slightly overweight and didn't want to look funny in skinny jeans. But even then I didn't cover my head. After I joined a gym and mastered the art of hunger management, I reached my desired weight and began to wear what I always wanted to.
I'm not the only woman in Pakistan who wears Western clothes. Among the elite class of Pakistan, it's common. But members of the upper class in big and modern cities like Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad don't use public transportation, and they are never seen walking on the roads. So they don't have to face the same criticism as those who can't afford their own conveyance.
The root of my problem that first day on the bus was twofold: I was not only going against the norms of being a woman in Pakistan, but of a middle-income woman, as well. These are things that many people cannot accept, but I was raised to be independent and think for myself.
My father was a progressive person who belonged to the Communist Party in India before he migrated to Pakistan in 1971. His father died six months after my father's birth, so my grandmother supported her family as a seamstress, working from her home. She worked hard to provide my father and his sisters with a good life and an education. When they were older, my aunts worked, too, following their mother's example. One of them taught in a school. My father, then, did not grow up in a traditional household. When it was his turn to be a parent, and he and my mother had two daughters, he never regretted not having a boy, as many men in the subcontinent would. He granted my sister and me privileges normally reserved for sons: We could work late, join our friends in school or college for picnics, and make important decisions about our life on our own. My mother also supported and encouraged us, fighting the traditions of society that prevent girls from being successful.
The sense of empowerment and independence our parents instilled in us became even more important after my father's death in 2008. Today, we are an all-female household, an unbearable thought for many in Pakistan. My mother and I, as well as my sister - who is divorced - and her two daughters, ages 5 and 3, live together. Our society believes that a male presence is a must in a family and that only a man can protect a woman. But it is my mother who looks after us, and I am financially responsible for my family. We don't feel insecure at all. Yet there are always those who are prepared to make us feel otherwise.
I work late at night in the newsroom of my publication, often not returning home until 2 a.m. That alone is another matter of concern for many people. I don't have to ride the bus home, because my office provides me with a transport service at night. Some of my neighbors can't stop themselves from staring at me when I step out of the van. They even try to get a close look at the driver. There are different ones, depending who is on duty that night, which gives my dear neighbors the impression that I am coming home with a different man each night. This behavior drives me mad sometimes. It doesn't hurt me, but I feel bad for the daughters and sisters in these families. They will never become independent while surrounded by this mentality.
Being myself is my right. Living the life I want is my right. No matter what my religion or nationality, neither society nor the so-called religious police in my homeland are permitted to judge the way I dress, the hours I work, or the way I live.
Allah sent me in this world as a free individual. Only He has the power to decide if I am right or wrong.
Sahar Majid is an Alfred Friendly Fellow from Pakistan who works for the Dawn Media Group.