The Othering of Our Own Kind
– Kainat Azhar
“The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of great moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.” – Dante Alighieri
As the night darkens, I sit alone in my room. The world around me has drifted to sleep. I usually share this lonely hour with a book, but tonight each joint in my body screams for sanity. I have grown up in a place where societal norms matter more than human lives. Nobody conforms to this idea aloud. Every one appears to be more human than the other. The inner wolves only come out when a calamity shakes the walls of society. The animals howl when they see those lies scattering across the ground, over which they have built their households.
Such times — when madness is unleashed on the streets, when colors die unattended, and when a baby’s cry kills the butterflies in the garden — Dante’s quote dances in front of my eyes. It smiles at me in the beginning. When I ignore it, it mocks me and, in the end, when I try to close my eyes to avoid the gruesome realities of this world, it frightens me. It rips open my chest and holds my guts in its hand till my soul is drenched in invisible blood and my body in sweat.
No matter how much I detest my roots, I don’t want anyone whose bloodline I carry to burn in hell. But I can’t do anything; I am a woman of color — the society I dwell in wants me to maintain silence over what others do with my mind or, in some cases, my body.
When I was 14, the van driver who used to take me to school everyday since my childhood tried to touch me. I was alone in the van that day. He approached me and said he wanted to wait for the other girls to come out of their homes. This was his regular habit, so I didn’t mind. As we waited, he asked me questions about my studies, and I answered each one of them with innocence. Suddenly, he put his hand on my arm. I was surprised. I asked him to remove his hand, but he refused to listen. Instead, he assured me that nothing would happen — all I should do to remain as silent as I could. I was a child then, I didn’t even know what could go wrong, and the only thing echoing in my mind was my mother’s voice telling me not to allow anyone to touch me. Dry throated, I asked the driver to let me go home. Again, he didn’t react. Only his grip on my arm became firmer. He had a strong hand, my arm started hurting. Involuntarily, I used the long nails of my other hand and scratched the back of his hand with them. He released me, his hands bleeding. I left the van and went back home.
When I returned, I was afraid. I didn’t have the courage to tell anyone about what had just happened. I was suffering from a spinal problem those days, so I told my mother that I didn’t want to go to school because my back hurts. My lie worked. Mother brought me some milk and a painkiller and asked me to sleep. I lay in bed all day and sobbed under my blanket.
That day, I decided to make my own fictitious world where no one could touch me — I was wrong.
Growing up, I realized that certain men can touch me in ways that do not involve the use of their limbs. Their eyes are enough to make me feel uncomfortable, even in surroundings I was most familiar with. I tried to cover myself, it didn’t work. I tried living in my own world — to never touch societal rules, to act like a good girl (as per the societal definitions), but even then there was always a pair of eyes that followed every moment my limbs made, every transformation my body went through.
I couldn’t say any of this aloud; the lineage I carry identifies a family’s moral character by the amount of skin the women of that family keep veiled. The pre-partition stories of those virtuous women were narrated to me by my grandmother and, sometimes, by my father, too. Discussing my body would get me into trouble, so I embraced silence every time I felt harassed.
A very close relative of mine is a woman of religion. I have seen her and her friends comparing other women with wrapped candies. “A candy without a wrapper is dirty, it attracts flies,” they say. They classify every woman around us into two categories: The first is the covered, the chaste ones; and, the second, the uncovered, the un-virtuous ones. They reduced morality to the amount of skin a female shows — the lesser the better.
Such women, I dare say, are worse than those patriarchal men who think that their honor lies in the hands of their mothers, sisters, or daughters. Hypocrites they are, for they show sympathy for every lady that approaches them, but judge each one’s moral character based on the type of hijab she observes.
Mohammed Hanif, in his novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, said: “Most of the life’s arguments, it seemed, got settled by doing various things to a woman’s body.” Be it Qandeel or Mukhtaran Mai, be it Sabeen or Samia, be it Malala or thousands of women who are (maritally) raped or abused every day, those patriarchal women provide fuel for them to burn in our society.
It is not only the males who are raping or killing our brave women. It is the judgmental tongues of our fellow patriarchal ladies that provide basis for these men who burn (or want to burn) or throw acid on the faces of the women who try to break the chains that oppress them. It is the mindset of this society that finds Manto’s “Thanda Gosht” seductive. It is the fear that the wings of a fluttering butterflies arouse in a gun.
I would leave you with a poem I read a couple of weeks ago. I don’t have the courage to translate it, so I leave it here for you all: