If you live in Pakistan, you would know that other people consider it their right to pry into your personal affairs (am I right, Imran Khan?).
Nevertheless, I thought, surely there is one relationship that is too sacred to be defiled by gossip?
Surely, basic decency would prevent people from making this one special relationship the subject of their nosy speculations; the relationship between a woman and her Dupatta.
Sadly, that isn't the case. My relationship with my Dupatta has of recent become talk of the town and I’m ashamed to say we have let this come between us.
You see, my Dupatta has recently been despondent. Drooping at the hem, its mukaish seemed more dull and the curves of its paisley embroidery less cheerful than before. I knew it was time for a talk.
Dupatta sighed when I suggested that, and fell into a dejected silence. “Come on now,” I said, “Is this about how many creases you have had recently? Sweetheart, you know you are always beautiful to me.”
“It’s just…” Dupatta responded, “Do you even love me anymore?”
“Darling! How can you ask such a thing?”
“Everyone’s been saying it. Don’t pretend you haven’t heard them. Everyone knows I’m not good enough for you.”
“Oh, you know how people talk. They don’t understand us, and they never will. Why are you thinking about silly gossip?,” I tried consoling it.
“Because, I – I – I’ve failed you!” Dupatta burst into tears. “I was supposed to protect you!”
I sighed heavily. I finally understood what Dupatta was so upset about.
“Now listen here. Is this about that day years ago, when I walked to the bank two houses down from my office to cash my cheque and a man grabbed my backside? Why darling! What could you possibly have done about that? You were just six yards of snow white crinkle chiffon!”
“But, but…everyone says it was my job to defend you! Maybe I shouldn’t have been white crinkle chiffon that day! Maybe I should have been a big, black chadar and then that young man would never have touched you!”
“Oh Dupatta, whatever material you were made of that day, it would hardly have mattered. You go around my chest and my shoulders. Unless I’ve been wearing you wrong for 10 years, I’m pretty sure you don’t cover my entire body anyway,” I said gently. “And besides my dear, it was mid-July then! It would have been torture to wear a big black chadar outside in the sun in that weather!”
“But…what about that day when you were walking home from the bank in your own gated residential colony, and that middle-aged man in the black corolla stopped his car beside you and insisted that you go home with him? By the way dear, going to the bank does not seem to work out well for you. Maybe you should give up the idea of having your own finances altogether. Maybe that’s the problem.”
“You were made of emerald green pashmina that day,” I replied, ignoring Dupatta’s remarks about my finances, “and even though I was starting to feel very hot, I still kept you draped around me, didn’t I?”
“And still I could not stop that man from making inappropriate advances at a woman half his age!” My Dupatta wailed. “Surely I must have done something wrong!”
“Now stop this silliness, Dupatta! There was nothing you could have done. Just like there was nothing you could have done when my friends and I went to Sheesh Mahal (Glass Palace) last weekend and that group of boys loitering there all turned around and kept their eyes glued to our bodies as we climbed down into the courtyard.”
“But I should have, I should have done something! Why couldn't I rip into a dozen little rags and wrap myself around each of the boys’ eyes like blindfolds? WHY?” Dupatta burst into fresh sobs.
“Darling, you’re getting hysterical…” I said, but it was no good.
“And when you were 13 years old and walking out of Alhamra with your siblings after watching a play and that young man shoved his hand between your legs!”
“My dear, how is that your fault?”
“Because, if only I had been made of reinforced concrete instead of off-white georgette! Why didn't it occur to me? Oh the shame, the shame!"
I waited for Dupatta to calm down before I tried to reason with it. “I know people’s gossip is frustrating, but why do you let this come between us now? We’ve been happy together for years!”
“How can you reduce our relationship to just the sexual? Is that all I am to you? What about everything else between us? You’re my safety net whenever I enter a ridiculously over air-conditioned room in midsummer, or when a passing car stirs up a cloud of dust on to my clean hair, or when the smoke and pollution is getting to my lungs.
“Who wipes my tears if I get upset and don’t want it to show? When it rains, who do I hold over my head?
“When the sun shines too bright on winter days, who creates a little canopy over my head?
“Who ripples out behind me in the wind on my friend’s rooftop during the monsoon rain so I can pretend I’m a Bollywood heroine?”
“I do…” said Dupatta with a watery smile. “I do all those things, but do I make you feel safe at all?”
I sighed. “Well, for some years, you know, at the beginning of our relationship, I didn’t feel safe without you. But as time passed, I wondered, isn’t there something wrong with a world where a 15-year-old girl doesn’t feel secure without a piece of cloth? Especially, when it doesn’t seem to help her safety much anyway?”
“Well, when you put it like that…I’m glad we stopped being codependent and moved on to a happier, healthier relationship.” Dupatta paused. “But…doesn’t it ever bother you that we had an Arranged Marriage, instead of a Love Marriage?”
I sighed. “Well, it is true that we were introduced by my parents. And it’s true we met under certain assumptions about women’s bodies. But since then and even before, we went out together so many times just because we wanted to, didn’t we? And now, we could very well leave each other. But we choose to stay together.”
“Yes...almost all the time. But what about when you go out without me?”
“You know we need space sometimes.”
“So…it’s not because I’m oppressing you?”
I started to laugh. “Where did you hear that?”
“Oh, you know, some white people on social media were talking about poor backward Muslim women.”
“Well, if we can’t let anyone within our own culture define our relationship, we certainly can’t let people from outside our culture butt in, can we? Besides, although I respect whatever religion you currently identify with, you know you really don’t have much to do with Islam dear. Your name comes from Sanskrit, and your ancestors can be traced back to Mohenjodaro, and that was long before Islam. What do those people know about us? Remember our first week at college?”
Dupatta nodded slowly.
“When that senior boy who became my friend was afraid of sitting on the grass and I asked why, and he finally admitted that he was afraid of bugs on the grass, and I spread you out on the ground for him to sit on?”
“And he said it’s nice when girls do things like that?”
“Yeah. I think he meant it’s nice when boys can say they’re afraid even of something silly like bugs and be treated with some chivalry in return.”
“Mmm. That was quite sweet, wasn’t it? I bet they never imagined you and I ever subverted gender roles together.”
“No, they didn’t. Because what they don’t realise is it’s not about whether we are seen together or not. It’s about us and what happens here behind closed doors, when I make the decision to go with you or without you, based on my own reasons of where I'm going, what I'm wearing, the weather outside, how I feel that day and a million other factors that only you and I know about. My dear, I really think no amount of cloth and no style of clothing are ever going to stop harassment and assault.
“Because a family member who tells a girl what to wear and a man who gropes at that girl on the street are both really saying the same thing: Your body does not belong to you. I get to tell you what to do with it.
“Harassment will only stop when we start to teach our children that only the person whose body it is should get to decide what happens to that body. That decision – whether it is about who touches your body or what clothes you wear on it – belongs to that person alone.”