Womanhood’ is an abstract, formless thing — like an old God, or an undiscovered island. To me it means waking up at 8 am to dust the living room, open up the window and let in the light. It means a body that is soft and giving and kaleidoscopic — here are my bird-boned ankles, here my scarred knuckles, here my floral neck. I met a boy once who told me he couldn’t joke with women — they were too sensitive. I suppose, to him, womanhood was the complete lack of a punchline, a serious snail-like thing, curling away from laughter, and salt.
There are certain symbols of womanhood that have collected in our subconscious, the detritus of constant mis-definition. A woman is a candy-bar. No, she is a suffering thing, what poet Kaveh Akbar would call a “poor deer” — run over (and over and over) by every passing car, and still, still standing in the glow of the headlights. A woman is a metaphor. Wait no — she is a biological certainty, a fixed chromosomal truth. Wait — wait — a woman is a Giver Of Life. A woman is silver earrings and five different kinds of organic conditioner. A woman is salad for lunch, and bile for dinner. A woman is a touched, untouched, virginal whore.
So if no one really knows what a woman is, what does it mean to be one? Especially in a country like Pakistan — where the law half-heartedly tries to protect us, and society tells it to shut its dirty kafir mouth and that’s that. Let me include here two little instances of my experience of Pakistani womanhood, truthful to me, but perhaps only me, which is quite alright, because that’s how memory works. Little instances because — there is comfort in smallness, in lightness, in being able to raise objects, bodies and voices with ease. Because my sharpest pains are all wordless cries. Because in saying the small things, carefully, ritualistically, twice — the big things sort of reveal themselves anyway.
“In a way,” a male friend of mine once said, “catcalls are compliments.” Every woman in the room stared at him like he had grown another head, or perhaps, lost his current one.
I was in a car once, with my sister, and we were dressed up in all our Eid finery — the draped silks, the daringly short sleeves, our mother’s jasmine perfume dabbed on our collarbones and wrists. We were discussing how much Eidi we’d gotten, and how the biryani had been under-spiced, and the way that one uncle of ours looked so tired, na? It’s all his wife’s fault — always nagging, doesn’t even keep a proper house for him.
We stopped at a traffic light. A man in the car next to us knocked on the window. He gestured for us to roll down the window. We didn’t. He gestured again, more emphatically. “Maybe he’s in trouble or something,” I whispered to my sister. “More like he is trouble,” she replied, firmly avoiding his gaze.
He looked me directly in the eye, and his eyes dropped to my chest. He smiled at me, made a hand gesture for oral sex, and drove away laughing. This all happened in broad daylight, in the smoke-filled sedentary bustle of Lahore, basking in Eid lunch afterglow. It took a minute, perhaps less. I didn’t quite know what had happened — I only know that I felt the weight of his hands through two car windows. I only knew that I never wanted to be looked at again.
“Do you think,” I asked my sister, “it was because I was wearing sleeveless?” “No,” she said unconvincingly, “of course not.” “But maybe,” she added, “you shouldn’t wear sleeveless out of the house anymore.” And I didn’t, for years. And when I did, I thought of that man — the crooked width of his smile, the yellow of his teeth, the quick forceful way his fingers moved, like a bird or a bullet.
Being catcalled, or stared at, or having hands gesture toward you is perhaps the smallest, most intangible act of violence. When I walked into middle school, with my newly grown (training bra friendly) breasts, I felt eyes follow me like shadows, like strangers in dark alleyways, like the ghosts of hands that never stopped touching me. The thing about any kind of harassment is that it takes things from you — things you never even knew you could give.
It took sleeveless kameezes from me. It took wandering through my neighbourhood park alone. It took, for a few seconds, my body — my sense of self — my name. It took, and it took, and it takes even now.
They say Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned. It’s an indictment more than anything. But I get it. Sometimes all you have is the urge to make something beautiful.
Maybe womanhood is a constant emptying out. The sound of quickened breath in the street, as heavy footsteps sound languid behind you. A trembling hand moving to lift up a neckline, pull down a hemline, brush hair like a concrete bridal veil in front of a face. And maybe womanhood in Pakistan is being retold the stories of your countless little traumas as a lilting, joking aside — “I would be happy to be catcalled!” My friend continued, “It’s the price you pay for being beautiful.” Maybe he’s a little bit right, maybe womanhood is exactly that — the price you pay for being beautiful.
But I can’t accept that. I can’t equate my identity to all the little acts of violence committed against me. Qandeel Baloch is metonymic for resistant, empowered womanhood in Pakistan — posters of her abounded at the Aurat March, her lips pulled up into a half-smirk. This is the image, and that is the face. It is not the wounds, or the body, or the perpetrators of a gross and unjust violence that define who she was, is, to us. Her womanhood is, and must be, extricable from her victimhood.
Feminist criticism has recently highlighted the importance of active versus passive language, the way we position subjects in sentences — so rather than saying ‘I was raped,’ you would say ‘he raped me.’ Rather than saying ‘I was catcalled’, you say, ‘He was a middle aged weirdo who decided to mimic oral sex to a 15-year-old girl.’ In image, in symbol, in language, and in thought — there is a pressing need to separate who we are from what is done to us.
Womanhood is 21-year-old me, wearing a sleeveless black jorra, and ashing a cigarette out of my car window. Womanhood is that precise moment during the Aurat March where dozens of women donned a mask of Qandeel’s face — as if to say, look, here, you could not take her from us. Being a woman in Pakistan isn’t — but should be, but is inching toward — a re-assertion of what we will not give.
The thing about patriarchy is that I don’t know who I would be without it. It’s like asking a child to imagine what it is to be an adult. There’s the faint scent of freedom, a kind of light at the edges of your vision, but it’s not something that can be known until it is lived. I will never know who I could have been — unafraid and bare-chested, walking home alone at 10 pm. I will never know how to enter a room without instinctively hunching my shoulders and lowering my gaze. I will never know what it is like to love a stranger, alone and in the dark, without shame and fear gathering force in my lungs. I will never know what it is like to be unaware, even for a second, of my own damned beautiful body.
The closest I have come to a world without patriarchy is Ladies Hour at the Islamabad Club Pool (9-10 am). I go with my aunt, and we walk hand in hand, sensible beige towels slung over our shoulders, my excited chatter undeterred by the stolid unresponsiveness of her placating “hmms.” My aunt is the sort of woman who could walk into a palace and immediately zero in on a speck of dust on the side table. She taught me how to swim — like a parody of embodiment, she slowly uncurved her arms over and over again to show me exactly how to float. Womanhood is, often, forced meticulousness — and I think this is the definition my aunt inhabits most comfortably.
The smell of chlorine stings, and my eyes water a little bit because I forgot my goggles at home — but, oh, is this what it is to be a man? To be weightless, to slice through the world like it is not a concrete thing, to never worry about having both feet on the ground? I cannonball into the water and my aunt scolds me, and the waves cascade outward with slowly diminishing force. I think if I jumped from high enough, I could make a tsunami. I could make a wave, so large, so brutal, it would wipe out cities. It would baptise the whole universe. This is the never-ending search — what point is high enough to drown out the world as we know it?
But the pool is more than a metaphor — it is a kingdom where nobody hurts. A stranger tells me that I have to kick my legs a bit faster if I want to go anywhere and I am not afraid. A stranger smiles at me when I catch her eye and I am not afraid. I trip and fall, and three different elderly ladies cluck and fuss over me, tell me I’m so brave for not crying, and I am not afraid.
Fear arrives, with a whistle. I don’t recall if there actually is a whistle that announces the end of Ladies Hour at Islamabad Club, but I can hear it anyway. A sharp staccato thing, ringing in my ears like a fire alarm — the kind of sound that warns you something bad is coming. “Five more minutes,” I say to my aunt. “No — come out.” Always, the leaving, the ushering off, always, the emptying out. The women leave the pool so fast, even the water is confused — trembling, lapping at concrete edges, a limpid question mark.
“I don’t want to go,” I say. “Please — just this once — five more minutes.” “We can go to the ladies only pool — now hurry up, get out.” The ladies only pool is cramped, and lukewarm, with far less room for me to make waves. I do not compromise, fists clenched at my sides — “I want to stay five more minutes.” “Come on!” My aunt says, losing her patience, “Do you want all the men to look at your legs? Do you want them to think you’re that kind of a girl? Get out, NOW.” And with this final commandment, my little kingdom collapses — I watch Islamabad Club disappear in the rear view mirror like Nero, watching Rome burn.
They say Nero played the fiddle while Rome burned. It’s an indictment more than anything. But I get it. Sometimes all you have is the urge to make something beautiful. Sometimes there is nothing left but sad strains of music, echoing into spaces that can no longer belong to you. This is, of course, over-dramatic. We would go back to that middle class sanctuary, Islamabad Club, the next day. There are much more sinister spaces snatched away from women, far more permanently — schools, hospitals, homes, bodies. But that’s my point. Patriarchy spreads like an oil spill — choking off all access to life. Even the smallest space is something we cannot have. So we watch Rome burn — every day, every hour — womanhood in Pakistan is being born with ashes in your fist.
Is this what it is to be a woman in Pakistan, then? A sliding scale of suffering? Different garnishes on the same bland bodies? Where, in womanhood, do we make space for joy?
Womanhood is the art of the after-life — of inhabiting a body that creates far more than it could ever destroy. Not just children, but bonds of friendship, of community, of any and all kinds of boundless love. But then — that’s not just womanhood is it? That’s just — it’s just supposed to be — humanity? It’s more obvious in women though. A kind of forced meticulousness. Women don’t owe the world love, or delicacy, or birth. Women can be corrupt, can be rapists, can be awful, and evil, and unlovable — but we should be able to keep swimming. Women should be able to tread water and be unafraid.
Pakistan has a complicated history regarding women and fear. Uzma Khan was beaten and threatened with rape by another woman, the wife of a man with whom she had an alleged affair. In the viral ‘Colonel Ki Biwi’ video, a woman yells at, abuses and almost runs over a male police officer — granted privilege through her proximity to power, rather than through inhabiting it. Muslim women accuse Christian women of crimes that they did not commit, crimes that remain unsayable. Aunts will constantly ask when a girl is getting engaged, in the pestering mindless way of a mosquito bite that stings more than it should. Women will call a girl a slut for daring to ever desire, a prude for refusing too many eligible advances. We saw a woman with short hair, in plaid once, and my mother wisely declared, “She must be some sort of a lesbian.” Which — is patently untrue. She must not be anything, other than herself.
Women will teach you how to swim, then drag you out of the pool. Women will talk about the sanctity of marriage, then turn around and ignore the husband in favour of dishing it out to the mistress. And the colonel’s wife — well that’s all she’ll ever be in our collective imagination. Someone’s wife. It hurts more coming from women — where did these sweat-soaked, loud, violent beings come from? We were promised boundless love.
Women can fit so comfortably in the system of patriarchy, that they learn to ignore the slices of themselves they cut off along the way. Like Cinderella’s step-sisters — off with the toes, and down with the heels, a little bit of blood in the shoe is not much of a price to pay for a kingdom. The thing about kingdoms is that they demand subjects. So someone, somewhere, is always hurting. And hurt permeates outward — it is the wave that never stops breaking. Unless we’re all swimming, we’re all drowning. Being a woman in Pakistan is the constant, impotent struggle to breathe underwater.
There are certain “crucibles of difference,” as Audre Lorde so eloquently put it, that are intrinsic to womanhood. Poor women, Baloch women, women from religious minorities, transgender women, queer women, dark-skinned women, fat women. The intersectionality of struggles is what constitutes identity — and the ‘degree of harm’ might differ, but the lived experiential reality of harm holds within it a scarring permanence, a tendency toward empathy.
I cried when I read about Qandeel Baloch’s murder. I feel personally offended when people malign Meesha Shafi, in speaking truth to power — I feel she gave us all a voice. Rights of divorce crossed out in nikahnamas, acid attacks, and honour killings, and the systemic degradation of trans women — it implicates us all. There is a sense of a joint struggle, a resurging feminist movement toward an incorporeal, unimaginable future. And still the constant refrain, by male critics, by cynical family members, by angry unhappy people online — you, personally, haven’t suffered enough.
Womanhood is a part of me, not the whole of me. Being Pakistani is a part of me, not the whole of me. My identity is more than a list I fill out in hospital waiting rooms, and college applications.
Is this what it is to be a woman in Pakistan, then? A sliding scale of suffering? Different garnishes on the same bland bodies? Where, in womanhood, do we make space for joy? My experience echoes yours, echoes hers, echoes our grandmothers’ — with a little bit of fabric loose at the edges, the slight room for movement. But my God — must we all be so cyclically, perpetually hurt?
Why is the phrase ‘Womanhood in Pakistan’ synonymous with tragedy? My experience of womanhood in Pakistan is specific to me, my family, all my unearned privilege. It is the specific blue of my lehnga, the smell of garlic lingering on my fingertips, the smooth hairlessness of my arms and the frightening thicket of my legs. Womanhood isn’t really anything solidified, anything that is classifiably the same. It’s just hard to spot the differences when we’re all bleeding out on the floor, sacrifices to an unappeasable Unknown.
Womanhood is a part of me, not the whole of me. Being Pakistani is a part of me, not the whole of me. My identity is more than a list I fill out in hospital waiting rooms, and college applications. It’s become a joke amongst my friends — how often I say, casually and insistently, “Gender is a patriarchal social construct.” So are borders. So are words.
Audre Lorde writes “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” As long as I limit myself to patriarchal borders of identity, patriarchal modes of self identification, I will be within the power of patriarchal thought. My womanhood, my Pakistani-ness — I hold power over them. I choose what to take, and what to discard; no one else can tell me what it means to be myself.
In honour of armpit hair, and childlessness, in honour of spitting paan and red lipstick, in honour of bracelets of jasmine and low cut tops, in honour of Badshahi Masjid and Bahria farmhouse parties, in honour of old gods and undiscovered islands — here I am. A Pakistani woman. And that means nothing to me, and everything to me, all at once.
The writer is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in English Literature at King’s College, London and is working on launching a digital literary magazine called Spacebar
This winning essay was originally titled ‘Portrait of a Woman in Pain’
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 22nd, 2020