I am getting ready for another day at my university.
It’s a cold January morning, which means that I have to wear my modest clothes; thermal, sweaters and a coat. The minute the van arrives, I grab my bag and my scarf, say goodbye to my mother and head for the door. The minute I arrive on campus, I go to the girls’ common room, take off my scarf and coat and head to class. I would spend the entire day like this until I go to the van with my coat and scarf on.
To you, it may seem like I did a normal thing of putting my outerwear onto a rack.
However, I am wearing my clothes the way I want. Just a sweater and jeans. Had my mother seen me at university like this, the punishment would have been unspeakable. I warily gaze at every middle-aged woman who arrives at the campus, making sure it isn’t my mother coming to get me out of the blue. Every moment would be both exhilarating and terrifying. I am literally living on the edge roaming around my campus without my noose around my neck.
Sorry, I meant my scarf.
Ever since I turned 14, my family has been telling me what I can and can’t wear. My father will shout angrily if I am not wearing my scarf around my neck. My grandmother tells me horror stories of girls who wear jeans and T-shirts. My mother forces me to wear modest clothes and the minute I break the rules, accidentally or purposefully, I am scolded. She turns red with rage if I even ask permission to wear a T-shirt, saying that I’m putting my honor in danger by doing so.
At my university, I am allowed to wear civilian clothes.
Like many Pakistanis, I have been wearing a uniform from kindergarten to high school. I see a lot of my classmates and other students strutting around in their jeans and tops with ease and confidence. They experiment with their outfits and often get compliments from their friends. Naturally, I want to strut along with them. So, I will either stash a turtleneck in my bag and wear it on campus or stuff my scarf into my bag. It’s not easy to embrace modesty with fashion. Sometimes I would end up looking more questionable than stylish.
Clothes are one of the non-dangerous ways for me to experiment with life, as opposed to something like cigarettes.
They taught me what styles compliment me the most, what outfit is appropriate for certain occasions and, more importantly, they helped develop my identity. Yet clothes also gave me insight into how society behaves towards women based on their attire.
At my university, I have never been harassed for my outfit choices. Even my teachers don’t particularly care. But on the streets and other public areas, I am acutely aware of how onlookers are judging my body. Every guy is ogling at almost every woman they pass but they’ll look behind to the girl wearing jeans. My mother grumbles about how children these days are “losing their identity” by emulating Western styles. My grandmother admonishes her daughters for not being strict with their children’s outfits. In her view, they will turn evil and troublesome, which usually means that they will start hanging out with boys. The lecture gets even worse when she brings in religion to justify her arguments.
I find this all so frustrating because my family is indirectly telling me to be ashamed of my body.
That my wearing sleeveless shirts will bring me to ruin and that I will cause trouble for boys. They tell me they are trying to protect me yet they are showing a side of themselves I would rather not see. My mother has a Master’s in Economics, yet she slut-shames girls for being immodest. I am always going here and there with my family so I can’t quite wear what I want.
Where can I wear my beloved cropped sweater then?
What pains me, even more, is how my family displays their distrust to me.
They are always asking me if I have any boyfriends and they don’t really ask for my opinion on most things. I would be judged harshly for my cooking skills and even when I obey them, they still find fault in me.
Because, at the end of the day, these limitations halt my growing as a person.
I’m not being protected; I am being used to preserve a set of norms and traditions that favor those in power. Guys will still act like dicks even if women dress conservatively, yet they will complain that their outfits made them want to harass them. Elders who are most vocal about girls’ outfits are often those who are the biggest hypocrites.
Assault victims are often chastised for their outfits yet the same critics scold women for not being “sexy” and “feminine”. And even now, people find skirts more feminine on a woman than a pair of pants.
At a young age, we women learn early on that our appearances will either make or break us. Which is why our families go to such lengths to make sure we aren’t broken down by it.
I learned this lesson, too.
But letting others control my wardrobe contributes to the problem of sexism and harassment all of us face. It forces me to take undue responsibility for the harm I suffer. It also, ultimately, takes away any agency I have over myself and rely on outdated rules for protection that are easily broken down by abusers and hypocrites.
I don’t regret the clothes I wore outside my house on campus.
I will certainly cherish that sweater til it’s full of holes. And I will always root for the person who tries on things that are considered risqué and adventurous, even if they get called out by their families or their teachers.
But I will always feel unhappy with my society for using clothes against me and at my family for harboring such misogyny.