As a teenager, you’re acutely aware of the way your body changes. It’s terrifying and yet exciting. But as you grow older, and enter the “real world”, shit changes. You watch your body being used against you. Your clothes being used against you. Your age being used against you.
I’m not writing this to make anyone feel bad, I’m writing this because this story needs to be told. And I need to tell it.
I went to the same school all my life. Fifteen years feels like a long time, but that school became a home. I didn’t have a bad high school experience, in fact, I always loved school. I loved my friends, my teachers, my classes. Surprisingly, I felt safe there. I was lucky. And for that, I am grateful. So when the opportunity arose to teach literature at the place that had always felt like home, I quickly accepted. The students were witty, bright, challenging – always pushing me to find new ways of teaching and learning. I loved every minute of it.
However, there was another side to things. Ever since my first day of teaching, I was uncomfortable.
My clothes were watched like a hawk. I was told my clothes were “too casual”, my shirt “too short”, my top “too formal”.
Every day, there was something new. I would ask my boss to tell me the dress code, just let me know what was acceptable. Because she wasn’t happy when I wore shalwar kameez, and she wasn’t happy when I wore western clothes. I was constantly on edge. Afraid of being told off for the way I dressed.
And let me tell you, I was not inappropriate in my dressing. Not in the least. I’d wear button-downs with trousers, or a nice kurta and pants, or a formal shirt and plain black pants. Sometimes, even blazers. I dressed how you would in a workplace.
We weren’t allowed to wear sneakers (something I wasn’t told when I joined), so one incredibly cold day, I wore plain white sneakers and was reprimanded for them. And the irony was that senior teachers would wear them and get away with it.
But because I was “young” and “impressionable” and “the boys would look at me and think things”. Yes, I had to dress in a way that would hide the fact that I had a body from my 14-to-16-year-old male students. I had to dress like I had no style or taste.
It’s funny because some days I was so frustrated I would think they just didn’t want me to look or feel good. Because honestly, the way I look does impact the way I feel. I can’t help it, but it does. It’s there, and it’s real and so, if I’ve put together a power outfit that makes me feel on top of the damn world, I’m going to own it.
But that wasn’t allowed. My feminism was constantly quashed. And I was walked all over.
See, I finally understood what the problem was. It wasn’t how I dressed. It was my age. And that irked my boss. That I was a young woman who knew who she was and dressed how she liked, and actually knew what she was teaching – that shook her. She wasn’t used to people not complying with reverse ageist tactics.
Before one sports day, she came up to me and two fellow young teachers and said:
“Girls, since you’re young, I hope you know you need to wear something that will cover your behind.”
Because God forbid someone actually looked at my ass and realized I was a grown woman? God forbid someone looked at me and thought something? God forbid I wore a shirt that wasn’t down till my ankles and her eyeballs would roll back in her head from seeing my physique?
Was it because I had a body that took up space? I hated the feeling of being watched and observed, her looking me up and down when I entered the building. I began to hide. I’d slip in and out of the school, checking the hallways to make sure she wasn’t there, eyeing me from a distance, ready to strike at any moment.
This one morning, it was 7:25, I was dressed in a plain white kurta, a shalwar and a shawl. I signed in and there she was. She looked me up and down, and said:
“You’re dressed too casual.”
I questioned what she meant by that because most of the teachers wore lawn kurtas and shalwars and tennis shoes.
“It’s not appropriate,” she went on.
It was too early for me to deal with that. She had ruined a perfectly good morning by accosting me in the hallway. So I turned around and said:
“You know, every time you talk about my dressing, it makes me uncomfortable.”
And I ran off to class because the bell was ringing.
She was taken aback. I was being honest. For once, I just wanted to tell her that every time she commented on my dressing, it was a reminder that my body was taking up too much space, it was a reminder of every time I was conscious of my curves, a reminder of every time I dragged myself to the gym in the morning because I didn’t feel good about myself. It was a reminder that so many women in positions of power felt the need to belittle younger women.
I wanted to tell her, ask me about my work, my teaching, my students, my class disciple – ask me anything but the clothing that covers my skin, and the one that doesn’t.
If someone is doing a good job, is dressed appropriately, I don’t see the need to constantly berate them.
I questioned myself. I wore my mother’s clothes instead of my own. I changed the way I dressed. And I’m realizing that I didn’t need to do that. No one had the right to tell me what to put on my skin. I wasn’t a child in uniform. Of course I had no problems following a dress code, I understood the need to dress appropriately, and I was following the lines.
Workplace harassment comes in all shapes and sizes. You decide the line. The second you feel like someone is making you uncomfortable – that’s when you know.
My body wasn’t there to be sexualized but the way she spoke about my clothing, and looked at me, made me feel like I was being observed like a piece of meat and not a human at all. And I got enough of that from the predators lurking around the city.
There needs to be an understanding of gender consciousness. When she used different language to address my younger colleagues and me, as opposed to the older teachers and men, that was age bias. And a lot of gender bias. Maybe it ran thick through her traditional ways. But things were changing.
Was my body being policed by her? Yes.
Was this another form of her rooted patriarchy? Yes.
Was someone ready to do something about it? Maybe.
My head of department stood up for me, luckily. But that took a while.
Imagine feeling like you need to hide your body because you’re so afraid of being called out for wearing something as simple as trousers?
The dirty truth is that most workplaces in Pakistan are like that. So often they look at a woman and assume things due to the way she dresses.
I was hired because of my knowledge of my subject, and if it was just about the literature of things, maybe I would have even stayed. But being in the thick of a toxic environment that pushed every insecurity I had of myself was threatening my wellbeing on the daily. And I’ll never allow myself to go through that again.
I hope you won’t either.
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