The expectation to be modest is everywhere in Karachi, where I spent the first 18 years of my life before leaving to begin university in America.
I never wore shorts — even when summer temperatures would scrape past 45° Celsius; I would always carry a shawl to drape over my shoulders if I left the house wearing a sleeveless top; and, sometimes, I was told not to wear a seat belt because of the way it provocatively clenched my chest.
These unspoken rules were shields against the male gaze. But they weren’t enforced — either by the mosque or the state. To this day, the most frequent and ignorant question I get asked about Pakistan is: “Do you have to wear a hijab when you’re there?” I can count on my fingertips the number of times I covered my head growing up, and even then it was always just a rectangle of fabric that I floated over my head halo-like before knotting it jauntily at the neck.
Still, I resented the way my body was policed and longed to live in a city that would allow me to unleash it. But even now, after living first in the US and now in England for over six years, wearing a short skirt in public in these other countries feels like a radical act.
Take a look: Muslim women say burkini debate ‘absurd’
For the longest time, dressing myself as I wanted, without compromise, was a reiteration of my own agency.
I took it as a cue that I could do anything, that I could be anyone. Some caveats to this newfound freedom came immediately: The male gaze — as evidenced by unwelcome catcalls — thrives on the streets of New York and London just as it does on those of Karachi.
Other caveats took longer. Donald Trump called for Muslims to be banned from entering the United States. In the wake of Brexit, reports of racism spiked.
One morning, waiting for a coffee, I had to clear my throat twice before being looked at, even though I was at the front of the line. I took my espresso to go and checked my phone on the way out.
The news was awash with a single photo: A woman sitting up on a stony beach, pulling a sky-blue tunic over her head, surrounded by armed police officers.
Microaggressions are part and parcel of being a person of colour in the developed, “Western” world. But the minute these turn into major aggressions backed by secular law is when things become violently unacceptable. The woman who was forced to strip against her will was asked to do so because of a ban on the burkini (a full-body swimsuit favoured by Muslim women) issued in over a dozen French towns.
France’s highest administrative court has since overturnedthe ban in one of these towns, but for me, the damage has already been done.
The burkini ban robs Muslim women of their agency to wear what they want as well as their agency to openly practice their faith. It also robs all Muslims of the freedom to define their faith on their own terms.
The mayor of Cannes, one of the French towns that issued the ban, calledthe burkini “the uniform of extremist Islamism”. Conflating Islam with extremism has become ubiquitous — and it’s a dangerous misunderstanding to perpetuate not only because it’s the farthest thing from the truth, but because it creates a culture where fearing Muslims, and hence discriminating against them, is legitimised.
See: Burkini brouhaha
Picture yourself on the beach: fully-covered, head-wrapped, skin bronze. Surrounded by women in bikinis, skin white. It takes courage to be different — and when that difference is punished, it can sandpaper a flaring spirit down to a stub. Last week, a woman at a beach in Cannes was asked toremove her headscarf. Apparently, when she refused, strangers shouted at her to go home.
It gets tiring to constantly having to justify your right to stand on the ground under your feet — the same way it gets tiring to endlessly fight for your right to wear what you want.
By leaving Karachi, I thought I was swapping one battle for another: That of a woman for that of an immigrant. But France’s burkini ban proved me wrong. Because for Muslim women, there aren’t choices when it comes to battles. Apparently, we have to fight them all, everywhere.
At first, I was heartened by the international outcry against the ban: The cacophony of outraged voices of every colour, from many countries, highlighted that unique battles need not be fought alone. But then I saw this tweet go viral.
Two images — the recent photo of the woman in the sky-blue tunic mid-strip surrounded by armed officers, next to a decades-old black-and-white one of an officer measuring the length of a woman’s swimsuit.
“This suit is too big. This suit is too small. When will it be OK for women to wear what they want?”
How is the struggle of Muslim women now comparable to the struggle of a white woman then? The burkini ban attacked faith, race, nationality, and gender all at once. By focusing on gender alone, much of the discourse around the ban missed out on the intersectional complexities — and that left me feeling isolated all over again.
I’ve always loved the ocean — its salt and spray and sand. Growing up, I’d wear my swimsuit to the beach, underneath leggings and an oversized t-shirt. These would get soaked in the waves and catch small stones in their folds. While dragging myself in and out of the surf, I resented how heavy I felt; how I’d look up to see every woman around me similarly waterlogged.
In the end, which beach would I rather be on? The one where every woman is forced to cover herself or the one where one woman is forced not to?
It doesn’t feel like a choice to me. But, at the end of the day, I’d still pick solidarity over ostracisation.