Honour, amongst Pakistanis

Farah Anjum describes how she was introduced to the concepts of 'honour' and 'modesty' as a young girl growing up in Karachi

Honour, amongst Pakistanis
You start learning as a little girl, barely 10 years old, that you are your family’s izzat (honour). At first, that becomes a matter of pride for you. After all, in the thesaurus, pride and honour are the same thing.   As a little girl, you are so unaware of the painful history behind the word ‘honour’, you are unaware of the number of bodies violated in the name of ‘honour’. As a little girl, when you hear this word, you picture winning gold medals at school. You picture yourself beaming with pride on the stage - your parents in the audience clapping for you. You do not picture violated bodies. However, as you grow older, the meaning of this word becomes clearer and clearer.

I think it all started to make sense to me when I was 14, when I was in the car with my aunt and she started telling me how wrong it was of me to date a guy and how the women who did get into relationships before marriage were the worst kind of human beings. This aunt of mine went on to explain me that I, as a woman, had the great honour of protecting my family’s honour. She told me that if she were my mother, she wouldn’t let me move from one place and would have kept me locked up. She stated she was in awe of my parents’ ‘leniency’ with me. I wanted to scream, to be honest. In my mind, whenever I revisit this memory, I am always screaming really hard but I was not screaming back then at all. I was merely crying, very quietly. She could see it and she explained that she was telling me all of this for my own good.

On the flip side of Pakistani and South Asian obsession with 'honour' is the idea that women who are not of one's own family are fair game for harrassment
On the flip side of Pakistani and South Asian obsession with 'honour' is the idea that women who are not of one's own family are fair game for harassment

"For your own good" is the favourite line of all people preaching honour and modesty to women

“For your own good” is the favourite line of all people preaching honour and modesty to women. “For your own good” is how they will absolve themselves of any harm done to you. “For your own good” is also what my school’s principal said to me after having shamed me on stage for merely sending a love letter to a guy, and for publicly expressing my feelings for this boy. I strongly advise you to never fall for the lie that is “for your own good”. They will keep you confined in the corners of your house, for your own good. They will keep you from falling in love, for your own good. They will protect you, forever, for your own good. One time, many years ago, a girl and a boy were expelled from making out in the public washroom, for their own good. And for the good of the reputation of the educational institution, I guess.

I always wanted to feel the crisp sunlight and wind of Karachi on my body, on my legs. But I never did because I knew that if I ever were to wear a short sundress in the streets of Karachi, I would receive rude stares at best and verbal slut-shaming at worst, and to think that I could be beaten for it is not so far-fetched either. I sometimes still try imagining what it would have been like to feel that breeze and sun on my body, but I will never know. The Canadian breeze is nothing like the Karachi breeze after all. I dared to wear a long skirt there once. It had an open slit exposing some of my legs and as men walked by and rode by on their motorbikes, they made sure to put me back in my place, to make me realise that this is not the way women in Pakistan should dress. They shouted at me, “Did someone tear that skirt for you from below? You want me to tear more of it?” They wolf-whistled and called me a “whore” and made many a sexual comments - enough times for those words to still echo in my ears. Just enough times for it to be a lesson that I will never forget. I bet they said all of that to me for my own good.

Public spaces, including beaches, can be difficult for women to navigate without 'modest' clothing - Photo courtesy - AP, Shakil Adil
Public spaces, including beaches, can be difficult for women to navigate without 'modest' clothing - Photo courtesy - AP, Shakil Adil

I remember that it was often such a daring thing to simply wear a pair of jeans with a shirt in Karachi, because that alone would be enough to justify dirty stares and slut-shaming in the eyes of some people. Sometimes, I felt dirty wearing them. Karachi was so strange with its rules that contrasted so greatly area by area. You could wear strapless tops in some parts of Defence, but you had to wear a dupatta and cover the shape of your breasts in most parts of North Nazimabad (which is where I lived). If you do live in a nice area in Defence, your family is probably richer than most people in Karachi, and your privilege to often wear the shortest dress without worrying is one that you have because of your socioeconomic background. There is some truth to this reality, but even being from an economically rich background has never saved any woman in Pakistan from having modesty thrust on her.

Sexual conservatism has seeped deep within the veins of the country. No place is without it. It was, after all, in Defence that men attacked me with lewd remarks when I was wearing that long skirt with an open slit. The obsession with controlling women’s bodies and the way they dress is one that is spread everywhere - in some areas and cities more than others, of course. This obsession with modesty is a monster that has its shadow everywhere, and in some places, you find a bigger shadow than in others. But at the end of the day, the shadow will always be following you. It will keep you from feeling the rays of the sun on your legs and it will keep you from feeling the wind on your chest. The shadow of that monster swallowed me whole, to a point where even today when I wear really short sundresses, I find myself checking to make sure it isn’t exposing my legs above the knee. And then I realise, “Oh wait! I don’t need to care about that anymore.” In some ways, the shadow of this monster is always with you.

Young women beat the heat with a dip at Clifton's beaches, Karachi
Young women beat the heat with a dip at Clifton's beaches, Karachi

I always wanted to feel the crisp sunlight and wind of Karachi on my legs. But I never did

A former female friend of mine once said to me that a good Muslim man is one who can protect himself from the excesses of money and wealth - and from the temptation called ‘women’. This idea that women, on this planet, serve as nothing beyond a temptation for men to protect themselves from (or to give in to) is one that made me feel like my entire existence was fragile and vulnerable. It hurts to know that I internalised all of this misogynistic nonsense - that even I, to a degree, was an active participant in this system of shaming women for what they wear and what they do with their bodies. I am glad I was able to grow past it. But many never grow past any of it. Patriarchy divides women in this way: it makes us shame one another. Speaking of which, my class teacher - a woman - once threatened to not give me my admittance card to enter my intermediate exams because I had committed the dreadful sin of wearing a tight shirt that accentuated the shape of my breasts to school...once. Читайте про все известные онлайн казино на гривны на casinoplay.com.ua и получайте удовольствие от своего гемблинга уже сегодня. Никто вам не расскажет про самое прибыльное казино и вам просто необходимо найти свой источник доходов самостоятельно. Начинайте выигрывать вместе с лицензионными залами. Никогда не стоит забывать про тестирование клубов.

The incident took place in a women’s-only school that I attended for a year. But some of the school staff were men and according to this teacher, my clothes were far too distracting for these men. I did not wish to apologize to her, but she was the one in the position of power. She was the one who could give me my ‘admit card’, and without that I would not have been able to write my exams. So I had to apologise to her and pretend that I was sorry and ashamed when I really was not. Even though, in my heart of hearts, I wished to tell her to go to hell, I simply was in no position to do so. But I feel like I do tell her to go to hell, and all people who think like her to go to hell, whenever I wear a short sundress or a tank-top or anything that reveals skin and parts of my body that should never have been stigmatised to begin with.

At the end of the day, this teacher’s threat and shaming could do nothing to keep me from taking control of and embracing my body. I have come a long way, and yet some days I will find myself feeling a weird discomfort with showing skin sometimes and have to occasionally remind myself that I do not need to worry about that anymore. And yet, I need to dress in a “modest” way when going over to the house of any family friends of Pakistani origin.

The obsession with modesty in Pakistani culture follows a woman everywhere. I see it in the Pakistani dramas that I watch with my mom sometimes to keep her company. I see it in the way some of my Pakistani relatives here always give me dirty stares for wearing tights. I see it, and hear it, in some of my dreams where I am still in Pakistan. I see it in the victim-blaming and slut-shaming that even a country like Canada, that prides itself on being super progressive, cannot really defeat. I see it everywhere. I hear it everywhere. But on a hot July day, none of that keeps me from wearing the shortest sundress, sitting by the lake and reading my favourite book, while the sky shines with the brightness of a thousand suns. And nothing matters but how happy I feel in that moment.

Farah Anjum is based in Canada