The Realm That Should Not Exist by author Jovera Shakeel is inspired by the theme silence.
This story is one of six winning stories of the #WeToo competition, a
collaboration between Stories To Action and Dastaan, where young people shared inspired by COVID-19’s impact on sexual and reproductive health and
The Realm That Should Not Exist
My body. The inanimate concept that has been the subject of criticism, questioning, and gazes by both men and women. Something that has been referred to a lesser number of times as my body, and a far greater number of times as my honor. Something which must not be pronounced as my body, must not be shown, revealed, or talked about, but something about which I must always be conscious. The self-fitting mold which I’ve always been told must be adorned in loosely fitting garments in order to hide its beauty and preserve its modesty. The layers of skin and flesh which belongs to me, but triggers everyone other than me. The holy grail whose sacredness has been equated to that of a temple, but without the glory and the respect. Something that has come from a woman, but is the object of question for all the men around me.
I wasn’t born into the world with an instruction manual of how I must maneuver my body or a realization of how it should dictate my subconscious, but I speak of all this now with conviction because having been a female for eighteen years has brought with it a lot of conditioning which has ingrained in me all this. I was lucky enough to have felt safe within the vicinity of my home, and I say this because I know many women who did not have the same privilege. The problem wasn’t carefree time spent at home. The problem also wasn’t abiding by preset societal norms outside my home. The problem was when those rules encroached into my safe space. Entered the abode in which I felt like my body was celebrated. Felt that its progress was as much my progress as anything else. That it deserved some appreciation and love too for putting up with all the times it had been forcefully concealed. Or, all the times it had been subject to lustful gazes, even very close to my safe space.
As a Pakistani girl growing up in a moderately liberal household, and receiving more exposure than other girls my age, I realized very early on that there was a dichotomy between us and them. I was always told that it isn’t about us, it’s about them. That it wasn’t I who or anyone
from my family who thought like this, it was people outside of home who did. And, to prevent them from thinking like that – I was the one who had to make amends to the way I dressed or felt about my body. Ironically enough, what I was not told was the other side of the story – that this aggressive and rather forceful attempt of covering yourself up does not do anything to conceal or eradicate the gazes of men. Even when I’ve always dressed “decently” according to my society’s definition, I still wouldn’t be able to count the number of times I’ve been subject to such to the gaze.
As a female in my country, the gaze always shifts from gazes to the point where you just cannot count the number of times you have been wrongfully looked at. What was common in all of these times is that I felt as if the autonomy of my body had been taken away from me. Felt that my self-worth had been reduced merely to my body and that I must adapt it to suit the likes, wants, and preferences of men. Such ideology becomes more prominent because our culture perpetuates a mindset where the female body is glorified, but only for the sake of unleashing and adorning at the right time. It is terrifying to live with the reality that women really are never safe. They are taught to stay on guard from their childhood, even in the confines of their own homes, a place that should be safe for everyone. The entitlement of men towards the bodies of women, the audacity to make vulgar comments about their bodies, and the privilege of enjoying and encouraging such actions all comes from normalizing the objectification of women and encouraging attitudes that give rise to predatory behavioral patterns since a young age.
I remember a very small anecdote in which the whole dynamic of bodily autonomy shifted for me. My mother had taken me out with her to shop at a local grocery store. I and her were in the same aisle with our backs turned to each other. I remember suddenly turning back because I had found the brand of tea my mother needed, only to see a man pass by and swiftly touch my mother as he walked. In the split of a second, my mother had thrust her bag at him and hurled him with insults. What I saw in my mother’s eyes was anger and the realization that what we do not teach our daughters is how to react when the line crosses over from us to them. How to behave when the very defined line between self-respect and self-worth became blurry. And, how to defend oneself when the way they were being treated was a product of everyone but them. Parallel to this, what I saw in her abuser’s eyes was a privilege which made me realize that it wasn’t just my adolescence that had been snatched away from me by worrying thoughts of how I wasn’t safe anywhere. The blaring reality that men dictated their way women felt about their bodies, regardless of their age became clear to me that day. For men and their gaze, it was the female without any other descriptions that was desirable.
My coping mechanism is not foolproof, but on days when these questionable advances get too close to home, I tell myself:
An ocean is only too big,
And a drop is only too small,
Or is it the other way around? I often ask,
For, like all things in life
Fleeting and deceptive
Size is also vastly subjective
In the continuum of time,
And in the shackles of life,
I remind myself,
It is only as bad, only as long,
But what do I do,
On days when time seems like,
A laborious machine, slowly rusting away,
I tell myself, so what?
But, it is not that easy,
For time is a blessing, a test, a show of fate,
For when people say, time doesn’t stop for anyone,
I wonder why I feel that time often stops for me.
I am a soldier, braced for war,
My war is not political, nor is it territorial,
My war is internal,
The battlefield is my abode, and my heart is my shade,
I call out to the world, to take it easy on me,
That I can only take too much,
For I am the weaker side, the side that must surrender,
I came out with only half supplies of ammunition and worn-out men,
But in the battlefield, there is no mercy,
My lack of supplies do not bring me any sympathy,
As long as I do not have lack of faith,
I tell myself,
You have to keep going and take it till the end,
No man got his fair share just by saying sorry.
The irony of this situation is such that even my coping mechanism leaves me with questions. Is violence the only language of the oppressor? Isn’t silence also the oppressor’s language? It is. I believe so. And, perhaps this has become all the more apparent because so many women are currently not safe in their homes. Conflicting, right? They’re telling you to stay home if you want to stay safe, but what they are not telling you is what should one do if home is also not safe. My culture often makes me question what home means. We call it a home because it is an abode where all kinds of “shameful acts” can be silenced, where “faults” are concealed, and wrongdoing is buried under layers of supposed love, family ties, and notions that justice is not required for norms. However, is this deafening silence that kills so many women from the inside actually as comforting as it is made to seem? Do all women really wish to remain silent about these issues? Some want to scream. I know I do, for sure.
Lastly, does the paradigm in Pakistan around the concept of patience, silence, and concealment really deserve to be glorified? I don’t believe so, not necessarily because it has been the bane of existence for so many, but also because it makes us appreciate a vicious cycle of being complacent with not speaking up about our issues. We live in a country that has been fighting battles of justice against privilege to date, and the women rights movement is one such classic example. We can create waves with our voices. We can make bigger ones with awareness
and resistance. Before history is formally written down, it is being made through our resilience, our solidarity, these small realizations, and those important conversations. I am just trying to do my part too. Reclamation of our rights may be far, but it is a heartfelt hope that I will never stop striving towards.