A Body of Burden


 “A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping. From earliest childhood she has been taught and persuaded to survey herself continually. And so she comes to consider the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.”

― John Berger, Ways of Seeing

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The female body. The female form. The female figure.

To be a woman in this country is to be constantly, painfully and unusually conscious and aware of a great many things: so conscious of every part of your body; deeply aware of the demands made upon you for its every movement, move and motion to be calculated.

An oppressive consciousness and awareness.

Sit in a certain position, don’t sit in a certain position; don’t lean too much, don’t slouch so much, don’t sit cross-legged. Don’t talk in a certain tone, don’t laugh too loud.

Constantly survey and check yourself.

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It is as if the female body is a burden to be carefully carried and shouldered.

To possess a female body is to exist for and in multiple bodies. You are responsible for your own morality, and that of the other – that of the male. You check yourself and so you check the other. By possessing the vice of a female body, you bear the burden of their imaginations and their impulses. If the gaze or some misfortune falls onto you, you invited it for it is your responsibility to bar it, not that of those who cast it onto you.

You exist with the burden of that gaze on you and that gaze defines how you carry yourself.

It takes nothing but a moment to realize just how these burdens have sculpted you and your persona in the public space. I hold a deliberate and constant scowl on my face, head high, and my walk brisk. It is my way of denying and deterring those prowling leers and stares, of resisting the vulnerability that comes with my skin and whose fear crawls on my skin.

Of leers, jeers, and harassment.

And yet I know it can prevent little. My mere emergence in public visibility is what makes me far too prominent itself. Just being there is what draws attention, I need not create a scene. I am the scene.

The female body is oppressive for the expectations, fears, threats and oppressions heaped onto it are what it heaps onto you.

I catch myself unconsciously glancing at my dupatta every now and then, adjusting it even while it is adjusted. I find myself unconsciously straightening my kameez even when it already is, to make sure its corners aren’t turned, to make sure they cover me fully.

It is a constant ticking in my mind that tugs at its peace; this, being conscious of myself to a painful degree.

embodying-indus-lifeI sit in the car and get uncomfortable when a car or motorcycle veers too close to my window. The proximity is unsettling for the proximity of access of sight is unsettling. I grab the black shades and fix them over my window amid a sigh of relief. There, I am now hidden. Phew.

I step out and it is a struggle to keep my appearance…in order. I can’t hide here.

How can you possibly feel naked with clothes?

How can your own skin induce fear, vulnerability and discomfort in you? How can it induce a desire for invisibility in you?

An invisibility from the leers and stares that pierce right into you, that frighten and unnerve you. Leers and stares that stalk you with a perverse pride, entitlement, insolence and impudence, and with a complete sense of the perverse power they are, which are undeterred by one’s detection of them. The detection only emboldens them.

How do you come to feel uncomfortable in your skin? How do you come to feel uncomfortable by your own skin?

You see the leers and you survey yourself in worry, is the dupatta in place? Is something wrong? Is my kurta too short? Are the chaaks too much? I quickly sling my bag or purse on one side to slump over my legs, while the dupatta falls over the other.

How do you keep prying eyes away? To what extent can you possibly hide yourself? What more can you hide of yourself when the imagination encroaches and penetrates all that is you?

What can I do when I am uncomfortable by my own skin? When I made to be felt oppressed by own biology?

I wonder what it feels like to be in the public and to have a mobility unhampered by an agonizing consciousness of every part of your body, a tiring and grueling consciousness that presses itself on your mind.

How does it feel to not be ashamed of your anatomy?

How does it feel to not want to shrink?

How does it feel to not be stalked, surveyed and to surveil yourself?

How does it feel to just wear your skin without wanting to peel it off, shroud it, or fix it?

How does it feel to not be a woman?

I wonder what it’s like, while the corners of my dupatta and kameez tug at the corners of my mind. Is the dupatta in place? Is my kurta too short? Are the chaaks too much? A constant ticking in my mind that tugs at its peace; this, being conscious of myself to a painful degree.

-Hafsa Khawaja

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7 comments on “A Body of Burden

  1. KMalik says:

    The title of the article could be “The Burden of the Conformist Society” rather than singling out women only. I do agree that women get more problems in such a society but it is a generic problem. If women have to take care of their clothing or so called morals, then men are expected to earn enough to sustain a family. Many of my friends are single even after 30s because the society is expecting from them to have a stable income and a good house to sustain a family/wife/kids. So they have a burden but of a different type.

    Because in the conformist socieities everyone has to conform to peculiar traits and norms. Either you become a part of the crowd or you will be boycotted. The norms could be based on religion or on anything else. Getting frustrations in such an environment is normal.

    But people do have a choice in this modern world. You can sacrifice some of the amenities and can leave for another country or to become a non-conformist.. This is what many of my friends did. Believe me you can never change the society in a life time.
    The society will change but in an evolutionary manner and that will span many decades or centuries. Roles will change and the transformation will start. But it will take time.

    • Hi Khurram,

      Thanks for reading. I appreciate your suggestion but I think I’d stick to my own title for the post considering it was rooted in and based on the articulation of a distinct female oppression and the personal experience of it; speaking about which should not be considered as “singling women out” for it is they who bear the brunt of a male-dominated, patriarchal society which undeniably has sets of specific situations created just to subjugate and stifle women.

      Surely you cannot believe that men go through the same experience of being leered, stared and harassed in public spaces. This issue isn’t generic, at all, and any attempt to depict it as such would be wholly dishonest and a deplorable apologia for this culture.

      Men being expected to earn may be a responsibility on them, but that holds absolutely no equivalence with women feeling harassed and threatened in public spaces – which was the subject of my post. There is a clear difference between responsibility and oppression. And men alone don’t have such everyday responsibilities in our society, women do so too, which are usually mapped onto the domain of the home, the family, the children – a life-long commitment that has to be performed till your last breath. It is only in addition to this that women are confronted with the oppression of experiences such as being harassed and feeling unwelcome in public spaces. There is no equivalence whatsoever between the responsibility and expectation of earning one’s daily bread and an unnecessary, disgusting situation such as stepping out of the house and being made to feel like a piece of meat. Leering at women isn’t a necessity or expectation of men, and it isn’t a responsibility for women, or rather it shouldn’t be, for them to put up with the repulsiveness it possesses.

      The mechanisms and fears women have developed in the face of such a situation certainly aren’t “conformity” either since that implies choice. What choice does a woman have but to wrap herself up in a chaddar and constantly walk around in fear and shame in a marketplace due to endless stares, leers, catcalls and potential harassment? We have no choice. I understand that you have never gone through the experience so you cannot possibly grasp its reality, gravity and significance, and the fear, discomfort, anxiety and distress it contains, but I do expect you to realize this and subsequently refuse a trivialization of the matter. This was, at least in part, the motivation underlying my writing of this post. And I still hope that you will engage in the realization.

      Indeed it will take years and years of painstaking effort and collective societal reflection for any cultural or social change to occur, especially in a society like Pakistan’s, but that should not preclude an effort on our part to contribute towards it.

      • KMalik says:

        Well I agree with you that I am not a women to emphatize and or to exactly understand all the situations what you have discussed or have gone through. But I agree with most of the points.

        Anyway keep on writing and keep on giving your viewpoints. You belong from a handful of Women bloggers of Pakistan. The people like you are already a rare species in our country. Infact I can count the numbers on my fingers. So keep it up.

      • KMalik says:

        Hafsa it is my request to kindly remove all of my posts from this blog. I will no longer comment or read your blogs.
        My friend just shared with me your twitter post and I was utterly shocked to read it.

        I just want to add that it happened with me for the first time that someone used my post to publicly disparage me. Or May be until now i was reading the professional bloggers so i was not used to this before.

        You stated “bUt m3n AlSo SuFf3r” shtick”” on a twitter post….

        I just want to add that you masterfully manipulated my statement to make me a spokesperson of one gender. The Prefix “But” was never used by me. I was never making lame statements or making excuses of sort.
        I was giving my viewpoint only Purely as an “Individual” and was not representing all the men’s association.

        What I was stating was something and you shamelessy morphed it to bash me or may be this is what you wanted.
        ____
        I wish you good luck with your endeavors. This is my last post. I will stay many miles away from your blogs.
        __
        In the end I want to say that kindly next time never generalize anyone based on surmises and on two-three statements. May be I have done more for the Women rights than you can do in your lifetime.
        __
        Good luck.

  2. asadrizvi12 says:

    I think you are a very nice person. I know I’ll never be able to understand females & what they go through (my sympathies), but I get worried reading this, lest you become a resource for terrorists! Try yoga, & think about beautiful things in life – Peace!

  3. Shanzay says:

    I don’t think I’ve ever related to an article about a woman’s body more than this. You’ve captured it perfectly! Both articulately and accurately. The tugging at your shirt’s corners, fixing your already fixed dupatta. Everything. And the accuracy is worrisome actually, that so many women are made to feel uncomfortable in their own skin. It probably feels ridiculous to the other gender but I can count on my fingers, the number of women I know who’re confident of and with their bodies. The rest, the majority, feels the way you’ve brilliantly worded in this piece. I pray though, that may there soon be some difference in the way things are. Hats off to you btw, I’m a fan of your genius. May you achieve all that you wish to and much more 🙂

    • Hi Shanzay,

      Thank you so much for reading the post and for sharing your thoughts on it! It feels strange to say that I am glad to know you could relate to this or to express happiness at knowing that there are many other women who can relate to this experience, considering how terribly oppressive experience, but this knowledge and realization certainly fosters a degree of relief and strength to know our experiences are not isolated but shared, and there is a great deal of solidarity and reflection we can gather from this among us.
      It is awful how oblivious, ignorant and dismissive most men are towards this distinct experience of female oppression, and how indifferent they are to their contribution and participation in it. I do hope more of us can speak about and lend visibility to the burdens of such experiences, which are, as you said, far, far too common – to the extent that most of us often take them as unchangeable and given. May all of us be able to force a change in these circumstances and may we witness a time different to the one we live in.

      Again, you have my heartfelt gratitude for your very kind words, sentiments and appreciation.
      And I wish you the same and much more! 🙂

      Much love,
      Hafsa

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