Are there other girls going through what I am? Perhaps there are, but like me, they too don’t realize what’s going on at first.

... but they may not even realize it. At first, I didn’t realize what was happening either.

As my body changed during adolescence, I had to stop going out to play, I had to stop meeting my male friends...

"Sit Properly!"

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"Don't go out after dark!"

"Wear a stole!"

"Cover your Chest"

"You are out of line!"

"Cover your Chest"

Growing up, a lot of my best friends were male. I had to abandon those friendships. These days when I see those old friends, many of them are married.

When we pass by each other we don’t talk, we haven’t talked in years.

I thought discrimination was something you study only in textbooks, something that is a part of the lives of others, those who live in the outside world - not in my world.

But one day, when was about 15 years old, Ms Joshi, my teacher was teaching a political science lesson on equality and used reality-based examples to connect our lives with these ideas. I counter questioned her reasoning and I ended up getting labelled as "She's not a good girl."

Their criteria of being good meant staying at home, not talking to boys, not answering back, and not talking too much — The criteria that patriarchy has given us. Friends of mine who were girls stopped talking to me because of these ‘bad girl’ traits they said I had. They said I was too boyish. I talked too much. So I tried to change myself.

Growing up in a Muslim community, I also received training on how to be a ‘good Muslim’, . Every religion must have its own way of teaching this. I was sent to seven or eight different ‘madrasas’ because I was never a good enough student. I endured a lot of punishment because of this too. All of it felt like such a burden, and I always worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it all. I was always reminded to keep on the ‘makhna’ (scarf), wear long salwar-kameez, and cover myself up. I haven’t read anywhere that this is important and this is the ‘only’ way or the ‘right’ way. This has always been a point of debate for me with those who decide how others must demonstrate their faith.

Last year, during the pandemic, the Tablighi Jamaat incident in Delhi in March led to a lot of hatred against Muslims. Some of my own friends posted social media statuses saying Muslims are terrorists. This left me shocked and afraid.

Living up to these identities is something I feel I need to fight with every day of my life. It has affected my mental health a lot. I have so many questions.

I don’t want to make choice, but I feel that I have to constantly choose one identity.

One evening when I was 11 years old, I was out playing with my friends in the park near my house. It was around 9.30 pm. Most evenings, my uncle would play ludo in the park too. That evening, however, he came over to me and said to me in front of  my friends who happened to be mostly boys, “Go home. You’re a girl, and you shouldn’t be playing here.” He literally grabbed me by the hand and took me home. I felt very strange because until that day, neither my father nor mother had asked me not to go out. 

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The next morning though things had changed. My mother was upset with me and said, “From now on, you cannot go out to play at night.” I asked why and she said, “Your uncle was shouting at us. Staying out so late to play isn’t good.” That day onwards, I remember I was only allowed to stay out and play until 9pm. I would watch my male friends continue playing until 11-12pm. It never felt right.

When I was about 15 years old, to everyone’s surprise, I ranked third in my class. Since I was otherwise considered  a ‘back-bencher’, I received a lot of praise at  home for this achievement! My mother was very happy and she even distributed sweets to our friends and relatives.

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One of my aunts, however, was very dismissive and said, “So what? What’s the big deal? It’s just a grade! Look at my son, he’s doing so well in sports too.”

My mother was so happy at first, but after what my aunt said, she too was upset. I knew that if I had only been given the opportunity, I too could have done much better, excelled at sports too. I just didn’t have the opportunity. And I always thought less of myself for it. I continued to excel academically throughout school, and that’s also something that they said ‘good girls’ must do.

I grew up and started going to college.

I recall, one day I was going to college. I was wearing jeans and a blouse. I was at the bus stop. Two girls were sitting at the bus stop wearing hijab. When I approached them, they scowled at me and made remarks about how I am one of those girls who tries to draw male attention to herself.

I felt tongue-tied and distressed. Had it been a boy or an older woman, I may have said something back, but they were young women my own age, and that was so upsetting.

As women, our safety is important, but it is my belief that boys should be taught that girls are not objects, rather than girls being told to be careful and be safe, to cover themselves up. In my experience, many people who profess to be devout or religious do not live the values they claim to in their day to day lives.

Where I live, many boys go for ‘Jamat’, perform holy practices, and talk about Allah, but then I also see these same boys sitting on their scooters harassing girls, staring at them literally from top to bottom.

Many of my friends have faced harassment, and even I have been harassed. I understand it is important to stop this harassment by communicating to men to stop it too. People talk a lot about change, my friends do too, but I it’s important to bring that change we want to see in others within ourselves first.

I also used to be very judgemental of others. If I saw a girl with a boyfriend, I thought, “Oh, she’s a bad girl, girls with boyfriends are bad.” I thought it was the worst thing. But now I realize that was wrong. I recognize every person needs emotional support, and I try to judge less, try to ask myself why someone may have made certain choices.  I learned this also by being on the receiving end of this judgment. 

“Why isn’t she wearing more clothes? Why isn’t she more covered up?” 

I know now that it’s her choice. It’s my choice. Why are we talking about our clothes? Why? I think often the problem is what is in our minds, and not what we wear on our bodies. Neighbours have said to my father, “Mulla Ji, you have kept a beard, but what kind of clothes do your girls wear? They are too modern.” I tell my father almost every day, it isn’t about modernizing our clothes, but about becoming better in how we think.

From our childhoods we are made to feel bad about ourselves, ashamed of our our bodies, and ordered to cover them up. The first time I faced rejection from a boy, it was apparently because he didn’t like my ‘body type’. It left me feeling crushed. While I have recovered from that, I can never forget it, forget it, and the toll it took on how I felt about myself. 

At times, I feel that nature has supported me more than human beings. If I’m experiencing a lot of anxiety or feeling angry, I like to go out and take photos, create videos of the living things around… which helps me heal. I also love to read too.

I criticize myself a lot but at the same time, I support myself too. If I feel too hurt, I talk to myself, record it, and there are times I have been able to analyse where I may have made mistakes, not being empathetic or kind.

My mother has faced a lot in working as a domestic cleaner, working in people’s homes, and how she doesn’t want this future for her children.  

 

She is a very confident person because she grew up without a father. Her father left her family while she was very young. She had to support her mother from a young age. Today, in addition to her job as a cleaner, she is passionate about waste management and is a part of a local group in our community working towards keeping it clean.

My mother never went to a school, but she learned on her own until grade 3. She learned stitching on her own, she made her own money. Through money she earned, which she sometimes even hid from my father, she sent us to school, bought our uniforms, and supported our education.

At that time, my mother encouraged me not to listen to others, and carry on with my work. Not long after, I won an award for writing a story, it was such a special moment. My mother too went on stage with me, and cried with pride, and said, “Our daughters have chosen their own paths”.

She has sacrificed so much for us. When I started working for a local NGO, our relatives would say things like, “She can’t even handle herself but she’s talking about such grand things, how will she help society?”

Yesterday, on my brother’s birthday, we wore western outfits, all of us sisters. We made a plan to go celebrate at a restaurant. Since it was just us girls, without our parents, we dressed the way we liked.

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All of sudden, our father said he too would join us. We always wear different sort of clothes when we go out with him, more conservative kurtas, or suits. So we looked at each other, wondering what we would do when he walked in. When he did walk in and looked at us, he said let’s not go to Jama Masjid where we had planned to go.

“We shall go somewhere else”, he said. I was amazed that he didn’t object to how we were dressed, instead suggesting we go elsewhere. I said to him, “It’s not what we wear, it’s about our mind, and as long as our thoughts are pure, there is no need to prove yourself to anyone. You are there with us, we are with you, let’s all go together.”

We actually went to Jama Masjid after all, to a restaurant, and he even took a few photographs with us. We had a really good time. When we had walked out of our house to leave for Jama Masjid, one of our aunts saw us and stared at us disapprovingly. But our father very proudly stood with us, and that was a lovely moment I will never forget.

In many ways, my father and mother have broken out of a certain mould of thought, common in their generation, where prejudice is a huge problem. While we don’t agree on everything, I feel supported and confident because of them. When I see my sisters’ lives, I feel proud of them. And I want to achieve things in my own life for my sisters, and for other girls. Where there is hope, there is hope that things may change.

When I look back, I see a version of myself, a girl who was scared and wasn’t confident to raise her voice. But I found the courage to tell my story now. And this was possible because of all the opportunities I had to question my own judgements of others, these changed how I think and see the world.