Recently, I visited Pakistan with my family in order to visit some relatives. It was more than just a vacation to me, it was a life changing experience. Though I miss Pakistan dearly, this is one of the moments I will never forget.
I wrinkled the edges of my scarf up anxiously. Even though the piece of cloth was still covering my chest, it didn’t feel like I strong enough protection in these streets. I could feel the air settling heavy onto my skin- trying to latch onto me, trying to make me panic, trying to choke me, trying to…trying to…
The roar of motorcycles and the constant honking that swam through my mind become so loud, each shrill noise piercing my ears relentlessly as it made its presence known. The night sky combined with the dim lighting and loud bartering made my head spin and I fervently hoped that my father would see sense and realize that perhaps this wasn’t the best place to be.
I kept my head down and my eyes alert. I could feel my heartbeat speeding up, my breath hitching anxiously, my hands fisting again and again into the cloth as I tried to contain myself from hissing that we needed to leave and that shopping could be done from elsewhere.
The sidewalk was dirty and littered with trash, there was barely enough room to walk and so I was forced to walk single file behind the rest of the members of my family. My excitement over shopping has diminished rapidly and was instead replaced by a gnawing fear deep inside my stomach. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me that the streets were in such a bad condition, and yet I couldn’t help but thinking that this it was so much worse.
Simply for one fact.
Besides my family, there were no females. The populated street was crowded with men. The fact struck me hard. How very vulnerable I was. How very vulnerable I had become.
I wanted to scream, I wanted to shout, I wanted to grab my father’s arm and beg him to take me back to the car, to take me back home. I didn’t want to be there. My mind rebelled against the notion of safeness within these streets and I knew if I gave into my panic, it would become a violent vortex- gathering speed and force until I would never be able to escape it.
I forced myself to keep my head down and not give into the desire to walk with my head tilted to look at the shops around me. I knew that submissiveness was a message that
didn’t need to be spoken out loud.
Some men stared.
Others, seeking potential customers, held out various items to me. One, skimmed his eyes briefly over me before smirking and holding out shoes. I shuddered and moved on, refusing to be more than a few inches from my mother.
I suffocated underneath their curiosity, it enveloped me like a thick fog. I twisted the cloth in my hands faster and faster, imaging them to quell my panic. To reassure me.
My family stopped to look at some wallets on a stand. Behind me, a middle-aged man was sitting on the steps. I kept flicking my eyes between the clean smooth leather wallets and the lit cigarette in this man’s mouth. His clothes were ragged and dirty and he gazed up at me with a detached sort of interest. He might have been harmless, but in my mind he grew to be someone who could attack me, who could ruin me, who could destroy me.
I had never felt this sort of fear before. Well, no, that’s not true. I’ve felt it in smaller doses- when I was left alone with our driver or with some older man I didn’t know. But this…this stole my breath away and I was left gasping, looking for some sort of blanket to shield myself with.
Idly, I reflected that I should have known from the beginning that girls don’t come here. They don’t even dress the same way. But I had realized that too late.
As we kept moving forward, we eventually stepped into a hallway. There were stores haphazardly scattered on both sides of the hall. Some brightly lit, some deserted, some ruined, and some were just empty spaces.
I could imagine the hall being brightly lit, full of excited customers and laughing. I could imagine bargaining prices and rows filled with shimmering clothes, bangles that glittered when ladies tried them on, random pieces of marble and metal in decorative forms to entice customers. Oh, how badly I wished it was real!
But no, this place was a shell of what it used to be. The overhead fans spun lazily, as we walked through the hall I could feel the leering gazes directed at us. At me.
I pushed down the sob in my throat and convinced myself that the sooner I threw myself into shopping, the sooner I would get to go home.
It was only later, when we were back in the car that I let my breath become steady again and my heart rate slow down. I carefully unclenched my fingers from my ruined scarf and half-heartedly attempted to smooth it out. It was to no surprise that it remained exactly the way it was.
In the moment, I vowed I would never repeat the experience again.
I would never allow myself to be so naïve, as to think that I was safe in a place full of strangers.
I would never allow myself to slip as I had done today, in allowing my fear to be my controlling factor.
I would never allow any men to control me with just their eyes and their words.
These men were desperate. I knew that. I knew that shopkeepers- especially those prone to bargaining and two-timing- were willing to do almost anything in order to make sure they received money. They needed to.
I had felt sorry for them and grateful for my own life that I lived. But as we moved fast paced through the street I couldn’t help the fear from controlling my mind and my movements. It seemed like surrender. But it was a war that I was willing to lose because I knew that if I was myself, I wouldn’t be able to move.
This country had changed me into someone I didn’t even recognize. Though my confidence in Canada was by no means outgoing, it was still present and made its appearance time to time. Here, I knew what happened. I knew how authorities dealt punishment. I knew what men thought of girls who were not dressed in what was “modest.”
I knew that in the stories I read it had always seemed far off what relationships consisted of between males and females. And now, being in the country every unspeakable horror seemed right around the corner, every action that I did wrong because I was a girl, because I was female was another indicator as to my ignorance.
I later joked with my teacher that I would have been the best customer ever because I would never be able to bargain.
I would never be able to fight.
And that scared me more than anything.