The Hijab Dilemma

For every choice you make,

There’s another you just missed.

Having seen both sides of the hijab and witnessed just one, it’s daunting to see that today men and women go out of their way to make it a point as to how unique their ideals are and why their choices are the best they could potentially make. I remember being told that the hijab was compulsory in Islam and like any child, I questioned it, glamorized it, accessorized it, and then  by 14 I chose not to wear it.  Long story short, I made a decision and no one questioned me for it. Wear it, don’t wear it. Like it,don’t like it, was totally up to me.

It was a concept that brought my parents an unhealthy amount of judgement and ‘looks’ but they were, and still are, firm believers in ‘purity’ of thought and action as opposed to ‘purity’ of clothing. Being as this is my weekly rant, the point of the matter is this: most women who wear a hijab (and most men who blatantly prefer hijabi’s)  make it a point to let you know that the hijab, by its nature, enables one to look beyond one’s ‘looks’ and actually get to know a person on a deeper, personal level, one, that being a non-hijabi you won’t understand.

On a good day, I appreciate her view point, smile at her and continue with my day. But right after an 8 am, the only translation of these words that ring loud and clear is this: “unlike you, since I have the hijab, it automatically makes me more inclined to make friends with people for who they are, as opposed to what they look like.”

It doesn’t just end there. Going to or being part of a Muslim community, particularly in the US (so far) is one that is split (with exceptions, of course) quite in the middle: hijabis and non hijabis.

Only one of which, in the Muslim communities that I have witnessed, will get you  scorn. Needless to say, being a non hijabi, you have to work harder to ‘prove’ you modesty and as much as the community insiders try to deny it, if you don’t dress according to their rules, you’re instantly an outsider. And yes, most of the members of these communities often hate hypocrisy in any form.

There is no doubt that being or looking different from the norm will often get you uncomfortable looks and different words and unpleasant actions. I get that. I’m an Indian Muslim studying in the United States. What I don’t get (though I’m beginning to) is this inherent need for each of us, to prove that our uniqueness and our choices are better than the rest, particularly better than those who don’t make the same choices.

Why Speak Up?

The idealist in me is raging mad. It’s not being illogical, in fact it is pining to speak up, to battle norms with reason and constructs with change. The pessimist in me, is smirking a knowing smirk at me, warning me that ‘it’ was bound to happen, that it’s not a matter of nation of supposed development, it is a matter of men and women who resonated similar thought, similar action, similar notions and then hide behind their perceived development or lack thereof. The realist in me is truly in turmoil; calm, measured, destructive turmoil. The way ahead is still clear, the path is predetermined and the outcome known, yet it strives for change, screams to be heard, to have a clear conscience and to be a peace with itself.

The realist knows that even though the date marks the twenty first century, man truly hasn’t changed. That love, lust, sex, power, money, position are emotions and aspirations that continue to haunt and direct man’s way of life.  Every remark is taken as a personal assault and every contrary opinion deemed so precious that it instantly defines the individual. To what extent a man presumes only time can tell but he presumes none-the-less.

My realist also knows to keep calm to try and act, to rock some boats and to leave some untouched, ro carefully meticulously seek out its wars, for unlike its braver counter parts, my heart, as my realist knows isn’t very brave. It loves too much and worries for the one’s it loves. It values its life, and of those it loves and so my realist, in essence is born from the womb of a cautious heart. It resides within a common man, woman actually, who worries not just about her job, but about her kids, her body, her health, her family, her parents and then her mental well being. It also hesitates for the fear of elimination.

Not just its voice, but its existence. It is sacred that so much fear and pain will be inflicted upon my fragile body and questioning mind, that my spirit and that of everyone who has ever loved me, found strength in me or invested in me any way, will only be broken. But you can’t live in fear the idealist in me is taunting me. The pessimist calls it ‘being smart’ but the realist knows it’s for the best. That I’m not hiding, I am protecting. That I won’t stop dreaming and will dream all my dreams and passively work upon building them but I will pick battles that I can fight without the fear of eternal silence. I will fight the wars that allow my family to be safe, I will only pick the fights my body can take.

An Open Letter to the Educated Teenage Hypocrites

Stepping out in my towel I rush to get dressed. My wet hair drops till my mid waist rather dramatically in slight waves. I pause and stare at myself in my mirror. I see clear, slightly pink, lightly freckled skin, lash less eyes, a slim body and a face so used to being nude that it brightens up with makeup. I am scared to remove my towel and stare at myself. Naked, sun kissed, and already stretch mark suffused. I stand there for what seems to be eternity till I drop my towel and look at myself. Truly raw. I smile, then, suddenly aggravated I get into my pjs and ponder.

I’m taken back instantly to a ‘Carry On’ series movies where the women were often short, plum and padded with stretch marks. Those were the women sought after in the days gone by. Not just men, even women looked down upon those actors if they were too skinny. And then now here we are in what can easily be equated to Dante’s hell. Right here day in and day out. We have passionately entwined our lives within this man made hell we claim to escape.

But are we looking for a way out? Are we truly, actually, aggressively, passionately looking to change things? Are we, in India, working towards a change or are we working towards a bloated ego?

At one end we ramble on about natural beauty and when Sonam Kapoor, in an interview, reveals her stretch marks and fat, instantly she is at the receiving end of snarky, derogatory remarks, not by the ‘uneducated’ Indian we hide behind, but by the educated Gucci laden Indians that reside in so many homes. When we tweet anxiously about respecting women and not objectifying them we do so with the fervor of an India Pakistan match being won by Indians. But when it comes to music we still dance to the tunes of ‘Baby Doll’. Where one end we so aggressively rallied for justice for a rape victim, we still re-blog, repost, and agree with articles and pieces that judge women for their short clothes.

If you’ve looked away and declared me unworthy of your attention or yourself above the aforementioned, stop and think for yourself, when was the last time, you let your daughter wear what she wanted irrespective ‘of what people would say?’ When was the last time, you actually admired a woman in her ‘normal’ self or not snicker when she dressed up? When did you last teach your son to respect people for who they are and not their choices? As trivial as these might seem, they are the true indicators of change.

Or did you, like the million others, hand your son a bottle of whisky and your daughter an orange juice? How many times have you, boys, spoken to a girl and gotten to know her before her mini skirt proclaimed her a slut?   I know for a fact that you didn’t. That you ‘educated’ kids in the pubs and discos went and spoke to the woman with the shortest skirt assuming right of the bat that she was ‘easy’ and yet if she asked to be taken home to meet your family, you’d disappear like perfume in air, almost there but never quite seen.

Is this to say we are all like that? No. If I’m writing this, someone else has thought it too. But are most of us like this? Yes. If you get offended by this piece, guess which category you fall into. We thrive in the negativity that we bestow upon others as it makes us feel superior. And you know what (if you didn’t already) it’s not just the men.

It’s the women too. You girls who sit among your guy friends watching your girl friends (if that term made you clinch or giggle, you might as well stop reading ahead and first educate yourself) get slut shamed by the boys are perpetuating this culture. Because for you, the attention, that momentary approval of those guys suddenly means more to you than your girl friend. This does not make you a bad human being, it makes you just that, human. However, the point is that you too are perpetuating a cycle you might be a victim of.

Because tomorrow when you come in a skirt, if it’s a full length skirt you are a ‘behenji’ and if it’s a mini you’ll be called a slut. Because you, knowingly or unknowingly gave them permission to judge you and shame you when you laughed with them at your ‘friend’.

Should the boys know better? Yes, but so should you.

So now, tell me are we truly perpetuating a change where every moment is a struggle? For that’s what change is, it’s uncomfortable, it’s uneasy and that’s why it’s so difficult to bring about.  Or are you too just smothering your ego?

Well let me tell you. You’re doing neither. You’re comforting yourself in the anonymity of your stature in society and hiding behind the norms that you perpetuate. Re-blogging a post, or sharing a status isn’t enough, in fact it’s nothing. You’re waiting for a wave of spontaneous change to come along so that you can then dip your feet in it in an attempt to get famous and then again soothe your shameless ego by telling it you tried.

What have I done? What gives me the right to tell you this? Well, I too, was an educated teenage hypocrite. And as for what I’ve done, today, I volunteer at hospitals for the poor, write a fashion blog for the ‘normal’ Indian woman, defy every societal construct of beauty at my whim and fancy and hold workshops for women empowerment. I’ve not done enough but I’ve started. I weigh as much as my conscious agree upon, I dress however my mind wishes. I watch everything from Two and a Half Men to Mr Khan to Keeping Up with The Kardashians, but most of all, unlike you, I reflect and act. The degree of my actions are seen in my everyday behavior. But of course, you don’t know that for the minute you saw me laugh louder than you, you assumed I did for you.



Let’s Lose

Let’s lose today, yet again or maybe for the first time. I highly doubt it’s the first time, but I am positive it won’t be the last. Don’t lose your courage, your degree, your accomplishments, your self esteem, your personality, your flaws, no, instead, let’s lose to a word. Beautiful.

Let’s lose to “beautiful”.  A word, like so many before that has become a constraint we cling to and a reason for false joy. It’s a word that has seeped so firmly into our being that it has robbed us of ourselves. It’s a word that we hide behind and a reason we reject. It’s a feat we aspire to achieve and a state we wish to live in.

Let’s lose to it. Let us, today, give up and succumb to endlessness of the word and be the way we are: flawed. Forget the imperfection of the thighs and the nose and the ears or the eyes, instead focus on the perfection of the mind, soul and body. Not ‘beautiful’ body, but a healthy, happy body. Not a ‘beautiful’ face but a happy, smiling face.

Beautiful is nothing but a false sense of being, a figment of our imagination, an idea of worth. An idea so abstract and so fluid, that it’s taken years to perfect and yet remains imperfect.  So today let’s embrace this loss. I have no substitute for this loss, I have no mosaic of ‘beauty’ to replace this master. I have only an idea of a world without this word. An idea where ‘fat’, ‘skinny’, ‘fair’, ‘dark’ all cease to be held against a hypothetical standard and instead flourish in their own amazing uniqueness, an idea where every individual is truly the master of their reflection and happy in their uniqueness.

I urge you embark on this journey. Where, who you are, what you stand for, what you don’t stand for, what you’ve done, what you’ve accomplished, what you have defeated, what you’ve learnt, and what you’ve given back is more important than how you ‘think’ you look. For beauty isn’t an inborn idea, it’s a process, a concept that is constructively and systematically drilled into our minds and souls and our being.

So today, let’s lose. For in this loss, there is only a lifelong victory.

Stranger Danger?

You’re sitting at a café when a stranger approaches you. This person asks what your name is, and, for some reason, you reply. The stranger nods, “I’ve been looking for you.” What happens next?

She looks preoccupied as she continues to stare at me. For a split second, I contemplate and debate running away from her. She seems ‘normal’. Your average Jane Doe really. Shorts and a tank with toms. Her hair is brown and curly and her freckled are peeking from behind her foundation. But I am fixated. Too scared to move and too shocked to run. 

She looks at me, cocks her head to the side, winks and gestures me to follow. She hasn’t moved a step, she is staring at me. I can see myself stand up and and one snappy comment later, I walk away from here. But in reality I just sit staring at her wondering how she got such an amazing tan. She widens her eyes and points to the road, in no way hiding her impatience. I stand up begin to gather my stuff, pay the bill and prepare to walk.  I stand waiting for her and she just stares at me, looking at me like I was looney.

I stare at her, yet again. Something’s weird. I keep looking and the more I look, the more familiar she seems. Suddenly, I feel stupid. Ugh,  did it again, AGAIN. Seriously I have issues.  By now my body is relaxed and I stare at her newly done eyebrows, tan and brown hair.  I am partly amused and partly ashamed. 

“Mom’s waiting, Miss Sheeeeeeeeeeila.” She says mocking me, calling me the one name I despise. “Let’s go. I don’t have all day.”

Resigned and embarrassed I sigh as my sister pushes me out of her way. 

No Pain, No Gain?

Do you agree with Jane Fonda’s favorite exercise motto, “no pain, no gain?” Is it impossible to attain greatness without considerable hardship?

I often wondered what life would be if everything were served on a silver platter? If everyone, no matter how hardworking, no matter his/her/their perseverance, was served on a silver platter. I thought long enough and realized that the silver would tarnish.

Whatever a person achieves even if, by luck, he/she/they must work towards maintaining it, battling human intent, battling nature’s motivation and then finally overcoming their own limitations. I firmly believe, no pain, no gain. That to gain, we often feel some form of pain. Mental, physical, emotional pain. Sometimes, some pain is harsher and harder, and some not so much, however, pain is involved. Doctors, lawyers, artists, photographers, mothers, fathers, all face various types if pain. The pain of patience, of focus, of commitment, of lack of time, the pain of limitations, of freedom. 

Impossible, I don’t know really. For everyone measures main differently. If choosing between family and work is painful, then maybe greatness is impossible without pain. If focusing is difficult, then maybe it’s impossible to attain greatness without pain. If, however, my pain, is not someone else’s definition of pain, then maybe for them greatness is possible without pain. 

Anyway, what do you think? Leave me a comment. 

Dear 13/14 Year Old Self

Dear 13/14 year old self

Calm down. You feel ugly, you have braces, you’re too skinny, you have an opinion about everything, you know that you bound by too many rules and maybe once every week (or more) you wish you’d grow up faster. Now you’re ‘lucky’ you don’t have a pretty older sister so you need not worry about that, but everyday in school you see pretty 16,17 year olds, in their best version of the proverbial beauty and wonder why you don’t grow up already.

Well stop. You will grow up. You already are. Everyday, you get one day closer to getting older. And that, this growth of your body, your face, your thoughts, your expectations will only continue to expand day in and day out. You will be taller, prettier, smarter, sexier. You will grow up.

But you can never stop growing, nor revert back to your middle school. You can never turn back time and appreciate what school has to offer to the weird brace laden, fringe infested teenager if all you focus on is growing up. The experiences, the foolishness, the capacity to goof up is one thing that is constantly pitted against time. You will grow up. You will be given responsibility, you will have all the make up you want, you will have that wardrobe that you covet so badly, sheepishly stare at and yet deny,  you will be ‘prettier’ than your awkward teens, but with each passing year, your ability to make mistakes will lessen, your goofiness will be challenged and your very essence of a carefree individual will be shaken. People might tell you otherwise but those dreamers are yet to change themselves, let alone society.

I know, you do worry about grades, and the world around you, the issues the world faces, I know you worry and plan and scheme as to how to change the world and what your contribution in the world will be and you dream and you aspire. I know that you are not ‘shallow’, nor incapable,  but I also know that every time you look into the mirror, you see something off. Beauty, however you define it, is going to be a major theme in your life, one that consumes you, enrages you, satisfies you, angers you, prods you, but most of all, one that challenges you, constantly. And know that you are neither the first, nor the last girl (or boy, for boys struggle with their own impossible standards)  to face these issues and feel that way.

In fact, as you get older, the pressure will build and so will the expectations. It’s nothing you can’t tackle, you’re already way stronger than you know.  But today let ‘cute’ be enough for you. Let the Famous Fives still be cool. Let respect still matter,  be proud of the girl you are, stop worrying about the woman you’ll be. Start enjoying and appreciating the individual you are. Live life through the eyes of an unknown. Don’t let ‘crazy’, ‘weird’, ‘hot’, or ‘sexy’ be your only focus. To put it crudely but honestly, you are, just another body, but also remember that in essence, you are an entire world to be cherished, loved, respected, rejoiced and don’t let your perceived lack of beauty (however you define it) ever stall you.

Dear 13/14 year old self, you will grow up, but you can never go back.

Much love,

Your prettier, decidedly sexier, 20 year old self

My Secret Tunnel

You’ve been given the ability to build a magical tunnel that will quickly and secretly connect your home with the location of your choice — anywhere on Earth. Where’s the other end of your tunnel?

If I had the power, no, pardon me, the magical  power to build a tunnel that connects to anywhere in the world, I would most certainly expect mankind  to have progressed enough, with or without magic to have the ability to live underwater in little water friendly globes that not only are ocean friendly but also have the ability to be invisible and odorless to carnivorous ocean dwellers.

I would without a doubt, want my tunnel to connect to the bed of the Indian Ocean. Why? Well I’ve never been there and I doubt I ever will go there and so my imagination and my limited knowledge of the ocean and it’s lifestyle are all that can travel. Even in doing so, I cannot even begin to fathom all the wonders that persist so deep into the earth and so far from human disturbance.

It would be my mid day get away, and my secret escape (because I can clearly get there in a matter of minutes since my tunnel will be technologically advanced enough to do so). So every time I have had enough of this mean, green, blue, weird world, I shall escape into the darkness, swiftly and comfortably, go to my underwater house, which would light up by self illuminating sea creatures and read or write on water paper with a sea weed.  I’ll be sure to not be too loud because who knows, maybe my neighbors are doing the same. And then once I’m fed up of being alone, and the darkness of the sea and it’s beauty, I shall resurface.

To The Righteous Men In My Life

Thank you.

Night or day, rain or shine, Mondays or Fridays, even holidays, yesterday and today, you’ve held my hand and kept me strong. As a father, brother, best friend, uncle, or cousin, you have constantly encouraged me, motivated me and shown me the life, you knew was to be ‘truly’ living.

To my father, who, though born in a society where women were merely associations, has risen so graciously above and beyond society’s chains and has loved me, respected me, encouraged me, and motivated me, (not merely ‘allowed me’) to do my best. Thank you for hugging me tight and letting me cry but never once telling me that  I was weak. Thank you for being firm in your upbringing and trust when the other fathers were questioning their daughters, for teaching me exactly what you taught my brother. Thank you, for being so beyond your years that even today, I turn to you for advice and support, fearless and confident, even if I’m in the wrong .  Thank you for letting me find my voice, loud and clear, for letting my laugh resonate and echo through and from the room walls without hesitating or controlling or telling me to stop because other  men, boys and women were judging.

To my brother, whose words I cling onto as I should to my holy book, who taught me to be true to myself irrespective of what the world (the cruel high school world, for example) thought, for being my sole confidante and my biggest fan, for showing me that girls are only as limited as their imagination allows them to be, for helping me become a better woman and embrace it with pride. Thank you, for being the only one who told me to be myself, my loud, giggly, impulsive, crazy self, to be who I wanted to be irrespective of where I was or who I was with.

Thank you to my cousins, best friends, friends, and, rakhi brothers, who have constantly protected me, not because I was weak, but because some of our world values a man over a woman, all the while teaching me to be strong. To all of you, for respecting my choices, and appreciating me when you knew I needed it the most. Thank you not because you need, or asked for it, but because you saw me an equal much before I did.

Thank you to all of you who make an effort to respect women everywhere, who despite petty jokes and perverted thoughts, never stared if my bra strap showed and instead glared at those who did. Thank you for encouraging me and my emotions and seeing me as strong as you, even when I cried and you didn’t. Thank you, to all the righteous men in my life, who have shown me what it truly is like to be respected and loved and for knowingly or unknowingly becoming the reason for my fight against ‘that’ selected part of society, for you have shown me, what every girl, daughter, sister, friend, but most of all, how every woman, deserves to be treated.

Thank you.


My Religion and It’s Men

I walk, clutching onto my books, alternating between a sheepish glance upwards and a nervous glance downwards and I walk like I don’t belong there. I just keep walking until I reach a crossroad, in my mind, where I know I need to stop and face it. My bare head, flowing hair, sleeveless shirt, all a supposed disregard to the religion I was born in and chose to follow.
It wasn’t my religion or my god that forbade me from my chosen forms expression, speech, and art, but in fact its men that did. My religion, like most other, if not all, implores me to be a worthy human being, pure in thought and intention and generous in nature and attitude. It taught me to be daring, within reason, to be outspoken,  if righteous and to be scared of no one but the lord himself, for he is the creator, but the men, the mere mortals who chose to interpret his will, who have by birth or choice or maybe even deceit chosen to be His messengers tell me otherwise.
They look at my bare hands and try to convince me to be ‘pure’. They look right into my eyes and ask me to look away. They measure my ‘purity’ by the number of times I blink away; they approve of me when I cover my head in any way. The women too, follow in the suits of these men. They adore them, maybe, dislike them possibly, revere them, perhaps but follow them nonetheless. The women walk up to me and teach me virtues of a kind, they take my hand and with a gentle touch, a sweet tone and threatening tales, beseech me to change my ways. To take a path that lead to eternal heaven. When I don’t budge and my sleeves don’t return, they come back to me with a promise of love, of devotion, of kindness and of course, of heaven. And when I smile and decline, they rudely turn, the love, the kindness, the gentle touch have been replaced and I, declared me a lost cause and an influence, to be at best, tolerated.
Not all men, of course, neither all women. The men and women of knowledge, smile at me with a genuine smile. Some teach, some follow, some condone. People of knowledge, of the sciences, the arts, history and the law, often teach me the ways of my world, of the god I follow, of the principles he laid down.
I absorb them all only to blurt them out, confused, at best, at the dinner table at home. Concerned by the knowledge, worried by my sleeves, I’m quizzing my god and my minds dizzy. Is my God so petty that he’ll punish me for my choice? Is he so insecure that he’ll abandon my faith in another being? Is he so small that rituals not virtues could send me to hell?
I’m received with a smile and tender hand, I’m reassured that my God, a God, the God, is all but one. His forms may differ but his love won’t falter. That my skin won’t matter, and my virtues weighed, that merely prayer won’t guarantee a place in his heart. I’m also told, with a sigh and a frown, that men seek power, and authority so bitter that if need be, God will be their weapon. Not all men, I’m warned, and that I’m told, is my task at hand.
To believe my god but pick his true messengers. To follow my heart, but fulfill my destiny, to survive for myself but to live for others. To not just be human, to be a conscientious, kind, generous human. And that I’m told is my only task and that is what my God, a God, the God will judge me on.
Image by: Rana Ossama