Version for “Tales of the Veils” website.
Not for reproduction on other websites or in any other publishing format without author’s permission.
Early in the morning factory whistle blows,
Man rises from bed and puts on his clothes,
Man takes his lunch, walks out in the morning light,
It’s the working, the working, just the working life.
Through the mansions of fear, through the mansions of pain,
I see my daddy walking through them factory gates in the rain,
Factory takes his hearing, factory gives him life,
The working, the working, just the working life.
End of the day, factory whistle cries,
Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes.
And you just better believe, boy,
somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight,
It’s the working, the working, just the working life.
© 1978 Bruce Springsteen
The whistle at the weaving factory blows. Working hours starts in thirty minutes. Most of the workers live within ten minutes walk from the gates. Rana’s father can make it if he rises from bed when the whistle blows. Rana and her mother as usual have been up for some time, when her father is ready for breakfast. Her mother has been preparing the breakfast and the lunch package, while Rana has fed the four goats and around ten hens. The women have eaten their breakfast as well. After eating a chapati and drinking a cup of tea her father says “Rana your left eye brow shows. And Faiza there is hair showing at your nose. I know it is early, but God is always awake.” Rana looks at her mother and sees her father is right. A strand of hair can be seen across the bridge of the nose in the slit for the eyes, which is the only piece of her body not hidden by clothes. The family live according to the strictest traditions of purdah. Rana and her mother only go outside their own yard to fetch water and wash. And then of course completely veiled. Although strange men never enter their house or the courtyard around it, they are veiled here as well. Rana only sees her mother’s face for a short moment from time to time, when her veil has become too moist or stained and has to be changed. But if her father is at home she will change in a dark corner avoid being seen. Then speaking for both of them is out of the question too. Of course unless her father directly asks a question. Rana hardly speaks at all. She is not permitted to speak outside the home and her mother rarely speaks to her. Her father is right, the scarf covering her own forehead is awry. She can only see it at her left eye. Normally the slit for her eyes is so small she can see the clothes both above and below the eyes. She puts her gloved hand to her eye brow and pulls at the scarf to make it sit right. It doesn’t feel right. She has to take it off when her father has left. But she has to wait. Her mother is waving with the bucket in her hand. Rana has to fetch water for the first time today.
She puts on her burqa with two small circular eye holes with mesh. She ties the headband at the back of her head. Now all curves of her body and her arms are hidden under the long loose fabric flowing down from her head. Only her feet in slippers and the bottom of her printed light blue dress shows at the front, where the black fabric only reaches the middle of her calfs. She can easily handle a bucket or clothes for washing in this burqa, as it is open like a cape all way down the front, but with a long veil hanging down from the top of her head over the face and all the way down to her knees. As Rana takes the large empty plastic bucket in her hand, her mother hands her father a lunch box with bread and some leftovers from the evening meal. Her father says “I think the front yard needs sweeping.” This line is both his orders for what especially has to be done while he is away, and his words of goodbye to her mother. They live close enough for him to be able to go home during lunch break, but he prefers to spend it with his colleagues. The machinery at the factory makes so much noise, they are not really able to talk to each other while working. And most of the men including her father has worked in the noise for so long their hearing is affected. While they might have been able to talk to each other around the machinery ten years ago, their hearing loss makes it difficult now.
Outside the small one room house in the walled yard surrounding it Rana lifts the bucket up on her head and holds it there with one hand. Her father opens the gate to the street and closes it behind them. Without a word or gesture to Rana he starts walking the thousand feet to the factory gates straight ahead. It’s raining a little as she watches her father walking away to meet the many other men already walking through the gates. A little wet clothes now won’t do much difference to him. It will soon dry in the warm dusty air inside the factory. And then it will get wet again as he starts to sweat. Rana has to walk ten minutes in the other direction to get to a public well. At the last part of her walk she is joined by another woman. The feet of the woman show it’s her old friend Nahid, whom she played with as a girl. They nod to each other, but both being unmarried women it would be improper to communicate even by just gesturing in public. Soon some other woman will pass, and if they are seen anything but demurely walking, talking will start at the well and their honor is compromised. Unless they both stay in the neighborhood when married Rana and Nahid will never talk to each other again. At the well are six women. Rana takes her bucket down and listens. Only two of them are talking. They are women who have no daughters to do the job. Most married women prefer to take their turn with fetching water later on, when they need a break. Then they come down here and chat with other women for some time before returning with a filled bucket. Most days each family has to fetch four buckets a day. In the warmest season even more. The animals gets most of it. Her mother normally only goes once a day a little before noon before it gets really hot. The well is surrounded by trees, which makes it a place in the shadow suited for talking. The two talking women this morning are not saying anything Rana haven’t heard before. Rana soon lets their low greatly muffled voices pass as just another sound around her. She might as well get her bucket filled and get back.
Back in the yard her mother as usual has heated the oven and is preparing to make some fresh chapatis. Rana fills a small bucket with part of the water for use inside the house. She places the large bucket in the shadow outside the door. Then she takes off her burqa. She goes to a small mirror on the wall, before she takes her head covering off. Now she puts it carefully on. First her forehead scarf is placed so low it partly obstructs her sight. Then her nose and mouth veil is placed so high it partly obstructs her sight as well. And finally the rest of her head and neck is covered in a large scarf. Now only a very small slit for her eyes is the only part of her showing. She goes outside to water the animals living in the yard behind the house. She notices her mother has rearranged her head covering as well. They must be more careful with their dress in the morning.
The goats can smell the water and are surrounding her as she carries the bucket towards a bowl they drink from. She fills it and moves on to a smaller bowl for the hens. A quarter of the bucket still remains. She has to go back to the front with it to avoid the animals serve themselves or pollutes the water, which might be used for themselves. Then she goes back among the hens to look for eggs. She finds four. The eggs are placed in the larder. Then her mother is shortly beside her holding the tea pot, which means Rana has to make tea. Her mother would never shout an order to her from the yard. This might be heard on the other side of the wall in the street where men walk. And inside the house is so small she can always just show her what she wants. The result is they only exchange a few words with each other during the day. Rana only adresses her mother if absolutely necessary. The older generation always decides when it is time for chatting. When tea is ready they sit down on the floor in the shadow inside the house. Rana pours two cups. After a little time to cool they both lift their veil with the left hand and drink with their right hand. After repeating this a couple of times Rana’s mother in her usual low muffled voice says “Something new at the well?” Rana says sounding the same “Only Mrs. Khan and the woman living down on the corner. And they talked about the rumours you told me about two days ago.” Her mother takes another sip of her tea. This mornings chatting is over. Her mother points out at the oven, which means Rana has to attend to the fire and bake some chapatis.
Half an hour later her mother is beside her with a bag containing dirty clothes. She puts it down on the ground and leads Rana inside pointing to a new piece of cloth her father has brought home at his last visit to the market. Rana has to make a new salwar kameez set for herself. Her mother puts on her burqa and leaves for the river twenty minutes walk away. Rana is alone for maybe two hours, but she can’t relax. Her mother knows how far she will get with the clothes. She can only stop working for a quarter to eat some fresh bread as lunch. Her mother has brought some bread herself to have lunch while chatting with other women.
She is still working when her mother comes home, takes her burqa off and places the clean clothes in a closet. Her mother is making tea. A little later she gestures her to put her work away to come and drink. Her mother doesn’t say a word and as she is completely covered it is impossible for Rana to tell, if she is happy or sad or perhaps thinking about something she was told at the river or maybe just tired. They work all day and rise early and there are many things to worry about. Perhaps her mother had remembered her fathers words this morning, because she points to the yard. Rana gets up and takes the broom. It’s an hour long task, some of it in the hot afternoon sun. Meanwhile her mother sees to the animals and then starts to prepare the dinner.
The yard is clean. As her mother sees her she shows her the bucket. The animals has got the remaining water. Rana puts on her burqa and walks off with the empty bucket on her head. It’s much worse now than in the morning. And she is warm and tired after sweeping the yard. At the well she takes a ten minutes break in the shadow without caring about who is talking and what they say. Just before she reaches home the factory whistle cries. She already sees men slowly walking out the gates. In less than ten minutes her father is home, unless he takes a detour to buy something. He buys everything. He is the only one having money. Only once a month or so he takes them outside the house. It is often to visit relatives and sometimes to visit mosques, only rarely they visit a market. He bought vegetables yesterday and this morning her mother didn’t gesture for permission to talk to him, meaning she didn’t think they needed something.
Then the gate to the street opens and her father walks tired and dirty in with that look of hate, anger and death, it creates by working hard ten hours, ruining your health and risking your life for less than is needed to give his family what he wants to give them. Her mother is ready to cool him down a little by helping him undress and washing his sweaty body with a sponge. After toweling a clean kurta is ready. Rana feels the clothes of her mother and herself is thoroughly inspected. They are both decently dressed, but her father says “Faiza, change your dress, it is dirty.” Her mother rushes to the mirror and inspects herself, but as her father spoke Rana saw he was right. While preparing the dinner her mother has got red stains on her dress. Neither she nor her mother have noticed it. They are poor, but when they can manage without his mother having to work outside the house, they are required to maintain a tidy and clean home including themselves. While her mother changes her dress her father walks outside. First he takes a look at the back checking the animals. After some minutes he looks around in the front yard. He then enters the house turning directly towards Rana “Have you cleaned the yard?” He knows Rana is usually ordered to do this. Rana nods. He continues “You haven’t been at the back of the oven. Tomorrow you sweep the entire front yard once more without exceptions.” Rana bows her head to accept and admit her guilt. But her father continues “Both of you have made several errors on the same day. It’s clear I have to do something to remind you being more careful. Bring me the broom.” Rana very quickly brings her father the broom although she knows what will come.
He sits on a cushion and she seats herself in front of him on the floor legs crossed and head bowed. “Take your gloves off and stuff them into your mouth! Then lift the scarf to cover your eyes and place the hands flat in front of you.” Rana takes her gloves off, lifts her hands up under the veil to fill her mouth with the gloves and then adjusts her veil to cover the eyes as well. Blind and nearly mute her hands feel a little cold as she places them on her thighs. It’s a mix of fear and not being used to having them uncovered. For some long seconds nothing happens and Rana starts shaking a little anticipating the worst. Then her right hand gets a blow. It burns and she feels like lifting the hands, but she knows it will make it worse and just bites her gloves and keeps the hands unmoving. Then the other hand receives a similar blow. Alternately with five to ten seconds interval each hand is hit by the broomstick for what feels very long. But after receiving ten blows on each hand nothing happens when Rana expects another blow. Half a minute later she starts to relax not biting hard on her gloves anymore. She knows the physical part of her punishment is over when her father says “Faiza, place yourself next to Rana for your part.” Rana doesn’t hear her mother being punished. She sits unmoving only feeling her burning hands and thinking everything she has to do must be done accurately and with great consideration. It’s better being hit by her father than bringing shame upon the family or taking a road to Hell.
Some time later her father says “Sit down next to Rana again when you have served my dinner.” Rana can smell dinner is being served, but it’s clear her mother and herself is not going to eat now. Close to half an hour later the complete silence is broken again “Rana, get gloves for your mother and yourself without removing those in your mouth and then clear the kitchen!” Rana slowly and very carefully pulls her scarf down just enough to be able to see. Her mother sits unmoving and blind like herself moments ago right next to her. Without lifting her head much she gets up, puts on gloves, hands a pair to her mother, clears in front of her father and then starts clearing the kitchen. A quarter later when finished she is about to sit down like before but her father says “Get our mattresses ready, it’s soon time to go to sleep. You may take the gloves out and eat quickly. Tomorrow is another working day, goodnight.” While eating a dry chapati Rana thinks to herself ‘Fetching water, feeding, baking, sewing, sweeping. Working, working, just the working life.’
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