My Purdah Journey
by Dave Potter
Exclusively for the ‘Tales of the Veils’ website
My name is Leyla and I am a British girl, born and brought up in Preston. My mum was a white lady who fell in love with my dad, the son of Pakistani immigrants. They met at school and stayed together despite the opposition of both sets of parents, horrified that their child had fallen in love with one of the ‘other’. After they had left school and got jobs, they decided to get married. That mum wasn’t a Muslim caused a problem with dad’s family, but as he wasn’t really religious, he didn’t care so long as any children would be (nominal) Muslims. The home I grew up in was not religious and full of love. It was a happy life until of course, on that day ten years ago when everything changed.
Me in England
Every Sunday we went out. Mum’s dad had died several years before so we took her mum – my gran – out to somewhere nice like a garden centre or antiques fair. That Sunday we were driving her back to her home when suddenly, from out of nowhere a car came speeding down the road chased by a police car. It was headed straight for us and dad tried to swerve out of the way but in doing so he misjudged and although we missed the first car, we ploughed into the police car chasing it. I remember nothing about it. All I recall is waking up in a hospital bed with my grandfather (from my dad) looking over me. Three weeks had passed. Everyone else had died.
I went back to my grandparents house and they tried their best, but they were old and in no position to raise a teenage girl. Unfortunately though, there was no one else. The social worker suggested that I be fostered by granddad didn’t like the idea. Then came the offer from Uncle Zaheer, dad’s brother in Pakistan. Why not go over there and live with them until I was eighteen? It would be good to keep in touch with my Pakistani roots and besides, they had a daughter, Munira, who was my age. I was excited, I’d only been abroad once and that was to Spain and Pakistan sounded really exotic and exciting. Two weeks later I was on a plane out to Lahore.
An introduction to Pakistan… and to veils
I’d expected the whole family to meet me at the airport, but to my surprise there was only Uncle Zaheer. He waved at me and hugged me warmly and then carried my bags out to his car. “Where’s Aunt Samira and Munira?” I asked him. “Your aunt is at home,” he said, “but we can’t go there straightaway.” I was puzzled and asked why not. “Well, the thing is, ever since we moved down from the village to Lahore because of my job, we’ve been living in a very religious neighbourhood and to be honest, the clothes that you are dressed in are quite unsuitable. If the neighbours saw they would complain and it wouldn’t look good. So what I’m going to do is take you to Munira’s school and she is finishing her classes in half an hour and then together we shall go and get you some Pakistani clothes. As she’s a girl your own age she can help select and help you because I know that wearing such garments will be a little strange for you and you may find them difficult.” At the time I couldn’t understand what Uncle Zaheer might mean by such comments, but I certainly didn’t want to cause him trouble with his neighbours and I had wondered anyway if my jeans and T-shirt were perhaps unsuitable as most Pakistani girls in the UK wear headscarves and perhaps salwar kameez. It was only because my mum had been white that I had not.
Munira’s school was a large building with a high wall and gates. Lots of girls were streaming out with books under their arms but to my surprise they were all wearing black robes with headscarves and veils that covered their faces leaving only the eyes free. Is that what I would be expected to wear as well? One of the figures covered in black ran up to the car, opened up the back door and jumped in beside me. “Cousin Leyla!!” it exclaimed, throwing her arms around me. “I’m so excited you are coming to stay with me. I want to learn all about England and I can teach you about our Pakistani life. I hope you’ll be happy here!” Her voice was slightly muffled by the cloth and all I could see were two dark eyes but I felt happy to have been welcomed by a female my own age who genuinely wanted to get to know me.
Uncle Zaheer drove us to a clothing store in an affluent area of the city and then sat in the car as Munira led me in and then started talking to an assistant in rapid Urdu who nodded and then led me into a back changing room. The assistant took all my measurements including my shoes and then disappeared and Munira explained that I should take off my clothes. “Where we live, people would go nuts if they saw a girl in jeans and a T-shirt,” she explained. “I hope you don’t mind but you’re going to have to wear full hijaab like I’m wearing now, as the very minimum, perhaps more at times.”
“I must be honest and say that the prospect of wearing such clothing does not really appeal to me,” I replied, “but I wish to respect your culture and customs. However, I must ask, is it easy to wear all that?”
“This outfit is not bad, certainly compared with what I had to wear in the village and the uniform for the school I’ll start next year is stricter too. However, it can get hot under these layers in the summer, particularly since we’re not allowed to remove the veils in school and…”
I wanted to ask more, particularly as to how outfits could be stricter than that one but then the assistant returned carrying a bundle of black cloth. She started handing me items which I put on. First came a pair of thick black stockings that I pulled onto my legs. Then, to my surprise, a pair of gloves made out of a satin-like material. These were quite long, like opera gloves and fastened with elasticated garters just below my armpits. Then came a shalwar kameez, also in black, the trousers and then top, both loose. Then over these came a black full-length slip with Munira called a ‘jilbab’. It was like a dress, loose and flowing which was fitted over my head and reached to the floor. It was plain and black save for a small bit of embroidery at the front. “How does it feel?” asked Munira with a laugh. “Fine so far I replied, although I’ve only ever worn gloves in the freezing cold before.”
“We have to wear gloves at all times to protect our awrah,” she said.
“What’s ‘awrah’?” I asked.
“Our beauty, our qualities of temptation you might say. Don’t worry, I’ll explain it all later.”
After the jilbab the assistant turned her attentions to my hair. Munira asked me to tie it up in a ponytail and then a black scarf was produced and wrapped around the top of my head and then tied at the back like a bandana. Then another scarf was brought out and this was wrapped around my head until only the round oval of my face could be seen by the world. Then came another all-encompassing garment, again black but this time much thicker and heavier. Munira told me it was called an abayah and it was fitted over my head and contained slits for my gloved hands to poke through. After that another thick garment was put on me, this time called a khimar which reached down to my hips and effectively hid my hands from view. Finally, a faceveil was produced, a panel of black cloth with a slit for the eyes which was tied at the back of my head by a strap. Thus dressed I looked in the mirror and saw an exact replica of my cousin staring back except that this black ghost had blue eyes instead of black. “Try walking around a little,” suggested Munira. I found it strange being covered by so much cloth, particularly in a hot climate, and the veil stuck to me but although voluminous and heavy, the layers did not restrict me as much as I’d feared and my sight was fine.
We left the shop and walked back to the car. It felt totally different walking covered in such a way. Although I could see clearly, the heavy cloth caused me to heat up quickly in the bright Pakistani sunlight and reminded me constantly of my new position. I was now hidden, anonymous, identical to Munira and all the other veiled girls on the street. In a way I hated it because I’d always been quite extrovert in England, but in another way it was nice, like I was special and not for the eyes of everybody.
We got into the car and Uncle Zaheer drove us to the apartment. On the way he congratulated me on the change in my appearance and said that I would fit in far better now. When we got to the neighbourhood, I soon found out why. All the women were covered in thick black shrouds with just their eyes on view and on occasions not even that. He’d been right about it being a strict neighbourhood and although the fact that women had to be so hidden annoyed me a bit, I was glad that I wouldn’t be standing out from the crowd.
Once in the apartment, Aunt Samira came to the door and greeted me with a big hug. She was dressed in a colourful Pakistani salwar kameez and once we were in Munira led me to the bedroom that we would be sharing and picked out a nice pink salwar kameez for me too.
We sat down on the floor and ate some aloo ghobi Pakistani style and Uncle Zaheer explained what would be happening in the months to come. It had been agreed that I would attend Munira’s school which had a high reputation and could help me to keep up with the studies that I’d been doing in England. He explained that this would remain the case until the main summer holidays when he had a month off and all the family would return to the village in the North West Frontier Province. He said something about having to adhere to different customs there which I didn’t listen to at the time as I was enjoying the food so much but upon retrospect I perhaps should have. Anyway, after the meal we relaxed, talked and joked, with my aunt and uncle telling me about different family members whom I’d never heard of before, about the life in Lahore and also how beautiful it was up in Batwarsak, the village in North West Frontier. It was lovely to be part of a happy family again and I went to bed happy that night.
The next day was a school day so I dressed in all the black veils that I’d worn the day before and went with Munira to her school.
Me and Munira at school in Lahore
Looking back, it was strange wearing such clothes after all my years of wearing ‘normal’ school uniform or jeans and a T-shirt when I wasn’t at school. Those clothes would seem weird to me now but at the time my black veils felt wrong somehow. It really hit me when we got to the school and I could see all the other girls. My first thought was, ‘Oh my God, they’re like clones, all alike and all invisible!’ I was thinking that they looked repressed somehow, forced to hide behind a black sheet with only two eyes popping out of a letterbox to the world, when with a shudder of horror I realised that if they were repressed then so was I because I was dressed in exactly the same mirror. I went into the toilets and caught myself in the mirror and my hands strayed to my veiled face. No one could tell me apart from the others, I was just another black ghost with two dark eyes peeping out to the world! Of course, my skin was slightly lighter due to my mum being white but the difference was virtually nothing, especially as Pakistanis come in all different shades and those from the northern provinces are almost as white as any English girl.
The other noticeable differences were the heat and how the veils made me move. I couldn’t understand why we were all in black when there is no other colour so good at retaining heat and in the glare of the Lahori sunshine I soon began to warm up, my thick niqaab sticking to my mouth. Consequently, without even realising it, I began sticking to the shadows and I noticed that all the other girls did the same. There was a beautiful lawn in the middle of the school and if it had been in Preston we’d have all been out sunbathing on it, yet in Lahore it was deserted, for sunbathing whilst swathed in black would have been no fun whatsoever!
I mentioned too how my costume changed my movements for it did. Being weighed down by heavy black cloth that reached down to the floor, I found my steps getting smaller, I felt no urge to run and, since it involved lifting up layers, I kept my hands down by my sides rather than waving them about. Also, the veils muffled our speech making it harder to understand so when speaking with other girls, I moved up close to them, our heads only inches apart, bowed together away from the world.
The school that we attended, a very respected one according to Munira was quite different to the English school I’d gone to. For starters, there was lots of religion and I mean lots!!! Every other lesson was some kind of Islamic study and all the classes stopped when the muezzin sounded for prayers. This of course was all new and strange to me. As I’ve already said, our house in England was not religious and if pressed to give my own faith I would have probably said either Atheist or Christian. However, here everyone was a Muslim and really into their religion. On that first morning my class teacher took me to one side to introduce me to the school and asked about my religion. I told her more or less what I’ve just told you and she tutted and said that to be a pupil of the school one really had to be a Muslim as a religious charity put a lot of money into it. Then she wrote some words onto a piece of paper and called two girls over. When they’d arrived she asked me to repeat the words on the paper. I did and afterwards they all clapped and told me that I’d taken my Shahada and that everything would be fine now.
Whilst the religious side of things didn’t really interest me, the Urdu did and within weeks I was finding that I could speak the language on a basic level and so communicate with everyone that I met. Best of all though was the chance to meet lots of Pakistani girls my age and talk about their lives. They were like girls everywhere, interested in fashion and music although unlike in Britain, they never mentioned dating or which boys they fancied. The only thing was that some of them never spoke and only nodded when we were chatting to them. Munira explained that that was because they were from religious households and it was only several months later that I realised the reasons behind their silence. Also, these girls wore another layer of niqaab over their faces so that their eyes were covered as well. I thought this to be a bit extreme and made them look totally anonymous like robots or something but of course I didn’t say anything of the sort to Munira since I knew that it is rude to criticise other people’s cultures and customs.
The weeks passed by and I settled into Pakistani life. I really got on with Munira and my aunt and uncle too. During the week I went to school and at the weekend we would do some fun stuff like go to see a Bollywood film or visit some old mosque or park. The only two things that really didn’t like was the religious side of things – my uncle’s family prayed five times a day and I was expected to as well which involved waking up in the middle of the night for the Salat al-fajr prayers – and also the dress code. During those visits to the park or some other nice place I longed to take off my heavy black robes which were deemed mandatory at all times out of the house and don something lighter and freer. Worst of all was the veil which stuck to my face and proved constantly irritating. Of course, I couldn’t see why I had to wear all that stuff so one day, when I felt confident, I asked Aunt Samira why it was that we always had to veil in black when out of the house.
“Why? Well, to observe purdah of course!”
“What is purdah?”
“Purdah, you don’t know what purdah is?! No, I shouldn’t be so surprised, I sometimes forget that you come from a non-Muslim country where the things that are normal to us are alien to you. Well Leyla, purdah is basically living in a way where our Namus or honour is preserved by keeping us modest and separate from men. We wear the veil and other clothes to stop men from looking at us and we do not talk whilst they are about to stop them from hearing us.”
“Because, as we all know, men are creatures that cannot always control their feelings easily and when they see a beautiful woman, especially a young virgin like you or Munira, then they get sexually excited and lust after that woman. We call this fitna and it is seen as bad because a case of fitna can lead a man away from God. As we want everybody to be close to God then we try to eliminate causes for fitna by hiding ourselves. Also, very strict forms of purdah limit fitna in other ways by hiding from women things that can tempt them into fitna.”
“Hmm, I think I understand although I don’t totally agree. However, why must we wear black all the time, why not another colour?”
“We can wear other colours as you shall see when you come back to the North West Frontier Province. The black veils are just more popular here in Lahore, probably because that is the Arabian style and Arabia is where Islam started. Also, black is seen as the plainest colour so wearing black a woman does not draw attention to herself.”
“So what if I didn’t wear these clothes, because some women don’t, I’ve seen them.”
“Well, to be honest, your Uncle and I insist that you do and would be most hurt and upset if you didn’t. The thing is, women not wearing such dress are seen by men as being loose and immoral, like prostitutes really and not worthy of respect. The unveiled girls that you’ve seen may well be prostitutes or from secular families with no values. When men see girls like this, they assume they want to sleep with them and you can get all sorts of trouble, them feeling your bottom or attacking you. Trust me Leyla, it is best to remain in your veils here in Pakistan, it really is.”
I was not happy. That definitely meant that the black veils were staying. Again religion seemed to be behind it which was typical. ‘Still,’ I mused, ‘everything else about Pakistan I like, so I’ll just have to put up with the veils,’ which I did of course, until things got a little more serious…
A letter arrives
One evening, after getting back from school and having our evening meal together, Uncle Zaheer, who had been looking grave all evening, asked me and Munira to go with him to the sitting room instead of helping Aunt Samira with the dishes as we usually did. Puzzled, we followed him in and he sat down in his armchair and then began to speak: “Munira, Leyla, please, sit down, I need to talk to you, well, you Munira in particular but as this will also affect you Leila, you should listen as well. I have received a letter today Munira from your fiancé in Kotal Tangi in which he sends not only you but all the family his warmest greetings and states that he ever looks forward to the day when you and he are to be united in matrimony. All of this is good, but what is not so good is that he also writes that a friend of his recently came down to Lahore on business and was not impressed by what he saw. It was his first time out of the North West Frontier apparently and he was so shocked by the appearance of all the females in the city, walking around as he calls it, ‘in a lewd state of undress’. Now Amin goes on to say that whilst he is not so shocked about the dress of females whilst in Lahore, having visited the city frequently ever since he was a child, he is also concerned that many of the Kotal Tangi people know that his wife-to-be is currently living and at school in the city and he fears that you might acquire something of a bad reputation because of the actions of the other Lahori ladies. Therefore, he impresses on me to ensure that you maintain a strict dress code in keeping with your position as the future wife of the mayor of Kotal Tangi.”
At these words Munira groaned but Zaheer held out his hand to silence her. “Yes my dear daughter, I can understand your feelings, and I know that I told you that things could be relaxed whilst you were here but perhaps I was wrong to do so and perhaps it is best to start easing you into your future role in life as Amin’s wife. However, at the same time, I do not think it fit that you adopt full burqa and North West frontier customs here in the city as then people might see us as country bumpkins who have no education. Therefore, I have phoned to Amin proposing that we find some middle ground, that you adopt full veil and some of the Kotal Tangi restrictions but at the same time retain them in a Lahori style, and he agreed with me that such is the best way to proceed and so it shall be.”
“Father, I understand what you say and accede to the wishes of both you and my fiancé.”
“Good, and since I believe in treating all people equally, I am afraid Leila that I must ask you to follow your cousin’s lead for whilst it may be a chore at first, I can assure you that it shall also be helpful for you in getting used to the life that you must lead once we return to Batwarsak after the end of term. So ladies, please go to your rooms and change into your mukenas.”
As soon as we had got to the bedroom, I asked Munira about her fiancé. “How can you have a fiancé, you’re only fifteen?!”
Munira then explained to me that actually it was quite normal in her part of Pakistan for marriages to be arranged and that hers had been arranged to Amin Zada very soon after she was born. “Dad is very important in the area as a businessman but also as a tribal figure and although we are from the town of Batwarsak, we have a lot of dealings with Kotal Tangi which is the main town in the next valley. When we were young Amin’s dad was the chief or mayor of that town and now that has passed to Amin. It is very important for dad to be allied with a family like that and a great honour for me to be chosen as a wife for him.”
“But do you like him?” I asked her.
She looked puzzled at this and replied, “Like him? But I have never met him so how can I know if I like him?”
“That’s weird, not even meeting your fiancé.”
“It may be weird in Britain, I don’t know but in North West Frontier it is normal as you shall soon see when we go there. However, for now you have to learn all about the mukena.”
“What is that?”
“The mukena is what we wear inside the house whilst in Batwarsak. The name actually means prayer gown as you can perform your prayers in them, but really it is just modest indoor clothing.”
“Is it hot, heavy and black like the outdoor clothing?”
“No, not at all, in fact it is the opposite, light and colourful although there are restrictions naturally, particularly as it is worn in North West Frontier. But it is very colourful as you shall see, indeed all the clothes we wear in Batwarsak are, the black is a Lahori trait.”
Munira then pulled out two garments from the wardrobe, one yellow and the other blue. She gave me the blue one and to put on. The garment was quite simple, like a large cotton sack that covered the whole body except for an oval around the face. It was in a pretty pastel yellow colour. After the blank black of the day clothes it was lovely and also, as it was cotton it was light and airy. However, trying to put it on I found out that it was not as simple as it seemed. I tried to put it over my head but there was no opening at the bottom and instead I had to ‘climb in’ an ‘entrance’ at the back that was then zippered shut by Munira. After this I poked my head up to the headpiece and found that the oval that framed my face was enforced with some sort of plastic strip that kept it tight around the face, something further enhanced after Munira tied it off under my chin. Then came my feet. I found there were two separate elasticated openings for them at the bottom through which my feet poked and then Munira gave me matching yellow embroidered slippers to put on. She then told me to stand up which I did and found that the gown fell about me in such a way that it looked from the outside as if it were two, the skirt and then a sort of khimar from my head to my hips which cleverly hid the zip of the back opening. However, the two were attached and what was more, there were no openings for the hands.
“What about my hands?” I asked in surprise.
“You don’t use them,” replied Munira as if I’d asked a really stupid question. “These mukenas are designed for ladies of wealth and in North West Frontier ladies of wealth do not have to do anything. They display your social status as well as protect your modesty. Here, zip me up!”
Using my gloved hands underneath the material, I zipped up Munira’s back opening. Now we were both trapped inside these garments as all the zips were on the outside. However, to reinforce it, she got out two small padlocks and snapped them shut over our zippers so that we could not remove the garments ourselves. “We are not allowed to leave our rooms with an unzipped mukena in Batwarsak,” Munira explained, “and only mother has the keys, although in Batwarsak these alone are not enough. However, for here they will do as father has only insisted on a compromise. Although it is a pain not being able to use your hands – although prayer movements can be performed inside the gown of course – I like my mukena as it is baggy and cool, not like some of the other stuff we have to wear. Also, I like the colours as people can identify who I am by colours of my mukena. I chose that one especially for you, I hope you like it.”
I wanted to ask why one needed a mukena’s colours to identify a person when their face would do but for some reason did not. On retrospect, I perhaps should have done.
“Come on! Let’s go back to mum and dad!”
On that short journey back into the communal quarters, I soon found out more about the mukena. The two foot holes were only centimetres apart and so my stride was reduced to little more than a shuffle. However, on the more positive side, the gown billowed around me and was refreshingly cool and light. What’s more, both Uncle Zaheer and Aunt Samira (who had changed into a pink mukena herself) declared themselves wholly pleased with the change in my attire and we spent a happy evening chatting and joking before Aunt Samira declared that it was time for bed at nine.
The following morning I got up for school as usual, but to my surprise, I found that my outside attire had been changed just as much the inside clothes. At first it looked the same, that ominous bundle of black laid out on the chair, but once I began to put it on I realised that things were different.
For starters the fabric was thicker and heavier, but most noticeable was the skirt which was much tighter at the bottom. Although loose enough not to reveal any of the shape of my legs, it only had a small circumference which meant that my steps had to be much shorter, otherwise I would trip.
Another difference was that at the end of my sleeves there was a small loop of string which I didn’t understand what to do with until Munira showed me that it was to be hooked over my fingers so that the sleeves never rode up revealing more black glove than was necessary.
Most striking of all the changes though, was the face veil. My one-layer niqaab had been replaced by a much longer three-layer veil. The first layer was much like my old one but the second, thin and gauzy covered my eyes as well. “This is what we must wear down at all times when out of the house,” Munira explained to me. Then the third layer, thicker than the last, was flipped down and my sight became darker and indistinct. “This is for all outdoor wear,” she said.
“But it’s horrible!” I protested, “I can’t see half as much as before!”
“That’s the point; to reduce temptation by stopping men looking out and you seeing them as much.”
So it was that my life changed again. I ceased being a person whom people could see and communicate with normally and instead became another pious faceless black ghost. My steps became short and my outdoor sight always dark and blurred. Inside the school it was little better, having one layer down always, although both the teachers and the other students were most supportive, congratulating me on my piety and modesty. As for me, my strongest emotion was of pity for Munira who would be marrying a man who expected such dress, (although she seemed less bothered about it all, just saying that “It is as God wills!” whenever I broached the subject), and glad that I would never be wed to such a person.
Me and Munira going to school in our new outfits
Nonetheless, despite all these feelings, like the first veils, I somehow got used to the added restrictions at both night and day until after a month or so I hardly noticed them as they seemed both normal and natural. However, by then preparations were starting for our move up to Munira’s hometown of Batwarsak in the North West Frontier Province which, I had been warned, was far more pious and conservative than cosmopolitan Lahore. Even so, I was still not prepared for what I was told by Uncle Zaheer the night before we set off after the last day of school…
“Leyla, there is something that I must tell you, that you have to understand. I know that you have found the life here, the restriction of the veils and the mukena, a little difficult at times, but when we return to Batwarsak tomorrow, things will become much more restricted and difficult. That is how it is there, for our village is one of the most pious and traditional in all of Pakistan and in Batwarsak all women must observe full purdah. This will be difficult for you at times, particularly considering your British upbringing, but it can be no other way. Do you understand?”
“Yes uncle, I understand, but please what exactly is ‘full purdah’. Purdah has been mentioned in my lessons as being the wearing of the veil and preserving honour by not talking to strange men but what is this ‘full purdah’?”
“That is a good question Leyla, and important considering your future life. Full purdah differs from purdah in that it takes the ideas further. Normal purdah implies that the women themselves should try to keep silent in the presence of men whilst full purdah imposes that silence on them, not just around strange men but around anyone other than their husband. This is normally done through gagging. Similarly, with purdah a woman is covered when outside but with full purdah she is covered at all times, even when sleeping, and unlike in usual purdah where your eyes may be left free, in full purdah the eyes are always covered and hidden. Those are the basics, but there is more which you shall soon learn. Tomorrow you shall don your full purdah costume ready for the journey up to Batwarsak and through wearing that costume and explanations on the journey, I shall be able to teach you much more about full purdah and your future life in it.”
His use of the term ‘future life’ puzzled me a little since I was under the impression that we were only going to Batwarsak for the summer months and would return to Lahore when the new school term started, but I considered it perhaps to be a strange turn of phrase or poor translation into English and so said nothing and let him continue.
“Also what you must appreciate is that in Batwarsak the life is very patriarchal which means that at all times the male head of the household is the boss and should be obeyed. Therefore, before we go, I must ask you, although this custom might seem strange and perhaps against some of the values you have been brought up with, will you promise to obey me at all times whilst we are living in Batwarsak?”
Obey him at all times? Well, it was a bit of a strange request and one that did not sit easily with me, but he had proved himself to be a good guardian so far and besides, one has to respect local customs, no matter how old-fashioned they are. “Yes Uncle Zaheer,” I replied, “of course I will!”
He smiled at my reply and declared, “Oh Leyla, darling Leyla, you really are a good girl. Come here and give me a hug before you go to bed. You’ve a long day ahead of you but before we meet again tomorrow, by which time you’ll be dressed in your full purdah costume, let me tell you that you are a good girl indeed and that I am extremely proud of you and how you have adapted to our Pakistani life after all those years spent in England!”
Journey to the North West Frontier Province
I was woken the following morning by the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to the Salat al-fajr prayers which I performed together with Munira. Then Aunt Samira came into the room carrying two large bundles of cloth and I realised that it was time for me to don my full purdah costume.
First of all I stripped down to my underwear but then, to my surprise, Aunt Samira asked that I remove my panties also. I asked why and she showed me an item that I had certainly not expected to see: a pair of nappies for an adult. “The journey to Batwarsak is a long one and there will be no opportunity to stop off for the toilet,” she explained before adding, “and even if there was, taking your clothes off would be out of the question. It may be that these are not necessary but it is always better to be safe than sorry.”
Whilst I objected to having to wear an item that was normally only for babies or those who cannot control their bodily functions, I had to agree with her logic and so reluctantly I put them on. Then, over the top came a pair of rubber pants to further reduce the risk of any accidents and then a BIG pair of pants that looked to me like something your gran would wear.
After this came thick stockings in white and similarly long gloves that reached up to above the elbow and were elasticated so that they stayed on. Over these came a pair of baggy Turkish-style trousers that were tied wth ribbons at the ankles and waist and then an embroidered matching baggy top similarly tied. Then Aunt Samira turned her attentions to my hair which was bunched up and tied at the back of my head in a bun with a cap put over it to hold it in place before a scarf was wrapped around my head framing my face, the only part of me available to the world.
Munira, who had been dressing in a similar fashion although in pink, not white, then came over me and gave me a big kiss on the lips. “That’s to say goodbye for a while,” she said but I didn’t understand until Aunt Samira brought out the next item, a blank mask that was to cover my face leaving only three pin holes, one at each eye and the last at the mouth. I backed away from it involuntarily but Aunt Samira stroked my head and said, “Now, now, it’s alright, nothing to be scared of.” The mask was placed over my face and I had to open my mouth as there was a large protrusion that went into my mouth effectively gagging me. The mask was tied at the back of my head and I was thus silent and my vision reduced to two tiny holes so that I could only see what was straight ahead of me.
Next came a scarf that was wrapped around my head framing the mask and covering my shoulders, also limiting my hearing somewhat in the process. Then finally came the item that would be on display to the outside world, a white burqa, a little similar to those that women wear in Afghanistan but not quite the same as this had sleeves which I threaded my arms through and were tightly buckled at the wrists. My vision was now blurred, my hearing next-to-nothing and my body totally hidden. I thought I could be restricted no more, but then shoes were produced for my feet that had heels of about 2.5cm and a small cord linking them together, restricting my strides as well. So, this was full purdah, to be a mute, helpless ghost ready to be taken to the most conservative region of all Pakistan. I did not know what the future would hold but I cannot say that I embarked on that journey without apprehensions.
Me in my white Batwarsak burqa
That journey is one that I shall remember for the rest of my life. Compared with my life now of course, it was normal, mild even, but then it was such a shock. Even though my veiling since reaching Pakistan and my wearing of the mukena in the house had got me used in a way to some restriction and purdah, it was still a world away from full purdah and getting used to the latter took quite a bit of adjusting.
The thing that hit me first was the sight. I was of course used to having a blurring to my outdoor sight by this stage but what I was not used to were the pinholes which limit all peripheral vision. Now all that I could do was see directly ahead of me, anything else involved turning my whole body. And even that tunnel of vision was blurred, more severely with the burqa than the black niqaab. In any light other than daylight I was almost blind.
Gone too was much of my hearing. The three layers over my ears, thick ones at that, meant that everything was muffled and indistinct. I felt alone and isolated, a feeling exacerbated by the weight of my new costume and the mask pressing against my face. It heated up quickly too, for within seconds of stepping outside, the sweat was trickling down my brow. It took only a short time that my life, in the short term at least, had changed irrecoverably.
To my surprise, Uncle Zaheer informed us that we would not be travelling to Batwarsak by car but instead by public transport. “In Batwarsak it is not wise to have a car; the roads are poor and can ruin the suspension and people steal because they are desperate. The car is only for here, we always travel back on the train. So it was that I was led out to a taxi, my steps now miniscule and loaded into the back. Then we were driven to Lahore Railway Station, a beautiful building bustling with people. I however, felt quite alone; all the shouting was muted and the figures indistinct under the dark roof of the train shed. Uncle Zaheer led us to the correct platform where the train to the North West Frontier Province was waited and we climbed on board. It transpired that he had booked us a compartment and we were ushered inside by the guard. Then, to my astonishment, Uncle Zaheer left and the key was turned in the lock behind us. We were locked in, but why?! Aunt Samira got up and pulled the curtains firmly across the window making the compartment almost black and then went to my wrists and loosened them. She did the same to Munira who then reciprocated and before I knew it we were all taking off our burqas, outer scarves and undoing the masks that hid and silenced us. Relieved, I was about to speak when Aunt Samira put her fingers to her lips and then wrote on a notepad that she had in her bag, We are hidden from view but our voices can still be heard and so we must stay silent. Use this to help you remember. She handed me a small rubber ball on a piece of elastic and indicated that its purpose was to gag me. I put it in my mouth. It was certainly easier to wear than the mask but I still resented being silenced.
I looked up at my aunt and cousin. Sweat had streamed down their faces and matted their hair and they looked a mess. Putting my hand to my own face and hair I guessed that I must have looked similar. As if guessing my thoughts, Aunt Samira reached into her bag and pulled out three warm wet towels in plastic bags which we opened and used to refresh ourselves. Then she pulled out bottles of ice cold drinking water which we gulped down eagerly. By now the train had started so we settled down to enjoy the long ride of almost ten hours to Peshawar, the nearest city to Batwarsak.
Once settled, I took the pad of paper and wrote, Why must we be silent? Aunt Samira read it and replied, Full purdah ladies guard their voices as well as their bodies. A beautiful female voice can tempt a man just as much as a beautiful body. There may be men in the compartment next to us who, if we talked, would get tempted. That is why it is safer to stay silent. The gag merely helps us to remember this. In Batwarsak women are virtually always silent and often communicate using notes.
I am glad I learnt how to write Urdu so that I can take part, I replied.
That is true although as we are well-off you shall only associate with ladies of standing in Batwarsak and they all understand English.
Outside of the city, Aunt Samira allowed us to open the curtains a crack so that we may see the scenery a little but whenever we slowed down for a station, we had to shut them firmly and she warned us that in North West Frontier even such limited vision was not permitted. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the journey and soon hardly noticed the ball in my mouth and having to communicate via notes. However, after a couple of hours I felt a build up in my bladder and wrote, I need the toilet. Aunt Samira shook her head and replied, Impossible, we are locked in until Peshawar. That is why you are wearing a nappy. The thought of peeing my pants disgusted me a little so I tried to hold it in but after another hour I could do it no longer and I let loose. Warm liquid flowed out, filling my nappy and making me warm and wet down below. I felt a little humiliated, like a recalcitrant child yet at the same time found the experience strangely pleasurable.
About half an hour before we were due to arrive in Peshawar, Aunt Samira signalled that we were to prepare for the next stage of the journey. Back on went the masks and the burqas and then we sat and waited in the heat of the train.
As soon as the train stopped, we heard the key turn in the lock and Uncle Zaheer appeared in the doorway with the guard. He led us off the train and across the station to the road where a car was waiting for us which, I later learnt, belonged to a Batwarsak man whose job it was to ferry people about. It was a large car but to my surprise, the luggage, which took up a full station cart, was loaded onto the back seat. Then a large black blanket was produced and draped over Aunt Samira who then sat on the seat next to the luggage and the door shut for the seat was now full. Where were Munira and I to sit then? Uncle Zaheer came up and explained.
“In Batwarsak it is so strict that women are not allowed to be seen improperly dressed outside and the clothes that you wear are counted only as indoor dress in such a strict and pious town. Therefore, when travelling women have to be hidden as well as possible to protect their modesty. Normally women travel in the boot of the car where they cannot be seen at all but there is only room for two in this vehicle. Aunt Samira has gone in the back but has been covered by an extra layer since she is older and less likely to tempt males than two pretty young virgins. You two however, shall travel in the boot. Munira is used to this but I appreciate that for you Leyla this might seem strange. However, do not fear, there are plenty of cushions to pad you and there are holes drilled in the metal to let sufficient air in so you won’t get bruised or suffocate. In you go then!”
He opened the boot and I walked across to it, my pee sloshing about inside my rubber pants and nappy. Munira climbed in first and then I after her. It was a tight squeeze but it felt nice snuggling up to my cousin and sharing her warmth. The boot was shut and locked and everything went black. Munira nuzzled me softly to let me know that everything was ok and there was no cause to worry. I nuzzled her back and within seconds the engine had started and we were off. It was quite jolty in the city but on the open road the rhythm became regular and I drifted off to sleep, only waking several hours later when the engine stopped and we were in Batwarsak. The boot was opened and thick black blankets thrown over us both. Then, blinded and aching from travelling in such a cramped fashion we were led into the family home without seeing anything of the outside and no one else seeing anything of us. Once inside I was led to a chair where I sat whilst I could hear the muffled sounds of the luggage being brought in and Uncle Zaheer chatting to the driver. Then, all went quiet and my blanket was removed. It was Aunt Samira who motioned for me to follow her and together with Munira we were led to the house’s bathroom where a large bath set in the floor was full of steaming water. There all three of us stripped until we were totally naked and then got in the water together, cleaning the rigours of the long journey thoroughly off our bodies. “It is time for bed now girls,” said my aunt after we had finished cleaning and frolicking with each other. “Put these on and I’ll lead you to your room.” She held out two folded garments of deep blue. I opened up mine and found it to be a kind of sack of thick cotton which I stepped into. Then Aunt Samira pulled the top over my head and fastened it. I was now trapped within this sleeping sack and blinded my the thick material. I felt her hand on my back and I was pushed gently out of the bathroom and into the bedroom where I was guided to the bed. There I lay and within seconds another figure joined me. It was Munira because as soon as we heard the bedroom door shut behind us, she said, “Goodnight my dearest cousin and welcome to my home in Batwarsak. Let us kiss through our sleeping sacks before leaving for the world of dreams.” I leant forward and felt her lips kiss mine through two layers of material. Then, clasping each other tightly, we both drifted off into a sound sleep.
My first day in Batwarsak
The next day I awoke confused. When I opened my eyes, why was there no light? Then I remembered; I was in Batwarsak, sleeping in a sack. I lay there thinking about the journey I’d just made and what might be in store for me in this new, “pious and conservative” town.
Some time later Aunt Samira arrived and unzipped us. “Girls, go and bathe and then put on the clothes in the bathroom,” she instructed before leaving. She was wearing her mukena like in Lahore and I realised that that would still be part of our lives here as well.
I took hold of Munira’s hand and we walked to the bath, taking our time enjoying splashing about in the water. Then came the time to dress. On the side were our new indoor clothes. The first item was very strange, a belt of engraved metal with another piece that went from the back under my crotch before linking up above my sex with the belt. I took it in my hands and looked at it. It was obviously quite old and finely made by a craftsman, but what I could not understand was why? “You put it on like this,” Munira explained, fitting it under my crotch and then fastening it around my waist, locking it into place with two tiny padlocks. “Where are the keys?” I asked when she had done so. “Amina has them,” she replied before returning to her own dressing. I wondered who Amina might be but as Munira didn’t seem to feel that any further explanation was necessary, I instead continued with my dressing.
My strange metal belt
There was a nice salwar kameez set and then a new mukena, this time in turquoise. However, there was also something else lying on top that I had not seen before: a mask.
We put the mukenas on as normal and then came the mask. Like the travel mask, this had some sort of protrusion to put in the mouth although this one was slightly different, like a plastic bag. There were also pin holes for the eyes and another hole at the mouth a little bigger than the eye holes and the front was faced in turquoise silk so that it complimented the mukena. Unlike the travel mask, this had no strap to go around the head. “You clip it to your mukena hood,” Munira explained and then demonstrated with her own. I realised now why the oval face opening had a rigid lining to it, for it was to this that the mask fastened, clicking into place as it slotted into the groove. I tried to remove it but with my hands trapped underneath the material and the hood tight around me I found that it was impossible. Munira noticed my efforts and shook her head. I tried to protest with my mouth but all that came out was a “Mmphf! Mmphf!” sound. She shook her head again and then picked up another item. It was a small pump and demonstrating on her own mask, she showed me a small valve just below the mouth hole into which she inserted the end of the pump and then started squeezing it. After a while she stopped and then handed it to me. I did likewise and found the protrusion in my mouth slowly inflating so that it grew so large as to fill my whole mouth. I stopped, not liking this new development and took out the pump hoping that it would deflate but it did not. Munira came across to me and jabbed me in the ribs. I cried in surprise and pain and a tiny “Mmphf!” came out. She shook her head again and I understood: the gag must be inflated until no sound could be made. I reinserted the pump and squeezed it a few more times until my cheeks bulged out and I could take no more. She jabbed me again but this time no sound could be heard. She nodded, came across to me and brushed her masked cheek against mine to show that we were still friends and that she loved me. Then she led the way out of the bathroom and to the main sitting room where I later learnt, the women of the house always gathered.
Masked in a mukena, the standard indoor wear in Batwarsak
In the sitting room was sat my aunt, still wearing her mukena, but this time with a mask like ours. Seeing her and my cousin dressed in mukena and mask, totally anonymous to the world, I realised what Munira had meant months before when she had said that women often used the patterns and colours of their mukenas to identify each other, for there was now no other way and with a pang of dismay, I realised that I too was now a turquoise mukena and mask and nothing more to anyone who would meet me from now on.
Stood next to my aunt was another figure, also dressed in a mukena and mask, although this time all in grey. Also, she had her hands free, for a pair of grey woollen gloves peeped out from under the upper folds of the garment. As we entered, one of those hands extracted itself fully and motioned for us to sit down next to Aunt Samira, who then rubbed her masked face against each of us in turn, an action that I now realised was the common greeting for women in full purdah. Then, the new woman started writing on a blackboard which she held up for us to read.
My name is Amina, I’m your maid. Welcome back Miss Munira and welcome for the first time Miss Leyla. It is nice to meet you. I have made breakfast.
I wondered how on earth I was expected to eat anything with my mouth filled with a huge inflatable gag but I was soon to find out. Amina disappeared and then came back a minute later carrying a tray with three large glasses on it, each with a straw in the top. She put the tray down on the floor and then picked up the first glass and handed it to me. I grasped it with my hands under the mukena and then she took the straw and threaded it through the mouth hole. Then she wrote on her blackboard Suck! I sucked and slowly but surely the contents of the glass started to rise up through the straw and into my mouth. It was a blended soup that had a lamb taste to it, nice but not how I was used to eating my food. However, masked as I was, how else could one eat? We all sucked away till the breakfast was finished and then the glasses were cleared away and three more brought out, this time containing juice. I noticed as she was handing mine that Amina’s hands, although free of the mukena, were still linked by a cord at the wrists. In this pious town, even the servants were restrained!
After the meal, We sat back and Amina cleared away the glasses and brought out three wooden bookstands. On each of these a copy of the Quran was placed and she indicated for us to begin to read. She wrote on the board and showed it to me. When you’ve finished the page, just nod your head. So it was that I began to read, which was not easy as my Arabic was still only basic then although I must admit I did enjoy having the time to do something as relaxing as reading. As I sat and let my eyes skip over the beautiful calligraphy I mused on my situation. I was sat there, a grown woman… well, almost… yet totally hidden and more helpless than a small child. It was weird, yet in a strange way I liked it, being cloaked from the world in my own little cocoon. My hands strayed down to my nether regions where they encountered the cold metal of the belt and I realised why such an item was also regarded as necessary to preserve a girl’s purity and modesty – from herself as much as any man!
After about an hour of reading the Quran, Amina wrote on her blackboard, Toilet. Aunt Samira and Munira nodded so she took my aunt by the hand and led her to the bathroom. I sat in silence with my cousin and then, after a few minutes, Amina and Aunt Samira returned and the maid led my cousin away. When Munira had come back, Amina held the blackboard up at me again and, feeling the need, I too nodded. I got up and she led me to the toilet room where, once the door was locked, she unzipped my mukena and then left a key on the side table. Then she indicated a knocking on the door and left. I extracted myself from the mukena, but not completely, for the gag had fixed the mask to my face and the mask was attached to the hood, so instead I just stepped out of the main garment and pulled down the salwar kameez bottoms to reveal my metal belt. ‘But how do I get into that?’ I wondered and then realised that that must be what the key was for. I tried to fit it – not easy with pin-hole sight – and when the padlocks eventually clicked open, I removed the metal belt and then used the toilet. After flushing I couldn’t resist myself and did fondle down there a little before putting the belt back on, locking it into place and climbing back into the mukena. Then I knocked on the door and Amina entered, zipping me back up and leading me back to the women’s room.
After I was seated back in my place, to my surprise, Amina didn’t bring the Qurans out again, but instead three shisha pipes with sweet-smelling apple tobacco. She got them ready and then proceeded to insert the mouthpieces into the mask holes of Munira and Aunt Samira. When it came to my turn, she wrote Don’t take too big breaths on the blackboard before inserting the mouthpiece. I soon understood why, for with the mouthpiece in my mouth hole, all breathing had to be done through the nose which was not so well ventilated by the mask. The first breath I inhaled was too big and immediately I found my mask smoking up from the inside as the smoke couldn’t escape quickly enough through the holes, causing me to cough and the other three women to rock silently with laughter.
After that though I settled down and began to enjoy the pipe. The smoke was relaxing and set my mind adrift whilst every so often Amina would remove the mouthpiece and let me sip a little tea through a straw. I enjoyed the experience immensely and before I knew it several hours had passed and the muezzin in the neighbourhood mosque was sounding for the Salat al-zuhr.
Once we had completed our prayers, Amina led us to our rooms where there was some food waiting for us and unzipped us. In the room Munira and I could undress save for the mask and hood and, most importantly, communicate. After sucking up our meals, we wrote notes to each other for a while and then took turns on an exercise bike that had been provided to give us some exercise. This continued until the Salat al-‘asr when we again dressed in our mukenas and were led out to the main room where we joined Uncle Zaheer who talked at us whilst we listened in silent comprehension until the Salat al-‘isha when we were led back to our room and got undressed alone in the bathroom before being put in the sleeping sack and sent to bed.
Visiting in Batwarsak
The following day, after being awoken to perform Salat al-fajr, I was surprised to discover that the clothes waiting for me after my bath were not the same as the day before. Instead today the pile was much larger although several of the more ominous items were contained within it. There was no metal belt but instead a nappy like on the journey to the North West Frontier and there were silk stockings, a fine embroidered salwar kameez and matching silken gloves all in soft yellow. Then there was a hairnet into which my hair was put and then a mask, like the one the day before with an inflatable gag, though like the travel mask, fixed into place with a strap that buckled at the back of my head. Then, once I’d been effectively silenced by inflating the gag, there was a full hood to cover the strap, just leaving my mask on show to the world.
As these were all the clothes provided, I then left the bathroom to find Amina waiting with some more. Firstly, to my surprise, she took a beautiful wide leather belt covered in silk, embroidery and fine stones which she fitted around my middle and then fastened tightly at the back. Then she took my arms, guided them behind my back until they were hand to opposing elbow and then she took a kind of sleeve that was attached to the belt and fastened it round them, securing them tightly so that I could not bring them to my front or indeed do anything at all with them! I wanted to protest, for surely this was not right, but securely gagged as I was, I could of course do nothing. After wearing the mukena for so many months I was well used to the concept of not having full use of one’s hands, but I could still balance myself with them, grasp things underneath the cloth and so on. Now however, for some unknown reason, I was to be totally helpless!
After the belt a jilbab also in yellow was brought out and draped over me. This looked beautiful as its material and embroidery reflected the standing of my family, but it had no holes for the arms and I was as one armless! Then, over this came a thin niqaab of two layers of black gauze that hid my mask and finally a beautiful burqa in yellow with the most exquisite embroidery imaginable, was draped over my head and smoothed out around me.
Thus dressed, Amina motioned for me to sit and then bent down and fitted a pair of beautiful embroidered slippers on my feet but after that, to my dismay, a pair of cuffs around my ankles with a gold chain of around 25cm to limit my stride. Thus done, she took her blackboard and wrote All done. You are dressed differently today because we are visiting the house of the Hussein Abbas, the mayor of Batwarsak, a rich and important man. I nodded my understanding and then waited.
Several minutes later two other burqa-clad figures came into the room. They came up to me and brushed their cheeks against mine and then Amina too put on a burqa, although hers was much plainer. Then she rang a bell and a man (whom I was later to learn was Abid, the family’s male servant and Amina’s husband) entered carrying a pile of black cloth. He unfolded the top layer which turned out to be a large thick black sheet which he then draped over Amina, before then doing the same to Aunt Samira, Munira and finally me. The sheet blinded me totally and I wondered what was to happen next for whatever it would be, blinded, restrained, manacled and silenced, I would have little say in it.
I felt a nudge in my back and I started to walk. If I walked too fast I bumped into another body in front of me and if I slowed down someone behind me crashed into my back. It was hard going at first and I almost fell over, but I soon understood that a steady slow rhythm with equal-length strides that did not stretch my ankle chain to the maximum was the key and slowly I was able to cover distance.
How long we walked for I do not know, but it cannot have been for long, for I sensed from the surface underfoot that we had only been on gravel outside for a short time before we were back on the smooth surface of a house floor again. Sure enough, a male voice said “Stop!” and I did. Then I waited for a minute or more and the black cloth was removed by Amina who then guided me into a large room where Aunt Samira and Munira were seated along with six other women. I sat down and Amina poured me a large glass of tea from a pot in the centre of the room and then fed the long drinking pipe under my burqa and niqaab and into the mouth hole of my mask. I was glad of the drink for the walk in the heat covered in so many layers had caused me to thirst and so I sucked it up greedily and within a minute she had to pour another. When I had cooled down a little though, I began to take note of what was going on around me.
We were obviously in some kind of female gathering, the main form of social interaction in Batswarsak, and there seemed to be three classes of female present. The first was like my aunt who were covered in gorgeous burqas but used their gloved hands to write messages. There were three other women like that; one who was introduced as the First Wife of Mayor Abbas, one who was the Second Wife of Mayor Abbas and the third who was the Wife of Doctor Farak.
The next category were those women in the same predicament as myself, also gorgeously attired in expensive burqas but clearly unable to use their hands or indeed communicate in any way beyond a nod or a shake of the head. The five women in this category were myself and Munira, a girl in a purple burqa referred to as Soraya, Mayor Abbas’ fourth daughter, a girl in green named Aisha, Mayor Abbas’ fifth daughter and a girl in red called Maryam, Doctor Farak’s second daughter.
The final category were the servants of which there were four, two from the Abbas household, one belonging to Doctor Farak’s house and our own Amina. They were never introduced and merely poured the tea and attended to any needs that their mistresses might have.
That evening I remember thinking back on that gathering and thinking it to be the strangest thing I had ever witnessed, yet now of course, such meetings are quite normal for me, everyday in fact. But to anyone with a Western upbringing, (or indeed, even a Pakistani upbringing outside of the most conservative circles), it would appear most strange indeed.
In some ways it was normal. The women who could communicate chatted about the usual things that women the world over chat about; fashion, celebrity gossip, village gossip and their husbands. However, they did it in a most unorthodox fashion: by writing on their blackboards and showing everybody, those reading acknowledging their understanding with a nod or shake of the head depending on the appropriate reaction.
What was more unnerving however, was how half the party were present and yet it was as if they were not there at all. We could not communicate so we just listened whilst those who could communicate talked about us as if we were not there!
How are the arrangements going for Soraya’s wedding?
Oh, good and bad. The hall is booked, many great guests are coming but the stupid girl complains about the outfit, saying that it is too plain for the daughter of the mayor.
Girls these days complain too much! They should have more respect for their parents!
That is true!
And the caterers, there are causing us such problems! The price they charge for aloo gobhi buffet!
We are having the same problems with Munira’s wedding arrangements. We tried that company from Kotal Tangi but the estimate was huge so we are looking for others.
Well don’t go with the people from Kuta! Absolute robbers!
All that was well and good but then they started talking about me too!
How are you finding having your husband’s brother’s child with you?
She is not such a bad girl but it has been hard at times. Back in UK she was not used to purdah.
I have heard that they live in such a way, even faces and hair uncovered in public!
Istaghallah! Such immodesty! Yes, it must be difficult for both you and her then but I must say she comports herself well in the burqa.
She is learning and at least she can become more modest under our eyes.
But what of her marriage? Have you arranged one yet?
We have not broached the subject. We have only just come back from Lahore and as I said, the girl is still learning our ways.
But she is almost seventeen, no? How can a girl be unmarried at that age in Batwarsak?
People will understand, when they know of her background.
Some people will, we understand, but others will talk. It is not good for your impeccable family name.
I know but what can I do? I am so busy!
I shall start asking for candidates. There are many men who would love to have a girl educated and speaking English.
I know of one already who looks for a girl like this.
Ladies thank you, but I need to talk things with my husband first.
Nonsense! You need to sort everything out and then present it to him like it was his idea!
All of this shocked me as you can imagine; my marriage and yet I knew nothing about such things! Still, what could I do or say other than sit there mute and unmoving, taking it all in silently?
We sat there all morning drinking tea. As there was nothing else for me to do, I was constantly sucking up the brown liquid from my glass and the maids constantly refilled it. Unfortunately, this made me forget down below until it was too late and I got that full feeling that one cannot keep in. Warm liquid gushed out filling my nappy but I did not show anything to the world of course. Sat there in my own dampness, I first felt embarrassed but then realised that as no one could tell, there was nothing to be embarrassed about. After all, had they not been drinking the same? Probably half of them were in the very same wet predicament!
When Salat al-zuhr came the room was cleared and we all prayed together. Then the maids brought some pulverised food which we sucked up and then all of us went for a nap, still dressed fully in burqas, there on the floor, the maid providing pillows on which to lay our heads. An hour or so later, we were woken and more tea served along with more gossip and conversation. Then, we were stood up, the black cloaks brought out again and slowly we walked home blind.
Back home, Munira and I were allowed the pleasure of taking a bath together, totally naked save for the metal chastity belts which were refitted before we got in. It was so nice seeing, touching and talking to another human being after so long silent and covered, and it also gave me the chance to air some of my fears.
“What were they on about in there? Me getting married!”
“Don’t worry about it Leyla, it’s just them old bags talking and gossiping. They love stuff like that and when there’s no story they make one up. You’re big news for them, an unmarried girl of sixteen in Batwarsak! Wow!”
“Why’s that strange?”
“Like they said, no one’s unmarried at seventeen here, it’s unheard of. That Soraya’s only fifteen and she’s getting wed next month. Me too, only a couple of months to go! I can’t wait!”
“Yeah, but what was all that about me?!”
“Don’t worry cuz, dad and mum would do nothing without your consent! They’re really modern in that way…”
Despite her comforting words I went to sleep in my sack that evening, my head still reeling from the costume and events of the day and I dreamt a weird dream of marrying an unknown Batwarsak man in the church next to my school in Preston, with Hussein Abbas’ wives and Doctor Farak’s wife pushing me towards the altar…
Day to Day Batwarsak Life
After that day of visiting, my life in the North West Frontier Province began to take on a regular pattern and routine. If we were staying at home I would be dressed in my mukena and mask and would occupy myself in the house or perhaps, going into the beautiful walled garden (although that required wearing a burqa for extra protection over the top), where I could see a little of the mountains beyond the walls and hear the birds sing sweetly. Often though, we either went out visiting or visitors came to our house. Usually they were the women whom I had met on that second day in the town, but there were others, all of high standing in Batwarsak for I was fast coming to realise that despite the teachings of Islam which state that every human being is equal in the eyes of Allah, in the eyes of Batwarsak society, the very opposite was the case and one must only associate with members of one’s own class or caste which, in my case, was the very highest caste of all.
The only change to all that came when there was a wedding, of which, it must be said, there were many, for being of such high standing, we got invited to all marriages in the town and all upper class marriages in the district. The first that I attended was that of Soraya and although it freaked me out a bit at the time, it proved to be typical of them all.
Dressing for the wedding was the same as dressing for any event except that the burqas were even more opulent and there was lots and lots of jewellery to put on as well. Thus dressed we would go there, which was not too bad if the event was in Batwarsak itself, but if it was in a neighbouring town, it was quite a hassle, for we’d be draped in black and then bundled into the boot of the car and driven, cramped and sweating for what seemed like hours until reaching our destination.
Once in the weddings, I never saw any men, for unlike British weddings, they attended a quite separate party. Instead we’d go into a large hall festooned with decorations, in the centre of which the bride would sit draped in exquisite clothes wearing a burqa that blinded her completely. According to Munira in the bath after Soraya’s wedding, it was custom also to restrain her hands and to plug her ears so that she was totally oblivious to the world until her new husband, whom she had never even met before, chose to ‘unwrap’ her as my cousin termed it. That totally freaked me as you can imagine. I was shocked enough by her being married off at fifteen, almost two years younger than I was, but to someone whom you’d never even seen or communicated with, and to attend your wedding oblivious of any of it. It was weird indeed, yet surprisingly, like so much else, I soon got used to it.
I say that because I did. After only a month in Batwarsak, the way of life there seemed entirely normal and proper. Occasionally I would lie in bed at night and think back to my childhood in England, running around scantily clad, my hair free, able to talk to men, boys, anyone, eating solid food, not wearing a nappy, being able to do everything for myself. When I thought about such things, the massive change in my life, the fact that all my freedoms had been stripped from me so that instead I was like some mute robot, only there to follow and obey my aunt and uncle, with no thoughts and feelings of my own, then it freaked me out and I must admit to weeping on a couple of occasions for my old life, but as soon I was awake I forgot it all and it seemed natural to put on a mask and a gag, to subsist on liquidised mush, to fill my nappy with my own pee and to have a maid do absolutely everything for me. It is strange how us humans can adapt, but adapt we do, that is for sure.
But back to the weddings, well then we would sit and the older women would pass notes whilst we unmarried ones would nod or shake our heads or go up to the buffet where there was always an amazing selection of food. Once at the buffet, I would bow at the dish I fancied and the servant would liquidise it and then I would suck it all up before choosing a drink. There was no music as this was deemed un-Islamic, but a Quranic recitation was always played in the background to provide some break to the silence. At first I wondered why we younger women could not communicate with notes but when I asked Munira she said that it was because we were unmarried and thus virgins and therefore required extra shielding from temptation (for our pretty handwriting, if seen by a man, might cause fitna), but also because a virgin’s job is to sit and watch and listen to the married women so that she too can become a good wife and mother, and sure enough, the week after her wedding, Soraya, although younger than me, was allowed to write notes, although I must admit that most of the conversation that day focussed on her elders shamelessly asking her how good her new husband was in bed!
Anyway, that was the weddings and that was my life, a pampered and hidden existence in the strictest of purdah that, perverse as it might sound, although highly restrictive, I actually enjoyed it in some ways. Although a corner of my mind was perhaps still thinking about my eventual return to Preston and my old life, I had totally accepted this strict Batwarsak existence and expected it to stay like that for several years. Fate however, intervened, for one Friday, but a month before my seventeenth birthday, my uncle called me into the male room to talk to me, an event unheard of in our household…
A Decision to Make
“Leyla, it’s good to see you. Please sit down.”
I sat on the floor for this house, like any good Pakistani house, was not provided with chairs. He nodded and then began:
“Leyla, my dearest niece, what I have to say to you today is not easy for me to say; it is not something that I want to say but unfortunately, because of the society that we are living in here, it is something that I have to speak to you about. Today the Mayor of Batwarsak came to see me to speak of you and the words that he said were not pleasing. Do not worry, you have not done anything wrong or offended anyone by not following our customs properly but nonetheless, it seems that you are the centre of the gossip of the town, both male and female, and Mayor Abbas told me that this is not acceptable and as a result I must give you an ultimatum. It pains me to do this, it really does, I would have much preferred for things to continue as they were and I must beg you to believe that I do not agree with this, but as residents here we are bound by the region’s cultures and conventions, no matter how strange or unfair they might be.”
As you can imagine, his speech was getting me worried, but gagged and hidden as I was, all I could do was nod and wait for him to continue.
“The fact is niece, as you have perhaps heard, the custom here is for all girls to be married before their seventeenth birthday. Many get married when fifteen but all must be married by seventeen. This is a custom, not a law, but as you know, customs can often be as strong, if not stronger than laws. Now, next month you are seventeen and you are not married. For me this is not a problem; I have always taken into account your upbringing in Britain as a factor as to why you are not married yet. However, the town sees it differently and the leading citizens are outraged that I am considering having an unmarried seventeen-year old girl living under my roof. For them it is like a prostitute and a harmful influence on their daughters and sons. So it is that they have commanded me to either remove you somewhere else or have you married before your birthday. If I do not, then the Khan family name is ruined and we all shall have to leave, except Munira of course, who is now part of her husband’s family. For me that is an impossibility, for I cannot abandon my home, my business and my only daughter and so it is that I have to put this terrible ultimatum to you: Leyla, will you leave us or will you marry? That is my question.”
What could I say? I was shocked! Marry?! I had not even thought about the subject, after all, I was only sixteen. In retrospect, I should have done, after all, the signs were there, with every other girl my age being married off before my very eyes, but subconsciously, I had always assumed that I would be marrying at 28 or 30 like any other English girl. Certainly not before I reached adulthood at any rate! But then the alternative, to leave, go from the family that I had grown so close to…? My head was a whirl.
After a few moments silence, my uncle started to talk again. “Leyla, I appreciate that this is a massive decision for you, and whatever you do decide, I shall respect that choice. However, to be fair, I must give you the details of what each choice entails. Firstly, there is marriage. I have had an offer for your hand which has been made by a very wealthy, important and pleasant young man. I am happy to accept it as it would be a good marriage for the family name as well as for you personally. You would be looked after and would want for nothing, but as he is a Batwarsak man, then I can guarantee that he will expect you to live as you are living now, that is to say in strict purdah, for the rest of your days. That will be non-negotiable with any marriage in this town, for as I have already said, custom rules here, even over religion. However, you have coped with purdah admirably so far, remarkably in fact, considering that you did not grow up with it, so why not enjoy it for longer? If you marry, you may stay in contact with your aunt and cousin and may visit here whenever your husband allows it.
So, that is the marriage option, but what of the alternative? Well, in essence, it is banishment. You cannot stay in this town or indeed this province for a single day after your birthday. So what must happen? I have vowed to take care of you until you come of age and there is no one who can look after you in the UK so you would have to stay here in Pakistan. Therefore, I see you having to return to Lahore and live alone in purdah there. Of course, the purdah will not be as strict, but it must still be strict to a greater extent than previously, as I shall not be there to supervise, only a servant. So, you would stay in Lahore until you are eighteen and then return to the UK. But upon that return, what then? Your money is all in trust until you are 25 and so I shall have to give you an allowance, although it will have to be meagre. I think renting a small flat in Bradford would be best as I have a cousin there who can look after you and living off the allowance until your 25th birthday, some seven years off. It will be lonely, but of course no purdah such as you have to live with here. So, those are the choices, please go away and think about them and give me your answer tomorrow. You may go dearest niece and once again, I am sorry, but this is not my choice.”
He kissed me on my veiled forehead and I left, my mind all of a muddle. What would I choose? My first reaction was to take banishment; I was too young to marry and the purdah, whilst bearable for the short term, would be impossible for eternity. But then conversely, banishment would be lonely and my life not worth the name until I reached 25. Besides, I wanted a man beside me to hold and love and Uncle Zaheer had mentioned a handsome young man… But marriage, no, no no! The purdah was too much, it was ridiculous, I was an English girl, not a Pakistani, I should be allowed to speak freely, have my hair free, show my face and my legs and my arms and…
I stopped myself. A strange realisation came over me; I said that I wanted all those things and yet, after having being covered for so long, the thought of having to bear myself before strangers absolutely horrified me. To show my face in public! No! No! No! And yet in England, what choice did I have…?
Yet the alternative was marriage, to be turned into one of those baby-producing machines that all Pakistani women seem to morph into after marriage, forever cut off from my own country and culture. A country and culture that seemed far off these days and yet…
… yet could there not be a compromise?! I wanted to stay in Pakistan in the short term, I couldn’t bear to leave my family and go back to Britain now, but in the long term. Couldn’t a deal be worked out? Yes, yes… that wouldn’t be asking too much!
The following morning I returned to the male room and knelt at my uncle’s feet. “Have you reached your decision?” he asked. I nodded my head. “What is it to be then?” I handed him the note I had written and he read it out loud: I have chosen marriage but with two conditions. Firstly, that I am not expected to bear children until I am over 21 and even then I can decide when to have a baby, not my husband and secondly, that he agree to a trip to the UK every two years. These conditions are non-negotiable and if they are not met, the marriage becomes void. Other than that, I am in your… or his… hands.
“Well feisty Leyla, you certainly are the smart one,” said Uncle Zaheer with a laugh. But these conditions do not sound totally unreasonable. I shall see your suitor and who knows? Perhaps next month we shall be enjoying yet another wedding in the Khan family…?!”
The wife of Hussain Abbas
There was more to my request than one might first think. I may come across to you as a good, pious, submissive Batwarsak girl these days, but these veils hide a devious scheming tiger at times, let me tell you! I did not want any babies because I knew that I wasn’t ready for them, but also because for my plan to work, I could not have any ties to Pakistan. And as for the trips to the UK. Well, I only intended for the marriage to be temporary. I would enjoy the consolations of married life for a year or two, stay in Batwarsak with the family that I loved and then return to Preston with my husband. Once there I could easily give him the slip – just telling Border Control that the marriage had been forced or that he was abusing me would be enough – and then I’d be free and able to claim half of his estate, enough to live far more comfortably than under a paltry allowance off my uncle. No, it was devious and wrong but that was me and that was my plan. If this mysterious suitor accepted the conditions of course…
My uncle took my note and then disappeared and I spent the day in the house dressed in my mukena and mask, wondering from behind the peepholes what the answer would be, my face steaming up as my laboured breath waited excitedly for an answer. Just after the Salat al-‘asr he returned, his face serious, and he invited me into the male quarters again. I knelt at his feet and he began.
“I am sure that you are eagerly anticipating the answer to your conditions and some more information on your future life, whichever course it may take. Well, let me tell you, this has not been easy for me, for a wife to make demands such as yours on her future spouse is most irregular in Batwarsak, and it was only when I pointed out your Western background and the fact that you have different needs and expectations because of it that negotiations could continue. However, I am pleased, and proud to say that the father of the gentleman in question has accepted the proposals and that you may now consider yourself engaged to be married. Congratulations Leyla, I am so proud of you!”
Engaged to be married! At only the tender age of 16! My head spun with the news, it was so strange, so unreal, and yet, it was happening to me, boring old me! But questions remained: who was this mystery fiancé of mine and when was the ceremony to take place?
As if sensing my questions, my uncle continued. “Dearest niece, the man whom you are to wed is a great catch indeed, and you shall be bringing honour onto the Khan family by joining with him. He is no other than Mohammed Amin Abbas, the eldest son of the Mayor of Batwarsak. He is 22 years of age and has just returned from completing his degree in Australia. It is because of his experience in the West and his education that he asked his father to find him a wife with some education and exposure to the world, a virtually impossible task. That said, he is still a very strict and pious man who believes firmly in purdah. Most of all though, he will become Mayor himself when his father reaches retirement age which will make you the most important lady in the whole town. Think of it; your cousin’s the First Wife of the Mayor of Kotal Tangi and you the First Wife of the Mayor of Batwarsak! What honour has been bestowed on our humble family by our beautiful daughters! I am so happy for you, I really am. Anyway, in accordance with our tight schedule, your fiancé shall come on the morrow for your official engagement and then the wedding shall be in under a month’s time, on a Friday, the day before your seventeenth birthday. You may go now my dear, happy in the knowledge that your future is bright and that you have the consolations of marriage to look forward to very soon!”
The following day at ten in the morning, I walked into the men’s room accompanied by my uncle and was brought in front of a man. His image was indistinct through my veils but I knew that he was my fiancé. My uncle motioned for me to kneel at his feet and, like the submissive niece that I had become, I did so. Then, my uncle stepped back and my future husband began to speak:
“So, my Leyla, we meet formally. I must say that it is a pleasure; I’ve dreamt about this moment ever since I first heard about your presence here and your uncle agreed to my advances. Of course, I have had the pleasure of seeing you in the street, but you were far more modestly dressed then than now, and besides, now you can see me… a little… just as I can see you.”
It was true that I could see him, a dim outline of my future husband, but that didn’t give away much. He was quite a tall man, sported the standard North West Frontier Province beard and wore a loose kurta. His voice however, identified him to be a man of authority and education.
He turned to my uncle. “How is my wife-to-be dressed right now, Zaheer? Does she adhere to full purdah as a wife should do.”
“She is veiled sufficiently, Hussain, she adheres to full purdah.”
“And under that excellent burqa?”
“Her arms are restrained and she is hobbled.”
“She is helpless?”
“Errrr… yes, she is I suppose.”
“Then it is as it should be my dear Leyla, for my family requires all its females to observe strict purdah. It is the custom of this town and as its future leader I must provide an example. Besides, is it not right that a woman should be silenced and still, and hidden from lecherous eyes of other men? Oh yes, there are plenty lecherous men seeking out beautiful ladies, even here in this most pious corner of Pakistan, my dear. But they will never find you, my charming bride. For my wife will be kept incommunicado, hidden safely away from the wretches who would sully her purity and charming modesty. Yes, I am going to protect you so well, my dear. So very very well.”
I stood still, weighed down by my burden of coverings, my brain going overtime. In some way his words scared me; he was strict, far stricter than Uncle Zaheer and I knew that my destiny was to be restrained and hidden forever, and yet at the same time his voice was warm, it sounded as if he cared. Yes, he would control me but I also got the feeling that he would look after me.
My confused thoughts were interrupted by my fiancé stepping in front of me. He smiled softly as he raised a firm hand up towards my head. I controlled my desire to flinch away and was rewarded by being partially aware of his fingers stroking the dense material of the burqa that interred me.
“So suitable!” I heard him murmur. “So right for a young woman who is to be protected like a precious jewel. One day I must make a perfectly secure jewel box in which to keep my own diamond, my little Leyla. Leyla, Leyla, the dark beauty! Well, she shall be kept safe, protected from the evils of this sinful world.”
Still smiling he dropped his hand and walked back towards the centre of the room. Then he wheeled round to face me.
“Your uncle has told me all about you Leyla, how you lived a sinful life in the West, but of your own free volition came here, embraced purdah willingly and transformed yourself into a true Daughter of Islam. That makes me so proud, so proud indeed, for such adherence is all the greater for the fact that, unlike the other girls in this town, you could have chosen otherwise. That is why I thought about asking for your hand the moment that I heard about a British girl coming to Batwarsak. That and the fact that I am an educated man and, in the privacy of my chamber, I desire a wife I can converse with, who can bring up my sons properly so that they understand West as well as East. Yes, it is true what I said, that you shall be kept forever in the purdah that you now adhere to, and stricter also, but it is true too that I desire you as a companion, not just a mother to my children. Does that make you happy my dear?”
Happy? Well, I didn’t know about that. Was I happy or sad? To be honest I really didn’t know. He mentioned purdah even stricter than that which I now adhered to, how?! But what he did not know is that it would not be forever…
“Your uncle here has told me that you have been following strict purdah since coming to Batwarsak. That is good, very good, especially considering the years that you spent amongst the temptations of the West. But that was then, and now your life is purdah, but I must tell you that the purdah you shall live in as my wife will be much stricter than in your uncle’s house. Unlike him I believe that Allah, not I should dictate how our lives are lived and so your life shall be dictated strictly by the Salat. Before the Salat al-fajr you shall be in bed, either with me or alone depending on if I am here or away on business. Following that prayer you shall be dressed in a mukena with arms restrained and mask. That way you shall spend your mornings in silent purdah until the Salat al-zuhr when you shall change into your standard underclothes, salwar kameez and burqa. That is when you shall visit others or receive visitors or communicate with friends, although through the medium of notes of course, for as I said before, I wish all my women to be silent except when alone with me. After the Salat al-‘asr you shall retire to your room where you may undress, exercise and do as you like, but wholly alone of course, before the Salat al-‘isha after which you shall dress in your night-time attire and either join me or sleep alone. This shall be your life from now on, and I am sure that you will learn not only to accept it but also to love it even though at the moment it may sound restrictive. Yes indeed my dearest Leyla, I know that you would probably not have chosen such a lifestyle, I know that you would probably not even choose marriage and instead would prefer to return to Britain and all the sin that can be experienced there, but you must remember, everything that happens, it happens because Allah wills it and it happens for your good. And so my darling fiancée, I shall leave you with that thought and the prospect of a marriage and life in the holiest purdah. Goodbye my love, for next time we meet, you shall be my Second Wife and I your Lord and Master…”
His words transfixed me. They scared me, this explanation of a life, an entire lifetime imprisoned within my veils, rendered helpless and silent, and yet at the same time something attracted me to him, his mastery and surety, his strength, the prospect that he offered of giving me a life of submission and restriction. I should have hated it yet in many ways I knew that, wrong as it was, I was looking forward to it…
Ten years later…
I told you that I was not going to stay with my husband, did I not? I would marry him, yes, enjoy life as much as one could in Batwarsak as the wife of the Mayor and then, upon my first trip to Britain, abscond. That was the plan, but, well… the best laid plans of mice and men…
I did marry Hussein Abbas of course, in a ceremony where I was so heavily veiled I could hardly see a thing, the imam joined us together and I signed the contract with my silken gloved hand, and then, after a party that I spent in silence, it was up to the bedchamber to be prepared for the most important night of a girl’s life. I won’t go into the details of that night of course, that would be coarse. It is enough to say that it lived up to my expectations…
And then came my life in extreme purdah, a life veiled and silenced, dictated by the salat. He lived up to all his promises, I was kept safe, I was even made a jewel box so that his precious diamond could be kept safe. It was a family tradition, but as soon as we were married, I was measured and the town carpenter started creating a beautiful wooden box, with fine carving and an interior padded with velvet cushions. When I first saw it, it disconcerted me, it looked like a coffin and I certainly wasn’t ready for one of those at 17. However, my husband was firm and I lay in it. The lid was closed and all went black. I could still breath quite easily as it was perforated with dozens of tiny holes but nonetheless, to be so confined, so alone, so totally at the mercy of others. Since that day, whenever I have left the house I have always travelled in my jewel box, keeping me safe and hidden yet displaying our family’s immense wealth and taste to the world. I have not seen anything of the town that I am First Lady of. I have not seen anything of the outside world, well… that is not true…
My husband is, above all, a man of his word. He promised me an annual trip to Britain in our marriage settlement and he honoured that promise. One day, six months after our wedding, I was loaded into my jewel box and transported in his car to the railway station whereupon I was loaded onto the train. How long did I stay there, fixed, immobile, in darkness, the trains rhythm carrying me in and out of sleep? Then, we screeched to a stop, I waited, movement, more movement, we were in a motor vehicle, more movement again, the ping of a lift bell, then stillness.
The lid was opened and the light blinded me even through my burqa. “There is a bath ready for you my love,” said my husband. I staggered over, undressed with his help and then sank into the warm soapy water. When I had regained enough strength, I climbed out and went to him, naked. We were in a hotel room, a luxury hotel room. We made passionate love and then bathed again. Then we slept. In the morning it was all explained to me.
“You are no longer Leyla, you are Sara,” he said. “Batwarsak society does not sanction a woman travelling abroad, particularly a woman of your rank. That’s why you are still in our home, retreating into religious meditation for a month because you desire a child so much. Hush, yes, I know that we both agreed no children yet, but listen to me first. I have married again, taken a second wife. My business takes me between Batwarsak and Lahore and the West, but a Batwarsak woman cannot leave, so I have wed another, a British Pakistani named Sara whom I met whilst at Warwick University. She does not know that I am married in Batwarsak. Such a solution suits our society and their ways. Leyla is back home, you are now Sara. Sara is an impious girl, she wears a headscarf here, but in Britain, she dresses like an infidel. There are your Lahori clothes; we have a plane to catch in a couple of hours.”
I looked at the clothes in the pile, modest by British standards, but compared to what I was now used to, positively lewd! A salwar kameez, jilbab, headscarf, half-niqaab… I felt naked! “Please, an eye veil…?”
He was stern. “Such things are not suitable in Britain, hurry up Sara!”
On the plane I felt uncomfortable. I was sure that everybody was looking at me, the clear vision scared me, I was constantly afraid that I might say something improper without a gag to stop me. I went to the toilet and was physically sick yet the lump still remained in my stomach.
We landed at Heathrow and caught a train into London. I clung to him, scared in this vast, noisy, alien world, full of virtually naked people, women flaunting their hair, their eyes, their breasts! Had I once been like that? Did I wish to retrun to it? We made our way to Euston and caught a train north. Still I clung to him, cowering from behind the scant protection that my flimsy half-niqaab afforded. I let him give the tickets to the collector, him do all the talking.
It was evening when we arrived in Manchester. He booked us into the Midland Hotel. I followed him in silently and we undressed and made love. Then we slept. When I awoke the next morning, he was already dressed. “These are for you to wear Sara. They are all that you are permitted to wear from now on.”
I took the clothes that he proffered and went to the bathroom. Skimpy underwear of the highest quality, then jeans so tight that they pressed all over me. I felt sexy, I felt like a prostitute. Then a top, equally tight, leaving my shoulders bare, the outline of my bra showing through it. I walked out. “We are going to Preston now, to the town that you grew up in. You can become the old Leyla again for a day. Come on!”
I knew that this was it, today was the day when I could break free, pick up the pieces of my old life, become a normal girl again. Yet, as he said those words, I froze. “Come on!” he repeated. I stood rooted to the spot and then shook my head. I realised now the power of purdah, how it can change you, mess with your mind. The old Leyla was buried forever, this Leyla was modest, pious, hidden and submissive. “I cannot,” I whispered, tears flowing from my eyes.
My husband nodded slowly. “Kneel!” he commanded.
“Disobey me today and I shall remove the privilege. If you wish to come here every other year, to keep in touch with the old Leyla, then I will allow it, but you must say so now. If not, then it is strict purdah forever, back to Batwarsak. Is that really what you want?”
I looked down to the tight jeans that picked out the womanly curve of my hips, saw the outline of my nipples through my bra and top and thought of going out like that and shuddered. What did I want? I wanted my gag to silence me, my burqa to shield me from prying eyes, my restraints to protect me from myself, my husband to command me.
I said nothing but he understood, as he had understood all along. He was the right man for me, I knew it in my heart. “Your gag and burqa are in that suitcase there,” he said softly. “You have my permission to rise..”
Slowly and silently, I rose from the floor and made my way over to the suitcase.
Not once in all the years that followed have I ever regretted that momentous decision.
Moments after my final decision in Manchester
Copyright © 2011, Dave Potter