by Dave Potter
Exclusively for the ‘Tales of the Veils’ website
Miriam came into the office and slapped her papers onto the desk with a heavy sigh. Nina, working on the desk next to her looked up. Her colleague looked tired and fed up yet the working day was only just beginning! “What is the matter?” she asked.
“It is the same problem as always,” replied Miriam with a sigh. “All the way here I have been receiving hassle and looks from men. Even when I am riding in the tuk-tuk there are guys pulling alongside on a motorbike and making some comment and the driver is always undressing me with his eyes in the rear view mirror and when I get out it is as if the world has stopped to see some great spectacle and yet I am the spectacle. I walked from the tuk-tuk to the office and they all just stand and gape like a load of gorillas or whistle or make some lewd and degrading remark. It’s too much Nina, it really is! It is like they have never even seen a woman before!”
“Well Miriam, I have told you my views on this before. You say that it is like they have never even seen a woman before, well, maybe some haven’t or at least, not a beautiful young woman like you are. Many of the men here come from religious neighbourhoods and they are used to seeing women covered and when one goes around uncovered like you do then they are transfixed.”
“But I am covered, it is not as if I am wearing a short skirt and tight jeans!”
“In your neighbourhood maybe that is covered, I do not know, but where I live it is not. Your arms are showing and your neck is low and your hair is free too.”
“These clothes are comfortable and I like them. Why should I have to change for a load of ignorant sexist idiots?”
“You do not, so carry on as you were.”
The two ladies worked hard all morning sorting out orders for machines to be imported from Europe and the Far East and then resold around Lahore. The company that they worked for was one of the premium importers of industrial sewing machines in Pakistan and the boss had employed Nina and Miriam because of their excellent language skills that they’d acquired at university so they could talk to customers from all over the world. But talking in a language other than your own and looking at a computer screen for hours in a hot office is hard work and when lunch came Miriam knew she needed a breath of fresh air. On top of that she loved the chicken tikka at Ahmed’s Kebabish on Allama Iqbal Road so she got up and went out for a walk.
Almost as soon as she stepped out of the office she felt two pairs of eyes glue onto her. One was a smart-looking guy in a short and tie stood by a motorbike whilst the second was his mate sat on another bike. As she strode past deliberately avoiding their gaze she could feel their eyes following her every move, undressing her mentally.
She had passed them when she heard a voice. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Just lookin’ man.”
“You shouldn’t look at a girl like that unless she’s your wife!”
“C’mon man, she’s hot, look at her ass…”
‘Hmm,’ thought Miriam, ‘at least someone has some decency in them.’ They were out of earshot now due to the roar of the midday traffic, but she casually glanced over her shoulder to see a smart young man berating her two admirers. She’d not seen him before but he looked like a businessman.
After her lunch she returned the same way, her stomach now full of delicious chicken tikka. Up ahead she spied the two motorbike admirers still accompanied by the third man. She saw the two lock their eyes on her but then heard him defend her again. “How can you call yourselves good Muslims when you again look at her in that way?”
“Hey man, chill out! There’s not a lot to see here and she is fine! We’re men aren’t we?”
“Come on man, you can’t tell me you wouldn’t want a piece of that?”
“Guys, I don’t even think that way and why? Because it is not right! Get yourself to the mosque and read some Islamic books and you’ll understand how to look at ladies!”
“Come on man, she ain’t no lady! No lady would dress like that! She loves it, that’s why she teases us in such a way!”
“You can’t say that! You don’t know what is in her heart! Only Allah can judge like that!”
All that afternoon and in her flat in the evening, Miriam thought about what had happened. She so hated being stared at all the time, it was so invasive but even more she hated what that pervy young man had said: ‘She ain’t no lady!’ How dare he make such a judgement! Yet he had, they all had. They liked to look at her but not as a woman worthy of respect, instead merely a whore who would be great to bed and then discard. ‘But I am not like that!’ she protested to herself. ‘I am a virgin and I would never sin in such a way! All I want is to be able to wear clothes in which I feel comfortable! Is that too much to ask?’ Of course no answer came and her mind instead drifted to the smart young man who had defended her and his faith. If only there were more like him!
The next day it was the same situation; running the same gauntlet of stares and Miriam came into the office as upset as she had been before. She sighed a lot all morning long as she answered emails and phone calls in English, Spanish and Arabic and then when lunch came, she declared to Nina, “It is time for them all to see the spectacle of my ass, arms and hair I suppose!”
“Do you know what Miriam, I was thinking about your situation last night and talking with my husband and I have decided to help you.” And with those words she took out a folded pile of black cloth that she’d hidden under her desk and started placing it around her head.
“What? Are you mad?” exclaimed Miriam.
“Not at all.”
“But that is an abayah with a faceveil! Are you saying that I should enter parda or something?”
“Not enter parda, but try on these, yes. I wear one when I go to and from work and I am not nearly so tempting as you. Wearing these they leave you alone!”
“You’ve got to be joking! Wearing such things would be so hot and heavy!”
“As hot and heavy as having to endure all those glances?”
“But I choose what I want to wear, not them. And my mother always said that parda was backwards, a thing of the past. I am a modern, university-educated woman Nina!”
“Modern and university-educated you may be but out there they all seem to still be pretty backward, so why don’t you try it on, just the once, to see?”
Miriam thought. The idea of going out shrouded like a black ghost did not fill her with happiness but the idea of being ogled and remarked upon by all those men was even worse. “Ok then,” she said getting up, “I’ll give it a go.”
Nina fitted the garment carefully on her head and then let it drop down to the floor. Her lithe body clad in white trousers and a pretty purple blouse was covered completed. Then Nina got out the veil and Miriam’s beautiful face was hidden too, only the eyes on display. Inside she felt covered and protected but also a little hot. Still, one go…
She stepped outside and immediately spotted the two motorbike pervs. The third man, her protector, was not there. She walked on, waiting for the comments, whistles or gazes but instead they never noticed her, just continuing their conversation as if no woman were around. ‘That is better,’ thought Miriam to herself.
She continued on, past the garages and café’s and all the way, not a single glance, not a single comment, not even noticed once. ‘Maybe I could start wearing one of these just to come to work?’ she thought to herself.
Returning to the office, she unpinned the veil but, to her surprise, kept the all encompassing garment on. “How was it?” asked Nina.
“I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised. My fear of extra heat has been realised, but that is more than compensated by the fact that not a single man, gazed, commented or whistled at me and in fact, in this garment I somehow feel protected.”
“I knew you’d like it; you should start wearing one all the time, and of course, it doesn’t have to stop there. What about gloves or even a veil to cover those pretty eyes of yours?”
“Hold on, hold on! That sounds like full parda and I certainly don’t want that!”
“Don’t knock what you don’t know! I’ve already surprised you with the hijaab haven’t I? And after all, don’t you want to be a good musilmah?”
“But you don’t have to veil and cover up in full hijaab to be a good musilmah!”
“Don’t you? Check out the Quran, and I think you’ll find that you do. But whatever you decide, you can keep that; it’s a present from me!”
That night Miriam took down her Quran and read the verses that Nina had cited. They certainly told women to cover up but were vague on how much and how. But nonetheless, modesty did seem to be the key and hadn’t those men all considered her to be immodest?
What was not in the Quran was any reference to parda but Miriam seemed to recall that in her youth her grandmother, who had been a Rajput and emigrated to Pakistan from India after the Partition, had followed some kind of parda, so she hailed a tuk-tuk and went to see her.
“Yes, yes, parda was common amongst all the girls of our class back in my youth, Hindu or Muslim. The word ‘Hijab’ is relatively new for me. It was not a part of my vocabulary as I was growing up. I learned it much later, when I began to read literary and religious Urdu texts. That is how I also learned other such culturally potent words as Ishq (Passion) and Siyasat (Politics), and Tasavvuf (Mysticism). The relevant word that I learned growing up was parda. And I learned the word and its many meanings in the observed practice of the various female members of my middle-class family in Bara Banki, a small town in north India.
For Ammi, my grandmother, parda meant almost never venturing out of the house. On the rare occasions when she did, it was always an elaborate ritual. Visiting a family in the neighbourhood — only on the occasion of some tragedy, as I remember — she used a doli. The little stool slung from a pole that two men carried would be brought to our back door — the door to the zanana or the ladies’ section — and the two carriers would step away behind the curtain wall. Ammi would wrap herself in a white sheet and squat on the flat stool, and a heavy custom-made cover would be thrown over her and the doli. The two bearers would then come back and carry the doli away on their shoulders.
When Ammi travelled in my father’s car, she covered herself the same way, while the back seat of the car where she sat was made completely invisible by pieces of cloth hung across the windows. Years earlier, she had travelled all the way to Mecca with her daughter and son-in-law to perform the Hajj. I don’t know how she covered herself during the journey itself, but in the holy city she must have done what all Muslim women are required to do: perform the many rituals together with men while keeping their hair and bodies covered but faces fully exposed. She acted in Mecca the way it was required of her by Islam, her religion, while in Bara Banki she did what was demanded by her culture – the culture of the sharif or genteel people of Avadh.
Apa, my mother belonged, to the next generation. She used a burqa. Hers was a two piece ‘modern’ outfit, as opposed to the one-piece — derisively called ‘the shuttlecock’ by my sisters — that was preferred by the older or more conservatively spirited in the family. I also remember that the older generation’s burqas were usually white, while the new burqas were always black.
Apa’s burqa consisted of a skirt and a separate top throw — one that covered her from the head to the thighs. The two pieces allowed for easier movement of both arms and legs. The top had a separate veil hanging over the face, which Apa could throw back in the company of women, e.g. while travelling in the ladies compartment on a train, or hold partly aside to look at things more closely when she went shopping. Apa wore a burqa all her life, except of course when she went to Mecca for Hajj. There she wore the same sheets of ihram that Ammi had to wear earlier. Like all women pilgrims then and now, she too exposed her face to everyone’s sight but not her hair.
My older sisters went to a school in Lucknow where they boarded. They wore a burqa of my mother’s style while in Bara Banki. They probably wore the same in Lucknow too, on their outings with other students, no doubt always under the supervision of a lady teacher or two. My eldest sister gave up the burqa after she got married, though she always put it on when she came to Bara Banki during our father’s life. She acted as the wife of a certain individual when she was away from Bara Banki, but behaved as befitted the daughter of a particular family when she returned home.
In our extended family, however, there were several cousins of my mother who never wore a burqa, and two had worn western clothes when they were at a convent school. There were also a few families in Bara Banki even then in which the younger women never wore burqas and only half-wrapped themselves in a sheet when they walked to some place in the neighbourhood; they otherwise dressed and behaved just like my sisters.
I should not neglect to mention that in those days — I’m talking about the Forties — it was considered improper even for Hindu ladies of certain classes to be seen in public with their hair and faces uncovered, particularly the married women. They never wore a burqa — that was for Muslims alone. Instead, they used a shawl, a plain white sheet, or the pallo of their saris to cover what was not for strangers to see. They too lived in houses that had separate women’s quarters. Their daughters travelled to school daily in a covered wagon that was pushed by two men, just like their Muslim counterparts. (The school was exclusively for girls and had a very high wall surrounding it.)
Another noticeable difference between Hindu and Muslim ladies of the same middle class was that the former did not hesitate to use a tonga. They sat on the back bench of the horse-drawn vehicle where their sari-wrapped lower bodies were visible to all. Muslim ladies, on the other hand, preferred the other horse-drawn vehicle, ekka — where they could huddle on its high seat wrapped in their burqas or even have the whole seat enclosed with a sheet. My sisters, I well remember, hated to travel in an ekka, and did so only under duress in Bara Banki; in Lucknow, they too used a tonga.
Needless to say, the women who ‘served’ in our homes in some capacity — as live-in servants or traditional retainers — and the women of the poorer classes all over the city went about their hard tasks without any kind of parda. On the way to my school I’d walk through a small cluster of homes where some Muslim weavers lived.
Their women went about their daily chores in ordinary clothes, even when working under the trees by the roadside. Their men were believed by most to be more devoutly Muslim than many — the British had called them ‘the bigoted julahas’ — but for untold generations the same devout men had enforced no parda restrictions on their women.
They could not afford to in the face of the reality of their lives. Only the young married women in their households kept their faces lowered and partially covered with the hem of their dupattas exactly as did their sari-clad Hindu counterparts in that neighbourhood.
In other words, when and where I was growing up the word ‘parda’ had many different meanings. It described a range of habits, and not just a piece of cloth. The defining emphasis always was on a modesty of behaviour which included a showing of respect for our ‘elders’. Parda in Bara Banki was not defined by some religious code, it existed as dictated by local practices and sensibilities. And it always seemed open to change.
Miriam was fascinated by all that her grandmother had to say and did not leave until late that evening. She had opened the door to another world; a world in which ladies lived totally different to the life that she had lived. She came from a very liberal household and was always encouraged to study, to work, to make her own choices and in which religion had never been a major factor. Yet in this world of her grandmother’s, religion too did not seem to be so dominant. This was cultural; the Hindus did it as well. Parda was an expression of femininity, not Islam. And to her that somehow struck a chord for ever since she’d left school she’d always felt as if she were a woman trying to make it in a man’s world, being limited always because she was not a man. Men did not get ogled the moment they walked down a street; men did not have to make sure their make-up was on every morning and that they talked sweetly and yet men, men who had got far worse grades than her at school, always got promoted above her. That night as she lay in bed she dreamt about being Ammi, almost never leaving the house and when she did spending ages getting prepared, dressing in her white shuttlecock burqa, then getting on her doli and having a thick sheet thrown over her that blinded her completely as she was carried to a friend or relative’s house for tea. Such a life was so different to that which Miriam lived and yet she had had a tiny glimpse of it that afternoon and found it pleasant in a strange, unnerving kind of way. That morning when she woke up, her bed was soaked in sweat.
Leaving the house that morning, Miriam ummed and arred over whether to wear her normal attire or the veil. She decided in the end to don the black cloth purely to stop all the hassle and harassment and as such had a trouble-free journey save for the fact that the tuk-tuk driver kept looking at her in his rear-view mirror and as she got out comment, “You have beautiful eyes, sister.” In work though, she soon unpinned her veil but didn’t bother taking the rest of the parda outfit off.
She had only been in the office for half an hour when Omar Khan the boss walked in. “Ladies, I would like to have a meeting with you both in my office,” he said. Puzzled, they followed him into the small room and took a chair each. All the other workers were already in there; the technicians, the chai wallah and the drivers. “I have called you all in here,” started Mr. Khan, “because I have a very important announcement to make. For many years now I have been thinking of retiring but have put it off because I have been afraid that I would not be able to successfully change the mode in which I live my life from a businessman to a pensioner. However, a recent visit to the tomb of Pir Shams-ud-Din in Multan convinced me to look more closely at the role religion plays in my life and that of my family and since then there has been great changes at home with my entire family endeavouring to grow closer to Allah and thus secure our places in Paradise. So it is that I am too am going to remounce this worldly life and concentrate instead on being a good Muslim, husband and father. However, this business still needs running and so I would like to introduce to you your new manager, my nephew Azhar Khan whom I am sure will steer Khan Industrial Sewing Machines into a new and golden era.
A man stepped into the room and everyone clapped. Everyone except Miriam that is, for she only gasped. It was the pious man who had defended her against the motorbike oglers!
After the meeting they all trooped out of the office and returned to their posts wondering what the future would hold under Azhar Khan. However, Miriam had only been at her desk for an hour when there was another summons into the boss’ office. This time only Omar and Azhar Khan were in there.
“Miriam, please sit down,” said Omar Khan, “and may I congratulate you on your new style of dress. As I said earlier, my own family has taken a more pious direction of late and my daughters and daughter-in-law are now adopting full parda and it is a blessing to behold. So, I may say that you too seem to be on the right path.”
“Thank you sir,” replied Miriam, not really knowing what to make of his comments.
“In fact,” continued Omar Khan, “it is largely your new style of dress that has caused me to call you into here. As you know, my nephew Azhar here is taking over the company and as such he has told me he requires an assistant. I went through all the staff that we have here and you were by far the most suited to the position since you are intelligent, hard-working and well-educated. However, Azhar is a pious man and he said that he would feel uncomfortable being in the same office with an uncovered sister but when I told him that you seemd to have started covering then he asked to be introduced to you.”
“It is true,” continued Azhar Khan, “I did ask my uncle that but looking at your face, I seem to recall that we have already met, or at least I have seen you walking along the street although then you were wearing very different attire.”
Miriam blushed with embarrassment. “That is true sir, it was me that you saw. I only started wearing hijaab a couple of days ago and that choice was partially due to me overhearing the comments that you made to those rude young gallants by the motorbikes.”
Azhar laughed. “Well, I am glad that my words had a positive effect on somebody, even if it was not the same person that they were intended for. Yes indeed uncle, I concur with your judgement, after speaking with Miriam here I can say that she seems the ideal candidate for the position if she is interested in it.”
“Well, it certainly sounds like a new challenge…”
“And the wage is half again what you earn now…”
“Then I shall accept!”
“Fantastic, but there is just one thing; whilst I appreciate and applaud your change in dress style, from the new working week on Monday could you continue to pin the veil that was across your face when you came in, in that place whilst you are in my office?”
That weekend Miriam’s head was in a whirl. In less than a week she had gone from being dressed in fashionable Western-style clothing to a veil with abayah. And in that same week she had got promoted and now had a new boss whom she rather liked. But there was another, more disturbing change. At night she couldn’t get thoughts of her grandmother’s youth spent in parda out of her head. So it was that on Saturday she went to see her gran again, this time dressed in her abayah and veil.
“Well I never!” said her gran opening the door. “What has my little granddaughter got on? Have my reminiscences about parda in my youth been inspiring you to change how you dress?”
“Maybe a little but also things have changed at work.” She came into the house and explained about all the hassle she had been getting off men in the street and of Nina’s suggestion that she cover. She’d been reluctant but tried it and found that it had helped her not only fend off unwanted male attention but also get a promotion.
“Well, it seems that men now have not changed from how they were in my day or my grandmother’s. That is why we lived in parda mainly and you are only doing the same by your actions. But your visit here tells me that you wish to learn more. Well, I can tell you some but I think that it is best for you to experience it a little yourself. Follow me!”
Miriam followed her grandmother upstairs to the bedroom where there was a large, ancient trunk. She’d seen it countless times before as a child and always wondered what was inside but it had always been locked and when she’d asked her gran had told her to mind her own business. Today though, it seemed as if she was about to find out for her grandmother produced a large iron key, turned it in the lock and then lifted the lid.
There was a musty smell inside but Miriam still gasped when she looked in. Folded neatly were garments and also jewellery. “When we left Bara Banki after the Partition, my mother and I carefully packed all our parda wear thinking that we would need it in Lahore. But when we got here my father changed; he embraced the new thinking of Jinnah and declared that the ladies of his house would become modern and educated and so it has all remained locked up in this chest for fifty years. I often thought about throwing it away or giving it to a museum as I knew it would never be used again but since you have an interest, then you must have it.”
“No gran, it’s too much!”
“Nonsense! Take it! Help me carry it downstairs!”
When they had carried the heavy box down the stairs, Miriam took the first item off the top. It was black and embroidered and when she unfolded it, it turned out to be a two-piece burqa. “That is one of the more modern burqas that my mother wore. Try it on.”
Miriam fitted the bottom part of the garment and then the top part, positioning the skull cap correctly on her head. Immediately her world completely changed. She was hot under there and the hexagonal grille for the eyes cut out all her peripheral vision and caused her sight to be continually obstructed by the blur of the threads of the grille. “This is much more difficult to wear than my veil!” she exclaimed.
“Maybe so,” replied her gran, “but compared to the white peep-hole burqas that my grandmother wore, this is easy!”
Miriam sat with the burqa on for a while chatting with her gran. She felt incredibly covered and protected in it though wondered if she could wear such a garment for a long time. When it came time to leave she took it off and replaced it back in the trunk. Then they called a tuk-tuk, loaded the trunk on the back and she set off home.
That night her dreams were again filled with visions of being a demure, modest parda-living Bara Banki Rajput clad in a black burqa that sweeps around her feet and limits her vision.
During the week that followed, Miriam wore her black abayah with veil everyday for work and in the evenings she played around with the items in her grandmother’s chest. There were undergarments and jewellery, saris and other clothes, but what fascinated her most were the burqas of which there were many. Most were two-piece ones in black like the one that she had worn at her grandmother’s house but there were also a couple of white cotton ones that were one-piece only and only had small peep-holes to look through. Fascinated, Miriam tried one on and was astounded by how her world changed. The garment was heavy and, being of one piece, it was difficult to do anything with ease as she had to lift the entire garment to her waist to use her hands. Her hearing was also muffled due to the thick cloth and her sight much restricted and tunnel vision. But on the other hand she felt more protected than ever, safe in her little cocoon and in a way that worried her, these restrictive clothes also excited her.
But these feelings did not worry or excite her half as much as the ones that she was feeling at work, sat in Azhar Khan’s office everyday. Able to observe her new boss, she saw that not only was he handsome and clever, but he was also an excellent businessman and extremely pious and kind-hearted in the manner of some of the old pirs who spread the blessed message of Islam around South Asia. Little by little she realised that she was falling in love with him and, by his frequent glances at her veiled form and the tone he used when addressing her, she suspected that the feelings were mutual.
Things came to a head when she decided to go to Ahmed’s Kebabish for chicken tikka on Thursday lunch. Just as she was rising to go, Azhar said, “Excuse me sister, but where do you go for lunch? Is it good because I don’t know this area at all and all the places that I’ve tried so far have been awful.”
“I go to Ahmed’s Kebabish, sir, and it’s very good. Would you like to accompany me?”
“Well, I’m non-mahram so perhaps I shouldn’t, but since we share an office together and the streets are public, then why not?”
So they left together and walked to the kebabish. As they walked, Azhar Khan told Miriam all about his life. He was 28, still unmarried but only because he hadn’t met the right girl yet and he lived with his family in Data Gunj Baksh Town. Then, as they ate, she told him that she was twenty-five, also unmarried and living on her own in a small apartment in Johar Town since her family now resided in Multan except for her grandmother who was in Lahore as well. As they talked they finished their chicken tikka which Azhar raved about and then their eyes met and silently both recognised the connection. They stared wordlessly for a moment and then Azhar got up. “I am sorry, sister,” he said, “that was improper of me.”
On the way back, neither spoke though both had a thousand words of devotion flowing through their head.
That evening as soon as she got back to her house, Miriam slammed the door behind her and went straight to her bed, weeping uncontrollably. She wept because she had fallen in love completely with a man whom she could never have. He came from a religious background so would obviously have an arranged marriage and besides, he was her boss! How could she continue to work at Khan Industrial Sewing Machines with such a connection between her and the manager? It was awful, she would have to leave, go through the hell of seeking new work, being short of money and living a thoroughly miserable life without the man she loved.
She wept for a long time, hours maybe and by the time she removed her head from the damp sheets, it was dark outside. She needed something to take her mind off the terrible happenings of the day and out of the corner of her eye she spied her grandmother’s chest. Yes, that was it! She would escape into her parda fantasy world but this time she would do it properly, completely. She would don her great, great grandmother’s full parda wear and then sit and imagine she had a very different, far less complicated life where she had been married off to a man of her father’s choice already and her world now consisted of pleasing him within the four walls of her home.
Eagerly she opened the chest and removed all the contents which she then spread out across the floor. Then she started with the stockings of white silk and held in place by garters, and then long stretchy white cotton gloves. After that there were white baggy pantaloons over her standard panties and then fine silken Turkish trousers in white which closed at the waist and the ankles with ribbons. She tied them off and then pulled a shift over her head and then a blouse which matched the Turkish trousers and also tied off with ribbons at the waist and wrists. Then came a pair of silken mittens silken which were held at the wrists by garters and made it difficult to grip. Now she was completely covered from the neck down and so she moved to her head, wrapping two white scarves around it, so that only her face was revealed. After that came a pair of beautiful embroidered slippers which slipped onto her feet giving her wonderful silent steps but not much support. Then came an abayah, also in white silk but beautifully embroidered in gold. She slipped it over her head and let it fall down to the floor. Then came the last indoor item, a faceveil in white cotton which she tied around her head and reached down. Now, with only her eyes on display, she was properly dressed for inside the house.
But what if she needed to go out into the garden or perhaps even out of the house on her doli? Then as a good Avadh Rajput girl, she must have additional protection. Her mittened fingers trembling,she reached the for the other white peep-hole burqa. As she unfolded it she marvelled at the thickness of the material and the fact that this, unlike the other, had thick black material behind the tiny eyeholes making it impossible for anyone to glance even a shadow of her eyes. But then, as she unfolded it, she got a shock. Something fell out of the material. She picked it up and was shocked to discover a large wooden cylinder with rounded edge attached to a strap. ‘What on earth is that and why is it here?’ she asked herself. Then, examining it closely, she noticed bite marks around the base and realised that it was a gag. ‘So, my great, great grandmother even covered her sound as well as her other facets!’ she thought in amazement. Strangely excited by this thought she picked it up, lifted her faceveil, opened wide and popped it into her waiting mouth. Then she buckled it tight behind her head and let the veil fall down again. She tried to speak but could only made a quiet groaning sound whilst her jaws ached a little from being forced open wide. Excited by this she then took the burqa and dropped it over her head. Immediately her world changed; sound disappeared and darkness descended. In the dark lighting of her apartment she was virtually blind, the two small holes covered with black material only letting her see the roughest blurred outlines. And it was hot too; with her mouth full she breathed heavier through her nose and moisture began to form. She sat down on the chair and dreamt. She dreamt that she was a rich Rajput girl in Bara Banki whose husband demanded she live in the strictest of parda. Normally he made her wear the heavy peep-hole burqa only when she went into the garden, (and that was the only time that she ever left the confines of the house), but he was away on business in Lucknow at the moment and when he was away he demanded her cover fully and stay silent at all times so as to avoid temptation. So there she was sitting in a chair, unable to do much else, waiting for her husband, (who was of course none other than the dashing Azhar Khan), to return. When would that knock come, when would he enter the room, flip back her heavy burqa, remove her gag and kiss her passionately on her lips? When…
Bang! Bang! Bang!
What’s that? Someone at the door! Oh no, what am I to do? I can’t go like this and yet… it will take ages to remove these clothes and…
Bang! Bang! Bang!
It’s only seven o’clock, perhaps they’ll disappear? Please go…
Bang! Bang! Bang!
They’re not going and it sounds important, urgent! Perhaps something’s happened to gran? I’m all she has here, I’ll have to answer it! Slowly Miriam got up from the chair and made her way to the door, feeling through the many layers of cloth so that she did not stumble. Eventually she got there and opened the door. The vision that confronted her made her gasp with astonishment and embarrassment behind her coverings.
It was Azhar Khan!
He stood there looking equally gobsmacked, just staring at the heavily-covered parda Rajput before him. Then, after several seconds, he spoke.
“Miriam, is that you?”
“Can you speak?”
She shook her head.
“I need to speak to you; I came here to speak to you and yet what I am going to say after seeing you like this is totally different to what I intended. Today, at the kebabish, I felt a connection with you, a strong one that I suspect you felt too, am I right?”
“I thought as much and it scared me. I love you Miriam, I really absolutely, totally love you, but that scares me because I am a religious man and although you wear niqaab in the office, I also know that only a week ago you were walking around in Western clothes being ogled by strange men. I so wanted to say that I wanted to be with you, especially since we’re both single and looking, but I have always known that my wife will have to be parda-living and I knew – or at least, I thought I knew – that I could never ask that of you and so I did not listen to the beat of my heart and instead stayed silent.
But all day I have been thinking about this, feeling guilty that I never explained this to you and you must be wondering what caused me to react the way that I did.”
Miriam nodded again.
“That is why I came here now, to explain, to apologise, to tell you that we can no longer work together. But then when you opened the door like this, I see you living in a stricter parda than even my own mother, so now I think, maybe there is a chance and so I shall listen to my heart and not my head.”
Then to Miriam’s shock, he got down on one knee and asked, “Miriam Qaisar, will you marry me?”
The white ghost before him knelt to the floor. Then a mittened hand sneaked out from beneath the folds of material, picked up a stone and scraped onto the concrete step: What conditions?
Azhar Khan nodded. “That you live in parda as you are now; gagged when outside the house and wearing a burqa of course, such as the one that you have on now. You may still work but only in the office with me where you can still type and write emails and do accounts whilst veiled. However, that is it and when you leave either the office or the home, I shall accompany you to protect you from those leering animals whom you hate so much.”
Under all those layers Miriam thought. This was the biggest decision of her life: the man she loved had offered himself to her but it was at a price. Never more could she revert to her old liberal ways; if she accepted his offer from now on she would become a mute, faceless ghost, unable to do anything for herself, destined to stay within the four walls of her home unless Azhar decided otherwise. Could she live like that? Could she live as her grandmother, great grandmother, great great grandmother and countless other generations of silent anonymous females in her family before her had lived.
Slowly she knelt to the floor and scraped out a single word on the pavement.
Copyright © 2012, Dave Potter
This story was inspired by the short film ‘Haya Aur Parda’ which can be found online at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hAQamJbikzo
For those of you interested in learning more about why Omar Khan decided to quit his job and which changes have occurred in his family, check out Bo_Emp’s ‘A Future in Purdah’.
The grandmother’s reminiscences of parda in British India were based on those included in Prof. C. M. Naim’s article ‘The Hijab and I’ which can be found in our Features section.