From behind a veil
In reality, I didn’t wear a veil in the traditional sense. Well not as a child for sure. The tale of my veil begin with puberty. Here, I was a young girl in England living a double life of a secret veil agent. By evening, I was an ignorant shy girl but by day, I was busy hiding behind my secret veil of invisible silence, whilst I listened to the stories of the childish world around me. This was how I began my secret journey. In this way, I was able to find information without actually having to probe anyone. In truth I was on a quest to gather knowledge for what reason, I no longer can recall. Thus, my inner Peeping Tom born.
This writing experience has opened up some inner doors that were previously hidden beneath the “useless memories” category. Before I indulge into these reflections, I want to mention that I have been on a journey of self discovery for almost 20 years. I started young. However, I bypassed this part of my past. It feels strange to admit this as I have actively thought about many of my childhood experiences and their influence over my own perceptions of self and others. They appear to have gone unnoticed perhaps as they were so normal. However, now as they float in my awareness, my insides bubble with anxiety.
I was born in the late 70’s to immigrant Pakistani parents living a very orthodox way of life. Initially they neither changed or adapted to their new lives, instead they bought their values into this world- my world. As I write, the more I recognise how much of their unspoken value systems influenced my personal views, which I failed to notice. Interestingly, as I look back, I can recant the exact moment this began. It started with my natural physiological changes, in which most of the messages were projections based on my parents personal histories. Our home operated in a secretive silent code, which was somehow understood without any real depth. These were our norms, which were accepted without questions. I accepted because I knew no other way of life. This was my life. Due to the lack of active, useful information, my journey into self discovery, in fact was born. Honestly, no one offered information about anything substantial. I was just not willing to accept this so I found my own way into the surprisingly hidden world of biological development. I needed to know what my body was doing. My observation became my strongest ally. Thus, my innocent Peeping Tom eagerly came out to play. I can’t speak for others, as these are personal experiences but I am sure others would have similar tales.
I realise that even before the veil became a mandatory request in my Pakistani, Muslim household, we were already wearing one. My interpretation of the veil is a simple one. It was to “cover” up beyond our bodies- to be blinded by perceptions. I believe, we were ‘veiled’ so that we could be moulded into obedient, unquestioning puppets of our cultural value system. The reality depressing, we talked about nothing of real relevance other than Islam. I don’t actually recall much talking about anything to be honest. For some bizarre reason, I cannot still comprehend why no one talked about basic things like our bodies, its changes and its purpose. Unsurprisingly, sex and human relations were off the table too. I mean, I had no idea my parents had sex, all I knew was Allah was gifting me siblings as a reward. I am not even sure I wanted those gifts. Yet, their was no backstory to this generous gifting. Truthfully, I don’t believe it was intended maliciously but pure ignorance on my parents part as I doubt they were given any real information either. However, what I now see, is in fact control in the truest sense. Our ability to gain information restricted. We didn’t own a television or a radio. We had no friends beyond ourselves. We didn’t go anywhere in case we became exposed to the haram way of life. And we dare not piss off the non-existing religious police hanging around dark corners waiting to catch us out. Luckily, I only discovered the Taliban later on in life, my God that would have scared the shit out of my younger self. So, our worlds were insular- only ourselves to rely and trust. And reality came as a shock when I no longer had my childlike body. Of course, I didn’t defy nature as I wasn’t exactly Peter Pan. My childhood shaped by blind adults relying on fear- centric, outdated and constrictive perceptions. This therefore, left an imprint on my innocent understanding of myself and how going forward, I was to interact with the world. Until this moment now, I hadn’t acknowledge how I was shackled to silence all those years ago. I was another clink to the chain that my parents were holding on too, without their own knowledge they continued this shackle.
I can only speculate on why this was the case. At the time, I never felt brave enough to ask. Intuitively, I rather quickly grasped that this was not open to discussion. Instead, my incredible shyness and unpopular status in school became the reason I could begin to lift the veil of my own blindness. This happened innocently through observation. The first sign — my mothers sudden persistence about being appropriately covered, which indicated that something was askew. Bearing in mind, she stitched my clothes since I was young. Naked flesh would no way make a surprise guest appearance at dinner. I never understood why this was so important. I simply covered up- it was what was expected. I didn’t enjoy being nagged, it was easier to do it, especially because it was so cold all the time. Now looking back, I feel irritated that no one had the courage to admit the truth. Did they even know the truth? I feel sceptical about it. It was probably easier to project subliminal meanings to my normal biological changes rather then looking within. In truth, until 18. I was all bones and limbs. I don’t even remember when I got past my bud stage, it was like wearing a target on my back for the cruel kids. Thankfully, I now have breasts- real ones. At the time, for God-sake, at 11 I was a freaking child! I am disgusted that I was manipulated and controlled by values that I didn’t even know existed. The limited information and its access, in reality serving sub-cultural conformity so one cannot be questioned or challenged. But who was in charge of this system? It clearly wasn’t my parents because I think they were also blind. I believe that these were ignorant actions of scared adults from a line of terrified generations breeding ignorance and conformity. I don’t know if the lack of education or awareness was the root problem, however, it was a common factor. No one in my parents extended families or village was educated. Those who were either lived abroad or in the cities in Pakistan. I can’t say if those people also complicated the very simple principles of human life. Although, I feel that communication may not be an overall strength. A slow burning anger simmers, at that knowledge that my perceptions were actually controlled without any direct external influences. I was controlled by my parents and I had failed to see it. It feels absurd to be limited by your own family, community and our collective religious beliefs, where my body was given meanings when it need none. I really do wonder how the youth of today navigate through all their craziness as I was limited without all of this. The struggle evidently real.
I wish I had this awareness earlier and maybe I could have done something different at the time. Perhaps, I could have broken the pattern. However, I realise I am here because this is how I was supposed to reach these conclusions. Today, I wouldn’t say I follow fundamental principles of faith or culture, which will always be a point of contention with my family but this wasn’t unexpected. I now have my own perception about how I see the world and the kind of world I want to live in. My awareness, has bought me to a place, where I can acknowledge that faith influenced our family in a really intimate way. Like many other naive children, morality was grounded in religion without any exploration of values outside of that. I was taught that Islam demanded ‘good Muslims’ to cover their bodies from everyone including my father and brothers but no one explained the reasons behind it. For my younger self, it wasn’t unusual. I was surrounded by women who dressed in a certain way. Those who didn’t — simply were outsiders and they did not matter. And as my own knowledge grew, I realised that there was something more to ‘covering up’ then the act alone. It didn’t go unnoticed that mother was always dressed in layers, even today, I have only seen her hands, feet and face. On rare occasions I get a peek of her snow white hair. Other than that, her body has been hidden behind layers of beautifully soft fabric. Sadly, she is a slave to her upbringing but her veil also doesn’t end there. My mother has been hiding behind our generational expectations without question. Her vision narrow, especially when it comes to her understanding of her own body and its role— it is one of obligation and fulfilling her duty. In my mothers case, every girl child believed that Islam expected women to ‘cover up’ from the ‘male gaze’ so Satan didn’t repeat the history of Adam and Eve with his naive helpless young victims seducing them into premarital sex. She would have never challenged this. This was normal in fact no one would question it. It wasn’t only the word of God but also her mothers, her extended family’s, her villages. Everyone followed these rules and if they didn’t, well shame on them. Since, no one actively communicated, who would she have asked anyway? The fact my mother had no voice of her own, doesn’t come as a shock. She was a puppet on a very tight string. This is the ugly truth of how their silent witness continued to play a part in my young life. There is no denying, culturally and historically the responsibility of protecting men falls upon girls. Although men are also warned about the ‘female gaze’, this appears to get less attention. Girls are the guardians of this galaxy even before they become women. Young girls subconsciously made to feel as the weight of men’s desires their sole responsibility. I hadn’t understood this before. As a teenager, all I was privy to was if I didn’t cover myself I would go to hell for disobeying God. The veil of shame and fear that I carried secretly for years, never found a voice until this moment, where I accept this is what had happened. I had been playing hide and seek because that was all I had ever known. I didn’t even know I felt shame until I started writing this.
This pitiful cycle of body shame didn’t end with silent messages and the lack of communication, it was further apparent in our social exchanges. The hierarchy of our family structure reinforcing dependency and strongly rooted attachments to one another. The one key area, I found this to be prevalent was in the way financial responsibility played a critical part in maintaining the carefully structured system. As a girl it was my father and eldest brothers responsibility to meet my needs regardless of what they were. From education to marriage, they were the ones straddled with this burden. There after it would be my husbands. You see, I didn’t also realise that this further tied me to the chains of cultural, familial, and communal expectations. This was the norm too. Who was I to question this? So this cycle of silence was predestined to continue into my unseen future. For years my mother bought my clothes, I am not sure when she should have stopped but I don’t know what propelled me to change my financial dependency but at 18 I started a part time cashier job whilst at college. Without any real awareness, I took responsibility for my own needs, which luckily changed the course of my life. It paid well and I enjoyed meeting people even though I didn’t need the money. This I believe was the welcome door to freedom that I never anticipated opening. But somehow, I did. I think deep down, I hated following rules so this was my subconscious way of undoing childhood conditioning. My small part-time job, was the chance to explore a world outside our insular one. With this financial freedom, I also had the desire to discover myself through the new world of clothes. To my mothers disapproval, I stopped wearing traditional shalwar suits. I couldn’t comprehend the reasons for wearing these clothes in the cold, wet climate of England. More so, these outdated principles didn’t align with my evolving purpose. The process of change was in motion and I was not prepared to remain stagnant in her attachments to history. I couldn’t simply accept that I should be defined by my body or the clothes I chose to wear. I wanted to be warm, clothes meant nothing more than that. It was then, I realised I had freed myself from labelling my body and the functions of practicalities such as clothes. Before then, my mother was the one with the power to decide what was appropriate. So in honesty, I was never given the chance to find my own voice or identity as someone else was always choosing what was best for me. I fell into resistance, without knowledge, however, I am grateful I did. When I decided to own my personal power, I never really fully understood how far I would have to go to hold on it.
This is the sad truth about my childhood where a time of joy and innocent fun was hidden behind secret meanings of unaware adults. In the end, I did learn the facts about our physiological changes but I did it without support and effective resources. I don’t regret my path or the things I have uncovered. Without the same access to information that younger people have today, I still found my own place in the world. Nothing could deter me. I think I was not ever going to accept the ‘way of the world’ without finding out for myself. I am accountable for my actions today. Although I hold none of these views or expectations, writing this piece bought to my attention, that it would have been easy to be ashamed and afraid of owning my own personal power. Yet, I did not believe it was the right thing to do. I never could fully accept that we were supposed to live our lives behind these veils. I am grateful for my young Peeping Tom, without her, I would still be asleep behind historical layers of ugly secrecy, which only serves to confine us to limited existences.
I want to close with the request that — please do not accept others perceptions of you no matter what you were told, you can find yourself in your own way. I believe that access to respectful, honest and age appropriate information is essential to our development in different areas. And those who are responsible for the care of children, please step outside of your own fears and perceptions to gently guide them into the murky world of adulthood. In this way, we will be able to together build a future of well adjusted adults who are capable of fighting old school ideologies. Ignorance and lack of education is no excuse in a time where we are saturated with information. Our bodies do not need labels or emotional attachments, they serve one purpose. They are the homes, where our souls reside. They require love, respect and kindness. Nothing more or less than that. We have nothing to be ashamed about, after all for us God fearing ones- he gave us this gift to enjoy. So, why not relish in our blessings?
To my parents, I love you for all you could do. For what you didn’t I forgive you.