I wish this verse was more wholesome and whimsical like Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”, but that it is not. This is about women determinedly forging on across streets, bazaars, workplaces, government offices, neighbourhoods and communities. This verse is also not so much about the woman hopeful of change (God knows that’s going to take its time in our blessed homeland), but the woman who is stoic and steadfast. It is the woman who goes about her day despite the odds that pull at her body, spirit and soul. It is the woman who dares to bare her true self despite and in fact because society expects otherwise. It is the woman who walks in her neighborhood afraid yet brave. May you find your grit and your grace for the rest of the days of your life.
A resolute, meaningful Women’s Day to all my friends and family 🌺
I wear my track pants And a pink shirt, long It says “Life is a song” I wonder if it’s too loud Stoking thoughts like a gong A shout To the world of men that teams about The streets Eyes peeled For glimpses of variously clad Women that are mad Enough to sidle into the periphery of their sight And special leery gazes Trained like full-throttled tasers On women who dare To bare More than the hand wrist down Or a smidgeon of a toe around Which sits an uncomfortable sandal A Soleful reminder To walk cautiously To always look behind her To shrink as small as she is able So she might pass With a warning glance From the men sitting around Jenetic Judges of right and wrong
For the women who dare To bare There’s a special gaze For their fall from grace From the fraternity that mills about The corners of streets Superior, upright Pissing in plain sight Marking their territories For the women who dare to bare More than the eyes Downcast, demure Vacuous and pure For them there’s the death stare Cutting them down to size I’m one of those Who - Dares - To - Bare The woman within The whole human being Self assured, aware She sits in my eyes Unfaltering, dignified Even as her heart drums inside As she traverses that den Of wolves, dressed as men.
A little disclaimer: This particular piece is not a critique of the ideology of marriage itself, but the warped manner in which it is used to keep young women in check. To prevent them from breaking through the heavily-manned barriers created for them by society.
I see a woman standing at the traffic light Even in her shabbiness, she’s neat and clean She stands on the wayside wondering For the hundredth time what she is doing on the street. People look at her from their car windows A nonchalant glance up and then away Their psycho-social barriers Comfortingly coming down to save their day From unpleasant pangs of conscience As they niggle at the edges of their minds The world is troubled, their impact small Sometimes it’s just better to be blind.
She looks at the faces in the cars Indifferent, unseeing; wishing her away She clutches the hem of her tattered shirt Picks up the gumption to still walk their way She looks at a lady who hasn’t averted her eyes The shame is too much and she swallows hard Even so, she manages a faint little smile Hoping for kindness, compassion, regard The lady looks up, seeing her for the first time She’s irritated, she’s irked for letting her guard down Beggars, pleaders of various requests Destroy her peace of mind, she frowns.
She waves a dismissive hand at the sight And looks away, she will not lock eyes Maybe the beggar will go to the next car With her chafing, imploring enterprise The woman feels the withering blow As she hurriedly backs away from the car The wounds in her heart are bleeding anew Everyday there are fewer healing scars She stumbles back onto the foot path Eyes stinging with hopelessness and fatigue This world seems done with the likes of her She too is done with her destiny.
Despite its inherent catastrophic nature, the end had come quickly, almost mechanically. Its very swiftness had robbed it of the tragedy and chaos that usually accompany annihilation events. Some say it had started with the largely unnotable skirmish on the Russo-Ukrainian border. President Putin had fallen gravely ill at about the same time. His infirmity somehow catalysed the inscrutable little exchange of fire into an all out war as Russian troops marched belligenterlty into Kyiv. At about the same time, there was a devastating tsunami that whipped up in the Indian Ocean, a formidable ghost of its 2004 predecessor. The deluge ravaged twenty countries across Asia and East Africa in its deadly wake. In the space of a week, half the world had gone into emergency mode. The other half watched in a stupor of pandemic fatigue even as the new horrors unravelled. Two days after the tsunami, the Ukrainian troops fell to the wayside. No blood was shed, no words were spoken, no flags were raised or lowered. The invaders and the invaded sat together watching the world fall to pieces around them.
That is when she had come; the Mind-bender as she came to be called: Arfaana, a 35 year old woman who had until recently also been a mother of two. She had walked into Lafayette Square in Washington DC and screamed. She had screamed until she couldn’t scream anymore. And then she had wailed, her rhythmical moans echoing like the tolling of a doomsday bell. People had stopped in their tracks frozen. At first. And then something extraordinary had happened. There are many versions of the event but they all agree that somehow in that moment of tremendous anguish and pain, humanity had connected. At some combined cosmic and primitive level, the energy across the square had come together and found a harmony of purpose.
There was an almost communal climax of wretchedness and despair as one and all, the people had screamed and bellowed and wailed until there was not one unbruised throat left in the square. Arfaana had walked into the Capitol building then, her eyes wet and blazing at the same time; propelled onwards by a force of over five thousand strong. There she had spoken to silent, awestruck law makers and executors of the Republic. They had listened when she had called for the laying down of all arms; of creating a colourblind society; of sharing the world’s resources with all; of de-weaponizing the world. They had heard her speak of a new community, built on the vestiges of humanity that still remained in their current world. They say, Arfaana, the first Wise One, had summarily robbed them of their will that day. She had bent their minds to her way. Everything had changed after that. In a bizarre balancing act following The Fall that was marked with such colossal swells of angst and pain, the societal shift had happened quickly, almost mechanically.
T + 10 years
December 24th, 2032
Arfaana sat in the Discourse Room in Serenity Dome 1, in Washington. These safe havens had mushroomed after The Fall and now mainly housed within their impregnable, tranquil cores, the women of the planet. She had just had news that the two thousandth dome had been erected, this one in Lahore Pakistan. She had called her contemporary in South Asia to congratulate her on the milestone. The fissure in the Subcontinental patriarchal structures had been one of the hardest to make. But when the women had risen, the change again had been swift and mechanical. Hotels and guest houses had been converted to makeshift shelters for women across the subcontinental land mass. Ultimately, heritage buildings had been commandeered and lovingly converted into the very first Serenity Domes. There the female collective had regrouped and reformed their communities, one troublesome, caustic law at a time. It had taken the better part of the last decade to purge the South Asian society of its ingrained psyche of male privilege. From the roti seller* at the tandoor* to the testosterone driven CEO in his boardroom, they had all had to relearn the new ethos. There had been countless incarcerations as age old gender roles battled in the new environment. Many of the men had been “shifted” to shanty towns just outside city limits. These meandering, heaving masses of corrugated iron roofs, scrap material and sheets of plastic had burgeoned and blustered for years with the full might of the patriarchy.
In the sixth year of The Fall, the slum population had evened out and by the eighth year, it was finally in decline. Mindsets had been changed; the new norms had been learnt one bitter lesson at a time. There were still the odd ragtag bands of ex-society men who had refused to assimilate and who still blew off steam by plastering city squares with old world propaganda. The Wise Ones took a largely tolerant view of these muscle flexing shenanigans, letting the idiots tell their now obsolete “tales full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”(1). The adage adapted from old world literature had become their mainstream maternal approach. Indeed, the Wise Ones made every effort towards non-violence. They knew that their primary focus needed to be the new generation of men and women across the globe. They would be brought up with new codes of morality, community and awareness. They would be the ultimately balanced beings – both genders at ease with their masculine and their feminine sides.
By the fifth year, another epic milestone was achieved – planet-wide nuclear disarmament. By the eighth year of The Fall, global military spending had been reduced to less than 0.3% of world GDP. The planet was recovering in big and small ways as fossil fuels were steadily replaced with alternative forms of energy. By the end of a decade of the event, as resources were redistributed, lifestyles across the globe had become more or less consistent – typified by the western middle class before The Fall.
It had been a momentous journey of the mind, the heart and the will, thought Arfaana as she emerged from her musing. The women had finally triumphed! This last thought crossed her mind with almost academic stridency, repeated as it had been at so many pivotal moments in the last ten years. She paused, just for a moment. The slightest of pauses for a twinkling of a moment. And yet, in that tiny instance something had taken fledgling root. An awareness of imbalance; a new kind of an imbalance. Earth was transforming into the proverbial Venus. Hidden in that romantic confluence were dark shadows, whispering their own doomsday songs. Songs of a new, belligerent, unsound matriarchy.
Arfaana blinked, willing away the disturbing thoughts that were now crowding at the very edges of her mind. She knew these unsummoned visitors would bide their time, until they had gathered in their vastness aided by that formidable Truth teller, her Intuition. Arfaana rallied. They, the women had changed the world, one rotting, crumbling societal edifice at a time. They were saving the very humanity of human beings. They were building back compassion, harmony, cooperation and culture into their societies. They were building back better(2) … the hackneyed phrase from old world politics came stomping in, marching alongside her bolstering, purposeful train of thought. The hypocrisy, the bigotry and the irony that accompanied the catchphrase also came sashaying in, looking into her soul with their smug little faces. Venus Rising indeed! they seemed to say.
Arfaana picked up her com-set to call her Planning Manager. She wanted to make a change in the Earth and Science curriculum – the historical, mythical, science fictional allusions to Venus as anything but the second planet from the AM Star were to be omitted. There was still too much counter-matriarchal ammunition out there for the nay-sayers and the satire writers; their reformed world structure was still too new for such erratic emotionalism. The “Sun”, now called the AM Star had ceased to be called by its old name because of its masculine phonetics and the psycho-circularity of the word: Sun = Son = Sun. Venus too would be relegated to its astrophysical purity without the dubious romanticism given to it by old world patriarchy. One of the Wise Ones had said something about Earth too … even “earth” had begun to sound mannish.
They would have to revisit academic curricula around the world, review the very semantics of language itself, to purge it of its inherent masculinity.
Arfaana took a sip of her steaming mug of tea. She sat up and gazed into the distance, her determination strong and unwavering. Even if their new collective ethos was somewhat imperfect; even if their matriarchal restructuring sometimes seemed like barely cloaked knee jerk reactions to their gender-biased past, it was now the women’s turn.
* Roti-seller: Seller of Indian/ Pakistani flat bread.
* Tandoor: Also known as tannour it is predominantly a cylindrical clay or metal oven used in cooking and baking. The tandoor is something of a transitional form between a makeshift earth oven and the horizontal-plane masonry oven.
(1): Quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
(2): The Build Back Better Plan was a legislative framework proposed by the 46th U.S. President Joe Biden ahead of his inauguration
It’s Strange How some people call all the shots For you and me; on what’s right and what’s not On how we should all live our lives On what we should want to grow and to thrive. And we follow them like so many mice The Pied Piper surely leaves us no choice
It’s Strange How some nations are on top of their game And others continually parry insults and blame Some swirl around in their blood, sweat and tears While others race on winds of good cheer And yet we stand by like so many sheep The First World Dream will not let us be
It’s Strange How the spirit of our humanity Has gone into permanent servitude For the battle of egos of the few Losing our grip on what’s right and true And we circle around like so many moths Burning our wings in the flames of their wrath
It’s Strange How hard it has become of late To step out of the comfort of the bell curve Created to kill off the being that’s you Teaching you how you must hate and love And we fight on like so many soldiers sore Thinking one more battle will win us the war
It’s Strange Even as I write these lines A question skips on the edge of my mind No, there are two for misery loves company Who’ll tell me the answers that I seek to find - When did the glow inside you cease to exist? When did Instinct and Courage let go of my wrists?
She gets out of the car, adjusting her shalwar The legs one mustn’t behold, out of their fabric strongholds The ankles though, for a moment show Their shameful curvature.
It can’t be helped you see, we are bipedal beings But we can’t see the nuances of practical biology When blinded by the nobility of our formidable patriarchy, And cloaked in out great Fervour of faith.
And so she bends just a little to adjust the errant drape And while she endeavours, to hold together Her blessed modesty Some man out there, finds her morality in disrepair What is she bending for, like a dirty, depraved w****!
And the floods of moral outrage at this corrupt spectacle In their godly country, cause a debacle Every man takes it upon himself to deface this hideousness He then looks to his companions, all now chomping at their bits
They rush upon this evil scene, of the wicked and immoral queen For a queen she is, from head to toe. Evil, wicked, shameful though! She makes their blood gush in great floods Testosterone-filled, Squelching like mud She makes their heads swim in strange ways Where she is master and they are slaves.
God does not permit, such sacrilege Where genders abandon their rightful places Men are meant to lead them forth Moral compasses pointing true north Held aloft by everything, a woman does, from breathing in To the way she walks in crowded streets: Ankles hidden, inconspicuous feet.
And that is why an errant sister in faith (A woman who is alone and out and about!) Reeking of impudence in her unveiled state (Putting her entire morality in doubt!) May naturally be seen by her brothers devout As a wanton woman standing at hell’s gates.
Aliya opened one bleary eye to glance at the clock on her bedside table. It was just past 6 O’ clock. She felt a familiar quickening of her pulse as she thought of the day ahead, the obstacles to be surmounted. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. There was nothing on the agenda today, stress free as it was in the aftermath of her masters exams. Her anxious nature still had to catch up to the fact as she stilled her agitated heart. She turned on her side, away from the window and the blitheful rays of sunshine that glanced cheerily off her desk that lay in the corner of the room. She’d sleep in today she thought, catching at the fading strings of dawn time dreams. Soon, she was back in the familiar collage of her recurring dream visions: she was falling off some place – the catapulting surface was always different – and she always experienced the same great fright, and she always just about missed the concrete or the jungle floor or the carpeted surface below as her foggy saviour came to her rescue. His … her … (another conundrum) face was never clear, remaining obscured by the ephemeral mists of her dreams.
She finally arose at 11 O’ clock when her mother came into her room armed with clean laundry and the loud efficiency of having been at the helm of the domestic wheel for the last four hours. She felt groggy and tired even after her ten hours of sleep. She looked at herself in the bathroom mirror. Her double chin was looking more pendulous than ever she thought. She clutched at the rolls on her stomach, feeling for the insidious deposit of more weight. She had been good about her meals this past month and had not given in to any stress eating even though she had been in the throes of her exams. Her nails had taken the brunt of that deprival as they now sat like ravaged half moons in their nail beds. She looked at the weighing scale lying right opposite the WC, its meticulous placement a tribute to her weight loss earnestness. She decided today was not a day for unpleasant metric system surprises and pointedly ignored it through the course of her morning ablutions.
‘Hello late latif*’, her father called out to her cheerfully as Aliya walked into the lounge. She smiled. Her father, Mian Muneer, could brighten most of her days, afflicted as they were with her mother’s constant anguished refrains for her to lose “at least ten kgs!” and her own unremitting anxiety about her weight, and everything else too. In all that maternal censure and self deprecation, he was like a breath of fresh air. Never remarking about her weight, let’s be honest she thought, her bulk. Never making her cringe at the sight of her reflection or at the sight of food even when her stomach was rumbling from protracted deprivation. He loved her just as she was, her beloved father.
‘Good morning Baba*’, Aliya responded with a kiss on his cheek.
‘Aloo*, there are parathas* for brekkie, come get them!’ came a jaunty call from the dining room. She walked towards the voice (dubiously) and towards its announcement of gastronomic delights (zealously), her stomach rumbling with hunger – was it hunger or comfort-seeking she thought fleetingly. For the former came with relatively guilt free appeasement while the latter needed to be worked through mentally and emotionally and if all went well, was rebutted, ignored, nipped in the gut. She accepted also, that despite all the diligent evaluation, she had never been very good at distinguishing between the two, as hunger loomed large on most food horizons.
Saira was sitting at the head of the table looking, even at that early hour of the day (for she too had woken up only after 10) fresh, dewy and gorgeous. This was her twin sister, the sum total of her antithesis. Aliya helped herself to three parathas and an omelette. She could feel her sister’s eyes on her; she was going to say something, she always did … irksome at best and hurtful at worst.
‘Go easy sis, that’s a thousand calories right there’ Saira released the expected verbal arrow as she put a condensed milk laden piece into her own mouth.
Aliya gave a wry smile as she loaded her parathas with condensed milk and cream.
‘Aliya, what are you doing?’ came the accusatory voice from behind her. Their mother had come in and was discharging her duty as the maternal voice of reason and outrage.
‘Having breakfast Amma’, Aliya responded doggedly. Damned if she was going to be denied the first meal of the day, twelve hours after her last one too, in all its life (and courage fostering!) fulfilment.
Her mother gave an exasperated sigh and walked out. Saira sniggered. It was just another day at 14-Z in DHA, Lahore.
Aliya had dug into her breakfast as she dug in her heels every so often when she felt the world closing in on her; Judging her, railing at her, accusing her. She had ended up having four and a half parathas. She stood looking into her wardrobe, eating herself up inside now, for her breakfast time excess; cursing her food induced and reduced anxiety. No, food didn’t induce her anxiety (except in her apocalyptic fantasies when the world was overrun by zombies and all kinds of human nutrition was scarce); it was her panacea in fact, for the maddening world around her. She sighed deeply, chose a grey baggy shirt and black track pants. She was in the mood to merge with her dreary thoughts today. She was meeting her best friend and neighbour, Saqib in a little while. He was going to help her fill in the forms for the Masters in Sociology course at Uppsala university in Sweden.
Saqib Mir was the only child of his parents, the apple of their eye, the next progenitor of their eminent lineage and the scion of the family business. Marring this perfection was a somewhat unsymmetrical gait as he was also crippled by childhood polio. The whys and wherefores of how he had contracted the disease are foggy; rife with rumour and speculation until about decade or so ago, the direful hypotheses were now obscured by an acceptance born of familiarity. For those who had known him forever, it had become like a little smudge on a Sadequain* painting that has with time, blurred into oblivion. For those meeting him for the first time, while there were no origin-theories being bandied about anymore, there was almost always that self conscious nonchalance of trying not to notice the obvious. Saqib felt both, a sense of quiet amusement and compassion for this denominator knowing the mental exhaustion their involuntary Secret Spy syndromewas bestowing on them. Humanity, even amidst the deficiencies of the developing world, has largely got used to polio free perfection; a certain basic physical congruity is a sacred expectation especially among the upper crusts of society. Saqib then was the paradoxical element that jarred the sensibilities of the well heeled more than it did that of his favourite chai wallah’s or fruit wallah’s. They acknowledged his disfigurement in a practical, unselfconscious way. He was crippled and so what? He couldn’t run but he could still walk and get about unaided. Saqib was well liked in the more modest social circles too.
The Mians and the Mirs had been neighbours for fifteen years and Aliya and Saqib had become kindred souls for each other, afflicted as they both were with their respective vulnerabilities.
For all the girls, and the women young and old, who are made to feel less, inferior or impaired because they have dreams that are different to the ones dreamt up for them by others. May you find the strength and the passion to be you.
Why must I be what I don’t want to be? Why must I change the state of my dreams? Why must I cower in fear of my world? Why must the story of my life stay untold?
Why must I hide myself away? Why must I look behind me always? Why must there always be danger to me? To my spirit, my soul, my mind, my body?
Why can I not laugh out loud when I want? Why must I hide all my joy in my heart? Why can’t I turn my face to the sun? Why must I hide in the shadows you’ve spun?
Why must I bear the ball and chain of my roots? Why must I remain invisible and mute? Why was I born if not to revel In life’s ever cresting and falling swell?
I’m a child of this world, let me roam free Let me think, let me speak, let me be me I’m a creature of this earth, I belong everywhere Let me spread my wings, let me lay my heart bare
Let me be, let me be, just what I want to be Let me dream, let me dream, what I want to dream Let me walk in this world unafraid and kind Let my life tell the story of my heart and my mind.
A tribute to all the young women who are constantly attempting to be bigger than the patriarchal shadows cast upon them. (This is in specific response to the most recent mauling by hundreds of men, of a girl who was making a video on Independence Day at Minar-e-Pakistan – a monument ironically, symbolising freedom and self determination).
There was once an average girl Average I use to disclaim That she was your happy gal next door Not your wild and sassy dame
Not that there’s much wrong with that It’s for those who tend to decry The women greater than their veil Behind which they ought to hide
Hide away from prying eyes Hide away from sin Hide their bodies, hands and feet Hide their existence
The Sin that marches all about Ready to be employed In the lawless caveman hands Of any man or boy
She decided she was bigger than The shadows that cloaked her being She was going to live her life She would do so many things
She already had a fan base She was a minor TikTok star She would post quirky things Of her adventures near and far
And so it was on Freedom Day Full of patriotic zeal That she went to the Minar* To capture the national feel
And there is when it happened The Sin awaiting its Amen Was pulled to its fruition By hundreds of stir-crazed men
Mauled and savaged was that girl Because she had essayed To be more than the sum of her Shadows and opaque veils
And that’s the ominous legacy Our nation tends to bestow On any woman who attempts To spread her wings, to grow.
There was once an average girl She’s as average as she seems In the Rank and file of nameless girls Who’s dreams have been “washed clean”
* Minar: Means “Tower” in Urdu. Here it refers to Minar-e-Pakistan