In Italy, I was asked why I was not wearing a Burqa
It was our last day in Rome. My friend and I decided to spend it at our two favourite places in the city – Piazza Navona and the Trevi Fontana. It was almost noon on a pleasant day with the brilliant autumn sunshine warming the cobble-stoned square and illuminating the magnificent Roman sculptures in the centre of the piazza (city square in Italian).
It was as if both of us wanted to take a part of Rome away with us in our hearts as we sat quietly on the stone bench simply absorbing the relaxed Italian life around us.
I had my camera in my hand and was finding it difficult to put it down since every other moment I would spot an interesting play of light, shadow or colour to capture.
All around the square, there were various artists displaying their skill with colour and I was quite taken with the utterly beautiful collections some of them had.
Just then I spotted a middle-aged Italian artist who was trying to convince an American tourist of the mastery of his piece. He looked at me and I lowered my camera and smiled at him. I asked him to wave while I took a picture; he good naturedly obliged and I clicked.
Ten minutes later, while we were still enjoying the warm sun on our faces he ambled over to us and asked in heavily accented English,
“Where are you girls from?”
We squinted up at him and replied that we were from Pakistan. He looked surprised and said,
“Oh! I thought you were from South America!”
My friend and I looked at each other. Neither of us looked remotely South American but we deduced that South America for him was the country where non-white and non-Indian looking people lived.
We shrugged and smiled, and he walked away to entertain another potential customer.
He was back five minutes later with a list of questions for us,
“So Pakistan, eh? How come you are not wearing a…what do they say… a Burqa?”
We both burst out laughing at his innocent question, then, regaining my composure I replied,
“Not every woman in Pakistan has to wear a Burqa. We wear what we like mostly. The Pakistan you see on your TV is not the only Pakistan there is.”
The poor man still looked a little confused and then he asked,
“So they let you study?”
He was really on a roll. However, I could understand his confusion given the way we are portrayed in the media and so I replied,
“We are both working women.”
The man now just looked dumbfounded and he asked,
“And your parents let you do this?”
My friend and I were thoroughly enjoying the conversation by now.
We tried to explain to him the paradoxical world that resides in Karachi – the melting pot of ideologies, of schools of thought (or lack thereof), of the way of life, of culture and of that most encumbered word ever to grace any language – religion.
We also tried to explain that Pakistan and Afghanistan are two separate countries; that the bearded Taliban that he sees on TV as our ‘representatives’ were in reality the bane of our people’s existence – for both, people who agree with their ideology as well as those who are horrified by their arrogance.
He nodded, looked away for an instant and then turned back to us. His eyes lingered on the headscarf I had on and then shifted to my friend’s beautiful, straight hair. Drawing an imaginary circle around his head, he asked,
“How come she doesn’t wear that?”
I shrugged and replied,
“Because she doesn’t want to.”
He looked at us completely perplexed by now and asked,
“But you both follow the same religion? You are both Moslem?”
We were really cracking up now and his sheepish grin indicated that he also seemed to realise the stereotyping he had subjected us to.
However, this little encounter did make me think. We have managed to compartmentalise everything - liberals, fundamentalists, conservatives, chauvinists – the list is endless.
I could easily make this piece all about how Muslims and especially Muslim women have been put into a box and how difficult it is to explain to someone from another culture that a Muslim woman wearing a burqa is not just a ‘woman-wearing-a-burqa’ -- she may be completely different in her thoughts and beliefs to another ‘woman-wearing-a-burqa’.
In fact, she may actually have a lot in common with a woman who is not burqa-clad.
I could do this but I would rather not.
Deep down I know that the stereotyping that this Italian gentleman subjected us to was no less than the stereotyping I receive every day in my own city of Karachi. In fact, I am not innocent of this evil myself and often end up stereotyping people based on my limited knowledge of them.
Most of us are guilty of picking the most visible trait in a person and defining the person simply on that one quality. In essence, we try to capture an entire ocean in one tiny drop; paint an entire rainbow in monochrome. We pick one piece of cloth and make it into a Chinese screen.
We unfold it in our heads, sit back and watch the entire theatre from behind it.
In doing so, we forget that humans are beings of movement. In our attempt to make sense of the world around us, we structure and compartmentalise everything around us which leads to judgement, and then we let this judgement define our attitude and consequently our behaviour.
Although this compartmentalisation helps us formulate a response to people and situations, must we not also grant the freedom of fluidity to ourselves, the people around us and even the situations that we find ourselves in?
Some of these compartmentalisations are harmless and in some cases even provide comic relief. However, most of them simply serve as chains rather than ropes. Someone takes one step outside the little box in our heads and we waste no time in terming it as ‘uncharacteristic’, ‘unlike them’ and consequently take it to mean that ‘something is wrong’ – either with the person or with the situation.
With this very categorisation, we imprison people into ‘was’, ‘is’ and ‘will be’. In this prison there is no place to simply ‘be’ for if we were to allow people to simply ‘be’, how would we know which box to put them in?
Hence, the question is essentially basic and basically essential.
Must we always be held accountable to how we are or were at a point in time?
Must I not be allowed to feel one way today and another tomorrow?
Believe one thing today and discover something new tomorrow?
Is this not the vital sign of a ‘constant flux’? Must not the mind pulse to its own rhythm and the soul vibrate to its own music just as God gave the heart its own beat so that the blood in our veins may flow?
After all, the day it stops is also the day we die.
So, must we not ensure that the death of our mind and soul does not occur before the death of our body?
In this process, must we not also let flourish the freedom of another’s mind?
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