Responding to a sarcastic letter sent to the ‘oh so fortunate’ Uncle Sam, by the labelled obscene local writer Manto, about how everything in Pakistan is Uncle Sam’s fault. As part of an assignment I decided to take it upon myself to test the hypothesis on the ever controversial metro bus. Because who better, than the locals on a public commute to judge a prevalent mindset.
I spent Day 1 observing my audience. Day two consisted of a survey to study whether the opinion Manto expressed regarding Uncle Sam, believing that only his ideology was true whereas everyone else is simply irrelevant. I wanted to verify if the individuals aboard thought similarly. My questions were designed as one situation being worldly, whereas the other was personal.
As hypothesized, the results indicated that people held zero accountability for themselves, portraying themselves as saintly, and the surroundings as the real problem.
Day three, I decided to become Hindu. After all, who was going to notice a tiny red dot on my forehead on their busy, tiresome journey? The moment I stepped out of college premises, all eyes were on me, sadly, not metaphorically. Hurrying myself on to the bus, I understood what a dreadful day awaited. Never had I been looked at in a more condescending manner by literally every person my eyes managed to browse – the scan from top to bottom, and the convenient stop at the dot on my forehead. What significance does a spot of color even have? I was dressed in a more modest manner than the earlier days, looking exactly the same, minus the bindi. The number of times I got whistled at in 3 hours, eight, and winked at, lost count. I initially planned on triggering racial debates or reactions out of people, till I realized my forehead was apparently triggering enough. I was just a normal passenger for the day. 4 men out of every bus/station made horrible sleazy comments, occasionally accompanied by horny sounds. I was groped multiple times by both men and women. Other highlights included, when a woman carefully analysed the girl next to me in a white chadar, and I, she took no time in rudely asking me to give up my seat – I did. A “Stimulant” rudely asked me to stay on my side, causing confusion among people as to why she was being so rude, till they looked in my direction and understandingly smirked. Then, I caught a guy looking at the “Stimulant” behind me and gave him a glare. He took no time in shifting his gaze to my assets (which I seriously lack, and were invisible in my dressing), and it made no difference to him that I knew and was looking him right in the eye.The pattern repeated itself, whenever someone looked at the “Stimulant” and she looked back, they would instantly shift their gaze, whereas when I looked at them right in the eye, they just decided to smirk some more and get a better view.
“Day 3 ended, with a splitting headache and crying the entire ride home.”
It’s always harder to do something the second time, especially when the first time was a brick cast at your face. The next day I skipped changing and getting ready. And I had cried the kajal out of my eyes, so that was missing too. I walked down the same road without the red dot today, getting a stare or two but attracting no serious attention. I conducted another small survey asking people how tolerant they were towards different religions, cultures, ethnicity, and if they are ever rude or hostile towards people different than them. As I had hypothesized, again, they portrayed themselves as saintly, claiming to be open minded and tolerant, but the world as not tolerant towards them and their beliefs. This was my first segment for the day; the second was putting their words to practical test.
The first bus we got on, I stood in the front half and sometime during the ride, I took the red pigment from my bag and applied my bindi, the people smiling at me on my way in were now looking at me in astonishment, and people from the back of the bus were standing on their tip toes and challenging their athletic side trying to get a good view, passing smirks, curious gazes, disapproving scans. I felt all the eyes creep on me, yet again. I took the bindi off on the station and repeated the process on the next bus. I reached in my bag and pulled out a red fingertip, ready to mark my forehead, till I was distracted, by a pair of eyes going to my finger, then my face, and the changing expression. This mister smirked and licked his lip, with passion burning in his eyes. I wanted to crack his skull open, but I had a task to perform, and perform I did. I lacked the patience from the day before, so I forced myself away from troublesome scenarios.
Distracting myself from perverted glares, I seated myself comfortably next to a burqaed woman, who didn’t wait a second before asking if I had applied blood to my forehead, what it meant, why I did it, etc. After my answers, she elaborated on how she studied religion and enjoyed different perspectives. Through the duration of this conversation, the entire bus fell silent, all eyes and ears on me. She talked on minorities being troubled in the whole world, and standing up for our differences. In the middle of this surprisingly nice conversation, I brought to her notice that the whole bus was constantly glaring at me, even as we spoke. As soon as those words left my mouth, the 3 aunties seated opposite to us turned their heads while the rest of the lot was caught red handed. Disappointed, confused, and not knowing how to react she kept apologizing on their behalf and encouraging me to be proud of my difference.
On contrary, another burqa aunty kept badgering me on how one should dress up according to the place they live in and its culture. If it’s a Muslim majority country, then why can’t I just live like a Muslim? (How ironic is that, right?)
The final part consisted of conducting the same survey done on day 2, except now I was Hindu. Out of numerous people I asked on multiple buses, 2 women answered. (I refrained from asking men anticipating from experience, the sleazy responses and my shortage of patience could not afford that this day). When I told a woman she was the first to answer my survey and no one else wanted to, she answered “I didn’t notice the red dot” till my survey was over.
On my way back to school, I seated myself on a relatively empty bus next to a woman in a niqaab, who instantly rudely moved ahead, leaving a seat between us. She was incredibly nice and accommodating towards my friend in a hijab giving out flyers though. Offended and hurt, I looked to the other side where men continued to look without blinking. I wanted to tell the uncle with the prayer cap and beard that his modesty really doesn’t lie in the size of his beard, or his namaz ki topi, it lay in his gaze, his heart and his mind – where it clearly wasn’t. When a friend called out some of those men, she was asked her to “mind her own business”, and “why was she, a head-covered girl, speaking up for me?”. That was the end of my patience. I told them off and got yelled at in return. The girl in front of me kept laughing at me; she was the only other woman present. And the uncle gave us a shut up call, instead of saying anything to the men, who continued to yell at us. Alone and vulnerable, we ignored them, till our bus stopped at the station and one of them asked me to keep my mouth shut. I responded by saying, not every girl will always keep quiet.
Day 4 ended with my hijabi friend, and I, with the red dot, both physically and mentally exhausted walking down the stairs, supporting each other’s weight, and the man sweeping the floor casting a huge smile and thumbs up our way. Glad to see that we live in difference, but in love.
The last day, we were supposed to present an aesthetically sound, and a visually appealing final product achieved during the 4 day exercise, though mine was intangible, it was true to the core; and I like to call it;
“Complete and utter disappointment”
This narrative of ONE experience, highlights so many dimensions of how our society rejects diversity on a daily basis. Even the slightest amount of diversity of any kind is seen as an evil. Be it clothing, religion, caste, or something as personal as our thought process or moral compass. Exactly the reasons why Manto saab himself was exorcised from society. This attitude of deeming sainthood on oneself, and all wrong in the world is not country-specific, or even religion-specific attitude. It exists on a personal and a broader level, in every field of life.
So many people responded to my personal blog, claiming Muslims go through worse etc., and I’m sure they do, but you see, that’s exactly my point. This shouldn’t be a ‘you scratch my back I scratch yours’ type situation. I never did say that it’s just Pakistani society, or one specific minority. Infact I’d like to keep the word society out of it.
“It is a fault at an individual level, which clusters up to form mass stupidity”
This zero sum blame game needs to stop everywhere, and that change needs to start at home. Women are sexually objectified regardless of faith. It’s a matter of mentality, and that is something ubiquitous. One experience was enough to give such crucial insight into the layers of sexism and religious intolerance various people witness on a daily basis, by certain segments of any society. It’s such a basic lack of tolerance.
“Pakistan is as much yours and mine, as is his”
I’m not going to go ahead and claim that Jinnah’s Pakistan and the representation of the white in our flag has diminished with time. I’d like to keep Mr Jinnah and his vision out of it, and throw my own name in there, because Pakistan is as much yours and mine, as is his. And I, along with every other individual, contribute to what it is now.
Let’s all play whatever little role we can to make sure the world is a place where tolerance and respect are not mere words, but embedded values in our personalities. The first step to solving a problem, is acknowledging that it exists. A little lesson I learnt from Manto – respect the law, but if it conflicts with your conscience, speak for what you believe in, target the dirt brushed under the carpet, because if you don’t, it accumulates and slowly consumes the very fiber of what you were trying to protect. I strongly believe that if there’s no boundary for doing wrong, there definitely shouldn’t be one on talking about it.