Rabia Khan writes on the everyday difficulties of university life for women in the sub-continent.
‘My mom asked me to send her a picture of what I was wearing.’
All of us flinch.
‘What did you do?’
‘I stopped replying.’
All of us laugh.
I can’t say if this is something all girls living away from home at university experience but it’s definitely something common.
About two years ago when my sister was preparing to leave for university, she was sent out a list of clothing she was allowed to wear on campus/ dorms etc. She had to get almost an entirely new wardrobe. According to university requirements; necessary wearing of dupatta (long scarf), no jeans, no short shirts, no heels, no capris etc. I remember my mom rushing my sister from gulf to dolmen mall, buying her dupattas, longer kurtis etc.
Thankfully, the university I am currently attending doesn’t have a strict dress code like this but conversations like the one at the beginning of this piece still take place. The only difference is, now, far from home, there is only so much your mum can do to check up on what you are wearing.
We live in a society where girls have to dress a certain way, be back home at a certain time, have a certain sort of company to not be termed ‘loose’ women. Therefore going away to university is a whole new world, especially for women. There is so much more space and freedom to navigate around; it’s liberating, yet, at the same time it’s overwhelming.
Conversations between friends tend to go something like this:
‘Man, I went back to my dorm room at like 4 a.m last night.’
‘What were you doing until then?’
‘Nothing just hanging out with ‘x,y and z.’ It was so boring and exhausting, yet, I didn’t want to go in.’
‘Because, like, at home, my parents have never let me stay out this late ever. And now, to be able to do that, it’s just like you don’t want to miss the chance to stay out.’
I remember my first week at university was spent staying out of the dorm till at least 2 a.m, doing absolutely nothing but sitting with a group of people and laughing over the stupidest stuff. It felt great. The conversation eventually grew stale and boring, but knowing that hey I can do this. I can exist outside of ‘home’ this late at night, without being told that girls aren’t supposed to be out at this time of night, was worth it.
When you start living in a hostel with a bunch of other girls you start having conversations and start noticing how many of the things we do are simply because of the restrictions placed on us by the society we have lived and have grown up in.
If you are out with a group at the mall, someone is going to say, ‘hey, I wanna get a picture with just us girls so my mom knows that I have female friends.’ Or that she knows I was out with girls only.
You ask your roommate to take a picture of you in a proper shalwar kameez and dupatta, to send on your family group, because that’s what good girls wear, and because you know that’s what your family expects you to wear.
Before your roommate’s mom comes to visit, you both have ‘the talk’ where you decide what things you are supposed to mention and not mention. And, as her mother asks what time her daughter goes to bed at, you tell her with your face in the closet, ‘Aunty, she is back by 10 everyday.’
The first few times you go out in jeans and that T-shirt your borrowed from a friend, you are extremely apprehensive. You keep asking if you look fine, if your butt isn’t too obvious, or maybe if you should just change into a kurti.
When you go out late for coffee or dinner off campus, you are scared and you keep asking your friend ,’ what if my mom calls?’ You make sure that you call your parents early and tell them you are tired and going to sleep so they don’t call you when you are out. You stay off social media, in case they see you online.
You hear the line, ‘ there is a difference between lying and omitting the truth’ about a gazillion times, because you have told your roommate, about a gazillion times, how much you hate lying to your parents. This conversation takes place right after you have both just told your mothers that ‘yes, we have been praying.’
Sometimes the worst thing is sitting in a group of people listening to your friend talk to her mom, trying to convince her that she isn’t lying, and then being made fun of by the boys at the table because they just don’t understand.
And the thing is, it is so hard to come to terms with the fact that what you are doing isn’t wrong, but that you have been socially conditioned into believing that it is. It isn’t easy to rid oneself of almost two decades worth of conditioning. It is relentless and unreal how difficult existence is made for women in society.
Rabia is a blogger and university student in Pakistan, you can visit her blog ‘Travesty’ here: