The clothes that made me

A long chiffon dupatta that can’t quite decide whether it is red or dark pink. It is simultaneously a comforting talisman, a fun, shapeshifting toy, and a way for my three-year-old self to imitate the women around me. I drape it on my head to mime a dulhan, drape it across my chest to mimic an aunty, tuck it closely around my neck and become a larki, and then reverse the larki-tuck to become a dulha or a dancer. If I feel particularly fancy, then I wrap it around my torso as a makeshift sari. 

My dress-up is punctuated by coos, cheek pinches, and exclamations of “cute!” I revel in both the possibilities it holds, the protection it offers, and the positive attention it brings.

I want to hold that dupatta and absorb the warmth it offers one more time.

A white cotton shalwar that Mama gives to me to wear with my white uniform frock the first day of third grade. In a sea of bare legs, both male and female, my shalwar-enclosed legs reflect the strong, sweltering Pakistani morning sunlight rather than absorbing it. 

“Why are you wearing a shalwar?” boo the boys and girls. “It’s not part of our uniform!”

I shrug, stammer, “My mom made me,” and suffer the distaste and disgust that third graders heap on someone who dares to go against the status — or uniform — quo. The white shalwar is a white flag for my legs. They, cursed with coarse black hair and even coarser thighs, have surrendered to the demand that they never be seen in public again. 

All the dupattas that I use to play an odd game of push-and-pull with my brother. The game comprises of us holding either end of the dupatta and pulling the other where we want to go, be it up the stairs, out to the garden, or to our Baba’s study. 

Suddenly, I can’t play games of push-and-pull with those dupattas anymore, because I have to wear them, Mama tells me. Properly, she emphasizes. And my chest is like dough in an oven — rising and expanding. Any time an older male, related to me or otherwise, comes over, I have to drape the slippery-slidey nuisances across my chest, lest it burn their eyes when they look at me. I don’t think to ask Mama why older men would be looking at the chest of a nine-year-old. 

A cotton shalwar kameez suit tinged with hues of orange, yellow, and green that my nano — Mama’s mom — sews for me. Mama forgets half the clothes I am supposed to change into for my uncle’s Eid party at home. I alternate between sulking and shouting and silence.

Then Mama presents me with the labour of love that is the shalwar kameez that Nano made for me. I forget the shape and shade of the clothes I am supposed to wear. I flow into the shalwar kameez, float out of the room, and flout rules by asking everyone for Eidi first. Nano doesn’t need spells; she has a SINGER machine. I wish I learned to sew. 

A baby-pink, half-sleeve Gap t-shirt with a small rhinestone on its top-left corner that my tayi — Baba’s older brother’s wife — buys me a week into our family vacation to Canada. My family and I come back home after having spent the day at a family friend’s house when my tayi shows me the t-shirt. “It’s a little big for a nine-year-old,” Tayi says, “but why don’t you try it on?”

I am in the midst of modeling the shirt for my tayi and Mama, when my brother stumbles into the room. “Dado died.” Disbelief tinges his voice. My paternal grandmother back in Pakistan is no more. Tears wet my cheeks, slide down my neck, and seep into the pink t-shirt as I struggle to take it off in the bathroom. The t-shirt accompanies me to Pakistan for her funeral ceremony, and it returns with me to Canada when my family immigrates. I keep the t-shirt long after I stop wearing it. 

A pair of flared Gap jeans that I bring back to Pakistan as a souvenir of my vacation to Canada, a sign of my modernity, a symbol of my coolness. I never wear them.

But then, there is a party at school and everyone is wearing jeans and if I don’t I’ll be uncool, so I tell Mama that, but Mama tells me to wear a shalwar kameez suit. I can’t say no to her, so I stuff the jeans inside my bag and change when I’m at school, but change back before I come home. “You took the jeans anyway, didn’t you?” Mama asks.

I brush past her. I wish I hadn’t lied.

A cotton black shalwar kameez suit with grey flowers printed on it that my 11-year-old self wears during the 14-hour flight to Toronto, my new home.

The thin shalwar kameez is no match for the cold tone that the airport immigration officers speak to my mother in, the dismissive stares that punctuate my journey through Pearson International Airport, or the icy wind that greets me outside it. 

The shalwar kameez is a symbol of everything my family and I bring from Pakistan: experience, education, and culture. I must distance myself from it to succeed in the Caucasian, colonial country of Canada. I bury the shalwar kameez deep in my closet in our two-bedroom apartment that houses four. I bury with it my penchant for desi music and movies, my propensity to mix Urdu with my English, and my preference for biryani over burgers. I water these buried seeds of shame with self-hatred until they bloom into a plant of whitewashing. It is only seven years after the bleach has burned Urdu off my tongue, the sounds of desi music from my ears, and the smell of masala from my nose that I realize that I will never be white. 

I wish I was brave enough to wear a shalwar kameez in public.

A ready-made white hijab adorned with sequined black diamonds that Mama forces me to wear when I start school in Canada. The white emphasizes my brownness, the black brings out the dusting of dark hair above my upper lip, and the combination of the two underlines the fact that I am foreign and fresh off the boat; it undermines my every effort to fit in.

“People need to be able to tell that you’re Muslim,” Mama reminds me when I ask her why I must wear a hijab. People need to be able to see that they should avoid you is what I interpret when I observe the wide berth people give me.

Mama doesn’t yet understand that Muslims inspire mistrust, microaggressions, and misgivings. I don’t have the Urdu words to explain this to her, so I lie instead. I lie about wearing the hijab at school when I take it off once I get there, and I lie awake at night worrying about her finding out. I wish I was brave enough to tell my mother how I really felt.

A ready-made black hijab that Mama buys me when I decide, two years after my deception dilemma, to wear a hijab for good. I suddenly represent an entire group of people. I must answer every day whether it is really hair I’m hiding under there. I automatically stand out in a room and I can never feel safe in public again. Sometimes, I think I made the wrong decision.

A pile of pastel Forever 21 dresses that don’t fit me no matter how hard I tug. “Do you need a size?” The floor assistant’s helium-infused voice mocks me from outside the changing room. “No,” my lie is muffled by layers of lace and tulle wrapped around my face while I struggle to shoulder one of the dresses off. “I’m okay.” I shove the dress off, take in the angry red marks that it and its predecessors cursed me with, and alternate between cursing the fashion industry and my fitness levels on my way home. 

“You wouldn’t be sad if you were just a little bit skinnier,” I berate myself. “I wouldn’t feel the need to be skinnier if society didn’t value and make clothes for thin bodies only,” I return. 

I wish I was happy with myself.

A quilted black winter jacket that I wear one winter day as I walk to my bus stop. The cold Canadian winter wind stopped bothering me a long time ago, except on this day. On this day, it carries to me catcalls from a troupe of teenage boys as they drive past. 

Shame and shock paint my cheeks a damning hot red, infuse an itchiness at the back of my neck, and shrink the previously comfortable jacket so it scratches and scrapes me.

“What were you wearing?” I imagine people asking me, if I relayed this instance of harassment to them, just like they do if anyone reports a similar incident. 

I wonder if my answer of being covered hair to toe would shut them up. 

A cotton grey pashmina hijab with fringes on each end that I wear so often, it might as well be the only one I own. I don’t remember when the day was, why I wore that particular hijab, or where I went wearing it. I only remember boarding my bus home and feeling fingers fondling my neck. I glance behind me to find a man touching the fringe at the end of my hijab without invitation. He stops. I lean away. He starts again. 

I tug the yellow rope above my head requesting the bus to stop, jerk up and away from the man who invited himself to my body, and find a seat beside a girl near the front of the bus. 

I wish I had done something more.