I was 12. My breasts developed earlier than most. I was awfully naive. I had no idea what the birds and bees were about at all, and I didn’t want to know. I was a good girl, who avoided naughty books, movies, people. I was a child who loved reading storybooks, and I didn’t want to be anything else.
One day, I went shopping with my mother for shoes in Liberty market. I was wearing a simple cotton shalwar kameez and a dupatta.
I couldn’t find a single pair of shoes that I liked. From one end of the semi-circle of shops to the other we walked, trying on shoes.
As we entered the last store – the one near the movie theaters – the store staff ushered us in, saying, “Come in, come in,” and as I walked in behind my mother, the man to the right of me reached out and in one smooth motion grabbed my right breast and squeezed it. I stopped, utterly shocked, astounded, speechless. I barely knew I had breasts at that point, let alone what it meant to be manhandled.
I stood still and glared at him, as he smirked and grinned, repeated, come in, please do come in.
My mother had gone ahead and was examining the shelves, unaware of what had happened. I glared, it seemed, for eternity. And eventually, I didn’t know what to do or say. I sat down. They brought in shoes. And I remember, they brought in the most perfect pair of low wedge heeled sandals I’d ever seen. I let them try it on me, while my heart was ice in my chest. I felt worthless, grieved, depressed. “No,” I said, “I don’t want it. No, I don’t like it,” – as if it was about the shoes. My mother stared in surprise: “you don’t like these? But they’re really good!” “No,” I said, tears springing to my eyes, “I want to go.”
As we stepped out of the store, I whispered to my mother and told her what had happened. She was furious, but she didn’t know what to do. As a woman, she didn’t feel she could go back and accost those men. Maybe she realized it wasn’t safe for any woman.
We had one car in those days, and abbu picked and dropped us everywhere. This is before cellphones, of course, so we just waited and waited at the bakery until abbu arrived. When he did, ammi whispered the news into his ear. Abbu turned his majestic head of hair in her direction, not looking at me, and said, “Iman nal? [You swear/Seriously?”] and then he strode in that manner of his, that said that anyone who stood in his way would be mowed down.
He entered the shoe store, with ammi and me scuttling close behind, and turned and looked at me. “Which one?” he said. “Which one?” I pointed. And abbu rained on that man a shower of blows and kicks that he would never forget. I got the feeling that it wasn’t just to teach him a lesson, but to teach me as well – never to imagine that any man could get away with treating me like a piece of meat.
It wasn’t the last time though. When I was about 30, doing my PhD, I came on a summer visit back home to Lahore, and took a short walk over to the local internet cafe to check my email. As I walked back, I stopped to buy a creamy kulfi from a street kulfi wallah. My head and torso wrapped in a large dupatta, enjoying the kulfi in a quiet afternoon, I was steps from my home when suddenly, out of the blue, a hand slunk to my side and squeezed my breast. I started, horrified and astounded, as a man cycled past me slowly, without even a glance back. As I gathered my senses about me, I screamed at him la’nat eh tere te, haramzade (God’s curse on you, bastard), ineffectually screaming as he calmly cycled away from me.
About ten years later, I had breast cancer, and a bilateral mastectomy.
As I mourned my mutilation, there was a part of me that said, I am a little safer now. I am mutilated, but I am safer.
I will not have my daughter grow up in a world where she must grow up too fast, where she must fear her own body. You will have to teach your sons.