My skin is like that stranger one sees often but never speaks to. Both simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. While I write this essay, I touch the skin on my arms to feel something about it. I stroke my arm, I notice the color of my skin, the uneven texture of my forearms, the traces of hair left after a shave. I notice it all, I try to feel something.
I look at my feet, the only other part of my skin that I can see as I sit on a garden chair in the veranda of my house. All I can notice is how dry the skin on my feet looks. Maybe some nail polish could make them look better, I think to myself. I go inside my room, I see my legs that I can only see in the confines of my room with the door locked shut, it feels like looking at a stranger’s body.
How do I associate with my skin? I don’t know. My skin is a stranger.
My skin has never been mine although I’m not sure when exactly I knew that. Maybe always? My skin, its visibility, the limits to which its presence is accepted, has always been dependent on another. I knew since kindergarten that my legs were different from a boy’s legs. I knew that because the driver of the school bus would try to touch them, and I knew that because my mother told me that I must always sit crossed-legged, I knew it when we would go to buy the school uniform and I would plead for a skirt above my knees but the best I could negotiate with was half-way through the knee. Nothing shorter.
With time and age, my skin and I grew less familiar with one another. By the time I was 10, the few dresses and skirts I had were replaced by jeans and shalwar kameez, the traditional clothes worn by both women and men in Pakistan, that cover the body in its entirety.
Much before I was 10 though, I knew that my skin must be covered because it made others uncomfortable. I knew how to navigate familial relations depending on how much of my skin different relatives would be comfortable seeing. If it was my maternal grandma, I must wear a shalwar kameez that covered all of my arms, in front of one paternal aunt I could wear a short-sleeved t-shirt, in front of another I must always wear a dupatta, a longer scarf worn over shalwar kameez to cover any signs of the breasts.
By the time I was in my mid-teens, I knew well that now my skin was no longer the domain of family members alone. The man down at the grocery store, a cab driver, a teacher, a friend’s parent, anyone had more control over my skin than I did. I knew I must dress in a way that was comfortable for them. So my skin learnt to perform, acting in accordance to the needs of those before her, playing the role of a caretaker of another’s values and sentiments. My skin was the physical representation of what felt like many separate selves molded into existence around societal needs.
In a society where being good meant being covered, I did try hard to be good and never quite felt at ease with it. And so I was “bad”, that girl who showed the skin on her arms and preferred pants that showed her ankles. I knew my heart wasn’t too unkind, yet I was bad. That feeling sank into what today I can understand as shame.
Until today, at age 33, when I feel like I have control over most of my life, I don’t have enough right over my skin and body to wear a pair of shorts in my own home in Karachi, where the temperature on an average summer day is well above 33 degrees Centigrade. Until today, I don’t have the right to life and security when I wear a sleeveless shirt and drive in my own car. And so I always drape a shawl around my arms because I need to make sure I don’t offend the sensibilities of another driver on the street for whom the visibility of my arms may translate into a woman of “bad character”, who could be harassed and abused on the street, who could be followed home just to intimidate her.
But today I did something I have never done before: I went on a run on the streets around my house. Besides women labourers, few women are ever seen on the street of my city. The dry-fit tracks I had bought days ago were long enough to cover most of my legs, finishing a couple of inches above my ankles. The 4 inches of visible skin tasted of freedom as the breeze touched my legs and made my body feel at home within itself. It’s in these crevices that freedom is sought, and on a day when no passerby comments and intimidates, it is found. I long for a day when I can run in a pair of shorts in the streets of my city and it not be a political act, that it could be just another woman doing just what she needs to do.
But for now, my four inches of visible skin is an act of resistance, an attempt to assert my right to exist. Every time I see a woman stretch this boundary a little, I thank her in my heart.