by Amal Hamid
I feel ashamed to admit that this past Friday was the first time I stepped out alone on a Friday night ever since I moved to London. I didn’t move to the city alone, to lose myself amongst the throngs of people already trying to make this city their home. I moved to London to be with my partner, to try and make a life with another person, when I had previously only made a life for myself. I moved across oceans and suddenly found myself as part of a “we”. We went out on weekends together, to eat ice cream or meet some friends, we found ourselves sprawled on the sofa watching tv or cooking biryani. But this past Friday, I stepped out alone to meet some friends. We saw a musical and danced in our seats to pop songs from our teenage years. On the way back, I texted my husband telling him that I was a bit nervous to walk from the tube station to our flat as it was past 11 pm. He came to pick me up, and on the way back I kept thinking about how I should have been able to do this ten-minute walk on my own even if it was 11 pm. It has almost been a year since I moved to the UK, and about seven months since I moved to London, but I have still not allowed my body to adapt to the ways of being in this country/city. My body is still following its instincts from being in Karachi, where it did not have the liberty to walk outside alone at 11 pm, or even 7 pm or 5 pm.
And so, I am admitting something that my feminist self has not been able to share with anyone, not even with the empty air around me. I tell myself it makes sense; that my body has every reason to become nervous and anxious if it finds itself alone outside after maghrib. Even in England, where it is okay for women to walk outside alone, to travel alone, to dine alone, to just be by themselves alone. But my body has internalised how to function for so many years, it does not know anything else.
London is not much safer for women than Karachi, though. The difference was, in Karachi I lived in a privileged bubble where a car took my body wherever it needed to go, accompanied by a driver in the front seat. I rarely found myself alone in public on a daily basis, apart from the few times I had to take an uber or a rickshaw to get to places. And these infrequent rides would lessen every time I would come across a social media post about a scary incident happening to some girl in an uber or rickshaw in the city. I would beg my friends to pick me up, would try to convince my mum to change her plans so I could get the driver to chauffeur me around. My body did not know how to navigate itself in empty streets or crowded streets. And so, when I found myself in London, a 29-year-old independent woman who had just started a PhD, I hesitated making plans that would mean being out alone after maghrib.
The first month after moving to London, I made sure to come home just as the sun would start to set. I was being cautious because that is how my brain was trained–to start mapping its way back home before dark, inside walls where the body will be safe as the city transforms in the absence of daylight. As soon as the sun begins to set, my body stiffens, my feet hurry their pace, my anxiety makes me hyper aware of my surroundings. Every time I get home safely, I finally exhale all the air that I start holding inside of me the minute I start my journey back home. Our bodies give us away, regardless of what we wear or how we behave outwardly; our bodies give us away because we can’t breathe until we step foot inside our safe spaces. This is the process I repeat every time I venture out alone in the evenings. Because even if this is not Karachi, nowhere is really safe for women, is it? I have noticed the way my chest does not clench when I am out late at night with my husband, because his body is there to protect me, his maleness adds a layer to my safety. I know how patriarchal this sounds for a feminist to admit out loud, but even if I didn’t say it, my breathing admits it, if my pulse could speak it could not deny this.
I guess it is also because I have not had much practice being out alone after sunset. I moved to Manchester for my PhD and the three and a half months I spent there were consumed by the effort of adjusting to a new city and a new program, in studying and learning the ropes of being a doctoral student, of cooking meals and doing laundry and spending my spare time in the evenings planning a wedding across oceans in my very small room. I did not have much opportunity to move around after maghrib, and the few instances I did step out in the night, it did not feel difficult for me because I was living in central Manchester–close to everything, the streets always busy and bustling with people. My body actually loved the freedom, appreciated that it could walk to the grocery store and the gym and to my office on campus. This was the freedom I had craved back in Pakistan. This was the freedom I wrote about on Instagram.
But then I picked up my books, my belongings, and my body, and moved them to London. I got married, moved to my husband’s city, with his job and his friends and his (our) apartment in a residential area of London. The city felt big, out of reach for my mind that was used to the parameters it had drawn around central Manchester, my university, and my small student accommodation. I didn’t know anyone in this new city, so I went with my husband to meet his friends, we went shopping together and went to eat at restaurants and explored new parks. I was getting to know the city, we were getting to know each other. I did not even know my way around my own new neighbourhood. There was no reason for me to step out alone. And I was okay with it because London scared me even in the daylight.
Eventually, I found myself needing to step out alone. To get cheese because the pasta I was cooking needed cheese we didn’t have at home, and it was early evening when my husband was still working. To go to the gym because I wanted to go swimming in the afternoon and my husband did not want to go to the gym at that time. Slowly, I started venturing out later in the day; I went from being comfortable going out alone in the morning, to being alone in the afternoon, to walking by myself in the streets in the early evening. It was such an important step, and I am embarrassed that it came so much later after I had moved. I craved this independence in Pakistan, and then I found myself actively trying to avoid it.
As Pakistani women, choice is not a verb many of us can act on–and those of us who do have this privilege never take this freedom for granted. Freedom to choose where to live, who to live with, how to be in your body, how to spend your days as the world continues to move around you–the freedom to choose. It sounds simple enough and yet it never is. How much did I choose to live in Karachi, Lahore, Nashville, Manchester (for a brief moment), and now London? Do any of these cities feel like mine? Do I move around freely in the cities that I do call mine? Or do I call cities mine only if I can move around freely in them?
A few months ago, I read an Instagram post where a girl wrote about how she doesn’t know Karachi like boys do because she can’t be out in the city till 2 am drinking cups of chai in a dhaba, in a neighbourhood she has never been to before, she hasn’t sped her cars through empty roads in the middle of night, finding new shortcuts on her way home. She does not have memories of belonging to the city like boys do; the city is not mapped in her brain the same way. We still go about chasing our dreams, but I constantly have this image in my head–the soul of my body floating above and watching my physical body engage in activities. My body does not go out for chai at 2 am in Karachi.
My brain and my feet have restricted my movement in a city that prides itself for allowing every type of citizen to be mobile and free. I am just so aware of my body, of being a woman, of being a brown woman in London. Growing up in Karachi, movement and mobility were just a part of the equation that were restricted; my whole being was restricted. I don’t recall a time when I didn’t struggle with my body. As soon as I was old enough to understand that I had breasts that needed to be hidden from everyone around me it was as if I was always concealing myself. And in doing so, I was concealing my own body from me. How do I really like to move in this world? How do I like to dress, to be seen, to just be? I started grappling with these questions around my mid-twenties when I began to feel suffocated in my own skin. I was working out for external validation and dressing for approval from my family, I was fitting my body into spaces and company deemed appropriate for a young Pakistani woman and navigating it away from anything that would bring disapproval. My body was never a part of me, it was a performative tool to help me fit into a world that I was not even sure I wanted to fit into. And I absolutely hated the dupatta, for the relationship I had with it, for the stress it caused between me and my mother, for the idea that somehow the dupatta would hide my breasts and therefore keep me safe when we know that clothes do not matter.
London has improved my relationship with my body. I step out to go to the gym in my tights and sports shirt and I don’t feel conscious. Some days I feel like wearing a cute dress, on other days I just want to wear baggy jeans, and on others still, I wear skinny jeans and a form-fitted shirt. For the most part, people do not stare, and you can wear what you want. As long as you feel comfortable and good about yourself, you can open yourself up to all that the city offers.
I never felt this freedom in Karachi. And this summer, I found a bit of peace with the ideas of bodily autonomy and choice that wrestle in my brain. It was a sweltering 39 degrees in London. Our apartment does not have air conditioning like most apartments in the city. The only solution was to grab my swimsuit and head to the council gym to use their pool. I walked to the gym alone, feeling safe because it was broad daylight and because I know my way well around my neighbourhood now. I put on my swimsuit, and no one cared about what I was wearing, no one even turned around to gawk. I was tentative as I got into the water; I had not swum in years. But then, I swam one lap and then another. And it came back to me; why I loved swimming so much as a teenager, why I loved being near the water when I later returned to the city. You dip your head in the water, and as you kick the wall of the pool and start your strokes, you can no longer hear judgements and inquiries about your choices, you can’t hear society, you can’t even hear your own thoughts, your phone is far away, the world is not at your fingertips. And you choose to swim, my teenage body chose to swim when I had little liberty to do much else with my body. Diving into the water for my first swim is my favourite part of the week now. I can see my body on the clear floor of the pool, gliding through its length the way it can never glide in any city. I know the corners of the pool intimately unlike the girl who does not know the corners of the city she was born in and spent her entire life in.
Maybe I can mark my one-year anniversary in this new city by taking myself out alone to a café or a bookstore. To be able to separate myself from the “we” and be okay with being an “I” out alone in the dark. I know it is not sustainable to keep myself safe in this bubble of a partnership. In Karachi I had the bubble of being driven around out of necessity and need and my parents’ requirements. None of these factors are restricting me in London; it is my pre-trained brain and Karachi instincts. But I think my body is learning to adapt to this new sense of freedom. It still knows it’s a brown woman in this world, though; it will always know its limits. I will always be hyper aware of my surroundings, I will never walk down dark unlit streets alone. But I hope I can begin to trust this freedom and enjoy it.