Being a girl
“You can’t play with us, you’re a girl.” Taher creases his forehead. The way the word leaves his lips makes me take a step back. It is the first time I have been turned away. Taher knows I am a better striker than him. He knows my aim is impeccable. He knows that I am an even better goalie. These are all facts he knows because we have been playing football in our building ground since we were old enough to be able to kick a ball.
He stares at me waiting for me to leave. Behind him the other boys are already warming up, tossing the ball back and forth between them, setting up the goals, picking out their teams. Behind me, the girls are gathered around a bench. Zoe got a new phone for her fifteenth birthday just last week. It flips and it is blue. She can even browse the internet on it, but she needs to get some credit for it first. I stand there caught between demanding I be allowed to play and joining the girls. It isn’t much of a dilemma. All I want is to play.
“Please, Taher. You know I’m good.”
“Girls can’t play with us.”
“I play with you every day.”
“Well, you can’t anymore. We can’t play to our true potential because we have to hold back for a girl. It isn’t fair.”
And there it is again. Girl. I have never given it much thought before. Yes, I am a girl. Somewhere at the back of my mind, I have always known I am a girl. It said right there on my birth certificate “Baby Saima Sen”. Baby was for girls and Master was for boys. So I am a girl. It makes sense. Except before this moment, it had never become clear to me just what being a girl meant. Before this moment I was just someone who had good aim and knew how to kick well. So being a girl never really hit me. It was one of those facts of life that you could do nothing about, like the fact that I have dark hair that shines brown in the sun. My brown hair did not change my ability to kick a ball, but Taher has already turned away and I am left standing there.
I walk back home with my head hung low and tears shining in my eyes. I want to stop being a girl. The way Taher said the word makes me never want to be a girl again. I open the cupboard where my mother stacks all the files in the house. I make my through all the folders until I come across one labelled Saima. I pull out my birth certificate and take it to the table. I lay it down carefully and then black out the word ‘Baby’ with a permanent black marker. There. Now I am only Saima. I don’t have to be a girl. I wonder if Taher will let me play now.
I strap on my football shoes and strut back to the ground in my black shorts and T-shirt. I find the girls in the same place as before with a few new additions. That phone must really be fascinating. The ball flies across the ground and beyond the marked space. I rush over to get and bring it back to them.
“Can I play now?”
Zain shrugs and gestures over to Taher.
“Will you not get it because you are stupid? Girls. Can’t. Play.”
I take a deep breath to fend off any signs of weakness.
“I’m not a girl.”
He stares at me dumbfounded for a moment and then laughs. The others join him. I almost break down into tears but instead dig my short fingernails into the ball.
“Give that back.”
Taher takes the ball out of my hands and proceeds to take his penalty. He has never been very good at throwing the ball back into the field. He isn’t much good at football either, but he is large where I am scrawny and he is loud where I am shy and his voice drowns out my pleas even as a few boys throw me apologetic looks. Taher is thirteen. We are not.
I return home defeated and fall face first into the couch. It is then that the sobs break free. They rip out of my chest in loud violent bursts that make my mother rush over to the lounge.
“What’s wrong, beta?” she crouches down and runs her hands through my short hair.
“They won’t let me play.”
“I told you that you should be playing with girls anyway, Saima. The boys could hurt you.”
“But I don’t want to be a girl, Ma.”
“Don’t be silly.” my mother chuckles. She is a pretty woman and when her lips curve into laughter her face lights up and I could swear that it glows.
“But I don’t want to, Ma. Don’t make me be.”
She pats her hand on my head and smiles that motherly smile that could heal anything it wanted to.
“Okay, bacha. Now go clean yourself up.”
I begin to protest, but she lifts me off the couch and sends me on my way. I slug towards my room and shut the door behind me. It is a large room, but I use very little of it. My bed lies in a corner with my cupboard beside it. The wall opposite the bed has a shelf that holds all my books and a small table sits beside it with an assortment of items I have gathered over time but shall remain unused.
I stand in front of the mirror nailed to my cupboard door. I still look the same as yesterday. There is nothing new besides a small scar on my chin from falling off the stairs at school. I don’t think the scar makes me a girl and there is nothing new there that tells me what is wrong with me. What would I be if I wasn’t a girl, I wonder? I have never dreamt myself a gender so I don’t understand what I want to be, but I know I do not want to be a girl anymore.
I have never liked not knowing what something is. Labels are good. They make sure you know what is what. They tell you exactly what to expect so you aren’t taken by chance. Labels give order. Order is necessary. Therefore labels are necessary. Which is why I carefully labelled every spice bottle and every sauce in the kitchen, then proceeded to sort everything else in the fridge before my mother told me she didn’t need little tags to know that that bag was rice.
I have never thought to stick little tags on myself, but it seems like a good enough time as any. I pull out a marker and roll up my sleeve as high as it will go. In a small but legible font, I write ‘9’ near my wrist. I write ‘Sam’. I write ‘5th grader’. I write ‘Artist’. I write ‘Footballer’. I write 'Future Astronaut’. I stare for a while. What else am I? I sigh and write ‘Girl’ in as small a font as I can manage.
Being a Muslim girl
I have been going to Islamic lessons since I was seven so it isn’t different when I dress up Monday afternoon and get ready to go to Madressa [Islamic School]. It is a place that I have never felt comfortable in, yet excelled at with ease. The juxtaposition is odd, but I am old enough to know that there are certain things that you just have to do and you can’t get out of them. My competitive streak leaves me no option but to be better than everyone else. I am almost better than everyone else. It is the almost that haunts me when the report cards for the term comes in, but it is the questions that I try not to ask that haunt me during the rest of the term.
I sit at the empty desk in the front. No one sits next to me. I am convinced it is because there is something wrong with me that they secretly mock when the bell goes off and they gather together to play in the yard. I am left alone to wait for the van. The place has a pungent stench to it that I can’t quite place. Perhaps it is all the bodies crammed into one room. I fidget with my awkwardly placed dupatta. Madressa is the only time I wear shalwar kameez, the traditional dress that only makes me want to curl up inside my skin. I have not worn shorts since I was ten, so the only things I wear of my own accord anymore are jeans.
The teacher comes in late as always and we give him trouble for it as always. He is a kind man and sometimes even a good teacher. He cracks jokes and tries to be friendly. His beard is thin but rough and he occasionally toys with it with his fingers.
I have been reading more and more. I now understand the difference between being a girl and a boy. I now understand that being a boy comes with certain privileges, such as making sexist jokes and getting away with it. Perhaps he can get away with it because he is our teacher.
“Turn to page 69.” His voice is gruff and loud.
The class complies and the shuffling of papers being turned and books being opened takes over the class for a moment.
He goes through the lesson quickly stopping from time to time to add anecdotes that we pretend are funny to humour him so he lets us go early. He lifts his head from the book and turns to look at all the girls. He has a habit of pausing for dramatic effect and sometimes they stretch on for too long. We wait for him to read the next line.
“Women must obey their men.”
I raise my eyebrows but again say nothing. The blood pounding in my ears, however, demands that I speak up and ask him what of the men. I am pulled out of my silent fury when someone else brings up the same question hounding me.
“But, sir, shouldn’t the men have to do the same?” Zehra, one of his favourite students, tilts her head to a side.
“No. Men do not have to obey anyone but God.” The statement ends with pointed full stop that invites no further question, but she pushes on.
“Isn’t that unfair?”
“Don’t question what you are taught!” He almost gets off his chair, his fist shaking in anger.
We have never seen him this angry before. Zehra shrinks back. I raise my hand but do not wait for him to call on me.
“How come women never get any say or power?”
He turns to me and stares for a good long minute. His eyes are wide and I can see the red around the rim. My heart pounds in terror and I am not sure if I am trembling or not, but I am sure that I am not breathing for that minute.
“Do not ask such questions!” His voice is loud enough for it to reach two classrooms away and we are all frozen in our places afraid to say more. Except we have already started tumbling down a road I cannot turn away from.
“But won’t questions help us understand better?” My voice is small, but it does not tremble. The girl sitting behind me nudges me to stop, but I can’t help myself anymore.
He stands up tall and looms over me. I gulp. His white kameez is creased, but he makes no move to straighten it. He is large and has a full round belly. I can see him being handsome in his youth, but right now he is a frightening man who has all the power in the room.
“Get out!” His finger shakes as he points at the door.
I make no move to stand up.
“She didn’t do anything.” Zehra offers her support.
“We’re sorry, sir.” Zehra is the one offering her apologies. I, however, am not sorry. I grit my teeth so hard I will not be surprised if there is a new cavity somewhere there. My right hand has folded into a fist under the table and I am trying very hard to breathe evenly to calm myself down.
“Get out now or I will leave.” That is the ultimate threat a teacher can give which is odd considering we are all counting down the seconds until the class ends and he leaves anyway. Nonetheless, we stand up and head towards the door slowly. It feels like a death march, walking towards our execution, but when the door opens it only smells like freedom. The wind rushes against my face and blows the dupatta from over my head. I can feel the cool air and I prefer it outside. Zehra frowns when she looks at me smiling.
“We are going to be in huge trouble for this.”
I nod. We probably are.
“Thank you for standing up for me. You didn’t have to do that.”
“I could use the fresh air anyway.”
I smile wide and she smiles back. We wait together in silence until the last bell goes off and we can head towards the gate. I head over to the van and she walks across the street full of children rushing to get to their vans, cars and doting parents.
I reach home an hour and a half later with the stench of an overcrowded van full of sweaty children still clinging to my clothes. I take off my dupatta and turn on the fan before dropping onto the couch. Its red velvet is hot against my already clammy skin so I roll off and tumble down onto the tiles with a thud. They are cool and I close my eyes for a while.
When I open my eyes again my mother is looking down on me with a curled eyebrow that says you need to stop sleeping on the floor right in front of the main door when the entire house is tiled.
“I don’t want to go to madressa anymore, Ma.”
“Madressa is important, Saima. Besides, you like it.”
“What planet are you living on? I hate it there, Ma. I hate the teacher. I hate what we’re learning. He is a sexist asshole.”
My mother raises her eyebrows and I know I am in trouble now. “Quite a tongue you’ve got on you.”
“I’m sorry, Ma. But he is sexist and he is awful. Please don’t make me go again.”
“Who have you been learning all these words from?”
“It is that Saira you spend all your time with isn’t it. That girl is a bad influence, I tell you. You must stop seeing her.”
“She is my friend and you like her. You said so yourself.”
My mother frowns.
“Does this mean I can get rid of this shalwar kameez now?”
“I’m not going again.”
“You are going, even if I have to drag you there myself.”
“But it isn’t working, Ma.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean it isn’t making me a better Muslim or helping me believe in God.”
“What do you mean helping you believe in God. Of course you believe in God and of course, you are a good Muslim. You are my good little girl and you will go to madressa.”
I stare at her dumbfounded. “I don’t want to. Please.” I plead, but she does not relent.
I silently swear to stop working hard. I will not be placing any position again.
Being a queer Muslim girl
I lie there with less than two feet of space between us. She holds out the cigarette for me and I take it. The winter is fading so it isn’t really a cold night but it is still cool enough for a slight shiver to run through me.
“What’s up?” her voice is low.
I brought her here this night. I’ve finally reached the breaking point. The one that brought me to this roof only a few days ago, except I was alone and had no intention of coming down the way I had come up.
“You remember Israh?”
“The new girl in your history class you won’t shut up about?” she chuckles, “Yeah I think I remember her pretty well.”
The stars are beautiful and I could almost lose myself in them. If I could spend the rest of my days just staring up at this serene sky I would give up everything else.
“I kind of like her.” My voice is a bare whisper.
“Well you never shutting up about the girl already gave me that impression. Besides aren’t you guys friends already?”
“No I mean I like her”
She turns to face me and I don’t have to stop looking at the stars to know I am being stared at. I take a long drag. My heart is fluttering like a fish caught out of water and the pounding is loud enough to drown out the wind.
“What is that supposed to mean?” I can almost taste the caution in her words.
I sigh. You would think that if you grew up with someone, knew them since you were both in diapers, they would see this coming a mile away. You would be wrong.
I always imagined this as some big dramatic reveal, but I am so tired of everything right now all I want is for this conversation to be over.
“Gay” she utters the word as if it is something fragile that will break everything. And perhaps it will.
“I’m nineteen and have never liked a boy. You never found that suspicious?” I shrug.
“You’re not the dating type. There’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t make you gay, Sam.”
“I like girls, not boys. That does.” I have this smile curving my lips, except it’s not really a smile. I’m not even sure what it is, but it just hangs there in the empty space between us.
“Are you sure?”
I want to scoff but I have to remind myself that she has only had a few minutes to deal with this where I have had years.
“I wouldn’t be telling you if I wasn’t.”
“Okay,” she nods “But maybe it’s just a phase, you know?”
This time I laugh. It is almost genuine because god how I wished it would have been true.
“But you’ve never even been with a guy, you can’t really know.” She offers up.
“Does the same apply to you and girls?”
She smiles, but sits up and nods. “Fair point.”
I follow her lead and sit up.
“So Israh, huh?” She cocks an eyebrow.
I smile. “Israh.”
“Does she know?”
“Oh, hell no!” I chuckle. “We pine from a distance.”
She lights up two cigarettes and hands over one to me.
We settle into a brief silence followed by me telling her things about Israh that she already knows, but this time she understands my sheer enthusiasm. And then she tells me things about Daniel, her boyfriend, and how he is leaving for university soon. Before we know it the night fades away and I am lying less than half a foot away from her and the stars are barely twinkling anymore. The sky has split into all sorts of new shades. This is why I love the morning. You don’t see these bright blues and oranges mesh so well anywhere else. And it is a beauty I will never know how to put into words, except perhaps the way Israh smiles.
“Saima?” No one has spoken in a while and she knows how much I hate being called Saima, so the word pierces through the silence.
“Yeah?” I tear my eyes away from the sky and turn to look at her.
“Aren’t you afraid?”
“Going to hell?”
My lips curve up of their own accord. “Too late,” I whisper under my breath.
‘Already there’, I think, but the word that leaves my lips is “Nothing.” She doesn’t ask again. I assume I am already dammed in her book.
Being a queer Muslim almost-kinda-girl
I haven’t worn a dress since my cousin Zena’s wedding in Karachi, the summer I turned 19. My mother holds out an elegant black dress that isn’t too flashy, but just pretty enough for Zena’s fifth anniversary. Her eyes are lit up with hope and I shake my head. The blazing disappointment that sweeps over the hope does not go unnoticed, but I am accustomed to it. I shrug it away.
“Ma, you know I’m not going to,” I sigh. Why does she even bother anymore?
“Saima-” she stops herself but not before I throw her a glare that could cut steel. “Sam” she corrects cautiously. It is a subject she tiptoes around like I have it rigged with minefields 5 miles wide. I wonder if it will ever be a simple fact between us. Saima is gone. She only left behind Sam. “Just because you have a fancy editor job in New York and you cut short your name to Sam doesn’t mean you’re still not my daughter.”
“Ma” I am not sure if it is a warning or a plea, perhaps both.
“Okay, but can’t you at least do something girly once in a while to make your old woman happy?”
I groan and throw my hands up in the air. “I don’t like dresses.”
She opens her mouth to protest but I hold up a hand.
“But” I smile, “how about some jewellery with my suit. Necklace maybe and I’ll even throw in some makeup to sweeten the deal?”
“Aliya would have worn the dress if she wasn’t away on assignment.”
I almost want to chuckle at the idea of my mother using my girlfriend’s femininity against me. Except it isn’t an idea. This is real. Somehow this became my life.
“Is that a no?”
She rolls her eyes and sighs dramatically.
“It’s not like I have a choice.”
I kiss my mother’s cheek and look at her. Her lips are curved up in a warm smile that deepens the lines and wrinkles on her face betraying her youthful eyes.
“I love you, Ma”
She smiles back.
“If you two are done with your soap opera can one of you zip me?” Zena calls out.
Her gold and blue dress is breathtaking and her seven months swollen belly doesn’t make it any less so. My mother obliges as I reach for the jet black coat hanging off the chair and pull it on. Between the time it takes for me to settle my sleeves and straighten my vest my mother has already found a simple silver necklace that doesn’t get too lost in the stripes of my vest but is also not overbearing.
“I’ll let the makeup slide.”
“Come on we’re twenty minutes late.” Zena holds open the door.
“Isn’t fashionably late your style, Zena?” My mother chuckles and takes the arm I am holding out.
Being nothing and everything Living
I am standing here besides a woman I can call my wife in less than ten minutes and my mother is beaming at me from across the room and the sun is still shining and the world has not collapsed on itself and I can still breathe.
I take a deep breath and turn to face Aliya.