She shuffled around in her seat, wiped the locks of her hair that had fallen out of place around her face, then put out the fraying stub of Bringi between her fingers.
“Wallai yakhwana It seems like jahannam is edging closer to Sudan by the minute. I swear to God, one day we will wake up and find the sun at arm’s-length above us.”
She laughed, as she drew her sky blue scarf over her head and loosely tucked its edges behind her ears so it formed a little cap to shield her eyes from Sudan’s angry sun. Mona had just graduated from Medical school and she, like the other girls I now sat to converse with, were fussing over the developmental opportunities that seemed to grow slimmer by the day. Although she often spoke of how she missed regular electricity, fast internet, Big Macs and cemented roads, she always wished Sudan had better opportunities because she dreaded nothing more than going back to Saudi Arabia.
Fatima held back her laugh, uncrossed her legs and began to wave at the air. The young pharmacist was not particularly fond of the muddied after-smell that lingered a short while after Mona put out her cigarette. Mona, Samar and I giggled at this, because Fatima would have basked in the sweet aroma of the smoke had it been blown from a Shisha. She was probably the most outspoken one amongst us, the one whose tongue the cat could never catch. You could almost tell by the way her beautifully patterned red and black scarf hugged her high cheek bones, that her soul gripped on to the elusive, traditional norms of bit al balad. She knew more about what it meant to be a Sudanese woman from the outskirt towns of the country than any of us did. She was one of the very few girls I knew, who could turn down a cigarette, or a Shisha hose, at the risk of looking “uncool”, but just as eagerly pass you a lighter in case you were missing yours. I almost envied her for being so resilient in the face of the ever-changing pressures of the city. “I have nothing against all these things and the girls who do them” she would say, “a girl can commit the seven sins and zimathom so long as she is true to herself. I just don’t like wishy-washy characters that do things to seem ‘modern’, when she does not believe in them enough to face society with the same ‘modernity’. Nonsense. What modern woman hides cigarettes in her bra, eh?” The one scared of being rejected by the same ‘outdated’ society she didn’t believe in?
Samar, on the other hand, was the center that tied us together. She was where the old and new ideas met. Unlike Mona, Fatima, and I, she was born and bred in Khartoum. She was a trendsetter when she uncuffed the little artist in her, but on most days chose to dress modestly because she had to navigate the sluggy streams of the public transportation system. She was well-traveled and could bend her tongue to pronounce “water” just as well as the next American. But she too had a soul that smelled distinctly of Sudanese sandalwood, resilience, and the modest laughter of tea-time chatter.
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To an outsider who marveled at the organized chaos of Sudan from behind the window sills of the Gulf, and now America, these ladies mesmerized me. They were all modern, educated, and beautiful in their own rights. But most of all, even within the scopes of differences that they occupied, they were all equally, and non-negotiably more Sudanese than I could ever claim to be. They were trendy, and traditional. They had defined liberation in their own context, without necessarily becoming ‘Western’. They’re the girls I always wanted to brag about in my class discussions on feminism. The girls who don’t need saving… just respect.
I remembered this now, as I sat alongside this Sudanese young man who was going on about how “unique” I was, in the inescapable space of the airplane that now flew away from the dust-painted floors of Khartoum.
“You know, I saw you wearing these jeans and the hoodie, and I could tell you weren’t from Sudan” Oh, but I thought I was? “Most Sudanese girls who are coming from America” Phew! Ok so I was still Sudanese, just not from Sudan. Thank God! “And all these places travel light. Mosh zy banatna. Unlike you, Khartoum girls make a point of dressing up, straightening their hair, and applying make-up even if it is just to ride a plane.” He giggled, as I shifted uneasily in my seat. He was obviously infatuated with the ‘progressive West’ I unknowingly seemed to represent via Levis and a Hoodie.
As I looked up at my tangled bun, and paled face in the reflection of the small black TV screen, I couldn’t tell if his words were supposed to be a compliment or an insult. My mind immediately wandered to the simplistic elegance that Fatima and Samar always appeared with. They effortlessly seemed to dip between their college halls, and the cafe we often met at, wearing simple denim skirts and cotton scarves that complimented their neatly ironed, colorful blouses. I would remember them every time a girl in sweatpants, and a crinkled hoodie colored with pizza stains, spat unaccented English jargon to explain how women in Muslim societies were oppressed by the ‘Islamic’ dress code.
“No, I have a long flight so I don’t care what I’m wearing as long as I’m comfortable.” I retorted “Actually, if it were up to me I’d be wearing pajama pants…” I laughed “but I didn’t want to be the next center of every Sudanese family’s Whatsapp group chat.”
He laughed and nodded with a sense of familiarity.
“Did you see the girl in bright pink pajamas at Khartoum Airport? IMAGINE! At the Airport!” I mocked a surprised gasp, “They say she is going through a nervous breakdown after her fiancé married another fair-skinned girl. Imagine, she is samooreya, and she applies nothing to her face but sunscreen! Yeah, it was obvious she was not all present up there.” I tapped on the edge of my forehead with the tip of my finger “So her parents sent her out of the country. I’m sure she’s one of those bougie girls from uptown Bahri who was not pinched in the thighs enough times to know Toz from Salam-u-Alaykum. Poor senseless child.” I shook my head sarcastically as he covered his mouth to muffle the rising echo of his boisterous laugh.
“See what I mean, you are practical, and simple” More like lazy and indifferent “even now the way you’re talking as if we are familiar. You don’t have the ‘ugad those uptight Khartoum girls have.” He shook his head remorsefully, as if he had known every girl ever born to a Sudanese womb… and my mind floated to the bustling streets of Khartoum, again.
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Samar restlessly slumped into a seat next to me and seemed a little out of breath as she said “Can you imagine how much rubbish I heard just walking over here from the door of the bus? Imagine! I got off just a few feet away from here, and the garbage had already begun to pile-up.”
Her beige scarf hung around the whole frame of her face, while the edges of her skirt flowed loosely down her waist. I could feel Fatima and Mona unconsciously making the same assessment of her attire in bewilderment. She fit the modesty bill so well! So why… Fatima quickly retorted “You must have swayed your hips to the wrong rhythm as you were walking. Don’t you know the drill? Military march, eyes straight ahead, like laser mirrors to the fire in your souls that would burn all the galelen ‘adab that dare look your way!”
We laughed. I looked down at my loose blouse that stopped high above my knees, revealing the blue denim of my jeans under it. It seemed funny, but that is the way I had walked, and mean-mugged all the heads that had turned towards me. Of course sometimes it didn’t work, my fire was probably too tired to burn through all the annoying persistence of the unrelenting, patriarchal street.
Of course, from here the conversation flowed like a river looking for the mouth of its home-Sea. Fatima mocked the wide-eyed stare of the Rickshaw driver looking at her through his rearview mirror, and the clingy touches he stole as he took his money from her hands. I recalled how I had to run in my ‘abaya, because some man had begun to follow me on my round to the supermarket around the corner. Mona retorted she once had to walk about her neighborhood for two hours, to lose a guy who was trying to tail her home. Samar then told me about how she was going to follow this new trend of carrying pins around with her on the bus. Apparently some girls had the brilliant idea of pricking any man who decided to allow themselves to touch what they had no business even looking at. We laughed, and silently began to glorify this rebellion with looks of approval.
“That way if he screams, he’ll be incriminating himself, and the girl won’t have to worry about being called loose.” Mona agreed.
“Yup, because, you know if she tells him off and he blatantly denies it and calls her ‘crazy’, the rest of the bus would eye her with disapproval. Then, surely dismiss her as another immoral, troublesome girl.” Fatima continued, in response to my confused look. Of course, the slut-shaming.
But then the conversation took a very different turn. Fatima shared the story of a male friend who once took her hand hostage. It wasn’t just the public that encroached on her personal space.
“One minute we were having some tea at Share’ Al-Nile, the next minute this guy just took my hand and started caressing it. We were just close friends then, you know, it was nothing serious. I was appalled of course. I mean how dare he!” She paused to let out a deep exhale, “I told him off and I wish I had not. Honestly, my words were wasted on him. Imagine! He said it was his ‘right’ and that ‘all the girls were okay with this’. Basically saying I am retarded, before he yanked my hand back again and continued as if I had been talking to the wall.” She shook her head, and a quick flash of agony washed over her expressions.
“So what did you do next?” I wondered, remembering the number of times I allowed the same to happen to me.
“I told him I was ‘backward’, and I enjoyed it. That if he wanted a ‘modern’ girl to caress after just saying Salam-u-’Alaykum, then there are plenty of girls who enjoyed that kind of thing. Me, personally, I have nothing against them, but I am not comfortable with this rubbish. Ana Hurra.” Fatima shrugged “I don’t understand them, and they may see me as mutkhalefa. But that does not matter, all that matters is that if I don’t agree to something you should respect my preference.”
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We had all nodded in unison. We understood what she meant even if Samar and I were a little more lax, growing up in co-ed schools. We felt her frustration even if Mona would have thought the gesture to be romantic, he did not have her permission. It didn’t matter what your background was, or where you lived. If you were a girl, the violation of harassment was a known reality to you. A tragic little universal truth that you hoped to wear as a badge of history some day-when your wishful thinking finally brought about a world where your own daughter never has to worry about what ‘the best way to respond to a catcall’ is.
“It’s all going out the window” Samar retorted, almost echoing my thoughts “We’ve grown tired of voicing our opinions and started putting on clothes our mothers wouldn’t even wear when they were our age. Not because this way we’ll be safe, but because we hope that will reduce the number of times we are harassed from 100 to 98…”
This was the tragic truth I could not fully explain to Muhammad, in the short vicinity of our 4 hour transit flight. Women do not wake up one day and decide to act as they do on a whim. For the most part, we are constantly thinking about safety, in some form or the other. The “‘ugad” as he called them, were a means of coping. No girl wanted to treat every guy who passed her as a dangerous dog. But if she wasn’t being called uptight, she risked being called a whore. And God only knows how many times every girl has looked up from a joke on her phone without completely erasing the smile on her face, before she caught the glare of someone’s uncle staring at her. The smile was not intended for him, but that did not matter. He had spotted her and would have taken the slightest double-blink as a sign to ‘pursue harassment target’- that is if he needed a sign at all.
I often muse that sometime before the waters settled in between the continents Eve had come to understand something. It often did not matter what you wore, how you walked, or where you were looking. By simple virtue of being a girl, you would often lose agency over your own body. So that when you walked out of your home, your body became a canvas that men are allowed to splatter degrading catcalls across; older men would try to stand too close behind you; and young boys would learn how to yell ‘arfa’i tarhatik’ (pull up your scarf, or pull down your shorts if you lived around my side of the globe) even before they could grow facial hair. It had little to do with the ‘aiba, fitnas, and harams that we often dress a woman’s body with at birth. No, it is the result of desensitizing men, and over-sexualizing women. Men can walk barebacked, because a woman had complete control of her sexuality (no risk of rape here), whereas the presence of a woman in the same room as a man would be enough to wake the beast in him. This has shaped how we think of each other, and the consequence of that has been a flush of efforts to “conceal” the woman’s body, with little being done about the man’s soul. Indeed, men have been constantly treated like savages who do not know how to control themselves, and somewhere along time’s way-men began to believe this. Thus, many men have forgotten their sense of responsibility, and we have lost the innate respect endowed to us as human beings. To the extent that respect and acts of kindness from the opposite sex are now received with suspicion, and the question: ya rabbi what does he want in return?
Perhaps in most of our narratives in defining the goals and desires of Feminism, we forget this. We speak about freedom, egalite, equality, rights, but we forget to define the building block of all this- mutual respect. We forget that Fatima and Samar like skirts just as much as they liked jeans, and fitted dresses. They draped their scarves around their shoulders just as much as I tightened mine around my head, before walking out to catch a Rickshaw. Mona’s unique experience turned loosening the veil into a small act of rebellion, although on most days she appreciated how much easier it was to leave her house because no one expected her to have her hair made up under the scarf. More so, my American-Sudanese friend Remaz wears her scarf as a badge of identity, and a sign of rebellion against ‘Western liberation’ of the woman’s body. These are not the women you listen to when the Western voice of Feminism dominates the narrative. For all the talk about liberation and independence, their own choices are forgotten because they are considered too conservative, or not radical enough to count. To be counted as a feminist you need to walk around with short hair, shorter skirts, and perhaps a broken hymen.
But none of this is the point.
The issue is, women have been holding up our side of ‘the dress code bargain’ for a while. Still it seems, there has been a continuum of violations from the other side. So it seems the problem is not ‘oh she was dressed improperly, or acted boldly, or signaled that…etc’, but more of a right that boys claim for themselves. Catcalling is a sign of masculinity, and the badge of approval you need to join the cool kids’ club. Sexual harassment is a display of masculine power over femininity. This is not to say that all men are misbehaved harassers, but definitely that all women at some point in their lives have experienced at least one incident of harassment (usually even before the age of 9), so someone’s son/brother/father/uncle/cousin must be up to no good. Every house readily says: so it is the problem of someone else’s son. And voila, immediately the cycle of ridding boys of responsibility is repeated. In fact, these days, girls are turning to blame each other. Ladies these days have become their own enemies, racing to judge each other by the lengths of their skirts. As if the lack of uniformity is what’s confusing the catcallers. Surely, they’ll say, some girl out there gave them the idea that this it was okay to behave this way. The whore must have started this myth, that All Sudanese Girls are guilty (of enjoying harassment?) until proven innocent (whatever that means.)
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But to this end, Fatima reminded me of something very important that day. “Of course the hand-grabber bothered the hell out of my phone for weeks.” She went on, “But eventually he grew tired. Come to think of it, the dog that barks usually runs away with its tail between its legs if you howl louder. Most girls forget that. See, these boys, deep down, they know they are wrong, but it is the girls that are now doubting themselves. Ok, so one time you yelled and the people looked at you funny. But you were in the right weren’t you? Next time, did you send him a signal to hit on you? No? So you’re still in the right, then what has changed? Nothing? Wrong, the audience has changed. You are still right, but maybe this time there will be a khala among silent watchers, who sees that too, and breaks the silence. No? Maybe next time then. No? At least the two first guys will now think twice about harassing another girl. Maybe someone watching you will be emboldened to say something the next time someone bothers her. Anyways, till when will we blame “him”? Whatever little ruptures we can create, we must do. Until a tide of change washes over us.” She took a sip of her, now, cold tea, “Until then, May God’s good grace see us through this mess.”
Disclaimer: The narrative has been snipped and tailored to flow, then modified to protect the identities of the brave ladies who helped me put this piece together. However, there should be no doubt that these events are based on actual, true, and very REAL events accumulated from the experiences of my sisters, and friends as well as my own experiences.