I wore the full-face veil for the first time on my wedding day. I was eighteen years old and I had never worn it before. In Pakistani Muslim tradition, this was the day of the ceremonial giving away of the bride, the day I was to say goodbye to my family (theatrically, and before an audience of a few hundred) and go off to be with my husband and his family. The fabric I had chosen over a year before for my wedding dress had been selected for hue and sheen—a fiery red-orange—and it was utterly opaque. I could see nothing. For navigation, I had the assistance of two younger cousins, unveiled and full of giggles. It was September in Karachi, I was pouring sweat and also blind.
The story of how I ended up fully veiled and a bride did not begin that day. The skein connecting it to incidents past could be reeled back to an event a few years earlier, one that had led me to begin wearing the half-veil or the head scarf. Fifteen then, I was a student at an all-girls school that prided itself in being almost entirely free of the contaminating male presence, whose very existence made veils necessary in the first place. The hundreds of girls that were students there were instructed almost entirely by women. From the time we were six years old and began first grade to the time we were seventeen and graduated eleventh, it was women, women and all women. At five past eight every morning, the gates of the school would be locked and the man-free day would begin. The only men left inside were the very poor ones that the school employed, who mopped the halls, set up the nets for games of volleyball behind our high walls, or guarded the gates. The fact that they were poor seemed to cancel out their masculinity.
There were no men at school and so within its walls there were no veils, the walls and seclusion functioning as its own sort of full veil. This changed when school hours ended; when the gates were opened in the afternoon, many girls were quick to put on a head scarf, and some, notably fewer, even a full-face veil. The rest of us took the small distance from our school, where we were kept from the male presence, to the cars that took us home, to attract as much male attention as we could. Meaningful glances, wordless flirting, and eventually telephone numbers were all exchanged surreptitiously. A boys’ school was not far away, and the boys came in droves— to see and, if they were more ambitious, to seduce. It was a window of opportunity for young love.
It was that December that our tenth-grade class, of thirty-five sixteen-year-old girls, decided to plan a picnic. Central to the excursion was the hefty battalion of chaperones who would accompany us, six or seven matronly teachers who had taught us physics or chemistry or mathematics and could be convinced to add another day to their workweek for the promise of a bit of sun and sea. To insure that the all-girl environment of the school could be replicated on the picnic, we would be headed to a private beach, where we would spend the day at a private beach house, all of it guarded by armed private guards at the entrance and exit. Because of this, we could be unveiled if fully clothed, out in the open but still unseen, still out of the reach of men.
The day of the picnic came, spirits were high and laughter was everywhere. There was no one at all on the empty stretch of private beach except our group of girls and chaperones. They sat in a line watching us, their own heads covered against the sun or by habit while we giggled and squealed at the shoreline—December is the only month in which Karachi’s heavy heat abates, but the breeze, the sun, and the ocean, despite their proximity, were not usually available to us. Our school building, dating all the way back to 1905, sat in the fetid heart of a polluted downtown, the air we breathed choked up with the fumes of buses and cars. In studies it was cited as the most polluted point of a very polluted city. Freed from this miasma, we drank fitfully of the freedom, the lack of walls, and gates, the veils that stood between us, the natural and unnatural barriers that made up our lives.
It was in the midst of this that the boys came. They had been unable to come from the land, its single route blocked off by the guards, and so they came from the sea. There they were in a speedboat that appeared on the horizon, four or five of them dark haired and excited against a blue sun-drenched horizon. As we watched, the boat they were in came closer and closer, until their faces and their voices and their maleness was visible to all. Then, they began to call out my name. They did it once, and then again after they brought the boat to the shore, after they dragged it to an adjoining house, and after they took up spots in its front porch. They could see everything.
The chaperones were terrified. It was their worst nightmare: exposed girls on an exposed beach beset by unknown men. They called out to us to come back up the beach, to come closer to them, to hide ourselves. With the appearance of men, even boys, our visibility was a problem. Once we had been evacuated from the beach, new instructions were issued; we had to stay close as possible to the chaperones, as far away as possible from the boys. There was an air of doom to it all; a terrible thing had happened, the fun was over. Many promises had been made to the parents that had permitted their daughters to go, and now those promises had been broken.
We did not leave immediately. We stayed long enough for the boys to call out my name a few more times, for several of my classmates to hear it and for them to tell others. We were raised to be good girls and most were better girls and eager to prove it by emphasizing my complicity. By the time we all packed up for the long morose ride back to school, there were also accusing glances from the teachers. Glib and meaningful, they all said the same thing: “I know you had a part in this.” I was in trouble. The coastal road connected us back to the highway, which led us back into the city, to the safety of the walled school that veiled us from the outside. My crime was clear: I had somehow inspired a collective, nonconsensual unveiling of those that did not wish it.
Not long after the picnic, I began to wear the head scarf. There had been much fallout in the aftermath; my mother was summoned to school for solemn discussions. The smug and indignant chaperones, spinsters all, had hinted at expulsion, fueled by the certainty of my immorality, the horror of what had happened.
I was not expelled, since there was no proof and I refused to supply it. To save myself, I stolidly stuck to denial. I did not know who the boys were; I had no idea why or how they screamed my name. I was certain that some of the girls were inflating their stories.
It was a lie, but a self-preserving one. I could not admit that I knew the boys, or at least the one that had slipped me his phone number as I walked out from school one day. Nor could I say that I had talked to him several times on the phone and that he had asked to meet every one of those times. Every time, I had told him it was impossible, that I was kept behind wall and key, never alone or unwatched. Then, one day I had mentioned the picnic, half-knowingly but assured of the fact that he would not be able to penetrate the defenses of guards and cordons. I had underestimated his persistence, his belief in the possibility of a rendezvous.
Even though I was not expelled or suspended, I faced banishment of another sort. In the delicate moral ecosystem of our classroom of sixteen-year-old girls, I had ceded space to a premature male invasion, an impermissible one. We inhabited a climate in which the precariousness of our condition, our veiled yet unveiled state behind the sheltering walls of our school, was constantly and consistently underscored. There were threats and warnings and prognostications of how awful that world, that world where men dominated, where their gaze was omnipresent, was a harsh one. We were to relish this time of sequestered freedom. I had disrespected it, and I deserved no mercy.
To survive that last year of school, I needed a visible act of contrition—and so I chose the head scarf. There was a redundancy to it that could have been comical: I was choosing to be additionally veiled in an environment that was, owing to its sequestration, already veiled and hidden away. But I was suffering the long and deep pangs of teenage exclusion; there was no humor in it for me. Luckily and eventually there was also some respite. My one-and-a-half-times veiled (once by the sequestered school and another half by the head scarf), newly pious self appeared sufficiently recalcitrant. My betrayal, if not forgotten, was forgiven. I was slowly and again included in conversations, in potlucks arranged for recess, in all the little joys of our sequestered world.
I had been a rebel, and then I became a conformist—and I discovered that it was lovely and even addictive. There were fewer secrets and less intrigue. All suffering, particularly the sort imposed by men, was shared suffering; there were loads of camaraderie and a sense of shared identity. We were all girls in it together against a male world that wanted to claim us. Being walled in at school, to December picnic, to the half veil and then, a year or so later, the full veil were all steps on a path, I can see it now—but the ultimate destination of course was unknown to me then. I knew, however, that it implicated connections between all of this: dots drawn between veiling, sequestering, men, submission and rebellion. There was strategy in it and manipulation, some instinctual and not quite explicit understanding of what it meant to belong and how belonging could be accomplished, in this case via an object, a head scarf and then a veil.
Rafia Zakaria is a columnist for Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English-language newspaper, and for the Baffler. She is the author of The Upstairs Wife: An Intimate History of Pakistan and the forthcoming memoir A Different Life. This essay is excerpted from Veil, part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series.