As I sat in an elegant café and rested my head against the rich brown velvet cushion, I smiled to myself. The summer of 2013 I was no longer silent. My older sister sat beside me, sipping on her mint chocolate milkshake, while my aunt sat across from us. My older sister and I were both wearing hijabs, not a strand of hair visible; my aunt had her black hair in curls falling loosely around her heart-shaped face. I had just flown in alone the night before from New York to Manchester, England. My family had come two weeks earlier than I did and we all were now staying with my mom’s two sisters, Farzana and Rukhsana.
My younger aunt, Rukhsana and my older sister, Neelam took the responsibility of showing me around. Of course, our first stop was the mall because both of them loved shopping and also wanted me to try a café called “Nero.”
At “Nero,” we were talking about the sale TopShop had, when these two guys, about six feet tall each, walked in. My sister nudged my aunt and she turned around to see; we admired the guys’ light brown hair and their strong, friendly vibe. The two handsome strangers were probably in their early twenties. My aunt commented, “Nice,” with a smirk on her face, and I looked at her, astonished as she shrugged back in response as if to say, “What’s the big deal?”
Older women in our Pakistani culture aren’t supposed be looking at men; in fact, women at any age aren’t supposed to be looking at men. My aunt didn’t care about any of that. She was a newly divorcee raising her four sons alone in her own house with her black curls out for the world to see. Needless to say, many people from our family weren’t speaking to her and saw her as a disgrace.
We are all originally from Pakistan; while my aunt lives in a culturally diverse neighborhood in Manchester, England, I, unfortunately, live in an entirely Pakistani neighborhood in Brooklyn. It’s full of Pakistani stores, restaurants, and gossipers.
My culture isn’t “bad;” it’s just that it sometimes encourages people to force others (mainly women) to live in a certain way. In my culture, the men dominate the women, and girls and women aren’t allowed to talk to men who aren’t their brothers, uncles, or fathers. If a girl is seen talking to a boy—or even looking at one for too long—, even if he is a classmate who’s asking for the homework or even if she’s telling someone to back off when he stands too close at the laundry-mat on Neptune Avenue, the girl’s a whore, a disgrace, and is sent back to Pakistan to get married. No exaggerating there. No one cares if she’s just asking for the homework or about the time; they only care about trashing the girl.
The neighbors wait for you to slip and to do something wrong so they can bash your name; it’s easy to “slip” in America, where most people expect you to talk and look at everyone, regardless of their sex, like it’s no big deal. Here, in America, you can’t go about in life without talking to men, especially if you want to succeed.
When my aunt strapped on her seatbelt and began to pull out of the mall garage, she eyed me in the rearview mirror. “Aneeta,” she said. “You’re older now. What do you think of my divorce?” I stared straight ahead into the reflection of her eyes in the mirror, studying their chocolate brown, which were surrounded by black eyeliner. Was she testing me? She wasn’t. She actually wanted to know what I thought of it; her eyes said it all. They were sincere, like she knew I wanted someone to ask me how I felt about things. They weren’t like my mother’s eyes when she confronted an 8th grade me about the gossip going around about Omar and me.
No one had asked me if I actually loved Omar or if I was planning a wedding with him. No one asked me how I felt about things when those rumors started, especially not my mother. If she had, I might have told her why I thought I was really being accused of “loving” Omar. Why I knew I deserved this shame, why I knew this might be payback. That I felt horrible for what I’d done, what I’d said, how I’d made him feel back when we were both in third grade.
Omar was new to the NYC school system and to the country. He’d just arrived from Pakistan, when our third grade teacher, Mrs. Wygoda, asked my friend, Sarah and me to show Omar around. Sarah and I were told to help Omar adjust; instead of helping him, we made things worse for him. We made sure Omar hated coming to school and hated where his family had just moved. Sarah even beat Omar physically once, by kicking his knees until they hues of blue. He didn’t fight back, even when his mother came to report it to the school, Omar didn’t rat us out.
When Sarah moved to Pakistan, I was left in charge of Omar. I spread rumors throughout the class that he ate his boogers. Poor Omar probably didn’t even know the word “booger,” but everyone else in the class did. We all snickered at him. We gave him the wrong homework, and we even made sure he didn’t make any friends with anyone in our grade. If any of the other students tried to talk to him, we made sure to give them a facial expression like a wild animal gives to it prey.
I’m not sure why I took part in hurting Omar. Maybe it was because he seemed so pathetic, didn’t know the language, and was an easy target. Compared to me, Omar actually had it worse. And I guess that made me feel important in some way. Maybe…maybe seeing all the female adults like my mom, cousins, and my neighbors being dominated by men made me fear the future and want to dominate someone now, but specifically a boy. While I still could. I never told him I was sorry about it, but today I am.
And I certainly was 5 years later as I walked with my mom down West Street, my eyes cast down at the ground. My mom and I were walking past the high school next my middle school as we were headed home. The ground was wet because of the earlier rain. The smell filled my nostrils and it was strangely comforting as my mom angrily hissed in my ear the gossip that my younger brother, Hamza had heard.
I looked into my mom’s eyes; the same chocolate brown eyes my aunt Rukhsana has and I told her the rumors weren’t true, that I didn’t really love Omar, I wouldn’t dare crush on or even speak to a boy knowing the consequences. Speaking to a boy who is not my brother, father, or uncle is forbidden in our culture. You simply cannot talk to a boy unless it is an emergency; I knew that! Everyone knew that!
But not one knew why Omar might have an interest in trying to ruin my life, trying to get me sent back to Pakistan. I didn’t want to go back to Pakistan and get married to some 40 year- old! Was this his payback? Did he figure out how he could now use our corrupted culture against me? Did he plan this all to make me look like I was a disgrace to my family, my friends, and society?
As I realized it was my turn to play the victim and him the bully, I wondered if I deserved this payback, if I should’ve told my mom what I’d done to deserve this, if that would help my case, if she’d understand why I’d bullied him in the first place and why he might now want to hurt me in return. But I didn’t. I didn’t say anything. Just like Omar didn’t say anything in the third grade. I didn’t say anything cause she didn’t ask.
After that day, my mom never asked me if the rumors were true and neither did my dad or my brother. Instead, they supervised everything I did. For a whole school year, they made sure there was always someone next to me in public, watching my every move, watching to make sure I didn’t shame them with my “interest” in Omar, like I really gave a shit about him other than feeling badly that I’d once made his life hell. No one asked if I really did love Omar or if I had even talked to him recently or why he might want to say that I had. No one asked me anything; they never did.
Until that summer of 2013 in Manchester, England when she, my outcast aunt with her curls out for the world to see, asked me for my opinion. On her divorce.