The year I turned 14, I shared my birthday with Eid. In between celebrations, I found myself standing in a crowded bookshop wearing a Pakistani shade of blue. My salwar kameez stood out among the stacks, not to mention among the jumpers and collared shirts that belonged to everyone else around me.
Sweating, I imagined nightmarish voices coming out of disembodied sleeves. Wool unravelling to insult me. Buttons peeking out to watch my discomfort with glee. And every curious glance that came my way in the checkout queue felt like a headlight: blinding, white, and uncomfortable. It turned me into a deer, stalking bookshelves, desperate to to burrow between the pages. But I was making too much of a mess of it. I couldn’t find a place to blend in.
I blamed my clothes. They felt like too much with other people around. They were too bright, they earned unfriendly smiles, the embroidery itched at my collarbone. Some days, I’d look at the raised red over my skin where I’d scratched under the neckline in a mirror, willing it to go down. But it stayed. I think the itch went deeper than I realised.
During non-uniform days at school, I’d wake up early and aim for invisibility. I wanted eyes to scan over my body and for silence to follow. I wanted bland enough, somewhat stylish enough cuffed jeans and jumpers that would go unnoticed by my white friends. No smart quips coming out of their mouths. No raised brow at what I was wearing. I didn’t want the spectacle of feeling different or un-English in the eyes of others that cultural dress gave me. The brown of my skin felt like enough already.
At that age, I imagined lots of scary things. I watched a lot of horror films. I read a lot of books. I thought being scared was fun. But my biggest boogeyman was racism. The biggest ghouls that got my heart racing were legitimate situations. Like, being asked if I could speak English when I wore salwar kameez. Or someone tugging on the back of my hijab so I’d trip up, neck jerking back all ugly. Or just plain old mean-spirited laughter. I was a kid, but I knew about those things. I knew the feelings I was trying to save myself from. On some level, I knew there would be a day where I’d be brave enough to wear my clothes, all clothes, any clothes without a care in the world. But at the time, salwar kameez meant opening myself up to something I wasn’t sure I could handle. My cultural clothes were a part of me. They were comfortable things. Lovely things. But their beauty carried the potential of being hurt in the ugliest way. And I didn’t know what to do with that.
“Should I change my clothes?” I’d ask my mum before we went out anywhere, gesturing to my salwaar kameez.
Her response was always the same one word. “Why?”
I’d stand there, turning my fears over in my head. She’d roll her eyes and usher me out of the house. She knew what it was I was afraid of. She shared those fears too.
I saw the way my mum strode past sniggering teenagers outside the cinema. The tension of her shoulders walking past families in supermarkets muttering about England and what it had become just as she exited the aisle. The effect of these things showed in the texts she sent me about staying safe in public, and the conversations we had in her car. There she gripped on to the steering wheel, her children, and her culture with unrelenting strength. Afraid or not, she refused to apologise for who she was, and I envied that.
The brown women in my family taught me the meaning of bravery. Slowly. The lesson dragged on for a few years. Over that time, my mum, my aunts, my cousins, my sisters, and my grandma put my attempts at invisibility to shame. They chose to wear centuries of tradition so casually that I started doubting why it felt like such a big deal. They wore them so casually that the action began to feel defiant.
Take my grandma, for example. The history of her house is white skinheads sitting on the front porch. It’s her children being careful about going to school. Smashed glass and profanities. Danger everywhere. But still, she ties the buttons on her mac and adjusts the thin sheet of white scarf that covers her hair before she goes out to buy groceries. She accessorises un-English clothes with very English cardigans, exchanging words in her own language with other old brown ladies. She is bright and brown in those moments. She is bright and brown always.
I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but I started to want that. I started to want the unapologeticness of the brown women in the family to be my story too. Somewhere along the way, I grew tired of swapping colour for a blank ordinariness. Tired of early mornings pretending to be invisible in an attempt to achieve a sense of safety, a sense of approval I still didn’t really feel. Even in jeans. Maybe I never would. But my fears couldn’t be exorcised by diminishing my culture for others. So I started to fight back.
Desi embroidery on a winter scarf. Pakistani flats to pair with dungarees. And then black and gold salwaar kameez worn to dinner with friends. A navy lehnga to a ball. These items, draped over my body, were an attempt at erasing the shame I had once felt. Soon, everything that I had ever heard mocked as too bright, too big, too much to ever wear began to fit me. And I was proud. Sure, wearing these clothes left me open to some potential hurt. But I thought of the brown women in my family, and a Pakistani shade of blue amid some books, and found I wasn’t scared any more.
A few weeks ago, my housemates and I were on our way to a friend’s birthday party, and that’s how I found myself getting rained on in borrowed bottle-green cultural dress. I turned 22 this year and in this future, I wear salwaar kameez with pride.
“Hey.” My friend said to me as we stood on the doorstep, waiting to be let in. “You know what we look like?”
I glanced at her. Her red lipstick. Her tousled rained-on hair. Her cream sari. We had left the house together and she’d grabbed a pair of slip-on Vans in the rush. Somehow, they matched her outfit. I smiled, thinking of English cardigans paired with un-English clothes.
“What?” I said.
“Old Asian aunties.” She laughed.
I laughed too. I laughed and laughed until my stomach hurt. We stood with the rain still coming down and an empty street ahead of us. I wasn’t thinking about any backlash. I wasn’t afraid. My clothes carried no guilt. And everything felt bold and brown and bright. ●