Words Arwa H.
Digital Photograph Alifiya S.
I was the last one in my school grade to start wearing a rida, with none of my school friends wearing one to school. Amma gave me a choice; knowing the issues teenage girls already have, that I could go without a rida for the rest of school life since our uniform had full sleeves and a scarf and knowing that this shy, small girl might feel even more isolated and stand out, but also that she would prefer me in a rida. I told her, excited to finally start wearing one and knowing Moula’s khushi, that I would wear it to school. It wasn’t easy; in a school full of Bohra girls, I was the only one to wear a rida coming to school. I would take it off in class in the morning, keep it in the teacher’s cupboard and wear it again before going home. Those were the early days, I felt very self-conscious since all the kids, especially from other communities, used to stare unabashedly. My cousin also started wearing on and off with me. One day especially stands out; we had gone on a field trip and were late returning to school, my class-teacher had locked the cupboard and gone, and I had to return home in my uniform. I distinctly remember feeling uncovered on my way home despite being covered head to toe. College days were the same, I was the only one in the whole college, as far as I know, and I used to elicit plenty of stares. Most of the girls in my college lived in areas in Karachi where we Bohra’s didn’t live or move around frequently and that was one of the reasons they used to be curious, but it used to make me extremely self-conscious and unconfident. For a girl plagued by uncertainty and shyness, this made me retreat further into my shell.
I secured admission at the University of Karachi in the Department of History, which my mother and most of the people around me disapproved of. However, since UoK was a big melting pot of sorts, I didn’t stand out (that much). One of my friends actually thought I was a Christian because of my father’s name, many assumed I was Memon due to my colourful rida. I started explaining simple as I could make it why I wore my rida all the time. I started gaining confidence in my studies as well as extracurricular activities; part of which was getting to attend conferences and seminars. In the final year, I was selected to present my paper at one seminar which would be attended by many prominent Pakistani academics and politicians, and I would be the first one in the lineup of speakers. The whole auditorium was filled and me; again the lone person in a rida. My paper was much appreciated by everyone. There were many such events and I was slowly getting used to the multitude of stares I elicited in these events. I graduated with a first position in Masters and would be getting a gold medal at the convocation. I walked out there confidently in my green sunflower rida with none of my old hesitancy.
It was during a major international conference that my department organized that I finally had an important realization. Many people, especially from other cities and countries asked me about my rida; first clarifying that they meant no offence. However, I had learned that it what you think that matters; not what you wear. I no longer felt self-conscious or uncomfortable; in fact, I was more than comfortable in my own skin. I answered questions about my clothes and beliefs and in the end, one American professor complimented me that I was the best and most-colourfully dressed at the whole conference. It was such a wonderful boost to be recognized as distinct all due to my rida. I have gained a new appreciation, learned to style my rida and walk with my head held high. Many academics have told me that I am breaking stereotypes and it further empowers me.
Moula’s happiness truly does give us happiness. There is nothing you cannot do in a rida; I’ve cycled, skated, water-slided, zip-lined, rode a horse, stood up at numerous gatherings and conferences and taught every day. At a recent interview, one of the panellists asked me; if I thought my rida would cause any problems for me especially in regard to people’s perceptions of me and in pursuit of my career, and I was very assertively able to say No, it will only help me.