“You’re part of the problem.”
“Sorry, what do you mean?”
“Attitudes like yours, they’re part of the problem in schools. They wouldn’t be the way you’re describing if it wasn’t for you. You’re part of the problem.”
The pronoun was offensive to her and her accusation was clear enough: I was single-handedly responsible for the socio-economic problems that fed into student apathy at the school I was going to work at. I paused. I was cornered. I did not know how to respond. Her aggression and her sneer of hatred had pinned me into the corner. I looked around for an ally, bewildered and a little afraid. All faces were closed to me, slammed shut the moment my husband’s aunt opened her mouth.
I managed to cough out a response. But it was pathetic and weak, exposing me for the weak, pathetic, wretched creature I was.
I shifted position to detract from my ridiculousness, adjusting the gold bangles on my wrist, a wedding gift from my inlaws; heavy with loathing, they weighed down my arm with their judgements. My dress was stifling. It clawed at my neck and body, stealthily, slowly suffocating me with its glitter and jewels. It was Eid ul-Adha: the festival of the sacrifice, and I was on the menu.
I looked to my mother-in-law, she looked away, refusing to meet my gaze, terrified I would speak to her. I looked to my husband’s paternal grandmother, the family matriarch; small and petite on her throne, she watched over us all, but she was gazing lovingly at her daughters, her creatures, her creation. I looked to my sister-in-law, she shifted around so she couldn’t see my face. Her cousin was trailing mendhi on her hand and wrist, concentrating intently. I fixed my gaze on the pattern, forced my nose to concentrate on the sickly scent of the henna paste, not allowing myself to look up, to have those holes bored into my face again.
The other aunt spoke up, “Where is it you got your job again?” Her tone was smug, her rough Leeds accent poking through her nasal, brittle voice. She knew, they had me cornered, squirming. Religion left her as she revelled in their private victory. She basked in its glory, savouring the sunshine.
I answered, my voice faltering at the final word. I felt the need to talk, to cover up my insecurities with words, like garments since my clothes had failed me. I gave them more than they had asked for and this was an invitation for more probing, more malicious retorts, more tearing, gnashing and gnawing at my flesh.
“What time do you go there?”
“What age group do you teach?”
“What do you wear to work?”
“Really? Why don’t you wear shalwar kameez to work?” Her tone was indignant, like I had said I was going to work topless with bikini briefs covering my bottom half. My answer, polite and calm, had stunk up the room. Her nose wrinkled at the odour, her top lip curled up, sneering and judgemental. She looked to her sister, she raised her eyebrows whilst glancing at one of her daughters who was sitting beside me. My mother-in-law continued to avoid my gaze, she shifted in her seat so her face was turned away from me. The henna patterns developed, intricate and curling, leaving dark trails on my sister-in-law’s hands. The matriarch’s loving gaze never faltered.
The aunt continued, “Islamically, you’re not supposed to leave the house without wearing a covering over your clothes.” It was a statement, a judgment, a fact. There was much more. Their words screamed reproaches at me. I retreated.
Somewhere during the gnashing, her own daughter spoke up. Finally, an ally. Hearing her voice gave me hope; I could breathe again. “Ammi, will you stop attacking her?” Her voice was shrill with embarrassment and indignatio. The only one in the room of women to aid me, I looked to her as my saviour. I was saved. “Shalwar Kameez isn’t Islamic dress anyway, and she can wear whatever she likes to work. I do.”
I allowed my body to relax; I even offered another response, but I was too hasty. They sensed the underlying fear in my words and they both pounced. Nasal, judgemental, brittle, gnawing and gnashing. My saviour could only watch helplessly, at my side, arm pressed with mine, apologetic and annoyed. But eventually, even she melted away, distancing herself from me to avoid the bloody aftemath of the tearing.
I was alone. What was left of me was ripped off, leaving me clinging to the fabric of my dress, wrapping it around me protectively, attempting to mask the pain they had left on my body. My gold bangles weighed me down, dragging me farther, lower into my own wretchedness where I stayed, where I still stay. They savoured their victory, human hyenas, laughing and clawing, jeering at my anxiety as I withdrew, retreated, into my stifling Eid suit, behind the gaze of the glaring gold bangles, until there was nothing left.
Upper lip curled, nose raised in the air, as if to escape the stench of me, she sniffed, leaned back in her seat and was done.