By Maheen Humayun
May 13th, 2015
Every girl grows up wishing for her life to be like it is in fairy tales — happily ever after. Most of the time, it doesn't work out that way.
There’s that one girl who craves an education but isn’t given one.
There’s that one girl working days and nights in a house where she isn’t happy.
There’s that one girl who’s forced into a marriage she doesn’t want.
Which girl would you be?
She was only 12 when I first met her. I came home from school to find her sitting in my room as my mother told me she was going to be our new maid. Today, Isma is 24-years-old.
She comes from a small village outside Karachi — her parents always told her they were proud of her for her work, proud that she goes out into the city to represent herself, to represent her family.
She was educated as well. I still remember the day she told me she hadn’t passed her metric exams but she would take them again. She wanted to graduate — she needed to, for her family.
She came from a big family: five sisters, four brothers. They all lived in a small two-bedroom apartment. I remember the day of her sister’s wedding, she had invited my entire family because by then, she was family too.
My mother, my khala and I walked through the winding roads leading up to her apartment, roads too small for cars, too small for people. I recall asking my mother to carry me in her godi because there was so much keechar on the ground.
But the one thing I remember vividly, the one thing I’ll never forget is the moment I walked into the house. There were so many people — too many people crammed within the four walls of the tiny brick house. Even though they didn’t have enough place for everyone to stand — the smiles on their faces lit up the entire space; their happiness so contagious.
Isma soon became a constant for my family. When I left for college she had started working at my nani’s house, always offering a helping hand when I came by.
When I came back home for my winter break, I found that Isma was offered a job to work at my khala’s shop. She would be handling the hisaab, and organising the display. If there was one thing she was — it was organised. Precise. Immaculate. I remembered how she would always colour code my clothes while cleaning my cupboard — everything had a place.
I went by the shop one day, to see her in her element and to ask how she was doing — she said she loved it. She had never had a job like this before, in a place where her work was calculated by her performance. She said it was hard, but then again, change always is until you get the hang of it; it was heartening to see her this way.
Days passed, weeks passed. I saw her occasionally at my grandmother’s house on the weekends to help out. I saw her take the kitchen by a storm — from utter chaos to a chef’s heaven in under five minutes. Watching her there, I thought back of the days when she would stay up late at night telling me stories of witches with twisted feet, and fairies that flew all the way up to heaven. Remembering the way she taught me what a thumka was as Sharara Sharara echoed through the walls of my childhood room.
It’s funny how so much of my childhood takes me back to that place, that moment with a girl who came to be not just someone working at my house, but my friend as well.
Yesterday, I went to my khala’s and in the midst of our conversation, somehow Isma came up. She told me that Isma had quit her job today. I stared back at her in shock. At a loss of words because she had told me she loved her job, and every moment that was dubbed in change.
My khala went on to tell me how Isma had come up to her crying. How her voice was encapsulated by a broken verse of empty syllables as she recounted her parents forbidding her from working there. They said it was not safe anymore for a young girl to come home later than her brother, to roam the streets of a fiery Karachi alone at night.
She cried as she gave up what she wanted most — a life that didn’t revolve around cleaning up after somebody.
I think of her now — back at my nani's. Washing dishes and ironing clothes — an environment that has become so comfortable to her now that it was hard for her to see beyond it anymore. Except, she wasn’t that 12-year old girl anymore.
I wonder how many girls are out there — wishing to be something they can never be because society doesn’t allow it. Because parents forbid it. Because we live in a city where girls can’t wander around alone after the sun sets because of the four letter word that instills fear in the very bane of our existence. The word that we are too afraid to confront — one that forces our girls to hide their dreams, to forget their passions.
This isn’t the story of just another girl working her days cleaning up after the middle-class of Karachi — it’s the story of every girl who leaves home to become something more than she already is.
A girl who’s never given the chance. She could be working at your neighbour’s house, or living under your roof — she could be you, or me.
Maheen Humayun is studying Literature and Creative Writing at John Cabot University, Rome. She is also the author of the book, Special.