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Shopping: Extreme Edition

Going shopping for clothes in my hometown Quetta, Pakistan was always a daunting task that we women reserved for the most unoccupied days. It was not similar to the luring image of shopping the western media has formed nowadays with towering buildings, air-conditioned gleaming shops and endless rows of clinking ready-made clothes on racks.

It was exhausting, time-consuming, exasperating and in the end left you looking like you just survived apocalypse. So after tackling it, I was surmounted with a feeling of triumph and relief.

Weekends were the best time to go shopping for clothes. Early in the morning, me and my sisters would be shaken up from our slumber by my mother’s thunderous voice. Then, we rushed off to tidy up the whole house as my mother was obstinate on leaving the house spotless.

Carpets were brushed, dishes were washed, furniture was dusted; not one speck of dust was granted pardon. After munching down on crispy oil-drenched parathas and fried eggs, we scoured our closets to find something ‘suitable’ to wear for shopping.

Now when we are choosing our attire for shopping, we had to keep our minds channeled towards looking as unflattering as possible. Whenever we inquired our elders on why we couldn’t look presentable whilst shopping, their simple clear-cut reply was: “We are going shopping not for a fashion show!” You see, the logic that’s applied here is that if a girl looks unappealing enough, no man would come near her, thus no harassment would take place.

So I rummaged through my closet to find the some baggy and faded clothes or usually just went with what I was wearing. To further conceal our ‘lustrous beauty’, it’s customary to wear a ‘chaadar. It’s basically a large cloth with hemmed borders and local embroidery adorning it, which we wrap around ourselves and also cover our head. My aunts and cousins sometimes even wore hijabs or burkas revealing only their piercing kohl-rimmed eyes, it was our choice what to wear really.

I usually wore a simple scarf over my head because chaadars were too slippery to handle. All this effort was simply to avoid a stranger’s attention but I can adamantly declare that never from my experience of shopping was I ever harassed or seen someone else experience it. Sure some men ogled at us, their shrewd eyes scrutinizing us for being outside but that’s as far as they went. To be honest, sometimes I caught myself gawking at women incredulously because of the unceasing sight of men on the streets.

All the male shopkeepers immediately lowered their gaze with respect as we approached. They became nervous and worked with trepidation during our presence which made bargaining easier luckily. Some of them even engaged in a heated discussion on politics with my mother.

Moving on, we called our shopping buddies, my aunts and girl cousins, to our house and headed outside brimming with excitement that pushed down the fluttering anxiety. Our usual means of transportation was a motor rickshaw. It proved to be quite small for us every time we boarded it, but somehow we managed to fit into it by balancing over each other, a party of seven to the most.

I usually sat in my sister’s lap who complained of my bony ass poking her incessantly. But on some rare occasions, we boarded the public bus. Now, the fund for public buses in Quetta is gradually thinning away and apparently so is the art of driving carefully, so people avoid them as much as possible. Nevertheless, when we felt adventurous and the adrenaline rush flowed rapidly in our veins, we pleaded our elders to let us take a ride in the bus.

Since the men considered that the women of Quetta are so skinny and would easily fit in a closet-spaced compartment, they didn’t bother extending it over the years. The women had to sit or stand in a cramped space along with the driver who menacingly drove on the gashed and deteriorated roads and slightly looked enjoying as if he was enjoying himself by making the women gasp with fear on every turn he took. I kind of enjoyed it too; I liked to pretend I was riding the Knight Bus from Harry Potter.

Now there were many clean shopping malls with extensive space in Quetta, but those didn’t interest us because that wasn’t where the best clothes were. The real mecca of clothes was ‘Shabnam’ (Dew Drops) Market.

Clothes from all over Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and India were sold here consisting of myriads of patterns, colors and fabrics. However, Shabnam market was no mall with numerous floors, normally functioning escalators and the faint whirring of the air-conditioners. It was a labyrinth, an absolute muddle containing small, dingy shops and bored shopkeepers; their eyes scouring for any customers. It was as if the owners built a shop in every nook and cranny they could find. So whenever I went there, it was palpitating with women and fussy children tugging at their mothers chaadars over tripping over stuff. 

Not only was I overwhelmed by the size of the cascading crowd, it was also the amount of clothes that I had to rummage through to find the perfect ones that sucked all the energy out of me. 

You see, the trend here is being the designer of your own clothes. We have to choose the fabrics, couple them with various laces, motifs, embroidered pieces, conjure a perfect design in our heads and find a co-operative and complying tailor to stich our clothes according to that design. Going to the tailor and explaining him our designs is another struggle that I can write pages and pages on.

With my mother and aunts in the lead and us girls tailing behind them, we marched into Shabnam Market with aim and purpose. Our mothers warned us not to get distracted by other items, just take what we need and leave, as it would cause us disperse and get washed away by the huge crowd.

The concrete ground was often strewn with glitter and threads fallen off from the heaps of clothes, there was also a distinctive scent of clothes that wafted in those tight spaces which I oddly miss. Whilst we scavenged through the neat piles of clothes in racks for our desired clothes and bargained with the shopkeeper, I discreetly tried to spot any of my friends so that I could hide from them.

After hours of choosing, examining, contrasting, bargaining, complaining, and sometimes fainting, we left the market which huge grins on our faces. Despite the inconveniences, shopping was and will always be a great bonding opportunity amongst us women and also unleashed our hidden fashion designer.

When I finally reached the safe compounds of my home, I sighed with relief to have tackled the problem (that was return for a few months) once and for all. 

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