My mother’s shame is what I wear as a veil.
It is my modesty.
Handed down, from mother to daughter, generation upon generation, laundered and press within an inch of its silken life. It is my birthright, my dowry. I peer through its gauze and think gauze should be kept for hospital settings, to mop up blood and pus, gangrene and weeping sores.
But it has been taken out, out from the institution of illness and out into the world, carrying within it pestilence and plague upon my mother’s head as she bears her female body with shame, with disgust and anger and misery and disappointment – they ooze from her body with her blood and her sweat and tears that no real woman should have, they pour from her body in the birth fluids of her babies, the tears of her frustration, the sweat of her pain, they pour and pour, covered by the veil, too disgusting to be seen, too shameful and horrific to be seen by everyday eyes.
Of course you did not know, how could you? The veil’s purpose is to keep things nice, and pretty and safe, and most of all, hidden. The veil is the social smile. It hushes the wear’s voice to a murmur. And so what pours behind the gauze becomes her own, her own private suffering, her own personal hell. She is kept in a purdah of shame, behind the veil, not knowing that every woman wears the veil, the veil of her mother’s mother, and she suffers behind it too. Beneath it her libido fires in her youth, dances in delight, then learns to lie still and have headaches and womb aches, and heart aches become a distant memory, as fibre by fibre, the veil falls down upon them too. And they become the white noise of her existence, as little a part of her as the wind in the trees on a distant mountain top. She forgets that all this is hers, was hers. Disembodied, anonymous behind the veil, she floats ghostlike, dead amongst the living with only her shame to keep her warm, her silence to be her friend.
She holds her shames close to her heart. The loves she shouldn’t have felt, the hatred that burned like a fire for the woman that bore her, the child that she could not keep, the husband that she could not live with, the son that she cannot reach though her soul calls out his name in her sleep, the love that she longs for, the art that sits like birds in the top of the tallest tree that she cannot tempt down with the small crumbs from her desolate soul.
The betrayals from friends, who knew just the words to cut her like a knife, the truths from the tongue of her firstborn that she could not swallow and jammed in her throat like fish bones, sharp and malevolent. The body that was not slim enough, brown enough, smooth enough, that did not want to open at the right time and place to suit the clocks of others. And the dreams which haunt her nights, of lovers lost, her dead father, trains and falling from cliffs sex and death and pattern and colour all mixed up into one grotesque charade, this too is hers, and her shame.
The shame that she, in the end, could never be what everybody else wanted, that she couldn’t be kind enough, pretty enough, chaste enough, kinky enough, calm enough, wild enough, to please all of the people all of the time. And so as she walks, beneath the veil you hear her bones rattle, her flesh wobble, her tears, streams of tears like a faucet which cannot be turned off, and the blood, the blood it flows, then drips, then stops, but the tears keep on flowing.
Beneath the veil she learns to avert her eyes, and her heart. The look, of coyness, respect, disdain, distraction, disengagement. All and nothing.
She learns to float through this world, which is not for her, because she is not of it. Cloistered behind a veil of shame.
Can she over throw it? Can she find the courage of the women of the Taliban whose burkahs haunted my teenage dreams. Can she see that beyond the safety of fear, the habits of generations lies a land called freedom? Where women dance bare-breasted in the sun, where the law is made by dreamers from the red tent, where love is the currency, and joy flows through our veins. She can smell it, seeping through her veil, it is intoxicating, but the only hands to remove her veil can be her own, when she decides to wed life, to say “I do”.
*Please note the mother I refer to here is metaphorical, not my own flesh and blood mother.