The writer is an international student at UC Davis, and is using this piece to recollect one of her first reflections on social justice, as well as why it is important, especially for young girls.
My younger sister and I walked into the theatre, super excited. Rhythm Boyz’ movie Chal Mera Putt was the second Punjabi movie ever to be released in our city, and we couldn’t wait to see this comedy film starring Amrinder Gill and Simi Chahal (our favorites)! The movie had an undertone of the Punjabi immigrant experience in the UK, a topic that resonated deeply with me since I had come to the US. As we looked for our seats, a familiar feeling of discomfort crept over us. Our place was next to two men (sounds so trivial, doesn’t it?), and the rest of the theatre was empty. I couldn’t tell what it was – but I did not want my little sister to have to sit there.
My mind drifted back to two years ago when we had gone to watch Nadeem Baig’s Pakistani movie, Punjab Nahi Jaungi. Ten minutes into the trailers, we had been creeped out by the exceptionally sexual remarks that hoards of men in the audience were shouting out at the women on the screen. As a 17-year-old, I looked around to see only two other women who looked equally disturbed by the hooting, as their husbands, brothers, boyfriends or just friends, glared at the catcallers. By now, my sister, a quiet 13-year-old, was silently wishing our mother was with her. I looked into her big scared eyes and asked, “Do you want to leave?” She jumped at the proposition, and two minutes later, we were finally able to breathe freely.
After this bout of momentary joy, we grabbed some lunch and roamed around the mall,
contemplating if we would tell anyone that we ran away from a movie theatre because we felt so uncomfortable. Would we be judged for wasting money on two tickets? Would we be grounded – would we both not be able to go to the movies alone, again?
As my sister kept poking me for selfies, I recalled my grandmother explaining her concern when my sister and I went out alone. When I told her that we were responsible enough, she would brush off the topic by saying, “It is a Muslim country. What do we know?” And that was usually the end of the conversation because I’d shoot her rebuttals down, telling her that this was my home. Dubai was the place my sister, and a million other Indians, called home. We knew the alleys and people like the back of our hands, much better than we ever could in the motherland.
Suddenly, I began to fathom that concern as I looked at my sister. Maybe, my grandmother couldn’t name her fear when we went out alone. Perhaps, this was her way of telling us to be careful. But I was still not convinced – why did she have to ask us to be careful? Why had we, as young girls, internalized the fear of masculinity?
Why have we given our counterparts the power to make us feel uncomfortable? Why had I given that to those men in the theatre, to make me run away?
I continued to brood over this instance for the next few months, questioning my actions. As a young adult gaining insight into Mental Health advocacy, I began studying the layers of complexity our experiences as South Asian women consist of. With each event, workshop, and article I wrote, I healed. At the same time, a voice in me whispered, and screamed until I finally decided to listen, “You shouldn’t have taught your sister to run away the other day!”
The more I thought about it, the more I realized how wrong I had been. I had done precisely what society demands of young girls. I had told her that it was best to run away and hide, instead of teaching her that she was strong enough to reclaim her wholeness. I did not want to propagate the idea that it was okay for women to be shunned and othered – neither in a movie theatre nor on the stage of life.
My flashback ended as I almost dropped the pizza popcorn (10/10 recommend) that we’d picked up on the way. It could’ve been the lighting or my mind playing games, but she was looking up to me. Two years later, here I was, lucky to be able to root a tree of confidence and self-worth, in man’s jungle of mankind. And I was not going to let this chance pass.
I sat down, smiling, and she followed. We were going to see this movie, and no one could stop us. Secretly though, my heart was at peace only when I spotted a few women who entered just in time for the film. But I think I can give myself some credit for doing my job just right.