The Fortress

Amateur

Our house is known as the Fortress.

It’s not a name used by people outside the house. Rather, it is a name we use ourselves to refer to our residence—affectionately, of course. When I say we, I mean my mother, my sister, and I. My father has no idea that this reference even exists.

It was my sister who first used the name, but it stuck in our minds and since then it has actually become quite popular with the three of us. The reason for its popularity will become evident as I say more about my family, but keep in mind that it is more of a fortress for the women in the house than for me.

First of all, there is a king in this fortress. He is the supreme ruler. His rules and commands are to be obeyed without even a frown on our foreheads. My sister and I do get away with occasional protest but most of the time we dare not say anything. My mother is no better off than the two of us, even though she is the queen. In a way, she is even worst than us because she doesn’t even get a break while retiring for the evening.

My father is very loving and very generous, mind you. He showers us with affection and loads us with all the material things our hearts may desire. There is no way we can complain about our lifestyle or about lacking anything we need. As a matter of fact we are rather spoiled as a family and he makes sure that we are well-provided for. In return all he asks of us is that we follow a few strict guidelines of his.

He is very fond of his first born, who thank the Almighty, was a boy, as he had hoped and prayed for. That would be me. I am the apple of my father’s eye and the fact that I do so well in my studies and play his favourite sport on a semi-professional level, makes him even more proud than my just being a boy. I started my college only recently and my father finds that to be an additional reason for his pride. He never made it to college because of the way things were in his family those many years ago. The fact that he made sure his boy went to college, in a vicarious sort of way, makes him feel very accomplished.

He is very protective of my sister, who is the delicate little flower in his life. She is well-kept, to say the least, but more appropriately she is well-preserved. She is thoroughly looked after and her needs are seen to immediately. My mother treats her like a little doll, mostly because my father wants her to be treated that way, and my sister is a little doll when it comes to her looks and behaviour.

There is only one problem, and this problem is the main reason for our house being labelled a fortress. The women represent a man’s honour and that honour is guarded with one’s life. My father guards his honours (two of them) very jealously. It is understandable that he would be so shielding of my mother—typical male behaviour when it comes to his mate—but he is even worst when it comes to my sister.

Our culture dictates that a woman cannot go in front of strangers without her head and body being fully covered. That usually means that our women normally wear an abaya over their normal clothing and a scarf over their hair. An abaya is basically a garment, most often worn by the Middle Eastern women, that hangs from head to toes like a gown and hides whatever is underneath or inside of it from prying eyes. These eyes don’t have to be real, so the paranoia requires the household to be a fortified sanctuary where no intruding eyes can see a woman in her actual form.

This actual form can be an interesting thing, if you see it from the other side. Behind that rather conservative and concealing garment lies a world of wonders. Since the outer garment hides what is underneath, many women—my mother and sister included—tend to dress rather provocatively underneath, just to be subversive, in a quiet and passive sort of way.

The women are not supposed to consort with strangers; usually that means strange men. As the explanation goes, the idea is not that we don’t trust our women, but we don’t trust those men. Their eyes fall upon our women and they immediately start thinking sexual thoughts about them. It is those thoughts that we fear the most and find them insulting, so we try to stop them from ever coming into existence by making our women less desirable, by hiding them behind a lot of clothing, and by keeping them from wearing makeup that would tantalize the perverted imagination.

The rules are not as strict for married and elderly women, so my mother is at least free to talk to strange men when shopping or when there is an occasion where she is forced to come across a stranger who happens to be a male. She is also free to talk to certain uncles, cousins, or other relatives of the family.

The rules are extremely strict for a young girl, who is of the marrying age. My sister, being such a girl, cannot show herself in the presence of a man, stranger or related, and she is not allowed to be alone with our male cousins or even some young uncles, no matter what the occasion is. She cannot talk to them or look at them in cebeci escort a way where some remote possibility of a sexual thought exists.

Where am I from, you ask?

Believe it or not, I am from Africa. Where exactly in Africa, that’ll be my secret, but I am not black African or even a white African. I am an Indian African. Our roots are somewhere in India; our religion is one of the religions in Indo/Pak territory; and we follow the customs that our ancestors brought with them almost a century ago. Only problem is that our customs are much more rigid than what our cousins back there practice nowadays. While they have moved on with times, we have stuck to lessons that are almost a century old. It is now a matter of pride to be old fashioned like our great-grandparents, than to be one of the “modern” families where the words like honour and respect have no meanings.

Some of you would have rightly noted that abaya and scarf are not part of any Indian/Pakistani dress. We have borrowed a few traditions from other cultures in order to become more orthodox and we have clung to them as if they were always part of our own traditions. The burqa that Indian/Pakistani women use is worn only by the wives of religious leaders and the rest of us make fun of them, as an act of self-justification and personal consolation. We can say that at least we are not that bad.

Of course, there is a double standard that we practice religiously on a daily basis. I am allowed to venture out and experience the life outside. I am allowed to attend a college and skip on religious studies. I am allowed to play sports and go to places by myself. My sister can’t even think about any of it. She has to study religion and matters of religious importance and she must learn to be a good cook. She can’t go out without an escort and she cannot go out during the evening hours unless she is with the family. Thus her use of the word fortress for our house.

Our house is a fortress in its physical makeup as well. There is a high wall with an electric fence on top of it running all around the house. There is a heavy-duty electric gate with a video-com to see the visitors before opening it or to talk to them and turn them away when we don’t want them to come in. There are four maids that work in and around the house and they all have strict instructions to not let anyone come near the residence without prior approval.

Of course, things are not as bad as they sound. My sister has female friends who come to visit her and she does go places, usually accompanied by my mother. She does spend time going to stores, going to a beautician, going to learn cooking from a female teacher, learning to bake from a neighbour, and all that. Almost all of the time she is accompanied by my mother, or by a female who is then answerable to my mother.

My mother is not as strict with her, though, as my father. Being a woman herself, she understands the frustration my sister feels while growing under strict rules and she does let her have quite a bit of freedom. But she will never, ever, ever, allow my sister to associate with a boy where something can develop between the two of them. My sister is being raised to be a good wife to a man that my father will choose for her, and one of the requirements of a good wife is to be chaste, innocent, and virtuous.

Those qualities basically mean the same thing, with slight variation in connotations. What those qualities really mean is that she should be a virgin when she gets married and she should never have had any kind of feelings for any man other than her husband. That way, her first love will be her husband, to whom she’ll then devote her life and be a good wife, who is a good cook and a good housekeeper.

Of course, a wife should also be a good lover. While she is given full training for being a good cook and a good housekeeper, there is absolutely no training for being a good lover, or even a good mother. She is even forbidden from discussing sex or learning anything about it. I guess the assumption is that the husband will teach her everything she needs to know. That way he’ll mould her to his liking and they’ll have a happy marriage.

But there is more to keeping her pure. Her purity personifies the father’s honour. The purer she is, the more honoured her father becomes. A really proud father has a daughter who never spoke of sex, never heard of sex, and never, ever thought of sex.

I don’t blame you if you find this background a little difficult to believe but those who have grown in a culture similar to mine, will recognize this to be true, and while we may be a bit extreme, they can easily recognize my family in their circles.

One thing that parents like my father and mother do not understand is that such restrictive environment makes a person more curious about the things that are forbidden. As a blatant example of contradictory practices, while we try to shield her from things that would be considered immoral, we have a large screen TV with cebeci escort bayan Digital Satellite Television dish, DVD, and VCR attached to it. The images one sees on TV, or even in the magazines, then take on an added dimension and become disproportionately exciting; whereas a little bit of freedom would dilute their effect to almost negligible proportions. The contacts with males during weddings or other family gatherings become much greater events than they otherwise would, or even should for that matter. Men become more significant than they deserve to be.

Of course, being curious is one thing but having the means to satisfy one’s curiosity is another. In my sister’s case, I was probably the only male of her age—and mindset—that she associated with. The rest were older men who were either our father’s age or our grandfather’s age. Even I was only around her when she was younger. I went to an all male boarding school, so I was away during my high school years. From there I moved to a university, where I lived in a hostel with another male roommate. My presence around her only came during summer vacations when I came back home, or during holidays when I came for a visit.

I was free from the fortress during my boarding school days, but that freedom was only physical. My mind was still under my father’s control. My true freedom only came when I started college. Being in the presence of mixed company, I bloomed and flourished. Of course, this story is not about that time in my life, so I’ll skip it. Suffice it to say, I became a lot wiser in my one year in college than I ever did during my life before that.

The affect our household had on my sister was to render her immature, both in body and behaviour. She grew in years but her body stayed very slender, making her look a few years younger. Her mind also stayed younger. Even though she was over eighteen when this story takes place, she looked and acted like she was only fifteen years old. She was the doll of our house; she looked like a doll and she behaved like one.

This story begins with my first summer vacation in college. I came home a different man with a different outlook on things. I was more mature and saw the world differently than I did at the start of my college. You can say that I had grown—but I found the household stuck in a time warp. Of course, the minute I stepped inside the fortress, I fell under its spell and the restriction and binds once again became a reality for me, even though I could analyse them from a different perspective or frame of reference.

My sister had resigned to her fate and I found her to be more subdued than I remembered her from our past. Well, subdued may not be the right word for it. She was rather passive and she had lost her heady zest of adolescence. She became lively with my arrival but only like a robot that had acquired new batteries. I didn’t feel sorry for her because that was the way she was supposed to be and it seemed like she had accepted her lot in life. Technically, therefore, there was nothing to feel sorry about.

I did pick on her, though, for old times sake, when I asked my mother, “Mom, do you even feed this girl. She is all skin and bones.”

My mother just laughed and my sister protested, “I am not that skinny, and I do eat a lot. You don’t want me to be chunky, do you?”

“No, but you should have some meat on your bones. Otherwise you won’t fetch the right price when you are sold in marriage.”

My mom told me off. “Leave her alone,” she said. “She is a lovely girl.”

I laughed, “That she is, mom. But only because she is tall and she can get away with being slender. Otherwise, she’ll have problems getting someone to even like her.”

My sister then pinched me on my arm and we all laughed. My sister was getting to the age where marriage was becoming a serious possibility for her and I used the African custom of labola, or bride money, as the basis of my teasing.

My sister is only a year younger than me. She and I were more than siblings when we were growing up in the sense that we only had each other to play with. There were always fights, there were always the kinds of teasing two juvenile playmates throw at each other, and there was always the bond two young people who are close in age feel for each other.

Of course, this bond changed to a brother-sister relationship when we hit puberty and became very formal when we became adults. My teasing became one sided as she took on the passive look and it decreased to negligible amounts by the time I went to college.

As I settled into my room on the first evening back home, my sister came by with a few things I might have needed, like soap, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, and toilet paper. My room is usually reserved for me and no one uses it in my absence so things only get replenished at the beginning of my visit.

I normally shower before going to sleep and that evening, as I was busy taking my shower, I heard the door open and someone escort cebeci came in. This was not unusual because my mother used to bring me a towel or my clean clothes when I was younger; but I was no longer a young boy and I didn’t like such intrusion into my private time. Luckily the texture of the shower door was such that it distorted the image completely. The steam rising from my hot shower clouded things a lot further, so she couldn’t have seen anything through the door.

I hadn’t expected anyone to come in while my shower was running; otherwise, I would have locked the door. I thought of saying something but decided not to; it was no use; she was already there, doing something to the long handle attached to the shower door. I just waited for her to leave before resuming my activity.

As the vague outline moved to leave the bathroom, I heard my sister say, “I am leaving a fresh towel for you.”

I was surprised to discover that it was my sister and not my mother who had brought me the towel. I found my sister’s presence in the bathroom to be very upsetting. I had to say something to her about barging in on me like that, so I opened the door and stuck my head out, making sure that the rest of my body was hidden from her view. When she heard the door open, she turned back to see what I wanted. I said to her, “Shamila, you shouldn’t come into the bathroom while I am showering. I may not be decent.”

She replied, almost nonchalantly, “It was mom who made me do it. Besides, I heard the shower running so I knew it was okay for me to come in. I can’t see anything while you are inside the shower.”

I didn’t know what to say to that. She didn’t wait for me to say anything else and left as casually as she had spoken of her not being able to see anything. When I came out of the shower, I was puzzled to find two towels. Apparently I already had one, so there was no need for her to bring a new one.

It was close to ten and I was already in bed getting ready to sleep when she came to my room with a bottle of water, a glass, a plate, and some fruit. I asked her, “What happened to the maids?”

“Oh, maids are not allowed in this part of the house any longer.”

“Why is that?” I was surprised to hear that. My mother usually runs the maids ragged.

“A few incidents happened. We don’t trust them like we used to.” With those words she put the stuff on the side table and then sat on the bed towards the feet area and started to peel and cut the fruit for me.

“Then you must be the new maid,” I laughed. “I like this maid better anyways. She works for free.”

She threw one of the peels at me, “You can laugh all you want, but I am not free. Actually, I am very expensive.”

“I guess you are right. Look at the jewellery and expensive clothing you are wearing. Only a favoured maid would get such treatment.”

“Just remember,” she waived the knife at me, “Eat your food with care. You may find something in it that will disturb your system drastically.”

I laughed with her as I took the fruit and started eating it. She joined in and then after a brief pause, she asked, “Do you really think I am too skinny?”

She wasn’t looking at me when she asked the question, for some reason. I guess she knew what my answer was going to be and was hoping for it to be different.

I looked at her carefully. She seemed very serious while waiting for the answer. I knew my answer had to be political. I mean, she was skinny, but not so much that it would be considered unattractive. Her long, black hair pretty much made up for anything that being skinny—sorry, slender—took away from her looks. They were long enough to come all the way down to the back of her thighs and were full and shiny. Whenever she stood tall with her hair flowing behind her, she looked beautiful.

“You are not skinny. You are slender. Your height makes you very graceful and attractive.”

She beamed with my answer as she looked at me, smiled awkwardly, and said, “Really, you think so?”

“Yes, I know so.” I liked the fact that my statement had made her so happy. It showed in her body language as she left my room.

The following morning, I was in the middle of getting dressed when she came back again. I had my pants and my undershirt on but I still had my shirt to put on.

“Don’t you knock before you come in?” I protested.

“You should lock the door when you don’t want anyone to come in. That’s what I do.” She snapped at me. “I came to find out if you needed anything ironed.”

I felt bad for my irritation. She was, after all, looking after my needs.

“Sorry, Shamila. I am not used to this kind of attention.”

She left the room quietly.

Thus, our routine was set. She would bring me a fresh towel every time I showered and iron my clothes whenever I needed. She would bring me fruit and water at night and then sit with me and peel and cut it while we both ate together and chatted for a while.

The subject of her being skinny came up a couple of days later. She wanted to hear more from me about the way she looked. I knew she was fishing for compliments, so I obliged, “You know, Shamila, you have a model’s body. Some people would call it skinny but a lot of them would find it very attractive. Many women would kill to look like you.”

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