This Time in Technicolour

Saima Hussain


When I first moved to Toronto with my parents in 1995, I denied myself colour. My clothes were mostly black, brown, or grey. I covered my long, thick hair with a scarf. My shoes were always boring and black. Then one day, I returned to Pakistan, the country of my birth, where I wore a ruby red outfit and loved it. Somehow, somewhere along the way, I had finally learned to like the way I look. More outfits in turquoise, orange, yellow, and pink followed. Last year, I moved back to Toronto, bringing with me this pair of vibrantly coloured khussas. I continue to wear them happily. 


On January 12, 2011, I stood by the baggage carousel at Pearson International Airport, willing my two suitcases to show themselves. Inside one of them, amid my winter gear, writing samples and books, was a pair of traditional handmade women’s khussas. Whimsical and utterly impractical, these shoes were definitely not made for walking. They are beautiful, though: the upper part embroidered in intricate detail with multi-coloured thread and golden foil, and the edge lined with tufts of orange, purple, green, and magenta. The rest of the shoe is very simple. The hard insole also forms the outsole and the heel. They are pieces of stiff leather coarsely cut and dyed magenta by the artisan, who then stitched and glued the whole thing together.

Did I come all this way to wear a pair of colourful shoes? No. I came back for a redo to show that I, too, can wear colourful shoes. It was my second immigration, you see. The first time I landed in Toronto was with my family in 1995. I attended the University of Toronto and then worked there until 2004, when I followed my parents and siblings back to Karachi, Pakistan. During the nine years I lived here, I wore a hijab. My clothes were either large or extra-large. I wore black, grey and brown. Deep purple and dark green were the extent of my self-imposed limit. My shoes were always practical: sensible black flats in summer, sturdy black boots in winter.

I didn’t wear the hijab under family pressure. In fact, the first time I put it on, my mother was so upset that she refused to talk to me. My father tried to reason with me. But I was adamant. “Don’t pretend you are doing this for God,” an aunt told me. “It’s just a form of rebellion. Most young people get tattoos or dye their hair green to prove a point. You’ve fastened a piece of cloth on your head.”

It’s true that the hijab had little to do with my religiosity. I still pray every day and fast during Ramadan. The difference is that I no longer feel the need to hide in dark colours. In the past, I was confident about my education, my work, and my ability to make friends. I knew that I was considered to be smart and friendly. I never imagined that I could also be pretty. It was easier to hide behind oversized clothes and a hijab than make an effort to lose weight and spend time each morning styling my thick, frizzy hair.

I started to shed the cocoon in Pakistan. I remember the exact moment. It was the day of my brother’s wedding. I applied makeup, wore jewelry, and dressed in a ruby red outfit specially made for the occasion. When it came time to cover my hair, I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to look good.

As we stepped out the door, my family thought I had forgotten my hijab. My brother, trying to be helpful, started to say something. But my parents frantically gestured to him: “Don’t remind her!”

Why that moment? Because I finally liked what I saw in the mirror. Also, I knew that since I was the groom’s only sister, many eyes would be on me. For once, I looked forward to the attention.

This was six years ago. During the first few months, whenever someone questioned my changed appearance, I would laughingly confess that “vanity had won.” They were too taken aback by the frank response to probe any further. It is partly that same vanity that has brought me back to Toronto.

I have nowhere near the job that I left behind in Karachi. Or the financial security that comes with it. But I don’t dwell on that. I take each day as it comes, dressed in red, blue, green, pink, orange, yellow and turquoise. I am not afraid to put myself out there, open to taking risks and considering new opportunities as they come along. In my colourful shoes, I have finally stepped outside my comfort zone.

SAIMA HUSSAIN earned an honours BA in English and history and an MA in South Asian Studies from the University of Toronto. She then moved to Pakistan, where she became books editor at Dawn newspaper. Upon returning to Canada, she produced a history book for young readers, The Arab World Thought of It: Inventions, Innovations and Amazing Facts (Annick Press, 2013) and The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth: Personal Stories by Canadian Muslim Women (Mawenzi House, 2016). Saima is actively involved in arts and community projects, and she currently works at the Mississauga Library.

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