My Freedom Shoes

Donia Varghese


Growing up in a very protective environment in Saudi Arabia, I wasn’t allowed to make some simple choices for myself. That changed after I got to India and journalism school. These beige and blue sandals are exactly like the first ones I bought myself. I was 22 at the time. My ‘freedom shoes’ and I became inseparable. They accompanied me on many adventures along the journey to independence. They even found a way back into my life when I thought I had lost them forever. 


I walked into a tiny shoe shop at the corner of Brigade Road in Bangalore, India. There, my eyes fell on a pair of beige sandals with blue straps. I kicked off my block heels and tried on the sandals. For the first time, my feet felt like they were in bed. 

I grew up in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where women had to be covered from head to foot. The only way a woman could really flaunt her style was through her shoes.  Some young girls even dared to leave their abayas unbuttoned, revealing smooth, long legs in sparkly high heels.

With my big glasses and acne scars, I did not feel very attractive. Being relatively short didn’t help either. Ads on television and in magazines made teenagers like me believe that high heels were a girl’s best friend. I started to wear kitten heels, platforms, cone heels and wedges. They squished my toes and hurt my back, but I wore them anyway.   

My parents, like most of the other parents in Riyadh, were extremely protective. Stories of sexual assault and taxi abductions only made things worse. They decided how much hair I should cut off, the type of books I should read, and the shoes I should wear. Initially, my parents were against my decision to study journalism in India. I argued and refused to eat until they let me pursue my dream. It worked!

In India, I had to learn to walk without an abaya, study in a class with boys, and carry pins to prick the groping hands of bus conductors. I taught myself to get across the street in one piece by dodging cars and careless cyclists. 

But in time, I knew the local slang, had more boys as friends than girls and spent most weekends exploring quaint towns and remote beaches. My heels got worn down from all the walking, but it felt strangely wonderful to travel alone. It forced me out of my shell and taught me that I was capable of making decisions. 

As a student reporter, I should have known better than to cover protests in heels, but I didn’t. Finally, fed up with seeing the blisters on my feet, my roommate Yupang recommended the shoe store on Brigade Street.  The beige and blue sandals were from a brand called Catwalk and were soft, unlike the heels.  Those sandals and I became inseparable. I wore them everywhere—to interviews, to my grandfather’s funeral, during my honeymoon, and even when I came to Canada in February 2013. 

Toronto greeted me with a snowstorm, but I was happy to experience snow for the first time, even with bare toes. My mother-in-law welcomed me at the door with a traditional Indian lamp. I remember placing my sandaled right foot on the carpeted floor and being fed sweets after a 16-hour plane journey. 

Sadly, I had to part with my beloved sandals after badly soiling them during a weekend stroll in the park.  With a heavy heart, I dropped them in the garbage bin and walked away without looking back. But to my surprise, my husband ordered a new pair from a Catwalk store in India, and they arrived in a lumpy package shortly after Valentine’s Day. I gladly wore the new pair, a replica of my freedom shoes. Freedom from feet that hurt, freedom to make my own decisions and freedom to be myself. 

DONIA VARGHESE grew up in Saudi Arabia and went to journalism school in India. She immigrated to Canada in 2013 and now works as a senior copy editor for a media company.

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