The girl in the shabby clothes

Published: January 6, 2013

She doesn’t talk to anyone, but she smiles at me. It was our thing; we would just smile at each other. PHOTO: REUTERS

This time, it feels different. This time, the view has changed. Or maybe it’s not the view that has changed; it’s the person gazing upon it who has changed.

This time, I have changed.

Seven years ago when I was here, all I saw were the dirt strewn, littered streets. I saw girls getting married at a sadly young age; I saw how women were limited to indoor activities. I saw families with more children than they could afford to raise. Most troubling of all, I saw a severe lack of education. Words like ambition and individualism were foreign concepts here. It seemed like the people here were unaware of man’s progress and achievements. Clearly, they were not living in the 21st century.

I realise now, that it was my perspective that was wrong. I looked at everything with a pre-conceived bias, with detest. I only saw what was on the surface. I saw what I had already decided I would see. Today, it is those same things that harbour my curiosity and encourage me to go back and understand; to take a look at the same scene with a new perspective; to be the harbinger of positive change.

Today is my first day in the village. We arrived here from Islamabad last night, that’s where we land and spend a couple of days before heading to Bebe’s house in the village. I saw the little girl who comes to help out at the house with chores and errands twice a week. She is older than she looks. My aunt told me she’s an 11-year-old, and has 12 siblings. She walks all the way from the neighbouring village to ours early morning, and helps out in several houses in this neighbourhood to earn some money in order to put food on the table for her ridiculously large family. Her father has another family and does not contribute much. Her mother and her siblings work in other houses in villages nearby.

I observe her as she sits in the straw strewn bed we call a charpai, picking peas from a pod, and cutting vegetables. We are both sitting across from each other in the charpai in the veranda, soaking up in the sun. Its winter time and early afternoon is the only time of day the sun is high in the sky and its heat balances the cool, chilling breeze.

This little girl surprises me. As I watch her skipping around lightly, going about her chores with a shy smile on her face, and energy in her step, I am amazed. Her slippers are torn, and so is her dupata in various places. She is wearing mismatched clothes, and looks like she hasn’t showered in days. Underneath all that, I see the honey streaked hair, the striking green eyes, and the captivating smile. As I watch her, I wonder what she would look like if someone scrubbed her clean, washed her hair, and put pretty clothes on her. I get distracted by her humming and the image I was sketching in my mind fades away.

As I look at her, I know that she steals glances at me too and knows where I come from. I wonder if she thinks I’m “Dubai folk” and could not possibly know anything of struggle and hardship.

Despite her situation and misfortunes, she goes about her chores in such a positive manner. She is confident; in those torn slippers, and dirty clothes, she is sure of whom she is and what she has to do for her family and she enjoys it while she is at it. She is humming some familiar tune that I fail to recognise.

When she was done for the day, and was getting ready to leave, I stepped out of my room to give her a big box of Jewels chocolates. She looks surprised and does not know how to react. I’m sure she does not usually get big boxes of chocolates as presents. Actually, I am pretty sure she hardly ever gets presents. I urge her to take it, and to enjoy the chocolates on her walk home, and share them with her siblings. She looks lost for words and smiles widely at me before taking the box, hiding it underneath her shawl as she wears her chail and walks out the front door.

My last day in the village, I was hugging everybody goodbye when I saw her. She was peeking out from the window of the room where she had been cleaning. She was shy, I had tried talking to her before, but I think she was intimidated by me and did not know what to say. She doesn’t talk to anyone, but she smiles at me. It was our thing; we would just smile at each other. I wave goodbye to her, and she gave me another innocent smile and waved back.

On the flight back to Dubai, I was thinking about her. I realised that she and I were not very different. We both came from the same place. I could have been her.

She could have been me.

A year later, I was in the same village house at the funeral of my beloved uncle. The news had reached us in the middle of the night, and we had taken the first flight out to Peshawar. In the huge swarm of mourning, grieving people, I did not really see or recognise anybody except for my family. I was there physically, but not mentally. Faces did not register with me; names did not ring any bells. I just shook hands with a lot of people, and checked on my family to make sure they were keeping themselves hydrated and physically stable.

While taking care of everyone else, I did not have time to do other chores that needed to be done. Magically though, my clothes would always be ironed, laid out on the bed ready for me before I would step into the shower.

I saw her lurking around and then I finally recognised her. She would follow me around, and try to help- without me even noticing her. I looked at her and she gave me that heart warming smile again. I smile back and realise that I know what I’m going to give her next; books.

I realised that just because I am not her is no reason why she still could not be me.

Follow her on Twitter @haifa_badi



Haifa Badi Uz Zaman

Originally from Topi in the Swabi District of Kyber Pakhtunkhwa who is currently studying Journalism, International Studies and Governmental Studies at the American University of Sharjah. She tweets @haifa_badi

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • gp65

    “I realised that just because I am not her is no reason why she still could not be me.”
    Heartwarming. Recommend

  • Op

    right on the money..truly pleaure to readRecommend

  • Javeria

    “I realised that just because I am not her is no reason why she still could not be me.”
    Best line. A line I will remember forever.
    One of the most pleasant articles I have read in a long time. Recommend

  • Parvez

    Beautifully written and very thought provoking. I admire the honesty in your admission that it’s you who has changed over time and not the other way around. Opens up many questions one could ask ones self that would be difficult to truthfully answer.
    Digressing a bit, yesterday in the book shop seeing J.Stiglitz’s ‘ The price of Inequality ‘ I could not decide if I wanted to read this but now you have made my mind up for me , thank you.Recommend

  • sami saayer

    gold. 24k.Recommend

  • Rushda

    Beautiful Haifa..i’m speechless.Recommend

  • hiba

    Amazing piece of work, quite heartwarming and true! Love the last lines! Good job!Recommend

  • safdar

    very expressive article to read and good form of imagination.Recommend

  • Nwaq

    Good article but don’t you think these books would not do any good to her?would she be able to read them?I think most of us go through similar emotions when we see and listen to the plight of the families of our maids.The practical thing to do is to facilitate them in getting education.If only we bear educational expense of one child of our maid’s family that would make difference for them.Recommend

  • Aijaz Haider

    Haifa thanks for sharing with us such a heart-warming soul-inspiring real-life experience. A smile has no language – emotions need no words. Induction of good feelings is a far greater force than verbal interaction.Recommend

  • Heba B.

    I am sorry for your uncle

    A superb journal that I have not read like since months before ..
    ( I don’t read journals much :P )

    but truly I like your genuine thoughts but into genuine words..
    May we all clean our glasses like you did .. and try to help others to help ourselvesRecommend

  • Carl

    Why should an individual like yourself have to give a young girl books? (even assuming she could read). Where’s Pakistan’s education system? Individual charity, while beneficial, can never be a substitute for a proper system of education and social advancement based on merit.Recommend

  • Asim

    ‘I realised that she and I were not very different. We both came from the same place. I could have been her.’

    Absolutely. Tremendous bit of insight which can set you free! Well done.

    However just because you are more materially well off does not mean her mental attitudes of acceptance of the moment, patient endurance and finding joy in the simpler pleasures of life are not superior to the ‘modern’ conditioning you have received: Constantly trying to change the world around you to match personal desires.

    Follow your insight, not the conditioning :-)Recommend

  • sherrry


  • Saira

    Thought Provoking!!!! Recommend

  • Sane

    Very Good.Recommend

  • Rizwan

    there are very few things on earth that can bring tears in my eyes as a tough guy I ought to maintain that image. But I was almost into crying reading the last line of your story/endeavour or whatever you might like to call it. Brilliant piece of writing, will save this one. Thumbs UP ! Recommend

  • Salman shah

    Brilliant play of words in expression of consideration and compassion.. A very different topic read after a quite long time. I hope you always write in such articles and inspire the youth into love for education, not just completing a tenure of studies. Recommend

  • http://SA SA

    The title says it all !Recommend

  • Historian 1

    @ Author: I think you should better talk to her parents who are actually responsible for her misery. These illiterate/ backward people produce kids not for studying but to start earning at the earliest age. Fate of such children cannot be improved until the parents mentality is changed.Recommend

  • John B

    Glad to the see the post.

    Rarely an event wakes up once inner conscience and disturbs them for ever, as it had had happened to you with this little girl and made you to pen your emotions on this event even after two years.

    Now, what ? Even if you are not inclined to do anything for her it does not make you any less of a person, since you cannot solve all the PAK problems.

    But, take it from me, this little girl will be etched in your memory and you will see her in your entire life in many forms.

    Many years ago in a foreign country ridden with poverty, I saw a young mother with a child on her lap, likely sick, weeping with rolling tears on her cheek, squatting on the side of a road side newspaper vendor stall, when I stopped my taxi to get the newspaper on my way to the airport. I could have stopped a bit to inquire of her problems, given her the coins and currencies that I no longer needed or what not, but that thought never occurred to me at that time. When I opened that newspaper on the plane, she came before my eyes again and never left my memory since then, and she became a part of me as she is with me today, when I am reading this article. That event changed my life and I have never forgiven myself for my inaction that day.

    I cannot suggest to you what you should or can do for the girl in the shabby clothes, as you are the best person to judge that (may be no help, other than your friendship or may be more) but she is your conscience and has become a part of you now and she will consume you in your life and she is going to make you a better person, even if you do nothing for her. Recommend

  • Ahmed

    Very good. No words!Recommend

  • asma

    A brilliant piece of writing that I can so very well relate to. A similar experience had led me to the initiative of building a primary school for such girls in a village of KPK that did not have such a facility. Instead of playing the ‘blame game’, we could all try and do our bit… Do check this out if you have the time:

  • Saeed Swabi

    Superb!I need n0t say.Recommend

  • An Individual

    ^Best. Comment. Ever.

    @Asim: “just because you are more materially well off does not mean her mental attitudes of acceptance of the moment, patient endurance and finding joy in the simpler pleasures of life are not superior to the ‘modern’ conditioning you have received” – excellent point.

    @Historian: I absolutely agree that the parents’ mentality needs to be changed – that would change a lot of things in these children’s lives. However, each one of us has a responsibility, a role to play. We need to do whatever little (or big) we can to make a difference, and that’s what the author has done and plans on doing. It may not help the big picture, but it will definitely make a difference in one child’s life, and that’s beautiful.Recommend

  • Haifa


    I never implied that my reality or situation is where happiness lies, and hers is only misery. Through her i learned to appreciate a lot of things like pride, honor, and self confidence that i would not have seen before. And through this experience i saw that “material” things can never bring you happiness. Joy is definitely found in simple pleasures in life as you mentioned. Such a joy and simple pleasure we experienced through the warm smiles we shared with each other. Recommend

  • Aazma

    Wow! Very well written Haifa. Such a though-provoking article :)Recommend

  • Historian 1

    The idea of author to give books to the girl will not go fine with the girls parents. bet me!! such parents do not want their kids to study. Also ethically, parents should be informed before giving anything to the girl.Recommend

  • Heba Ghazi

    “On the flight back to Dubai, I was thinking about her. I realised that she and I were not very different. We both came from the same place. I could have been her.

    She could have been me.”

    Best lines of the article =)Recommend

  • Muhammad Umer Khatri

    I fully agree with the education debacle that we are facing as a nation these days, in fact I should say this problem has progressed over decades now.

    In my opinion, the root problem is not only education but the war of two extremes, these polar worlds have so much of distrust among them. One rejects religion and ones rigidity is on the verge of infinity that they treat women as slaves and a sort out of this world. It’s a shame that both these groups have gained popularity and media has shown little things to improve.

    Now why not teach and absorb religious values (regardless of a specified belief). Why not absorb also the good educational strategies, those strategies that are implemented by most of the western nations and eventually this will make room for our people to think in a broader perspective. Why don’t we transform our political models into spiritual democracy and benevolent dictatorship? It’s not a hard and fast rule to stick on to a singular system. Education is not the only specific issue; the issue is the lack of awareness.


  • A. Khan

    @Historian 1:

    Easier said than done. A lot to do with culture and lack of social security specially in old age. This directly results in having many kids mainly to support and provide for the individual’s retirement. Its catch 22, do you reduce population first to increase income or increase income to reduce population ? Recommend

  • N. Ahmed



    My name is Nassar and i live in the UK, i really enjoyed reading your blog and it opened up years of emotions of having the same thought as you expressed in your blog. The fact that its only kismat (destiny) that we have what we have and that the poor around the world and Pakistan have the little that they do. Iv travelled to pakistan many times over the years and I see the same things that you described in the girl. I hope you keep writing as you have a nice way off putting things, your a natural writer and don’t give it up. Iv followed you recently on twitter just to make sure i keep upto date if you write something new. Again well done for the blog and take care. Recommend