I was six years old when my class teacher in grade one shamed me for wearing big, round glasses by calling me Daadi Amma.
At that moment in time, it became my unsaid mission to never resemble a ‘granny’ before I hit the age to be called "old".
Back then, I didn’t know about ageism but I wasn’t too hard on that six-year-old child because the pictures in my Little Red Riding Hood book did show her grandmother to have round spectacles and, well, grey hair. But what I also did not know was that sporting salt and pepper hair in my 20s would be dubbed as an act of valour, a symbol of courage.
Soon after I turned 20 — and having lost my father unexpectedly at 19 — I realised that my hair had started to turn grey. The period was a very stressful one in my life as I constantly worried about survival for many years, and perhaps it was one of the reasons why my hair started to grey earlier (no, I don’t have sinus).
However, that’s where my hijab came to save the day because nobody could see my greys and I was comfortable under my skin (read: scarf).
But for two years or so, I did give in to the pressure and would apply mehendi on the pretext of improving hair quality, and the brown shade would reflect for at least three months before wearing off gradually, as I would be at my mother’s mercy to apply it again.
Once, a friend didn’t hesitate to ask if the hair under my dupatta was greying and I sheepishly said yes, but he went on to say that he was proud of me for not dyeing it and showed me his hair too. I kept quiet because I didn’t want to tell him that I did use mehendi sometimes.
I was quite keen to know the reason behind my premature greying, so I decided to call the barber and shave my head once more.
However, despite applying different oils and taking care of my scalp, my hair was still a mix and match of the original colour with different shades of grey. I could still get away with it due to my hijab but after two years, I decided to part ways with it.
Soon after, I realised I had become the center of attention for many people.
My trips to the nearby salon became increasingly difficult — the staff would remind me I would not be eligible for marriage and would promptly offer a wide range of colours, listing the ones which would suit me better. I'd smile politely before explaining to the woman threading my eyebrows, with tears streaming down my face, that I liked my hair short and untouched by any dye — for now.
She would roll her eyes at me and call me a tomboy, as a few who have seen me frequent the place for a decade laughed how I have been like this forever.
Something in the water
My experience in a salon in Nepal was the complete opposite. Nobody bothered to comment on the colour, rather they just chopped off my hair as I asked without any questions. Yet here, I did become thick-skinned, with just nods and hoping to get done with my ordeals quickly.
One would think that doctors are supposed to tell you about your health. Under this impression, I gathered the courage to visit a general physician as lethargy was becoming the bane of my existence. But the moment he saw me, he asked my age and profession, and commented that I was so "smart" but letting it all go to waste by not dyeing my hair. He just couldn’t assess what was wrong with me but was sure that it had to do with my weight and of course, hair colour.
Needless to say, I never visited him again, and battled with the lethargy.
While in Lahore once, I took a rickshaw from the bus terminal, and didn’t mind answering a few basic but intrusive questions as the driver drove me through the lanes of Old Lahore, unknown to me as a lone traveller.
In the middle of the ride, he asked me about the water quality in Karachi. Truth be told, we all know it isn’t the best but I couldn’t explain to him that the availability of water was such a blessing that we didn’t really think about the quality. But it turned out he wasn’t worried about it.
Hearing my reply, he casually said, “Oh tabhi baal ese hogaye hain”, and I just didn’t know whether to laugh at this deduction or just let it be.
I knew for sure that while riding a motorbike astride in Karachi, I did draw attention sometimes if my scarf slipped off from my head revealing my cropped greying hair, but what I couldn’t grapple was the thought of how it made me brave.
Honestly, if I got paid every time someone stopped me to ask if my hair is natural or not, I might worry less about delayed payments for my work.
A fine-tuned radar
It's difficult to even get an appointment for anything without someone looking at me skeptically before asking me about my hair and feeling sorry for me.
I think the best ones are those who just ask me why, and if my mood is sour, I make them feel awkward by bringing in death, grief and the class struggle and its implications on the human body in ways we can’t imagine. If they are lucky, I say, "Life happened," and move on.
Also, for some odd reason, people also think I won't notice them staring at my hair. Hello! I am a woman living in a city, my senses are a fine-tuned radar when it comes who is looking at me and my backpack — and why.
Come to think of it, I have been asked so many uncomfortable questions in public and private alike about my appearance that I expect anything from anyone now, whether on a footpath, in a park, elevator or a clinic.
Sometimes, people get so perplexed that they ask, "How come your face looks so younger but your hair so gray?" and I have to remind myself to be gentle with myself. One person had the gall to say that I looked a lot older than their son, and hence their disapproval of me. Thankfully, I had stopped caring for that person’s validation.
Weddings and other gatherings within my community were perhaps the last places where I let go of my hijab. I regretted it immediately when a relative came over to my table to tell me how he thought I was an older woman and certainly not Zoya, all the while laughing. I honestly tried really hard to locate the joke but I failed miserably.
Now, when someone tells me that they can’t recognise me, I try to say “I get that a lot,” and “No worries, I know people can’t handle change,” and other one liners, which sometimes I mutter under my breath while still looking for the joke they are guffawing about.
Uplifting support — and never giving up
My family and friends, especially my mother, have been my biggest support.
My mother, who had been dyeing her hair for quite a long while, also stopped dyeing her hair because of the hassle, and when people realised I wouldn’t budge, they turned to her — but she just waved them off.
My brother once told a person that the reason I had grey hair was because it was my body and I had the right to it.
Alongside my support system, there are also those who tell me that they wish they had hair like mine and can’t wait for their hair to age gracefully.
Women also tell me that my hairstyle looks incredibly sexy especially because of the colour, and that they wish I were a man, making me sigh about the spectrum of sexuality.
During a conference in Vancouver, many people complimented my hair and I would beam with happiness because I knew I did pull it off.
I am often told by bike riders that they had a hunch I'm a journalist because of my hair, and I wish I could tell them that my act of not colouring my hair had nothing to do with my indifference towards it. Rather, I realised that I would not dye my hair unless I wanted to. I do agree with Fleabag's Hair Is Everything monologue because nobody wants to look like a pencil on their bad days, after all.
My friend told me in 2015 to never dye hair out of societal pressure, and I wondered what exactly about a 20-something woman who just feels comfortable with herself bothers people so much.
Thanks to time, I know I can shave my head, or chop off my hair and don a sari or gharara or just wear jeans and wear jhumkis. Or just tie a pony and get busy.
And if someone asks why grey, be cliché and say "Grey is the new black" and hop off.