A Room of One’s Own: Sisters & Privacy

By Khadija Muzaffar

Picture of Khadija and Fatima with a tree in front of a picture of them holding hands.

Credit: Ari Adams and Khadija Muzaffar

Confession: I’ve never been on an actual, proper, so-terrifying-you’ll-pee-your-pants rollercoaster. Even so, I’m convinced that the unique mix of adrenaline, euphoria and anxiety you get as you’re slowly travelling up the track towards the apex has to be similar to what I felt last March. I was living on my own in Istanbul interning with the UN, and soon, I’d be heading back home to Pakistan for a brief pit stop before I left for New York to attend grad school for journalism, courtesy of a competitive scholarship program that I had somehow won. Things were looking great, and I was happy and often excited, but I still had a lot of questions. Was journalism the right calling for me? Would I have friends in New York? Would I have a nice south-facing apartment with natural light streaming in? What was my five-year plan? Ten-year plan? I asked myself these questions as if I had any control over how The Future looked like. Eventually, I got tired of this back and forth, and decided to just commit to being generally anxious about the present and future alike. I would joke to my friends at work about wanting nothing more than a couple of months of complete isolation to just chill at home with good books, strong WiFi and my dog. I’m not sure why the universe chose that exact moment to acknowledge my existence and grant me a wish, but boy did I get my months of isolation. 

This is the beginning of the descent. In March, the rollercoaster was at the track’s peak. The months to follow marked its furious journey down the slope, made more furious still by the weight of a global pandemic. I left Istanbul sooner than I had planned, and the day after I came back home to Pakistan, most countries shut down their international airspaces. My parent’s house at the time was massively underprepared to house both me and my sister together; with a grand total of two bedrooms, it was a small but cozy space that was perfect for my them, but it meant that I’d now have to share a room with my younger sister Fatima after…six years? It also meant that for the first time in over four somewhat tumultuous years, my entire family would be living under the same roof. So much had happened in those four years; some relationships had withered, some had grown stronger, others still were caught in a fog of ambiguity and forced indifference. How would these new dynamics play out during a seemingly indefinite quarantine? Were we all about to go crazy?  

Fatima, four years my younger, was in many ways a lot like me. We were both indecisive Libras, born exactly four years and one day apart. We both listened to mostly the same kind of music, and had very similar tastes. However, she was far more guarded than I was, and a lot more secretive about how she felt. She was also more impulsive and carefree. I, on the other hand, had the tendency to fall into that classic older sister trope of wanting to be so annoyingly responsible that I became the definition of a goody two shoes. I was also an anxious overthinker, and her impulsiveness at times horrified me. This, as one would expect, often caused resentment amongst us. She looked up to me, and I was fiercely protective of her, but she found my responsibility suffocating, and I, her lack of care insulting. The fact that she went off to college —incidentally she majored in political science too, just like me — when I was in my sophomore year meant that we never really got to properly bond with each other as grown ups, apart from a couple of summer breaks here and there. Our relationship had started to improve in Turkey, where she had been studying (and I, interning), on account of us actually hanging out with each other and learning to appreciate each other’s company. But now as we were about to be thrust in even closer proximity, we were both equally anxious about what that would look like. 

For precautionary reasons, Fatima and I quarantined in separate rooms upon reaching Pakistan. I graciously offered to take refuge in the drawing room towards the back of the house, while Fatima set up camp in what was to be our shared bedroom. In all fairness, this wasn’t too bad an arrangement. After coming out of quarantine, I decided that I would permanently make the drawing room my base camp. The room’s offerings weren’t big or flashy, but it had something very valuable: privacy. As it happens, privacy would be one of the things many people would miss, as they remained crammed inside their houses together with their families. At least in our case, one of the biggest sources of bickering, much to my mother’s chagrin, remained the question of rooms and privacy. If there was irony in the idea of seeking isolation from each other while the whole world was in isolation, we chose not to see it at that time. 

My little makeshift oasis in the drawing room of my house was — at least while it lasted — a godsend. It got me pretty close to my original wish (which in retrospect had turned into more of a curse) of wanting to chill in my room with books, WiFi and my dog. Well, almost. The WiFi signals were the weakest in that part of the house, but I convinced myself that the price of privacy must be bad internet. At any rate, good signals or not, I had a great time. My dog, who is normally not allowed on the bed, was allowed to sleep in my bed many nights, because I am nice and also because there was no one there to tell me otherwise. I could play my guitar freely — which I usually tend to avoid if I’m within earshot of people, mostly because I am very self-conscious, but also because I am considerate — since the room was fairly soundproof, on account of it being so far back. 

I had also gotten back into reading and was surrounded by piles of books and purple candles, and on at least one occasion, a bunch of dried flowers. This was also around the moment the world was obsessed with viral internet personality/pseudo-scammer Caroline Calloway, as was I, although I would ask myself why, as I went through Reddit snark blogs dedicated to her. I think I was subconsciously emulating (or at least intending to emulate) with the books and the candles, an extremely low-budget version of her maximalist studio apartment in the West Village. Thankfully, she blocked me on Instagram shortly thereafter because I had been following an account slightly critical of her (very micro influencer of her), and thus I floated back to earth and decided that maybe it wouldn’t be such a great idea to set fire to the entire house courtesy of my candles, no matter how beautiful and #cottagecore they looked. I moved them to a nearby bookshelf instead. 

A picture of Khadija reading with Fatima by her side in front of a multicolor background.

Credit: Ari Adams and Khadija Muzaffar

When summer came around however, that’s when things began to look a bit ugly. I had to move out again. The drawing room, prior to my coming, was rarely ever used and so did not have an air conditioner installed in it. It was incidentally also the hottest room in the house. This meant one thing: if I didn’t want to die of heatstroke, I would have to share a room with my sister. This presented both of us with an entirely new crop of problems, with issues like how cold the temperature of the room should be, or who was required to wear headphones, while the other used their laptop’s speakers. In fact, one of the biggest squabbles in my family’s quarantine history, was about the failure of certain parties (her) to plan out their daily outdoor excursion in such a way that would leave the other party (me) with the room to themselves for an hour or so. Things were said, feelings were hurt, angry scribbles were made in diaries. We had started to go crazy. 

The point of having a room of your own isn’t just privacy, although that is of course, a huge component of it. With your own room comes the chance to be creative confidently, free of any judgement. If you sneak in your dog without your mother noticing, it can be the source of rebellion. You can even turn it into a peace offering by granting people access to it. The point is, the spaces that we occupy and the time that we occupy them in, come to reflect who we are, in some twisted way. So then, what does it mean when you have to share your space with someone, during a time when everybody has been ordered to stay put? Who ends up being reflected, and what do you do if it isn’t you? 

I also thought a lot about my own relationship to privacy, and to my sister, which had somehow always been interconnected in some way. Growing up, I was a fervent diary-writer. I went through so many, and I wrote about everything in sometimes questionable detail. Nobody really cared enough to break into my diaries, except for Fatima, in true pesky younger sister fashion. So almost everything I owned came with a warning of some kind on its front page, something along the lines of ‘Stay Out’ or ‘No Trespassing’ and sometimes even ‘If found, please burn this artifact’. I was a dramatic child. The point is, I was clearly in search of privacy from my sister all that time ago, and now, to find myself back where I started after all this time? Very strange indeed. 

Still, six years is a long time. The good news is that both me and Fatima have, as people, grown tremendously during that time. Sure, we still fight a ton, and sure, I still want to kill her at times. But at least she doesn’t snoop through my journals anymore? I think? I hope! More importantly, somewhere along the way, we picked up the skill of communication, albeit begrudgingly and with great difficulty. So, this time during quarantine, even if we did have an issue — and we often did — we were able to talk it out to a certain degree, unlike how it would have been six years ago.  We both appreciated the need for some alone-time, and so we found ways to give each other that time. Of all the changes going on around me, I liked this one a lot. As cramped as our house got sometimes, I appreciated the chance for us all to be home together. 

Another rollercoaster analogy, my last, I promise. In most cases, rollercoasters end right where they started. Even after going through so many drops and plunges and climbs, you get off at the same place where you started. But in a way, that place, although identical to what it was when you started, is now a little bit different, because you’ve gone through the experience of actually being on the ride. It’s the same, but different. This is how I see what has been happening since March of last year. Everything is so different, but it’s also the same. I am now in New York, in a room of my own within an apartment of my own, and although it’s not south-facing, it does get a great amount of natural light. But here’s the funny part. Even though there’s nobody here but me, even though I am completely alone, I still worry about playing my guitar loud enough for the people across the hall to hear me. Even in this environment of the utmost solitude, I’m still worried about privacy. 

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