Flash fiction: Lipstick

This piece of flash fiction was prompted by Sacha Black’s writing challenge. If red lipstick is your thing, why not enter a story?

NATO - International Security Assistance Force

Esma slid the lipstick up her sleeve. There were no security tags on little things like that, and it was only a cheap one anyway. She cast a furtive glance around. The security guard was busy searching for bombs in backpacks. The girls around the makeup stand with their gentle pushing and jostling, laughing and joking covered the awkward movement as she wriggled the lipstick safely up past her elbow. The in-store music covered the pounding of her heart. Settling her headscarf straight and tucking the ends tighter beneath her jacket, she pushed out of the shop as swiftly as she dared.

The pedestrian street outside was full of Saturday shoppers. Esma melted into the crowd, only letting out her breath when she was certain the security guard was not going to shout after her to stop. The illicit chunk of plastic bored into her flesh with each step she took towards the bus stop.

Even seated at the back of the bus, Esma remained rigid with anxiety. As if there were security cameras on buses! Only in the silence of the room she shared with her two younger sisters did she dare shake the lipstick out of her sleeve, stroke the shiny case, slip the smooth, blood red lipstick out to admire the lusciousness of its colour, its unctuous taste and texture.


She shivered and touched it with the tip of her tongue. So many things were forbidden. The taste shot through her, a bolt of pleasure. The familiar pervading household smells of coriander and harissa evaporated, and her nostrils flared as she breathed in the cosmetic’s faint perfume. Red lipstick encapsulated all that was bright and exciting in the world outside. A world she was not allowed to enter.

The sound of the front door opening startled her, and she fumbled with the drawer, her drawer in the shared wardrobe, and pushed the glittering, fabulous object beneath a carefully folded pile of scarves and gloves.


Two days later, as she turned into her street coming back from school, a small figure leapt out of the entrance to her apartment block and ran towards her. Farida. Her face was pale, lips pinched, and her eyes stared, wide and fearful.

Esma knew. Her little sister didn’t need to tell her.

“Ommy found it. Abu is… wild.”

Esma stared into the distance, not seeing the apartment blocks, the paper blowing in the gutter, the grimy, anonymous cars that flicked past. Already the street belonged to the past. She smiled and hugged her sister, held her close for a moment. Then she turned and headed back to school. Someone among the advisors and social workers would know of a place where she could stay.



Published by

Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

23 thoughts on “Flash fiction: Lipstick”

  1. Now that’s a flash and a half. So much here, so many layers and as the reader so much back story to unpick and future to unfold in my imagination. Thank you Jane for both inspiring me and making me green with envy!

    1. Praise indeed coming from you, Geoff! It’s not the kind of prompt that would say much to most men, but lipstick has a special place in female iconography, if I can put it so pompously 🙂


    1. Glad you enjoyed the story, Merril. There are lots of girls in Esma’s situation here. They put a foot wrong and the family’s down on them with a vengeance. There are hostels they can go to avoid violent reprisals, but what’s a hostel compared with home?

    1. Your comment makes me so pleased, Geetha! The culture clash we witness sometimes here hits girls hardest and their punishment for trying to do things differently is harder than it is for boys. Even in families with an outwardly ‘western’ appearance, the daughters have a much harder time fulfilling their potential.

      1. I am glad it pleased you and hope you will write more of that nature 🙂
        It is very true what you mention about the girls having a hard time. Sometimes girls are sent back to the home country to live with the grandmother or married off to men in the hometown if it is considered unsafe for them to continue staying in the west. Other than that I have seen victims of all sorts of corporeal punishments, quite apalling really

      2. The fact that western countries tolerate the awful way girls from immigrant backgrounds are treated, shows how little importance female equality has anywhere.

      3. That is very true. The funny (actually awful if you think of it but this is just an expression) thing is if a family ill treats a servant that they bring with them, human rights activists and the likes will take up the case immediately but when similar or worse things are done to the daughters is similar families, it is not even looked into although sometimes the schools and other cultural or educational systems around are aware of such matters.

      4. That’s very true. And the most misguided part (in my opinion) is that the authorities let these crimes against humanity go uninvestigated in the interests of cultural and religious harmony. As if the fact of doing something atrocious for hundreds of years somehow enshrines it in respectability.


  2. I have cousins from Jordan, who fortunately did not grow up with too many restrictions like this. They still had to flee with their mother back to the United States because of how badly they were being treated. It is really appalling to me what people and cultures sanction in the name of religion, and absolutely baffling that entire groups of people care so much about keeping people out of the wider world, or believe their god wouldn’t approve. I’m not even an atheist, and it baffles me what people believe and do because of religion. Sometimes the consequences are unfortunate, often they can be tragic. I wish people could think more critically, become more educated, choose love over fear. Incidentally, people in such cultures who are powerful–men for instance–often hop borders in order to freely engage in all the things that are forbidden. They just don’t get stoned to death if they’re caught. Domination and control, as well as hipocracy, are all tolerated, as long as people don’t, or look like they don’t, go against some arbitrary list of prohibitions which really only serve to create more of the same.

    1. It’s all so very predictable, as it has been for thousands of years of patriarchy. Religion (as an institution) is a form of social control. The priests and the potentates have always been in cahoots to keep the people in their place. Woman have been handed over as the booby prize—you might be a poor serf, but at least you can play the caliph with your wife and daughters. But we’re not living in the Greek or Roman or Ottoman or Arab empires. It’s about time we realised what day it is.


  3. Bloody hell, Jane. Seriously, I don’t even know where to start. I am 100% with Geoff, I am BEYOND green with envy. Your writing is so deliciously rich. It’s not fair!! I want to write like that! All that depth, and the emotion, and the visuals – I saw the whole thing. How do you do that?

    1. You’ll give me a swell head if you keep on like that! It’s maybe because I’ve got a visual sort of memory. I actually do see what I’m writing about. Like watching a film. Finding the words that fit the pictures is the tricky part 🙂

      1. I do too though Jane, my hands and eyes switch off and I just see pictures. But you can be assured I CANNOT write anywhere near as well as you. Just mind boggling your skill.

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